Monday, September 30, 2013

Atlas Holds Steady

Let me just say, I am not the map guy.  Whatever the chromosome that makes a man love a map, I don't have.  I am not "the navigator" on road-trips, in fact, I don't even much like road-trips.  (I am not much of a traveller, come to that.  If I could fall asleep in my own bed and wake up next morning wherever it is I was going, that would be perfect.)

 I can appreciate that maps are beautiful objects, some of 'em, even most of them, but I do not share the aesthetic rapture that seems to put the light in some folks' eyes whenever they see brightly detailed geography laid out on a scientifically accurate grid.  (Had a friend, years ago, of a specially deliberative character, who spent the better part of a year deciding just exactly what would best suit the empty white walls of her new home.  She pondered and she shopped and she considered many, many options, from art to clocks, before she bought herself one great big map.  I had to agree, it looked good when she had it framed and finally put it up.  Nevertheless, I was pretty mystified by the whole process of decorating a room  so carefully as all that and then deciding on something so... colorful and frankly cold.  I mean, just how often would she need to locate Vladivostok before bedtime, bless her?)

Atlases I understand a bit better, as they are reference books, and I have the greatest respect for good reference.  An atlas, I confess, I've never owned.  I just have never needed to know the distance between Paris and Versailles. Perhaps I'm too trusting, but I just assume that Carlyle worked all that out for me before he sent the Sans-culottes down the road (or was it up?  No matter.)  I like the idea of an atlas.  I like the traditionally over-sized importance of them, as books.  I've rarely consulted one, or looked through one, unless someone else, a customer or coworker usually, asked me to.

 I have however happily sold atlases in every bookstore, new and used, where I've worked.  As reference books go, it has always been the atlases that seem to inspire the greatest admiration in the purchaser.  Someone setting about the business of buying an atlas usually has had something of the same heady anticipation with which people shop the travel guides, in combination with the full seriousness of the investor in real estate.  The people who tend to buy atlases, even the simplest student atlas, or an annual road atlas, tend to be the kind of bookstore people one looks forward to serving.  They usually know what they want, roughly, yet are open to suggestion and eager to get "the best."  They come in prepared to pay a fair price, but are always delighted to find a bargain.  They are book people.

I had thought the Internet would kill the atlas almost before it killed any other standard reference work, but I now think I was wrong about that.  In our house, I don't know that we would ever find our way to the multiplex now, let alone a doctor's appointment in a new clinic, without the lovely ladies at the other end of OnStar.  (We like that turn by turn security.)  The lovers of maps and atlases however, much as they might while away their evenings peering into their neighbor's backyard on Google Maps, seem to still want the full, weighty, totality of an atlas and the pleasurable puzzle of refolding a map.  As I've said, I don't have whatever that is, myself.  It may be an evolutionary advantage already being met by other means, new technologies and new digital interactions.  I wouldn't know.  It does hoever seem to be something lots of people, and not all of them grandparents, would seem inclined to pass on.

An atlas is, it seems, still a gift.

Daily Dose

From Burmese Days, by George Orwell


"Dogs are an inexhaustible subject."

From Chapter XI

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hannibal Conquers

Mads Mikkelsen stands like a dancer.  To be honest, I now know that he is, or rather was, exactly that.  I've just read a brief interview online.  From that I learned that he was a gymnast and professional dancer.  I even watched him dance in some obscure music video for some forgettable pop tune.  (One other delightfully irrelevant snippet of biographical information gleaned from that interview, he met his wife, a gorgeous choreographer named Hanne Jacobsen, when he was on the line -- in drag -- in La Cage aux Folles.  Loved that.  Wish there'd been pictures.)  That he was a dancer explained something I'd noticed watching him play the eponymous Hannibal, in the exquisitely realized television prequel to Thomas Harris' novel, Red Dragon.  Mads Mikkelsen has heavy hands.  It's something I noticed in male dancers back when I knew a few in college.  Their hands tend to hang.  There's nothing ugly about it.  Perfectly natural, that a person's hands should just hang there when not in use.  Actually, like nearly everything else about him, Mads Mikkelsen's hands are quite beautiful: strong, long and lean, beautifully balanced.  An actor's hands can be fidgety; always after business, even if it's just being thrust awkwardly into a pocket.  Dancers seem to know something most actors have to learn; how to be still.  Mads Mikkelsen knows how to be still.  Look at his hands.  Fits.

He is a quite beautiful man.  That doesn't square with the character we know.  But then, there's something a little off-putting in how pretty he is.  There is an almost too perfect symmetry to Mikkelsen's face and form, so that full on, face forward, all that sharp bone, all those broad plains, squared shoulders and straight long length of limb can make him look almost weirdly... even, like someone standing with his nose too close to the line of intersection of two mirrors.  Look closer though and there's one long lid lower over one lovely eye, and the pretty mouth twists a bit when he speaks.  And, again like a dancer, he makes angles, standing or sitting; his postures are dynamic, still but not static, one shoulder leads, or a knee, his head tilts away from a level gaze, his chin drifts up when he listens.

I'm probably talking the most awful nonsense about all of this, I know, but I must admit, I've been studying him.  What I particularly noticed, watching the whole first season of the new television show at a go, was the way this new Hannibal Lector stands still, the way he sits, and yes, the way his hands hang.

In his playing Hannibal Lecter, there is a a deliciously subtle theatricality, a studied, balletic economy of movement to the way he delicately adjusts the parsley or wipes a spot of au juice from the edge of serving dish.  This can be wryly funny -- considering what the audience has been led to believe is likely to be on the  menu. It isn't overdone.  It doesn't look camp.  Instead, I'm reminded of watching Chaplin, another great dancer, playing his Bluebeard, Monsieur Verdoux, as he measures out a length of rope or tops up his wife's Bordeaux with a dram of poison.  It's all precise, even elegant rather than prissy.

You will remember that in the 1991 film, The Silence of the Lambs, when we first see the great Anthony Hopkins' Dr. Lector, he is standing stock-still in his cell, ramrod straight, his hands at rest at his sides.  He does not blink.  (His first recorded gesture, wonderfully, is to lick a finger and smile before turning the page of the survey he's been asked to read.)  Throughout the first half or better of the film, indeed until and even in the middle of that final, brutal burst of ferocity when Lecter kills his guards, Hopkins, when not actually restrained, barely moves.  Instead,  his performance relies on the Jonathan Demme's shockingly intimate close-ups, his face a mad sort of mask.  And then there's the great British actor's traditional first-fiddle; that rich and wildly various voice.  With that exceptional instrument, Hopkins makes the most beautiful music; from the low, lulling familiarity of a whispering lover, to the bombastic and implacable command of the megalomaniac.  It is an indelible performance; a study in economy and at the same time, the most perfect, delicious ham.  I've watched the movie a dozen times, at least.  It is the greatest American horror film since The Exorcist, one of the greatest of all time, and Hopkins created the greatest film monster since Christopher Lee's Dracula.

When the slick promos for the new television show started last Fall, I was dubious, at least in part, because of my loyalty to Hopkins' performance.  I've read all of Harris' novels.  I enjoyed all the Lecter novels, good and bad.  I may be one of the few people who actually enjoyed the way the novelist, if alas, not the filmmakers, resolved the story of Lecter and Clarice.  I watched all the movie sequels too. That last movie, without Hopkins -- what was it called?  Little Hannibal and How He Grew? Hannibal Riesling? Anyway, that one all but proved it -- the wonderful Brian Cox in Manhunter aside -- Hannibal Lector was Hopkins' forever after.  Pretty was not the point.  Gaspard Ulliel was and is quite a handsome little fellow, but as the young Hannibal Lector, he was about as frightening as pretty little Ben Whishaw in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which is to say, not at all (and Ben Whishaw, bless him, can at least act.)

I already knew Mads Mikkelsen from at least two very good movies, Casino Royale and Flame and Citron, and two not very good ones: a disappointing The Three Musketeers from 2011, in which he at least was well cast as Rochefort, and a wonderful, hot-mess of a Norse epic, Valhalla Rising, in which Mikkelsen played a warrior rather unimaginatively if accurately named "One Eye", from 2009.  A pretty varied resume -- except for the weird recurrence of eye-trouble (A patch as Rochefort in the Musketeers, the aforesaid singularity in the epic, and a milky eye that teared blood in the James Bond outing.  Strange, but maybe some instinctive attempt to break up that beautiful, uncanny face of his.)

None of this however led me to expect much good to come from his casting as Lecter, for the reasons explained above. Frankly, I thought it a little mad for anyone to take up the role after Hopkins laid it down.  The idea of a television version seemed specially foolhardy.  Weekly Lector?  How was that supposed to work?  Hopkins, in the three movies combined, probably logged less screen-time than any famous monster in film history since the cat in Val Lewton's Cat People.  Hannibal is as much remembered and referenced as seen, even in Harris' novels.  Best way, really, with monsters.  Worked for Bram Stroker too.  Too much with us and the monster descends from the supernatural to the merely grotesque, or worse, the ridiculous -- think Godzilla.

Hopkins was 54 when he first played Lector, 65 by 2002's Red Dragon.  Despite a rather obvious girdle and a lot more makeup, Sir Anthony was frankly too old that last time.  (He was not helped by that horrible short ponytail in the flashbacks.)  Didn't matter.  Even if his portrayal had gone a bit too camp by then, Hopkins still was Hannibal and it was good to see him again.  Remember, Brian Cox was only 40 when his Hannibal premiered in 1984's Manhunter.  Mikkelsen's 48.  There's hint of grey at his temples, and the lighting and the color tends to emphasize every little wrinkle at the corners of  his eyes, but he does seem considerably younger than either of the British knights.

So how has he done it, this lovely young Dutchman, how has he won my heart, as it were, playing Hannibal Lector?

First, there's Bryan Fuller, of course.  His show is gorgeous, beautifully shot and designed to a fare-thee-well.   His premise is clever, setting his show before Lector is caught, everything moving toward that known point.  The writing is clever in so far as it satisfies the viewer already familiar with the material without sacrificing episodic narrative just to set off fan reactions.  He's a clever, clever fellow.   The overly elaborate, invariably ritual murders are absurd, but nightmarish rather than silly, and always framed within the already exaggerated, not to say gothic unreality of Harris' original fantasy.  (Unlike Demme or Manhunter's Michael Mann, Fuller, like Harris, is all on the side of the monsters.  Maybe it's the liberation of not answering to either the expectations of a cinema audience or a movie studio, but there is no bright corner in this tale, the FBI being just one more saturated blue basement here, and no heroes, only contesting crackpots of varying mental and moral instability and attractiveness, sometimes from episode to episode, or even scene to scene.)  I am by no means a Fuller fanboy, but I do think he's found the perfect playground here for all his most harmlessly macabre preoccupations, and without that rather cloying note of life-affirming whimsy that tried so desperately to win our hearts in early ventures, shows I did nonetheless enjoy, like Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies.

And then there's Hugh Dancy in his underpants!

Don't know why I didn't mention this before.

Hugh Dancy in his underpants!  Pretty much every episode, Hugh Dancy, as "special investigator, Will Graham," wanders helplessly dreaming into the road, onto the roof, into the woods, in his night-dress, i.e. a tight T-shirt and boxers so snug they might as well be briefs.  And he sweats.  He sweats a lot.


Hugh Dancy is actually a charming and accomplished young actor, and really, it's his show.  As written, he's as close as Fuller comes to a hero here -- better say, protagonist -- but the character is beyond a mess.  Every week, Dancy has to act up a storm of crazy, sick, hallucinating, furious, perverse, murderous, goodness.  That he does so episode after episode, and with the like of the now truly Wagnerian, not to say Wellesian Laurence Fishburne as his nominal boss, "special agent in charge, Jack Crawford," is a credit to both actors.  (And remember, at least once an episode, Dancy has to do this, in an American accent, in his underpants, often as not with either a pack of rescued dogs around him, or with a CGI stag ((don't ask.  It works.)))

Truth be told?  Any other show, I'd watch just for Hugh Dancy the hot somnambulist.  That said, none of this rich, atmospheric, meaty goodness would work were it not for the cold dark heart at the center of it all, Mads Mikkelsen's Hannibal Lector.  Without this actor as that character, this would basically be just a rococo CSI: Baltimore.  (It is a mark of Fuller's hit and miss style of arch, television-generation-nostalgia that his most recent, other broadcast project was the well intentioned mess, Mockingbird Lane.  Didn't see it?  I did.  It was The Munsters without the comic wonder that was Fred Gwynne.  Barely made it through the pilot before that one got shit-canned.  Jerry O'Connell is a dear -- and I certainly wouldn't mind watching him wandering around in his underwear, but Fred Gwynne can rest in peace.  Herman Munster is not to be duplicated.  Casting is all, people.)

Mikkelsen has been given a nearly impossible task here.  Without betraying either Harris' original monster, or our all too vivid recollection of the supreme achievement of Hopkins' screen incarnation, this television Lector has to believably occupy the same psychic space in a much smaller frame.  Fuller had the genius to see that he could, by being so beautifully still in the midst of all this lugubrious mayhem.  Here, the mask is all.  Hopkins could wrinkle and wink and fill the screen with huge, mad eyes.  The preeminent voice of his theatrical generation, he could use every villainous tone, every sibilant hiss and fast fall from high to low, from intimacy to indecency, to convey both the depth of the character's depravity and his command of the stage, even in a straight-jacket and hockey-mask, while strapped to a dolly.  Mikkelsen's is the voice of calm reason here.  Everywhere around him there is a truly theatrical madness; blasting shotguns and flayed flesh, bloody shock and violent weirdness. He must compete for our attention with voices as rich as Fishburne's thunder, and as plaintive as Dancy's thready tenor, perpetually at the point of snapping.  It is Hannibal, wonderfully, who is really the way in for us, the quiet voice we trust, the calm presence who makes us dinner.

It simply wouldn't work with anyone less physically confident, less supremely commanding in every scene.  It does work because of the placidity of that pretty face, that handsome mask, tilting back just enough that we get a glimpse, here and there, of those empty eyes.

(One last bit of perfect casting to mention.  In an original twist, there is the equally pale presence of the reliable Gillian Anderson in a recurring role as Lector's own mysterious shrink, the delightfully named "Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier."  Her scenes with Mikkelsen are studies in underplaying to the point of almost suspended animation.)

Because this is Bryan Fuller's show, it is also about the gayest thing on television now.  I dearly love the truly lunatic fun of Ryan Murphy's nut-bar treat, American Horror Story. But in addition to all the aquarium colors, and the set-decorated kills, what Fuller's show has over the most obvious competition for the title is (wait for it)  the best gay love triangle on TV.  Fishburne's big, withholding FBI daddy is actually something of a stalking horse here, but the overtly sexual satisfaction Mikkelsen's Hannibal takes in stealing the troubled, juvenile beauty, Dancy from him is an almost pornographic pleasure.  Remember how good-looking these three actors are, (and rather sadly, how predictably negligible the female competition,) and Fuller's less than subtle suggestion of something queer down Quantico-way makes Hannibal, the television version, something to watch in the dark for reasons other than aesthetics or chills.  Every time Fishburne pushes Darcy "beyond his limits" at a crime-scene, there's a sadism to it more redolent of leather than forensics.  Darcy's poor Will turns invariably to Mikkelsen's Hannibal for comfort right after.  Hell, the boy faints dead away more than once, only to awake all but in the arms of his dangerous, dancing doctor.

The show has been renewed for a second season.  I can't wait.  When we last left him, poor Will was in a dungeon.  Hannibal was even allowed a wicked little smile, from the other side of the bars.

Daily Dose

From Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman


"When my son was eight months old, it could truthfully be said that he devoured literature.  Presented with a book, he chewed it."

From The Literary Glutton

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Bookstore Bird

Daily Dose

From The Untouchable, by John Banville


"Old age, as someone whom I love once said, is not a venture to be embarked on lightly."

From pg. 197, this edition

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Caricature of Family

Daily Dose

From Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver


"Inventing, he had created the principle of reality."

From 105

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Fresh from the Printers!

Here at last, from my good friends down at the Ave. Copy Center, the Usedbuyer2.0 2014 Calender of Literary Caricatures!

The process by which this annual object appears is still something of an (expensive) mystery to me.  (It's an investment for me, shall we say, in Christmas to come.  Totally worth it, from my perspective at least.  Can't really speak to how all the recipients may feel about it, though everyone's been very kind indeed.)  I draw faces with a pencil.  I put the drawings in a folder.  I give the folder to the handsome man at the Copy Center.  After that, he selects the paper stock and the covers. He tweaks the pictures, picks my calendar pages for me, he even drills the holes.  (He also gives me an excellent deal on the price per copy, bless 'im.)  A week later or so, I walk back down the Ave. and pick up my box of calendars. 

There's another step yet to happens.  These have to be entered into the inventory at the bookstore where I work, and each calendar has to get a price-tag.  An equally nice chap here at the store does all that for me.  Eventually -- soon -- these will be for sale at the bookstore and Online through the store's website, and there we will be.

Meanwhile, I am as always just pleased as punch to see the thing as a finished product.  There's something terribly satisfying in seeing the stack of 'em in a box.

Now to start making my list, and checking it just the once, at least. 


Daily Dose

From An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

"Mori-san remained absorbed by his pictures.  'Fatally flawed,' he repeated.  'But I suppose I was very young.'"

From November 1949

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, by Stephen Michael Shearer


"As an indication of how times had changed since Gloria's stardom, while in town she met child actress Margaret O'Brien, juvenile star of MGM's Journey for Margaret (1943) and Meey Me in St. Louis (1945).  'You know, I used to be quite a movie star myself,' Gloria hautily told the youngster when they were introduced.  'Did you?' replied O'Brien wide-eyed.  'What happened?'  Gloria never particularly liked children."

From Chapter 23, Sunset Boulevard

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley


"Susan, Stalin how could you let him.  Honestly Soo I had such an awful dream, that I was in Harrods & I saw a big crowd so I thought it was the Queen & Q. Mary & when I went to look it was Adolf & Uncle Joe.  I woke up screaming."

From a letter from Nancy to Jessica, dated September 21, 1939

Monday, September 23, 2013

Gay Panic!

That headline may be a teensy bit misleading.  This panic was real, though, unlike the old legal defense.  I'll explain.  It seems the new David Leavitt novel, The Two Hotel Francforts, doesn't come out from Bloomsbury until October 15th.  Hadn't noticed that until now, thus the panic.  Every month, usually on the 20th, my dear friend, Nick, announces the next book the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Book Club will be reading for the coming month.  With a new David Leavitt set to publish in October, how hard could it be?  But, no.  Hadn't read, as it were, the fine print.  Looks like Leavitt will now be the November selection.

All well and good.  Leavitt is one of the most consistent gay writers of his generation.  No question but that this new one will fit the book-club-bill -- but, in November.

Meanwhile, no book for the fast approaching month of October!  Not good.

The way this works is that Nick drops by every Thursday at the bookstore where I work and we have a short breakfast together -- consisting mostly of a danish and a bit of a chin-wag about books and whatnot.  Nick works at the smaller branch of the bookstore actually on the University campus. Once a week he comes by to transfer new books from the big store to the little.  What the club should read next is a regular part of our weekly chat.  I was with Nick when he started the club a few years ago.  He's still the host and facilitator.  He picks the books.  I haven't been able to attend the club's discussions for a long time.  I've remained involved however as something more like the club's dramaturge; suggesting new titles and classics to Nick that I think the club might enjoy.  Ultimately, it's Nick who picks.  He's the one who has to lead a conversation four times a month, not me.

Over the years, between us, we've picked some winners and not a few that weren't.  I'll put that almost entirely down to me.  Andre Gide?  Me.  Yukio Mishima?  Me.  Nick had of course read Gide, probably even read him in French.  Nick studied French literature in college.  (I can't even order off a French menu without ending up with unwanted tripe -- which unfairly suggests that there is such a thing as wanted tripe.)  Still, if the club read Gide, it was probably at my suggestion.  Not a success.  Likewise the Mishima.  I was still attending regularly when we did those books, may even have hosted a meeting or two.

I still get night-sweats thinking about it.

Unlike Nick who is a dab-hand at this, I was a pretty miserable host.  I tended to lecture.  I asked questions for which only I had the answer.  I did not know what I was doing.  Nick does.  With Nick, there is no such thing as an awkward pause.  If nobody asks a question, he will, and it will be a good one; something that engenders conversation rather than stopping it cold.  It's magic, or rather, he's magical.  My admiration of anyone who can lead a book club successfully is pretty much unbounded now, truly.  Nick's the best  (I've decided -- just now -- he is a witch, my friend is, a sweet natured, relentlessly enthusiastic, book-club-hosting, Sicilian witch.  Le Befana!)

The problem nowadays really isn't the want of authors or titles to consider, it's access.  Had we started this GLBTQ group twenty years ago, even ten, there would have been all sorts of resources available to us, resources that simply don't exist anymore: gay bookstores, women's and feminist bookstores, gay imprints from major publishers, in-print back-list titles from GLBTQ authors, including lots of minor classics from the English and American canon.

Just today, I spent the better part of an hour with the lists of the recent Lambda Literary Awards.  Excellent organization with an admirable track-record.  The club has read a number of books discovered just this way.  However, getting at some of the most recent nominees and even the prize-winners can be tricky, even for a bookseller, at least on short notice.  Small presses and limited distribution complicate matters.  Books going all too quickly out of print can be another major difficulty nowadays.

Even the best bookstores -- and here I include the company for which both Nick and I work -- no longer stock the kind of deep back-list that would once have allowed for last-minute selections.  Again, books go too quickly out of print, and even standard authors and titles; the kinds of books one used to count on as always being about the place, can simply be unavailable.  And then there's the new problem of having just one copy of something on the shelf.  That didn't used to be true, at least not as uniformly as it is now.

Too many books, too many good books, even too many great books, are simply not to be had at short notice, if at all in 2013.

That said, the solution that eventually presented itself was a remainder.  For any that don't know, these are the bargain books that occupy space in every bookstore nowadays; sold off by their publishers to bookstores at a considerable discount, maybe even a loss, these are discontinued books, or discontinued editions, usually sold as bargain books at half or less of their original cover-price.  Just such a book was on our bargain table.  The problem here being that we had only four copies, and no access to more.  Luckily, there is an edition in print and available, though at a price considerably higher and a discount to retailers considerably lower.  No matter.  It's an excellent book, Rough Music, by the British novelist, Patrick Gale.

I've read every book he's published in the US.  Gale is a marvelously attractive writer; humane and amusing, always relevant, clear and clever and queer.  Done, done and done.  In many ways, he is a perfect writer for the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Book Club.  I can't imagine his novels being disliked and I can't imagine them not sparking conversation.

So there's that.

Of course, getting additional copies for those club members not lucky enough to get one of the cheap copies from the bargain table will take a bit of doing.  (Worth it though.)  Nick has taken my word for the quality of Gale's novel and his writing in general.  I've promised him, no suicidal Japanese militarists in this one, so far as I remember, and no one arguing the philosophical justification for either married intellectuals "on the down low" or counterfeiting.

Still, this scramble for a good gay book points a lesson for us all, despite the happy ending of our search.  If we don't support our best writers, and the best books, how exactly are we to remember and commemorate our experience as a community?  What kind of community are we without our literature?  Keep that in mind, my dears.

Daily Dose

From The Mother's Recompense, by Edith Wharton


"It was what the French called 'a moment to pass'; they had passed it."

From Chapter XXII

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Cowper's First Hare

Daily Dose

From The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, by Christine Kenneally


"We might find it difficult to talk with English speakers from a thousand years ago, but we wouldn't have any trouble procreating with them."

From Chapter 13, Culture Evolves

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Little Dorrit & the Turnkey

Daily Dose

From The Birth of the Republic 1763 - 89, by Edmund S. Morgan


"As Congress spoke in feebler tones, the state governments grew contemptuous of its authority."

From Chapter 9, The Critical Period

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Faithful Friend by William Cowper

Daily Dose

From Paradise of the Blind, A Novel, by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson


"Everywhere, an indescribable backwardness hung in the air, immaterial yet terrifyingly present: It would be like this for eternity.  This backwardness seeped into the stillness here, like the brackish waters of the past: cold, stubborn, a sluggish, liquid sweetness escaping all control, ready at any moment to drown those unable to rise to its surface."

From Chapter Eight

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Be Kind to Dogs by J. R. Ackerley

Daily Dose

From Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris


"The teacher's reaction led me to believe that these mistakes were capital crimes in the country of France."

From Me Talk Pretty One Day

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

An Early Friend to Siegfried Sassoon

Daily Dose

From The Insanity Defense: The Complete Prose, by Woody Allen


"Precognitive dreams are too common to be dismissed as pure coincidence.  Here a man dreams of a relative's deth, and it occurs.  Not everyone is so lucky."

From Examining Psychic Phenomena

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Death of Seneca, by Michel de Montaigne

Daily Dose

From First Snow on Fuji, by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Michael Emmerich


"The number of people who had left this world while I considered visiting them, but somehow never did, was by no means small."

From Silence

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Bookstore Bird

Daily Dose

From The Gilded Age, by Mark Twain


"A joke, even if it be a lame one, is nowhere so keenly relished or quickly applauded as in a murder trial."

From Chapter XXIII, Laura's Trial

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Bookstore Bird

Daily Dose

From Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London, 1834 -1881, by James Anthony Froude


"My difficulty not to break into sheer vocal execration was considerable."

From Chapter XIII, in a letter from Carlyle to his wife, dated Scotsbrig, September 13, 1845

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Nhu Review

Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu, by Monique Brinson Demery

Just as there are but so many plots, repeated with variations since at least Aeschylus said, "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!", so there are but so many biographies.  Plutarch to Ellman, hagiographers to haters, most biographers, ancient to modern, follow some established pattern.  Here then a new example of the "quest" biography, and not a bad one.

The form might as likely be called the "stalker" biography.  It could be argued that Boswell himself meets most of the requirements, but his magnificent book is not ultimately the story of his quest to meet Samuel Johnson, but rather the Great Cham, whole.  Rather, it is A. J. A. Symons, and his 1934 "experiment in biography," The Quest for Corvo to which I turn for the precedent. In that extraordinary classic, the biographer found himself in immediate, and seemingly insurmountable difficulties.  Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled Baron Corvo, was the author of a number of eccentric novels, all now considered minor classics in the English canon, thanks in no small part to Symons' biography.  In 1934, Rolfe was long dead.  In life, he had also been homosexual, a compulsive liar, a paranoid and a notorious pimp of Venetian gondoliers.  Considering Rolfe's penchant for self-invention and reinvention, his obscurity, and the times, Symons could not possibly have written either a straightforward, critical biography, or an honest book, without finding some new way to write it.  He did.  His book became a book about itself; his "quest" for the novelist, high and low, and a narrative as much about the search as the subject.  It was a brilliant idea, beautifully executed.  It allowed the biographer to mention, literally in passing, some of what he could not or dare not explore in depth. At the same time, it provided the central metaphor of a major critical work. 

Neither the subject nor this new book are likely to be so long remembered as Symons and Corvo, but this is likely to be the best book we will ever get on Madame Nhu.  Through sheer doggedness and charm, Monique Brinson Demery managed to track down the Dragon Lady in retirement, in Paris.  She did not give interviews -- though possibly because it had been decades since anyone cared to remember she was still alive.  Nonetheless, others had tried.  Demery succeeded, starting in 2005, in part, by being a nice young woman, always respectful and attentive, and a new mother, which seems to have brought -- on occasion -- something almost maternal out of the old monster.

Monster she was.  Demery is at pains to tell as much of the story of the beautiful young girl, Le Xuan, as she must the story of the notorious Madame Nhu; the woman who offered to buy gas and matches if any of the Buddhists who had set themselves on fire to protest her family's government decided "to have another barbeque."    It's a fascinating story.  Herself from a prominent family -- her mother was a Princess -- and sister-in-law to the President of Vietnam, Madame Nhu became the glamorous face of a corrupt, violent and feeble regime.  In 1963, her husband and his brother were assassinated.  Madame fled with just, it seems the clothes, jewels and money she could carry.  That was the story, anyway.  After that came decades of silence.

Demery then has to overcome not only that vacuum, but also the public assumption that her subject was long dead, evil, or at the very least irrelevant.  The story of how she accomplished the first is threaded through her argument against the later.  There were a lot of phone calls with the Dragon.  Quite wisely, whenever Madame Nhu's story shades into conspiracy, or worse, the mytho-poetic -- brave little mother, struggles along a refugee road with her baby tucked up under a fur coat -- the biographer returns to her own "quest" narrative, free to comment on what she either can't or doesn't need to verify.  It's a smart play, being seen to not trust entirely the story she is otherwise faithfully retelling.   If neither narrative ends up being wholly convincing, that too is less a fault than a virtue of the form.

There really isn't much more tell here but those bits of the story not already in the history books, in other words, Madame Nhu's early life, her personal memories and her own version of public events.  That's the exclusive.  That's the peg on which the new book hangs.  But this is not the story of a neglected heroine of Vietnamese history.  This is the story of a fundamentally unpleasant woman, a member of not one, but two thoroughly unpleasant families, both in their ways representative of a not just thoroughly unpleasant, but tragic period in their country's history and ours.  The obvious trap being that the sympathy needed to make and sustain a relationship with Madame Nhu is a not a sympathy ultimately which can or should be shared by the reader.  Demery clearly understood this.  Her solution isn't original, but it very nearly works.  

Ultimately, what seems lacking is neither fairness or facts, but perhaps ironically, something of Madame's own ruthlessness.  In 1980, the late, great English writer, Caroline Blackwood, published, The Last of the Duchess, ostensibly a biography of the Duchess of Windsor.  What the book became was a portrait of Suzanne Blum, aka "Maitre Bloom," Wallace Windsor's final gatekeeper and as grim an old villain as ever saw print.  What made that book so memorable was that the author, herself a rather glamorous, if chilly beauty in her day, not only seemed to understand her glamorous, chilly and surprisingly empty subject, but also to relish, frankly, the cruel intellectual superiority of her keeper and tormentor.  It was all a bit shocking, and no little bit thrilling, if ultimately very sad indeed.  There was something of the same barely concealed disdain for stupidity and weakness in Blackwood's fiction, perhaps in Blackwood, so the Duchess, her lawyer and their biographer, at least in that perfect, hard little book, were set in a triangular balance, endlessly reflected back at one another a kind of pitiless realism that perfectly suited the subject.

Monique Brinson Demery seems a perfectly nice young woman.  Madame Nhu was many things, some of them even admirable, as Demery convincingly shows, but nice, Madame Nhu never was.  The very idea.  Attractive, intelligent, tough, Nhu was all of these.  Her biographer makes a convincing case for her as survivor and as a victim of both her circumstances and the public's perception of her as something much worse.  That's the real problem here.  Demery acknowledges the factors, including the sexism and racism that contribute to her subject's transformation into an oriental cliche.  She tells what should be a compelling story of an astonishingly young woman's rise and fall, and what could have been a touching story of long exile and an amazingly unhappy family history.   Madame Nhu, however flattered, resists.  In the end, however much one might want better of her, she seems to have taken Shylock for her model:

"The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."

There just wasn't much more to her, however she got to be what she was.  That being the case, as a reader, I rather resented the biographer's efforts as well.  Madame Nhu turns out to be not much a mystery.  But, like Madame in this if nothing else, her biographer has made what she could from what she had to work with.


The real tragedy of Madame Nhu it seems, never quite the subject of this book, is what happened to Vietnam, back before everyone, blessedly was able to forget her.

Daily Dose

From Dewey Defeats Truman: A Novel, by Thomas Mallon


"The crowd, uninterested in sewage treatment and new fire helmets, tonight's other items of business, was already on their feet."

From Chapter 6

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Bookstore Beast

Daily Dose

From Montaigne's Essays and Selected Writings: A Bilingual Edition, translated and edited by Donald Frame


"Our own peculiar condition is that we are as fit to be laughed at as able to laugh."

From Of Democritus and Heraclitus

Thursday, September 12, 2013


We never see these at the Used Buying Desk.  Oh, we get fruit-boxes, but usually just the cardboard kind.  One of our most loyal scouts comes in every week or two with his haul from the charity-auctions, etc., and his stuff is always in cardboard fruit-boxes; much abused, much repaired, damned heavy fruit-boxes.  Some of his boxes are of such antiquity, one wonders if they mightn't be "heirloom" by now.  Not the kind of fellow, our scout, to invest in new containers, or let go of anything before it actually composts naturally.

The most common box we see, alas, is the liquor-store.  Few containers are more ubiquitous or less well-suited to carrying books.  There's something almost perverse about the way rectangles just don't match.  The liquor-store box, even with the dividers removed, while it seems like something that should work for the average hardcover book, never quite accommodates all that it should.  Try as one might, the space that, from the look of it, should hold two books side by side almost never does.  As a result, liquor-store boxes may be the despair of used books dealers, just because people will cram books into them as best they can, whether the books like it or no.  (Those huge Rubbermaid storage containers are the other bad sign when they come dragging through the door.  Not only are the tapered bottom and curved sides, again, wrong for rectangles, the bins seem to be the favorite real estate of spiders, dust bunnies and general garage-related-filth.  Ick.)

 Now, a real wooden fruit-box, while not necessarily any better than most other-purposed containers for books, are at least squared at the corners and usually big enough to hold even those larger format Time/Life books -- even though we never buy those Time/Life books.  A nice, wooden fruit-box is at least a sturdy object.  What's more, there's an aesthetic pleasure in the things; a enduring design of great practicality, the sweet nostalgia of wood and nails in a moulded plastic age, and in those colorful paper-labels, which can actually be quite beautiful.  Even when there's nothing to be bought out of such a box, it's nice to see.

There are also the kind of commercial boxes that are made unlikely just by putting books into them.  Discovering that a box from a cosmetics company actually contains a fairly wide collection of Greek & Latin classics suggests a better story than may actually be in the telling, but one does rather like the fantasy of some brilliant young woman working her way through a Classics degree while selling Mary Kay After-Sun Gel to pay the bills. 

 The Spanish label, if anything, only adds to the romance of the fantasy, no?

Far from the weirdest story to be spun from the incongruity of box and book, may I say?  Once, while working in a different shop, some years ago, someone brought in quite a haul of perfectly respectable, even unremarkable fiction and non, in boxes clearly labelled as having originated at the Chic tract factory.  Now, if you don't know what a Chic tract is, consider yourself one blissfully ignorant urban sophisticate.  For those of us who grew up at least nearer the still bloody heart of the Bible belt, Chic tracts were those hideous little comic books usually distributed among the children of the faithful, explaining how almost everything would probably send all of us sinners straight to Hell.  Terrifying, until one came to appreciate just how delightfully demented both text and pictures would prove to be to anyone not actually in the thrall of a dark and vengeful, and ironically "Evangelical" God.  (Come to Jesus, you worthless, filthy little sonofabitch.)

As one ought not to judge a book by its cover, according at least to some old saw maker, so we who buy used books for a living probably shouldn't evaluate the potential quality of unseen books by the boxes in which they are carried.  I'll tell you what though, while my evidence for this is purely anecdotal, I have to say there are few sights as heartwarming as a nice clean box, of the right size and shape, presumably full of nice clean books.  Bankers' boxes, the nice ones with lids and handles are the best, but any box not so big as to be impossible to lift -- think of most of those huge moving company boxes actually better suited to thick linens rather than heavy books -- is welcome. 

For that matter, if the books are good enough, forget the box, bin, bag or armload by which they arrived.  All about the good books.  Always.

Still, nice to see that "Sunny Slope Brand Carolina Peaches" label this morning, even if I didn't buy the Riverside Shakespeare, or anything else out of the box.  (Condition, condition, condition.)  The crate made my day.

Daily Dose

From Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London, 1834 - 1881, by Jame Anthony Froude


"Ye voices of the past!  Oh, ye cut my heart asunder with your mournful music out of discord: your prophetic prose grown poetry. Ay de mi!  But what can I do with you?  This day I actually ought to try if I could get to work.  Let us try."

From Chapter VIII, Carlyle's Journal, October 3, 1841

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Rambler, by Samuel Johnson


"When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency."

From Rambler #55, September 25, 1750

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Life of Froude, by Herbert Paul


"Froude thought her the most brilliant and interesting woman he had ever met.  The attraction was purely intellectual.  Mrs Carlyle was no longer young, and Froude's temperament was not inflammable."

From Chapter VIII, Froude and Carlyle

Monday, September 9, 2013

Putting It Together

Already late, and now this.  Normally by now I'd have the calender done, meaning pictures already selected, already walked to the copy store, already paid for, already made up and already on-sale at the bookstore where I work, but... no.  For whatever reason I am late this year.  To be honest, this year I didn't really even start to think about making my annual Usedbuyer2.0 Calendar until an old friend travelling in the area stopped by the bookstore to say hello.  One of the great benefits of producing the calendar and the like -- meaning my little alphabet book -- has been always having at the ready a small gift or two to personalize and share with friends, old and new.  There's something quite satisfying in that.  (Of course, there are only but so many times one can proffer the same homemade goods.  Unlike jam, or the last of the summer tomatoes, a calendar comes, as it were, but once a year.)  Anyway, I reached into the cubby at the Used Books Desk to give my friend one of the copies of my wee book that I normally keep there and was surprised to find I'm fresh out.  Had to buy one!  Most embarrassing.  Insult to injury, I did find the last, sadly neglected, already-marked-down-to-nothing copy of this year's 2013 calendar.  Gave him that, despite it already being September.  My old friend is a polite fellow, well brung up and all that, so pleasant murmurings of admiration later, it finally dawned on me that I'd yet to make a 2014 calender, or even collect and organize the pieces.

Here's a how-de-do.  Years past, I had the thing done and out by at least the middle of August!  (I checked.)  Last year, I even made two different calendars; the regular and the SF/F.  (Never again.)

So, last night I spent rummaging around my already disastrously ill-organized office -- made ever so much worse by my recent efforts to donate-away a goodly part of my personal library, which is now all over the joint -- and eventually, I found most of the caricatures I was planning to include in this year's number.  Most, please note.

Here's the one that got away.  For whatever reason, I particularly liked this picture of Temple Grandin, and planned almost from the moment I'd finished it, to include it in the calendar.  I very much admire Ms. Grandin.  No one else on earth could have induced me to read so much about cattle, for one.  Also her personal story I find both fascinating and more than a little inspiring, frankly.  Beyond that, I liked the likeness.  Not to be found, searching high, searching low.  I looked through folders of sketches, in piles of paper, even under and behind my desk and printer (where, I'll admit, I found some drawings of frogs and a very old doodle of weird Seattle winter hats, but no Temple.  Damn it.)

As I've mentioned here before, for nearly every drawing I post, there are usually half a dozen attempts that make it no further than the end of my pencil before being written off as just so much bad.  Obviously, I'm less concerned with the artistic standard of my doodles, though even there I've either abandoned or trashed far more than I've ever put up here.  Still, there are things I thought enough of in the moment to post that I've later come to regret, not usually to do with either subject or "content" for want of a better word, usually just because the drawing on reflection doesn't seem much.  Let it pass.  When it comes to selecting the drawings for the calendar though, I do try to pick only those I think might have some appeal to persons other than myself, and only those I still find satisfying as drawings.

That's a tricky business, saying why one seems to me better than another, after the fact.  They may not be "art" in any grand sense, but mine own, and I know it when I see it, so to say.

Even without Ms. Grandin, this year's calendar will have much the usual mix, if fewer women than is usual for me.  Most years it's been about 50/50 as to sex.  (One stuffy old bird made the memorable complaint that she could not in good conscience buy my alphabet book of poets because there weren't enough women in it.  Alas, another forty eight cents in royalties lost.)  As it now stands, the new calendar will have but two women in it.  It will however be more diverse than usual by nationality, with one German and two French authors, mixed in with the Americans and Brits.  George Sand, to be seen above with her cigar, killing two birds with one stone this year, diversity-wise (I was asked specifically to include a South American this time, but on further examination, I didn't like my drawing of my beloved Jorge Amado enough to use it in the calendar.)

At any rate, the selection is what it is, and the pages have all been tagged with Post-its identifying the months for each, and the lot delivered to the copiers.

Better late than never.

Daily Dose

From The Portable Coleridge, edited bu I. A. Richards


"Oh for a lodge in a land where human life was an end to which labour was only a means, instead of being, as it is here, a mere means of carrying on labour."

From a letter to Thomas Poole, dated Monday, March 23, 1801