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Saturday, July 30, 2016

I Think You Forgot Something : Macdonald Harris

A dik-dik, to save you from googling 
I once worked with a young Harvard graduate, summa cum laude, the whole bit. On paper, she looked like the ideal person with whom to discuss literature: well-educated, great taste, interests best described as widely flung. But in reality, you could have more stimulating conversations about books with a drug-addled dik-dik. The most elaborate praise available from her was “it was good,” or “I liked it.” Sometimes, that little nudge can be enough to sway me; maybe I’m curious about a book or an author but for whatever reason don’t trust myself and the plaudits of another, no matter how mild, can bring my wallet into the light. But not often.

Most booksellers spend forty odd hours on the clock surrounded by unread and unfamiliar books and another 128 off the clock also surrounded by more unread and only slightly more familiar tomes. In our reading, it is the bookseller's curse that we are reading either six months ahead or ten years behind everyone else. Most booksellers find the traditional nightstand replaced by stacks of books, both the old and forgotten as well as the coveted not-yet-released. Over time, it can become difficult to entertain suggestions because those stacks, that daunting, swollen mass just cannot possibly bear another ounce.

Years ago, however, a novel came to my attention through a librarian pal whose recommendation was so fulsome, so bombastically positive, I had no choice but to heed it. Both title and author were unknown to me and the journey to reading it proved to be quite the undertaking. Published in 1964, Mortal Leap by Macdonald Harris went out of print almost immediately and it is impossible to find a decent copy for less than a cool six hundred dollars. It became my personal holy grail, the damn thing’s elusiveness creating an almost feral desire. I suggested it to the New York Review of Books for reprint multiple times, even creating an alias to submit multiple suggestions. I checked used book sites daily for a decent copy under three hundred dollars, the most I can conceive of paying for anything that doesn’t come with a roof or a motor.

Eventually I disavowed myself of the notion I could own a copy and, with a five dollar bill and the willingness of the good librarians of Issaquah, settled in with a brittle, near ruined copy of the book that had felt like nothing but pure myth for years. Lo and behold, it was worth every moment of the hunt, every failed footstep of the pursuit forgotten. Mortal Leap is a book so far beyond “good” that its greatness can only be experienced.

This is fiction writing at its finest: a story in the classical mode, lushly wrought with details that immediately establish a fully realized character and landscape. Harris reawakens a childlike sense of wonder and fascination, a passion for the possible that transports the reader fully. His gift is truly a marvel, an ability to craft stories that are so fantastic and immersive it borders on the terrifying. The relationship between the reader and the physical object is marvelously indescribable and only a true, ethereal talent can to make a pound of paper feel alive in your hands.

If you peruse the synopses of Harris’s other work, you can immediately see no two are alike. It is a motley collection of novels and is only unified by, other than its greatness, man’s elusive inability to know himself. If you’ve read five novels by white men, at least four addressed this moral mission. Yawn, yawn, yawn, right? Not here.

Mortal Leap is a quintessential, exemplary model of what fiction can and should do. In the most reductive terms, it is an adult's adventure tale, a la Jack London: affect-less Mormon boy, disinterested in the life laid out before him, follows his existential malaise to sea. There is a plot outside of little boy lost, but the book is so beautifully written and such a singular experience, I would be doing it an enormous disservice dressing it in the rags of my fumbling fanboydom. But if you need convincing, the book speaks for itself beautifully:
It was a part of myself that was my enemy; I still had a childish illusion that the flesh on my own bones was somehow unique and precious to the universe, in some obscure corner of my mind I wanted the others to love me and make exceptions for me simply because I felt heat and cold, pain and loneliness as they did. Now this was gone once and for all, and I understood there were no exceptions and on one was invulnerable, we all had to share the same conditions and in the end this was simply mortality, the mortality of things as well as ourselves. After that I didn't expect anybody to love me...
And a passage that should make any reader weak-kneed:
 The books were a private part of me that I carried inside and guarded and didn't talk to anybody about; as long as I had the books I could convince myself I was different from the others and my life wasn't quite as stupid and pointless.

Harris's is a body of work I only become more passionate about, both as I explore titles I haven’t read or mull over the handful that I have. Looking at the novels on the whole, comparisons are most easily made to the work of Paul Auster. Harris’s novels carry the same ruminative tone and irreverent sense of adventure and both boldly wear an ambition to stretch their craft and sense of reality. Also like Auster, there’s no impression Harris was hankering for clout or accolades but simply a love of a pure, simple form of storytelling.

None of this is as succinct a recommendation as “it’s good,” I know. But so remarkable is Macdonald Harris, so deserving of full-volume, roof-shaking praise, his work could turn even my plaintively praising former colleague into an ivory tower of babble.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Let's Talk About Shakespeare Related Things : Act II

Deceptively Delicious

Are you ready for my second attempt at convincing you that you should read every last word written by Shakespeare? Well, get ready.

Yup, I'm still obsessed with Shakespeare. Even if the other day my Herman Melville obsession flared up, my Shakespeare love remains strong. You might think I've got my literary ailments at cross purposes, but you'd be wrong. Turns out there's a whole lot of Shakespeare in Melville. There are those who argue that without Shakespeare, particularly   King Lear  and Macbeth, there would be no Moby Dick. When I say "those," I mean the people who write and edit Wikipedia articles.

In fact "those" same Wikipedia people claim that when Ahab finally shows up, his first long speech to the crew of the Pequod is virtually blank verse:
But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat,
That thing unsays itself. There are men
From whom warm words are small indignity.
I mean not to incense thee. Let it go.
Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn--
Living, breathing pictures painted by the sun.
The pagan leopards--the unrecking and
Unworshipping things, that live; and seek and give
No reason for the torrid life they feel!
I know, I know, blank verse, Moby Dick, I'm not really selling it for you Shakespeare virgins. Well, what if I told you that Shakespeare influenced a whole heck of a lot more than just some dusty, old book about a whale? What if I told you, that without Shakespeare, there'd be no LION KING ???!!?!?!!

Oh, yeah, now you're interested. From West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) to Ten Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew); Sons of Anarchy (Hamlet) to Breaking Bad (Macbeth...allegedly) odds are you love something Shakespeare-based and don't even know it.

So, I've put together a list with some suggestions for other things Shakespeare-based-- you won't even be able to tell. It's like that cookbook that Jerry Seinfeld's wife put out to trick kids into eating vegetables. Yup, just like that.

by Ryan North
O. M. G. It's a choose your own adventure book for grown ups! This one is based on Othello...kidding. It's based on Titus Andronicus.

by Jane Smiley
True story, King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare. This novel is based on King Lear. I had no idea. That's how non-Shakespeare-y it is. It has nothing to do with how dumb I am.

by Cat Winters
Cat Winters is a PNW author and this YA novel takes place in Oregon, explores US history and racism, and is based on Hamlet. And it's a lady cast as our tortured, young Dane. 

by Leon Garfield, illustrated by Michael Foreman
This one is my favorite of the bunch. A beautifully written collection of Shakespeare plays retold for little ears. It's the perfect introduction to hook them early. And there are pictures!

These titles and several others are on display at out Lake Forest Park store. The display features many of Shakespeare's greatest hits. And there are literally countless other books out there that would not exist if not for the Bard. Come on over to Lake Forest Park and see if any of these titles strike your fancy. The Shakespeare display table will be up through the end of July. My love will live on forever.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

This is Switzerland

The Presidential election is 2016 is slowly but surely killing me. The will to engage in any discourse on the political spectrum has left. Last November I was full to the brim with righteous anger and ready to match, nay, overpower all the sexism and bigotry I witnessed with my feminism and tolerance. Now I'm just resigned to, "If you sexism me, I will feminist you."

Unfortunately, I shelve the Political Science section, and escape is not that easy. 

I watched Ben Carson's book America the Beautiful : Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great slowly rot on my shelves, itching for the moment I could tuck them away in the back where I could forget about their sad existence.

I watched a solid handful of books about why Hillary is a sign of the apocalypse/Satan's spawn, why she is a faux feminist, etc. My favorite is this one with a neon yellow and pink cover called Unlikable by Edward Klein. Mostly because all it does is make me think of the theme song for The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (just substitute Unbreakable for Unlikable and you're all set) which puts more spring in my step than anything in that section these days.

Someone should talk to Hillary's team about adapting that song as her campaign theme. 

We as a bookstore carry books that have all sorts of ideas, political leanings and mantras. We endorse no one. But we do believe in representation and edification. Therefore, when ALL the presidential candidates release books (all 666 of them), we carry them in our store. Each and every one. We had a multitude of copies of A Time for Truth by Ted Cruz for a long time. And I dutifully made room for it on my shelves.

We sold one.

And yet, for weeks on end, whenever I went to Political Science to put out new arrivals, someone had placed Ted Cruz's book on display. And every time, I put it back on the shelf where they belong, readjusting my poor abused David Axelrod political bio. The next week someone retaliated by displaying a copy of Hard Choices in front of my display of Charles Krauthammer's book.

FIRST of all, 65% of the time what is displayed depends on how many copies we receive. If we get ten copies of a Kissinger book, it goes on display, no matter what I feel about it. The other 35% is whatever underdog I'm trying to give a boost to, or what cover is cooler. Marketing, man.

SECOND of all, even if you put a copy of Hard Choices on display in the Political Science area hoping to inspire someone to purchase said book, while I respect your choice of candidate, Hard Choices lives in the biography section. When someone stashes it somewhere it doesn't belong, some poor soul who REALLY wants to read Hillary's bio won't be able to find it.

And when other people start deciding where things go, it makes it difficult, nigh impossible, to locate books. Think of my shelving decisions as a dictatorship.

For the political minded whose minds are being melted by the 2016 Election, or if you can't find the political book you want to read because someone moved it, I give you a recommended reading list:

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Or: How Thomas Cromwell did a bang up job placating Henry Tudor and getting him a different wife and literally everything he wanted until he didn't want it anymore. It's still less confusing than this election.

Or, alternatively, if you've already jumped on the Wolf Hall bandwagon and/or are sick of the fascination with Tudor England, Mantel's book about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, is equally as good, while slightly more confusing. Though I maintain that the French Revolution is still not as terrible as this election.

The Femicide Machine by Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez

Short. Brutal. Important. Tragic.
Feminism is important. Women and girls are still being slaughtered all over the world because they are not men. Sexism is not dead. Because it's still killing women.

Smoke by Dan Vyleta

It's Dickensian and Dystopian. And get this--it's not young adult! Vyleta does an admirable job of exploring the nuances of human morality and our "sinful" nature through the premise that the human body literally smokes when it sins.
Lusting after your neighbor's wife? Smoke erupts from your body (it's color coded, by the way).
Greedy for the coins in your friend's hand? Soot stains the armpits of your shirt.
In the theme of this miserable election, just envision Donald Trump smoking every time he lies.

Shrill by Lindy West

By turns enlightening, hilarious and deeply moving, Lindy West is an important voice in the media these days. She came to our store to promote her book, and her first question from the audience was: What do you think we can expect from the 2016 election?
Lindy: Literally, I have no idea, and I don't even want to think about it.
Me neither, Lindy. Me neither.

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

Yes, I'm obsessed with the musical. But that's completely beside the point. I was browsing my social media, and this beautiful tumbr post popped up: Alexander Hamilton would have torn Donald Trump to pieces by now and also publicly humiliated him on multiple occasions. Read the book to find out how. Or just listen to the Cabinet Battles tracks on the soundtrack. Either way, it's a nice fantasy to live in.