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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Graphic Enlightenment

Growing up my father kept a shelf of Calvin and Hobbes collections on a high bookshelf in the back corner of a room we never went into. To get to these books you had to climb onto the back of an old green leather chair, push past dusty office ping pong tournament trophies, avoid the mini darts sitting next to a dartboard, and grab whatever thin Watterson book you could before sliding down the back of the chair into a pile of afghans. 

This was my knowledge of graphica.

About a year ago, a good friend of mine suggested I read Watchmen, the classic Alan Moore superhero send up. Coming from a friend with Criterion Collection taste, I borrowed the graphic novel and skeptically sat down to read it. I scoffed at the idea of reading a comic. I was a novel reader. A poetry reader. I didn’t need pictures in my books like some child. 

Two days later I was done. 

The art enchanted me, the combination of graphics and narrative astounded and confused me; this was a completely new method of storytelling that blew the door wide open on the art of writing as far as I was concerned. 

And so with Calvin, Hobbes, and Alan Moore whispering in my head I venture into the confusing, and at times seemingly-impenetrable, world of graphic novels. I knew right from the start that the serialized superhero comic was not for me, despite my good friend Andy’s insistence at a deeper mythology. It's just not for me. But Andy is a persistent man.

He finally found something on his bookshelf that felt right; that combined my love of slapdash plot with pure insanity in the form of Manhattan Projects. Written by Jonathan Hickman and illustrated by Nick Pitarra, Manhattan Projects follows an alternative history starting at the end of World War II in which the end of the war and the development of the atomic bomb leads to, to put it simply, high concept sci-fi rigmarole. 

Without giving too much away, you have the main players in the real-life Manhattan Project: Oppenheimer, Feynman, Fermi, and Einstein, but they are all surreal versions of themselves. The opening of the book posits this question: What if Oppenheimer had an evil twin that destroyed the “real” Oppenheimer? And what if that twin had control of the atomic bomb? 

What I found so completely absorbing about MP was its total disregard for, yet amazing respect for, the truth. Hiding underneath the insanity, death, drug-use, and smashing of idols is a tightly written, historically-semi-accurate subplot. The events that unfurl throughout the first couple of books in the series read like a Lewis Carrol’s Wonderland version of United States history. 

I devoured these books. I started borrowing them one at a time and then just emptied his collection into my backpack and ran away. Reflecting on my journey into the graphic medium it is easy to see why these grabbed me as firmly as they did. The absurdity of Calvin mixed with the philosophic nature of Hobbes with the sci-fi bent of Watchmen all wrapped in an Adult Swim feel. This was tailor made for me and placed me firmly in the graphic novel fan camp. 

So now I enter into the dark woods of graphic novels with a few key guides at my side. Andy hands me superhero comics to see if they stick along with more high-concept sci-fi (see:Black Science). Coworkers of mine who come at graphica from an artists viewpoint hand me David Clowes, Eleanor Davis, and Chris Ware. Another coworker places in my hands Batman Arkham Asylum, which completely destroyed my view on the “super hero” graphic novel, along with Y The Last Man, which I will probably talk about at a later time. 

The graphic novel is not simply a book with pictures, nor is it art with words. It is the perfect merging of those two forms; the culmination of visual and textual storytelling. This descent into graphica and comics feels equally like a descent into madness and a step into a very new and beautiful world.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

I Think You Forgot Something: L.J. Davis

In an interview on KCRW's Bookworm, Lydia Millet says "humor is about objectification…I have to have the freedom to objectify because of the distancing that always happens when you objectify something. Distance is created that then can be brought back and telescoped into the too-closeness of communion. The idea that we can step out of ourselves and be with others in some fundamental way, the impossibility of that is also present." It's a balancing act few pull off well because, as Millet later goes on to say, "that kind of humor only works when the humorist loves the thing he/she objectifies, that if not handled lovingly, it is simply cruelty." In her inimitable style, Millet perfectly expresses what is so appealing to me in satire or subversive humor.       

This idea and the high-wire act it demands is present in all of L.J. Davis's fiction. The author of four novels first published between 1968 and 1974 (all but one of which, preposterously, is out of print), he was seemingly fascinated by the threat gentrification can pose to the working-class. Tossing well-intentioned, if somewhat self-indulgent, social misfits into the lion's den of  capitalism and alcoholism (synonymous conditions in his work), as well as grimace-inducing look at misogyny and perceptions of race. Davis's characters are men who drowsily saunter after the American dream, hellbent on the simplest of things: a nice place to hang their hat and an occasionally nice girl on whom to hang it. If this description paints the characters as a touch hypocritical, it's not by accident. Blithe can be charming but it is navel-gazing as well. Davis's characters tend to be overly sensitive but defensive men; they are victims but oftentimes that victimhood is borne of their own solipsistic demands. Lena Dunham with a John Wayne complex, perhaps.

Lowell Lake, the protagonist of A Meaningful Life (the one work still in
print), evaluating his marriage:
The old dim pleasantness had departed from their dealings as completely as if there'd never been any to begin with, but a peculiar side effect of this development was that Lowell found himself interested in his wife's personality. He couldn't remember a time when he'd been so interested in it, not even in college, when what had principally interested him had been her ass, if the truth be told, although he had also concerned himself with her personality at least to the extent of finding out whether she had a good one or a bad one. He'd decided she had a good one. Since then he'd thought about it very little except on the infrequent occasions when something seemed to go awry with it, but it always seemed to get fixed pretty quickly, and then it was all okay again, like a table whose wobble had been repaired. The rest of the time it just sort of stood there, a good and serviceable object whose height, width, length, shape color, and approximate density were assumed to be known. You could always count on it; it was exactly the same when you returned as when you left, never mind those phone calls to her mother and the midnight crying fits in the bathroom. It was a good little piece of furniture. For nine years Lowell had been married to a table.
His protagonists move through the novels with absolutely no impulse control, sometimes (mis)guided by a sense of do-goodery, their actions always to the detriment of everyone involved. They are little id-fueled narcissists who "disliked merry people and always suspected there was something wrong with their heads." This past reading of A Meaningful Life, my third, I found myself downright mortified twice but lost count of how many times I laughed out loud. I also found myself squirming through some of his startlingly dry social critique.

Not for everyone, to be sure. But as we move into a new year, the sleepiest time of year for new book releases, and Seattle's weather inflicts its worst on our collective Seasonal Affective Disorder, exploring Davis or one of his contemporaries (Percival Everett's novels, Joy Williams's stories, Michael Robbins's poetry)  could very well be your saving sardonic grace.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

Ryan's Favorite Books of 2015!!!!!

I've become better at starting early, and pestering my coworkers sooner, and thus producing the Bookseller Top Tens a little earlier with every passing year. Last year, I had them done on January 11th. The year before, on Jan 17th. And the year before that...February 26th. But this year, done on January first. Too good to be true!

And it was.

I forgot one. And this, after I berated and bullied people into getting me their lists on time. Ryan, in particular, asked me on the deadline day if he could write blurbs for his list. I said he could if he could get it to me by the end of the day, the end of the day being 15 minutes away.

He didn't write them.

But then I forgot his list.

So, here it is. Ryan's ten favorite books of 2015, complete with the blurbs I wouldn't let him write before.  Sorry, Ryan!

Ryan’s List of Books

Much like my life, there is no order to this list. So deep. And also, much like my life, this list is regrettably full of white men and very few women. There’s always next year.

  • In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje - Prose from a poet's mouth, this book feels shrouded in fog and sepia toned. Ondaatje, known best for The English Patient, writes with understated poetic language that seeps directly into you. 
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. - One of the first and most powerful books to give a voice to the people. Selby has an unmistakable way of writing a dirtbag so that you emapthize with them and their struggle. 
  • The Soft Machine by William Burroughs - Madcap, grotesque, frustrating, and ultimately overly obtuse, Burroughs never fails to enrage. The Soft Machine is the first in his groundbreaking cut-up trilogy and while it may be inaccesible garbage to some, to the right reader it is somewhat accesible garbage. 
  • The Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda by Pablo Neruda - "Leaning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets/ towards your oceanic eyes." The most influencial poet (and possibly writer) of South America, Neruda writes with the utmost emotional power. 
  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn - Zinn rewrites the story of America, focusing on the laborers, women, slaves, natives, and all the "minorities" that were swept under the rug by the elite. This book should be required reading if only to get another narrative in the public consciousness. 
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion - In a quick series of essays Didion shines a light on her time in California in the early 60s. Didion quickly entrances the writer with her massive intelligence and piercing gaze, able to see through the flimsy disguises we as a nation erect. 
  • The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic - Prose poetry at it's height, Simic takes the ordinary and tweaks it until it is surreal. Simic draws on his Eastern European upbringing to highlight the absurdity of the everyday. 
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit - In a world where we should all be feminists, Solnit has created a manifesto. At times devestating in what it sheds light on, Solnit is able to perfectly outline the series of powers that opress and malign the women of the world. Stomp the patriarchy!...or at least acknowledge that it is there.
  • David Boring by Daniel Clowes - This graphic novel is David Lynchian in its pace and plot and feels eerie in an indescribable way. Follow Boring as he floats through a nihilistic view of the world as a whole. Equal parts murder mystery and love story without the ethos of either. 
  • Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus - Can a myth tell its own story? Mingus attempts to, blending fact and fiction to an uncertain and satisfying conclusion in this memoir of his life. When it begins with the telling of his birth from his perspective, you know you may have a less-than-reliable narrator on your hands. Jazz fans rejoice. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 Bookseller Top Tens!

I did it. The top tens before the end of January. And this year, in the format of one really, really, REALLY long post. We've got 28 lists of 280 (or so) great books for you. So, you have some reading to do.

Remember, our top tens do not have to be composed of books published only in the last year. If you read it this year, even if it was written and published 200 years ago, it can be on the list.

Also, new this year, I've consolidated all of our lists into one, giant, mega-top-ten list. The ten favorite books among all of us. Don't worry, all of our lists are available in their entirety after the jump.

The first four titles on the mega list had the most votes. The remaining six all had two votes each, as well as another nine titles. I chose the final six based on how much I heard coworkers talking about these books and what was said. For example, Ancillary Justice made the list over others based on the fact that I know two other booksellers who liked Ancillary Justice, just not quite enough to make their top ten. Negative comments overheard about books also factored in. It's a totally scientific, totally legit process. Trust me.

Third Place Books' Definitive Best Books of 2015 
Colossal Top Ten List
  1. Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates
  2. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagahara
  3. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
  4. Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz Camacho
  5. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  6. Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh
  7. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
  8. Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso
  9. Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton
  10. The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

Click through for all our other favorites!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Why I read Old Books

I rarely read new books. Two or three a year might make the cut if they sound too good to miss (please keep writing, Marilynne Robinson), but the vast majority of my diet is drawn from the books of the dead. In part there is a simple reason for this, rooted in my unusually high capacity for both pickiness and laziness. Most of the worst old books have been weeded out by the passage of time, leaving a well-tended garden of excellent reading. New books, on the other hand, can be a thankless slog through mediocrity. I'll never get back the time I spent reading White Teeth. And all that Ian McEwan! It was like the literary equivalent of white noise. 

But there's another reason I love old books that extends even to the ones that aren't that good. Novelistic clich├ęs can be found in any era, but it's the ones from the present time that bother me the most: upper-middle class academics having affairs; young people making pop-culture references, anything described as 'off-beat'... I once began a book in which the protagonist was an artist living in New York with a sister who was a writer in London. I threw it against the wall after three pages. 

But by a magical process similar to the beneficent aging of wine and cheese, the same kind of offhand, thoughtless writing in an old book is transformed into fascinating cultural detail. Here is a real, sincerely-delivered line of dialogue from John Buchan's The Three Hostages (1924): "He's a first-class sportsman and said to be the best shot in England after His Majesty." What a great line. If that book had been written today, I'd have to say the author was a satirical genius. It's like reading an adventure story written by Bertie Wooster. 

There's a short story by Jorge Borges called "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," in which the narrator reviews an entirely faithful recreation, by a contemporary French writer, of Cervantes' Don Quixote. "Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical," writes the critic, "but the second is almost infinitely richer." It's a conceit that plays on the fact that any book is enriched in complexity and subtlety merely by the passage of time. Reading old books, we all become Pierre Menards, recreating them in the light of our own times. Even the best historical fiction can only emulate the way people thought in another time and place; only actual historical books can offer the real thing.


What often stand out are outdated prejudices. Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days (1889) portrays a world in which all English people are emotionless robots and no American bats an eye at dueling on a moving train. Comparing H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) with John Buchan's 1910 African-adventure novel Prester John (which reads like a colonial Mein Kampf) is to witness the invention of the racist logic of Apartheid before your eyes.

But you can gain insights, too, that are difficult to find anywhere else. In Cause for Alarm (1937) and his other pre-war thrillers, Eric Ambler dramatized his anxiety about the spread of fascism. The Weimar-era stories of Christopher Isherwood mention very little about fascism, but they offer a window on a society that was all too short-lived. 

So go buy an old book! They're cheaper, too.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

New Author Crushin'

There are many joys that come with bookselling, naturally other booksellers being top of the list. Besides their wit, kindness, humor, and general all-around goodness, they're also readers. And as a reader, I often turn to these other, more well-read readers for ideas on what I should read next.

So when I was hoping to find some books or essays on obsession, I knew just who to go to. Wes is invariably the guy you want to talk to if what you're searching for is just a little bit unsavory, just a little outside the mainstream, just a little cringe-inducing, but hugely fascinating. What's great about Wes is his ability to offer books that target just what you need but also suggestions so weird they couldn't possibly work and then turn out to be exactly what you're looking for. So in my search for obsession, Wes offered up a book about stalking, and one about drinking, and also one about a diary.

Well, more precisely, it's about a woman keeping a diary, and then not keeping that diary. The book is Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, and the author is Sarah Manguso. Wes had figured that Manguso's obsession with recording her life, (her diary had stretched to 800,000 words-- for a frame of reference, War and Peace is just a little shy of 600,000,) was exactly the kind of obsession I was looking for. He was right.

Ongoingness is one of the best books I've read this year, perhaps my favorite. Instead of a memoir, it's more of a commentary on the keeping of her diary. What it meant to her, what she wanted it to be, how it failed. It seems no coincidence that Manguso's manifesto comes in this slim little volume; miles away from 800,000 words.

Of the diary, she says, "I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it."

Illustration by Montse Bernal/Reference:
Andy Ryan; From the New Yorker
Ongoingness feels like a study of thinking and overthinking. It's spare and  precise; brilliant. And eerie in it's universality. She explores motherhood, mortality, purpose, but mostly her compulsion to record evidence of her own existence. Manguso reads my mind and writes about my exact worries, yet she says it with an elegance and economy that is startling. So many times I stopped, and reread, and opened my journal to record her words and my own meager thoughts about those words. There is no way to read this brilliant woman and not feel like a dullard in comparison, but the kind of dullard who may just be on the right track

After Ongoingness, I inhaled more of her work. The Guardians, an elegy on the loss of her friend, his madness, and her fear of her own. And The Two Kinds of Decay a study of the rare disease Manguso battled in her twenties and the depression and havoc it lead her to. All of her books are beautiful; all of her thoughts, wise. She is the writer I wish I was, the thinker I aspire to be.

Read her.