Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Perfect Gift 3

By this time in the holiday season, Christmas lists start looking less like catalogs of upcoming joy and more like stress filled timed tests. And just like the SATs you've left the hardest people on your list for list. Luckily Jane Jacobs, one of our buyers, has a few suggestions for those calculus problems left on your list.

For the would-be parent who can't chose a baby name book: The Baby Name Bible. It has over 50,000 plus names and makes for interesting reading on its own. Did you know that Orna is Irish for "little green one?"

For the disorganized person who can't seem to get anything done in his life and always ends up asking you how to accomplish what really should be simple tasks: Rules of Thumb: A Life Manual. This includes such things as how to tell whether you need a bra (something to do with Ann Landers and a pencil) and how much dynamite you need to blast a stump out of the ground (one stick of dynamite for every four inches of stump diameter).

For the person who needs help prioritizing the stuff in his life and/or the person who loves trivia: The Order of Things: Hierarchies, Structures and Pecking Orders. It will tell you the order of the Emperors of Byzantium, beer measures and the 12 Olympian gods. It's pocket-sized so you'll have it whether you need to settle a bet in a bar or decide which fire extinguisher to buy for your kitchen.

For the morbid member of the family always wondering how they'll be remembered: The Economist Book of Obituaries.

For the person on your list who shrugs and says "Eh," every time you try to wheedle some information about their interests out of them: The Bodleian Library's reprinting of historic documents including; Instructions for British Servicemen in Germany 1944, Instructions for American Servicemen in France During World War II, Instructions for American Servicemen in Australia 1942, and German Invasion Plans for the British Isles 1940. All the books are filled with life lessons like "Do go easy on Schnaps" and "Australians are natural group singers," and are fascinating cultural and historical documents. Also great stocking stuffers.

The Perfect Gift 2

There is a book out there for everyone on your list and Porter Square Books has gift ideas for every baffling family member and idiosyncratic friend.

For someone interested in a different perspective on London during WWII: The Night Watch(novel), by Sarah Waters

For the Foodie who doesn't really cook: A Day at elBulli by Ferran Adria is a cookbook of sorts that is more an exploration of a creative genius.

For the young intellectual: A Fraction of the Whole (novel) by Steve Toltz is the story told by twenty-year-old Jasper Dean about his infamous family and his own struggles with self-awareness.

For the Friend Who Spends All Day in a Cubicle: Then We Came to the End (novel) by Joshua Ferris is a funny (like The Office) intelligent novel about what it means to work all day without making anything real.

For the middle school (and up) aged boys who may not be that fond of reading: Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl. These are short stories with Dahl's usual little twists of humor and darkness. One of the stories "Lamb to the Slaughter" was made into a short film by Alfred Hitchcock and is available on DVD.
Anne M.

For the history buff or general non-fiction reader: Brave Companions by David McCullough. This book contains essays on a wide range of people and is, as so many of McCullough's books are, as readable as a great fiction book. Not as daunting and more affordable than the two or three inch thick hardcover you were thinking of buying!
Anne M

For someone about to be stuck on a plane for eight hours: The Book of Joe, Everything Changes, and How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper. All well written, fast paced, and funny. Tropper's writing is in the same vein as Tom Perrotta.
Anne M.

Monday, December 15, 2008

You may have heard Roy Blount on NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" or read his latest book Alphabet Juice. He has a way with words and I can't think of a better use. Read on and then organize your own book-buying party.

From: "The Authors Guild" <>
Date: December 11, 2008 12:07:04 PM EST
Subject: Holiday Message from Roy Blount

I've been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren't known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don't lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn't in the cards. We don't want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let's mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that's just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance! There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they're easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children's books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they'll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see...we're the Authors Guild." Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.
PresidentAuthors Guild

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Congratulations are in order to local authors John Hanson Mitchell and Joan Wickersham. Recent books by each were chosen by Michael Kenney as one of the Boston Globe's 10 best non-fiction books of the year. Both authors read from these works at our store this year. John Hanson Mitchell's book is The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston while Joan Wickersham's is The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order. Joan's book was also a finalist for the National Book Award.

The Perfect Gift Part 1

The challenge of gift giving with books is not finding a great book to give, the world is full of great books, but in finding the perfect great book for a particular person on your list. To help you out Porter Square Books will be posting the perfect books for particular people. If you're stuck about someone on your list read on.

Here are some gift ideas for the kids in your life from Carol our children's book:

For the one-year-old who loves dogs: 25th Anniversary edition of Where's Spot (with Spot Plush!!!!)

For the boy or girl middle grade reader who likes adventure, Alaska/boats: Williwaw by Tom Bodett

For the 12 and up girl who enjoys historical fiction and loves stories about slavery/American Revolution (but is too young for Octavian Nothing): Chains
by Laurie Halse Anderson

For a family gift for people still reeling from the excitement of the election: Our White House. (We have some copies signed by 3 of the author/illustrators who contributed to the book.)

Stay tuned for more perfect great books for your friends and family.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Chapbooks have many virtues. Generally they are short and therefore usually inexpensive. The shorter form also allows the writer to focus on a particular theme that perhaps would not lend itself to a full length book.

However, these virtues often make it very difficult for bookstores to display them. If they are staple bound they won't carry a spine making it difficult for customers to see them on a shelf.

Local Somerville publisher Cervena Barva Press publishes a series of poetry chapbooks and have recently released a new one by the wonderful Cambridge poet Kathleen Aguero. The new chapbook is titled Investigations: The Mystery of the Girl Sleuth. It's a cycle of poems featuring Nancy Drew, the fictional detective of the well-known children's series. If at first you don't see it faced out in our poetry section, make the effort to find it arranged alphabetically by the author's last name. It doesn't have a spine so you won't see the title or the author's name immediately just by glancing at the shelf! In fact, it will not appear on our website using the search function because of its pedigree, but please persevere. Aguero's collection also received mention in Jan Gardner's Sunday column, Shelf Life, on December 7.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ferran Adria and A Day at elBulli

I first heard about Ferran Adria from Anthony Bourdain's essays about him. Bourdain is my favorite food writer so when he talks about a chef as if that chef were an alchemist or a magician or Picasso, I take note. Unfortunately, Ferran Adria's cookbook was a multi-thousand euro affair only available in the Catalan or Basque and Adria's restaurant elBulli is located in an isolated section of Catalonia in Spain, serves only 8,000 sittings a calendar year and costs 250 euros per person per meal. So it was only through Bourdain's essays that I could experience anything Adria was doing.

Until Phaidon, the publisher that put out 1080 and The Silver Spoon (one of my favorite cookbooks), released A Day at elBulli. A Day at elBulli is not a cookbook with a list of recipes coupled with alluring photographs of the dishes, but an examination of the creative process.

elBulli is only open six months a year. The rest of the year, Adria and his creative team, including his brother, an organic chemist, and an industrial designer work to develop the next year's menu and this book is an examination of that process. The book starts with beautiful pictures of the Costa Brava and follows Adria and his staff on a serving day right up to washing dishes and closing the restaurant down. Along the way, inserts explain the details that go in to creating such a dining experience and expound Adria's dining philosophy. The inserts include; Creative Methods I, II, and III; Knowledge is essential for judging the products; Cooking and art; and, one of my favorites, What happens between a restaurant and its guests? which enumerates the responsibilities and factors involved in a dining experience including the "sixth sense" of the guest "which can be stimulated in these ways":

-transgression of restaurant conventions

-childhood memories



-irony and provocation



-a 'knowing wink'

-recognition of a cultural reference

-confounded expectations


There are recipes for the daring, but this book is for more than just foodies. In a way it is a handbook for creativity, by giving us detailed access into the mind of one of the world's creative geniuses. For example this definition of creativity is offered:

Creativity...can be measured: it is possible to document a technique and to establish whether it is new. But to be truly creative, a dish must be interesting as well as new. The aim at elBulli is to create dishes and techniques that engage guests' sensory, emotional and intellectual faculties to the full, to surprise them and to encourage them to experience food in new and unexpected ways.

I may never get the chance to actually dine at elBulli (most of us won't) but this book offers enough of Adria's creativity for us to still learn from the work he is doing in his kitchen.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Chris Adrian at the bookstore tomorrow

One of my favorite prose writers will be at the bookstore tomorrow, November 13 at 7pm. Chris Adrian is the author of Gob's Grief and The Children's Hospital (a staff pick of mine). He'll be reading from his new collection of short stories, A Better Angel. I've read and enjoyed the first three stories "High Speeds," "The Sum of Our Parts," and "Stab," and the collection contains one of my favorite stories of last year, "Why Antichrist?" (It appeared in the "Evil" themed issue of Tin House last year.)

"Why Anitchrist?" is a fresh take on the idea of the Antichrist and the nature of evil in general told in the first person of the Antichrist himself. It also manages to break new ground in exploring the effects of 9/11 on our culture. That story alone makes the collection worth a read.

Secret Suppers

While I'm not really supportive of the movement (there are, after all, good reasons for restaurants to be licensed and obey zoning laws, etc.), I'd like to bring to your attention a new book about the underground dining phenomenon that's spreading across the country. It's titled, Secret Suppers, by Jen Garbee. (Full disclosure: I attended an underground dinner as a guest of the publisher of this book last Spring while attending our industry's annual trade show in Los Angeles. The dinner was memorable not only for the excellent food and wine, but also the magnificent hillside garden setting and the hospitality of our hosts.) While I would have preferred a more colorful presentation rather than the black-and-white, "underground" design of the book, in Secret Suppers, Garbee gives a sampling, with recipes, of the many different kinds of dining experiences created by these outlaw chefs.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

November 20th Michael Greenberg Event

Having just finished reading Michael Greenberg's powerful new memoir - Hurry Down Sunshine - I am now even more excited about his upcoming event here at PSB. Frankly and with a keen nuanced eye, Greenberg tells the story of his daughter's emotional crack up, hospitalization, treatment and how she moved forward, then backward, and forward again; her life an emotional roller coaster. As her father, he suffers pangs of guilt and moments of hope. This extraordinary book lays everything out in mesmerizing prose and unsparing detail. I urge you to join us on Thursday, November 20th at 7 PM to hear Michael Greenberg read and discuss Hurry Down Sunshine.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Brava, Strega Nona!

I am a virgin blogger, so here goes!

It's finally arrived - Tomie's POP-UP collaboration with master paper engineer, Bob Sabuda! A must for the holiday season for kids and adults alike. Check it out -

Brava, Strega Nona!: A Heartwarming Pop-Up Book!


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Interview with Benjamin Parzybok author of Couch

Benjamin Parzybok is the author of the new novel, Couch. Three young men end up as roommates, as these things happen, in Seattle. Thom, Tree, and Eric are between everything in their lives; jobs, relationships, family and settle into a lethargic stagnation on the couch in their apartment. Then the water bed in the upstairs apartment erupts, flooding their apartment, destroying most of their stuff and forcing them to haul the couch away. Though, it's not an ordinary couch. It gets lighter and heavier depending on what direction they carry it. Turns out, their couch is a mystical item instilling a profound lethargy in the world and it is their job to return it to its home.

Couch is a magical realism quest story for modern times that explores the aimlessness in our culture. Our society has become one of jobs instead of callings, with the widest array of opportunities and choices for occupation any society has ever seen, but without the philosophies and vocations we need to make meaningful decisions. It's a funny, touching novel, that shows one powerful response to our drifting modern life. Below is our interview with Benjamin Parzybok.

What appeals to people about quest narratives?

I have always loved quests. I remember leaving parties in high school--a few sheets to the wind--and heading off with a small band of similarly inebriated people on some absurd quest late into the night. Say, to plant a tennis ball on top of a local hill, or to get our coins flattened by trains. To me a quest is a great journey into the unknown that, at the end of it, leaves you a different person. They are hard, they are instilled with meaning, and they are transformative. I think it's the single-purpose meaning that many of us crave, to be unequivocally involved in something meaningful and to devote our entire selves to it. Quests also hearken back to a mythological time when a single purpose could be so right and necessary that they might warrant this kind of devotion--a less gray world.

What can legends teach us?

I think of them as hovering above our own personalities, of being within the realm of possibility, some kind of dream or fantasy that we can nearly mold our own selves into, in our more perfect incarnations, allowing us to temporarily envision ourselves as a much larger cog in the scheme of things.

Many of the images in Couch have a very old feeling, like they come from a medieval or legend-based system of symbolism. For example each of the three main characters has a characteristic that would have had a direct correlation to something in a medieval allegory; Thom is a giant with a wheat allergy, Tree has prophetic dreams, and Eric's mustache grows at an incredibly fast rate. What can this older style of symbolism communicate to our modern world?

I worked at giving my characters a hard time. Thom deals with a number of self-inflicted obstacles, not the least of which is his own brain, which I separated out as its own character. These obstacles were sometimes epic exaggerations, where a small character flaw grows into a sort of war a character fights against himself. I suspect most of us have some kind of internal war with ourselves. Phrasing these daily struggles as if we were heroes in our own legend allows one to back off one's own life and view it with a historical and moral lens.

At one point, the characters learn that removing the "bad couch" from Seattle has had a major positive effect on the city. What do you think are the "bad couches" in our society?

From Wikipedia "Throughout its history [couches have] often been an object of derision, considered a variety of things from decadent to conformist" I love that--though I realize you're speaking of symbols, I think there is something about couches: they are antithetical to action, their intent is to make you passive and receptive, most often to a TV. I think each of us has our own bad couch. The bad couches that we have collectively I think are many, unfortunately, and not so easily separated from society. I think one our greatest bad couches is a species-wide flaw--we don't have the inability to think long-term. We don't have a species-memory, or a species-vision, and thus we continually do dumb-ass things and make dumb-ass choices that serve our needs now.

Can a novel remove those "bad couches?"

Yes, I'd like to think that writing is a form of activism. Both of a societal kind and of a deeply personal kind. I know I've certainly had 'bad couches' surgically removed from me by the works of others. I've absorbed a book and had it change my character. I don't think I was the same person after, say, reading Salinger's Frannie and Zooey, or after Delillo's White Noise or Halldor Laxness' Independent People.

One of the settings is a village untouched by the modern world, where the people still believe in magic and so the magic of their healer still works. Are the "modern world" and "magic" inherently opposite forces or is there a way for us to combine the best aspects of the two?

I think this world contains a tremendous amount of magic. It was lack of belief in magic that the 'real world' destroys in the book. And I believe that to be true in the real world as well. The more we adopt the messaging of advertisers, the scientific method, Western thinking, the more our ability to perceive magic diminishes. Of course, Western thinking is important, too, but I think science itself is now beginning to teach us that there are some very fantastical, magical things out there that we have yet to comprehend, things that force us to bend our mind, to warp our traditional way of understanding things. I recently learned my house--in the city of Portland--has no sewer line. The sewer scope (this camera they send down along a wire deep underground) showed an old brick structure that looked very much as if my house were constructed on top of a castle. Holy crap. A sewer company came to make a bid and they sent a dowser. I was amazed. It worked wonderfully--the man divined water. Now, I'm sure there's probably a scientific explanation--and Wikipedia isn't so excited about dowsing's efficacy. But I'm even more sure that any explanation, scientific or other, will just be a fancy, detail-laden way of saying what we already know: It's magic! And yes, it turns out my house was built atop an old castle.

One of my favorite creations in Couch is the "Lug-o-naut 147" a kind of super rickshaw designed to help the three heroes carry the couch through the jungles of Ecuador. It is a brilliant combination of mechanical and organic technology. Do you think we can combine our technical innovation and organic nature to solve some of the world's problems or are they opposing forces?

I went to college originally to study alternative energy design as to how it applies in rural/third world settings, and I still think this is one of the coolest technologies that can be pursued. Part of the reason it's so cool is that there's a cultural, historical and archaeological component to it--so many fabulous technologies have been invented through time by inventors working with what they have. Mud, sticks and sun. And for inventions to fit in truly with a culture, they have to get so many things right: can they continue to be made locally, do they fit with the mindset well enough to be adopted permanently into a culture, etc. I think there's tremendous potential in marrying the organic with the high tech, the historical genius with new materials. I like to think of this as Taoist technology--technology that fits into a natural flow.

The quest with the couch answers many of the questions the characters had about their own lives, especially for Thom, who most of all felt the disaffection of modern society. Can "the quest" answer those questions for everybody and if so how do we find our "couches to bear?"

I think quests in general can be very reformative and rehabilitative. There are a couple of keys to having a good quest: 1) You have to have a real goal in mind. No matter how trivial the goal is, it's important to have some sort of end in mind. While it's the journey itself that is transformative, by themselves journeys with no end-goal can feel indulgent and too self-reflective. 2) I think quests should be hard work. Right after I married I decided to try walking as far West as I could--I made it about 100 miles, not real far, but over a 3-4 day period all I did was walk and sleep in pastures, and it was enough time to clear my head and right myself into a new life. It was media
and comfort free. 3) For a transformative experience, I think it's important to make sure you're coming back to a different setting from which you left. ie: quit your job, then go on your quest. When you return, you'll struggle a little but it'll allow you to carry that quest transformation into your life.

Finally, what are you reading?

I'm reading a ton of children's books (bedtime stories! My son just now showed me The Mouse and the Motorcycle which he'd checked out from the library) and, as of 13 days before the election, copious amounts of political commentary. I just finished Northline by Willy Vlautin which was great and intense--I happened to be at a book fair and he sung a portion of his book which was awesome and I hope he invented a new genre there. Otherwise I'm between novels and would love a recommendation.

To see if Benjamin is reading near you visit his tour listing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Distinctive Lit Mag Designs

There are thousands of literary magazines and it's almost impossible for any one of them to stand out, especially since there are only so many ways that one can present short stories, essays, poems, and graphics bound together in something that is not a "book." Which means that, unless you have the design budget that McSweeney's has, it is almost impossible to visually distinguish one lit mag from another.

Two smaller lit mags, one local to Cambridge, have come up with brilliant original designs that distinguish them from the masses and present creative expressions of the characters of the magazines.

The first is a bi-annual magazine called Conduit. The magazine and its website have a cool edge and the current issue themed "Last Laugh: black humor in deadpan alley," has one of the best selections of poetry and art I've seen in any journal or magazine lately. The distinguishing design is simple: it's taller and thinner than all the other magazines. I especially like it because it can fit in a back pocket on walks.

The second is Tuesday: An Art Project, a local poetry and art lit mag that has done away with binding all together.

Instead it presents each poem and art print on a postcard size piece of card stock. This design emphasizes the singular nature of each piece and prevents an artificial editorial narrative constructed by the order in which the pieces are presented. By turning each piece into an individual item, the design allows readers to spread the magazine out, on their walls, in their journals, to their friends, or keep it together in its folded cardboard envelope. The design has the simple brilliance that leaves one shocked no one has thought of it before.

Both journals present innovative, and I think just plain cool, ways of getting art and literature to readers.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Literacy volunteers needed

Porter Square Books is assisting Literacy Volunteers of Massachusetts (LVM) in their effort to recruit more volunteers to provide free, private, confidential and individualized tutoring to adults in basic literacy. LVM, a nonprofit organization founded in 1972, is the largest private provider of one-to-one literacy tutoring in Massachusetts. As a volunteer with LVM you will have an opportunity to make a real and lasting difference in someone's life. Currently LVM has many more potential students than it has tutors. We're hoping by reaching out to a wider network of people, and people who are obviously readers, we can help recruit more volunteers for their program.

We at Porter Square Books feel committed to creating a more literate community and to encouraging life long reading skills and passion for the written word. LVM specializes in teaching adults whose literacy skills are below the 6th grade level. Some cannot read street signs, their own mail, newspapers, or a job application, all tasks one takes for granted.

The first step in volunteering is attending an orientation program for tutor training. After orientation, volunteers apply to attend an 18-hour training program. If you are willing and interested in volunteering for at least 3 hours per week (2 hours tutoring and 1 hour preparation time) for a minimum of 9 months call their office at 617-367-1313, or email Or email me at, be sure and indicate your interest in LVM, so you don't end up you know where.

We're excited to be able to spread the word about this award winning organization.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Julia Glass at PSB

Friday, October 17th brings a return visit to PSB of the award-winning author Julia Glass. Her newest novel, I See You Everywhere, was reviewed in the New York Times and the Boston Globe on Sunday, October 12th. Both reviews were glowing, as they should be. When I picked up the galley last summer I read with great anticipation and joy, as I loved Julia's first book Three Junes. This new novel is filled with her usual beautiful language and the spot on characterizations. However, there is a twist that I never saw coming, so when I finished the novel I was in a state of shock. Julia Glass is truly an American treasure. She'll be reading from I See You Everywhere at 7PM.

Shiny Brass

On Thursday, October 16th, Sheila and Marilynn Brass will be launching their new book at PSB. They are the authors of the best-selling book, Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters and their second book is called, Heirloom Cooking with the Brass Sisters. I have known them for over twenty years as all three of us worked at WGBH (Sheila is still there). Famous for their baked goodies, usually sitting on their desks for all to sample, the sisters are beloved for their gentle ways and great sense of fun. Often I remember seeing Sheila scrambling to get to her car - "Time for candy making class!" she'd yell. I encourage everyone and all to join us on Thursday. Not only will the sisters bring cakes to share, but their shtick is hilarious - think George and Gracie or Abbot and Costello.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Stone Fitch, a Concord-based novelist, has asked us to participate in an experiment involving his new novel, Give+Take, published by Concord Free Press.

Concord Free Press is distributing the entire 1,000 copy print run of this trade paperback novel for free - online and via a network of independent bookstores throughout New England. In exchange, the non-profit press asks only that readers make a voluntary donation to a local charity or individual in need. More details are available at their website, .

We've been shipped 25 copies to give away, first come first served. You'll find them displayed in the store. Please help yourself, read the book, make a donation, and pass it on.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Steven Niles, Zune Arts and The Lost Ones

Steven Niles, author of 30 Days of Night and the Cal MacDonald Criminal Macabre series (a horror-noir series that is one of my current favorites) has collaborated with Zune Arts to produce something very different from his usual fare; a graphic novel called The Lost Ones that tells the story of four planet jumpers from the future trying to get back to their home planet. Niles has paired artists from the illustration, design and graffiti world. Kime Buzzelli, Dr. Revolt, Gary Panter and Morning Breath each illustrates an individual chapter in their own distinctive styles.

And Zune Arts has given Porter Square Books 40 copies to give away. If you want a copy just come to the front desk and ask. Copies will be given out on a first-come-first-serve, one-per-customer basis until we run out.

Monday, September 29, 2008

sky dive

My first collection of poetry, BEASTS FOR THE CHASE, is coming out the day after tomorrow--but all I can focus on lately are "current events." Right now, that means the stock market's down, with the Dow reaching its lowest level in a year: I've been riveted all day to charts that show a plunge as spectacular as an Olympic diver's. Living in New York, and having been raised in a suburb permeated by the atmosphere of Wall Street--I still remember the grave address a history teacher gave to my seventh-grade class the morning after Black Monday--it seems impossible not to imagine I can feel the ripple of the day's market plunge in the honks of the cars outside my window, in the gray clouds that destroyed what was a beautiful autumn day just around one pm, in other words, just as the bottom began to drop out. On that happy note...anyone want to come hear me read from my novel about another lost New York City boomtime, the mid-90s club scene, this Thursday, October 2nd? It's called THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS YES.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace's suicide has drawn much deserved attention to one of the great writers of the last few decades. The news reports, obituaries, and tributes have channeled readers to him who have missed his work up until now. As a bookseller and a fan of his work, it's exciting to get to talk about him with a whole new group of readers as well as depressing knowing that there will never be a new David Foster Wallace novel.

There has been an odd trend though, in these conversations, in that I still couldn't convince people that Infinite Jest was worth buying. Most people asked for Oblivion or Consider the Lobster and I think there are two major reasons for this. The first is that most of the detailed writings about Wallace's death focused on the short-story collection Oblivion, because Oblivion contained his most depressing and death obsessed work. Whenever a creative person commits suicide, we automatically search for evidence of their mental condition in what they have created, and most of the relevant information to Wallace was—at least most obviously—in Oblivion.

The second is that, I believe, readers are still intimidated by “hard” books, especially “hard” books that are over a thousand pages long. I don't know if this is holdover from educational struggles or a result of the constant degradation of the average person's intellect (the For Dummies series for example) but there is something about works of fiction that are openly challenging that push people away. The worst that could happen in reading Infinite Jest is that you decide you don't like it and you stop. Slate ran an excellent tribute and I think one of the tributes by Jordan Ellenburg describes a great technique for reading Infinite Jest:

And so you go to work--step by step, clearing the brush, cataloging what you find there, separating what you know from what you believe, your intuition sounding at all times the nauseous alarm that somewhere you've made a mistake. And until you find the mistake, there's always a bit of hope--that your intuition is wrong, that your work isn't wasted, that what seems like a paradox really isn't one, that maybe the incompatible beliefs you hold can be satisfied all at once.

Furthermore, Infinite Jest is one of the great Boston novels. Nearly all of it takes place in the metro Boston area with jokes that only residents of metro-Boston will really get. (The Storrow 500, anyone?) For example, there is one character who carries an artificial heart with her in what looks like a purse. While she is walking in Harvard Square another character, a transvestite junkie having a really bad day, snatches her purse. She runs after him shouting “He stole my heart!” Bystanders assume it's just another Cambridge love affair gone wrong.

Most people have tried to find direct explanations for the suicide in Wallace's work, but I think there must be something indirect in Infinite Jest to explain why life now became unbearable for him. Infinite Jest was written in 1996 and the world Wallace depicted was dominated by advertising and corporate culture; environmental disintegration; and a population so obsessed and compelled by entertainment that most could be rendered completely and utterly helpless in the face of it. In the ten years between then and now, advertising has forced its way into our schools, our governments have become even more corporation friendly, and the American public has twice elected George W. Bush as our president. What must it feel like to be someone who warned us about all of these problems ten years ago? In a way David Foster Wallace has answered that question.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash a few years ago and the more the internet with its online social organization and identity anarchy grows in societal prominence the more prescient Snow Crash becomes. Along with essentially predicting Second Life, Snow Crash reaches one of those narrative spaces a lot of people don't seem to believe in. It is intelligent and fun. Its characters are fully formed, its language is intelligent, its plot is unconventional and it is as fun as any mindless entertainment bon-bon I've ever read. The same can be said for Quicksilver, the first volume in his Baroque trilogy that I'm currently reading. Did you know the conflict between Newton and Leibniz was coiled in the politics of English royalty?

His latest book Anathem is a staff pick here at the store. Below is a Stephenson widget with tons of information about Anathem. It's a treat for fans of Stephenson, plus a chance for people new to his work to get to know him. Just click on any of the six choices at the bottom of the screen below for readings, definitions, and other input from Stephenson as well as a "trailer" for the book.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Culture Wars Are Back

The Abstinence Teacher paperback couldn't be coming out at a more opportune time. The book was written in the heat of the culture war surrounding the last presidential election, when the issue of gay marriage was an obsession on the Christian Right. It had seemed during the past couple of years that the passions surrounding a lot of social issues had cooled a bit, but Sarah Palin changed all that in a matter of days. Suddenly, an election that was supposed to be post-partisan and focused on the economy looks like something else entirely--an old school battle between the Christian Right and the Liberal Left. Teen pregnancy, abortion, gay marriage, book burning--it's all back on the table. And if Sarah Palin met the characters in The Abstinence Teacher, they'd recognize each other right away. I'm looking forward to discussing the novel and the campaign tomorrow night, Thursday, September 4, at Porter Square Books.--Tom Perrotta

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Best Book You've Never Read: The Lord of the Barnyard

"There was a point at which, after the Baker/Pottville melee had wound down with the last twenty or thirty handcuffed Soderbrook poultry-plant wetbacks, Buzzard's Roost Hessians, Dowler Street trolls, and east-side Baker factory rats being crammed into Sheriff Tom Dippold's departmental paddywagons and sent on their way to the overstuffed abattoirs at Keller & Powell, the trash fires along Main St. had been hosed down and blown apart amid the smoldering wreckage of Gingerbread row, the school gymnasium had been gassed and raided by a poorly equipped and this-side-of-flabbergasted outfit of regional deputies, the general looting along Geiger had tapered off, the 3rd and Poplar riot had been subdued, an outraged pack of coal-truck operators from Ebony Steed's reservoir number six had long-since paid its ill-fated reconciliatory midnight visit to the Patokah-side river rats in a barreling steam-roller procession of Dodge rams, and the rest of the community had become so far entombed in its own excrement that even Pottville 6's newscasters were having to admit Baker appeared to be awaiting the arrival of the four horsemen—there was a point at which, in the full-pitched midst of it all, every cognizant and functioning citizen left in Green County knew exactly who and what John Kaltenbrunner was all about."

Thus begins one of the best books you've never read, Lord of the Barnyard by Tristan Egolf; a paragraph long sentence introducing us to the protagonist of the novel. Eventually some canonizer will put a list together that goes something like this: Huckleberry Finn, Captain Ahab, Jay Gatsby, and John Kaltenbrunner.

Lord of the Barnyard is the story of agricultural virtuoso John Kaltenbrunner as he struggles against a society bent on destroying him. By eight Kaltenbrunner could manage an entire farm (including pedigree chickens) without any help from the outside world and this aptitude puts him beyond the normal constraints of society. Most of us need to hold down jobs to maintain ourselves, but Kaltenbrunner just needs a plot of land, and, as a result of his natural independence, every societal force available is used to destroy him. And the town of Baker, a segregated backwater, complete with the predatory Methodist Crones did just that... for a while.

Kaltenbrunner eventually returned, and just like with farming, he excelled at every single activity he was forced to endure, with the savages of circumstance and the strict hierarchy of Baker sending him back and forth between the unemployment agency and the next low-paying humiliation. He finally ends up as a garbage collector--the rung on the societal ladder above only the in-bred, malnourished, deformed, semi-nomadic river rats--and, as always excels at that too, finishing his routes in record time and completely restructuring the archaic route system to maximize efficiency. The boost in confidence, natural leadership, and organization skills that Kaltenbrunner brings to the garbage collectors helps them organize a strike to protest the constant humiliation they endure. The end result of the strike is the scene described in the novel's opening sentence.

Beyond its wheat-thresher-driven-at-110-mph style, erupting with humor and brilliance like an exploding grain silo, three major accomplishments distinguish the Lord of the Barnyard. One is that the book examines how a character trait that's assumed always to be positive, like perseverance, is actually non-normative, having both positive and negative effects. Another is that Egolf has combined Moby-Dick and Captain Ahab into a single hero, set, not against some equal force, but against the natural mediocrity and vulnerability of society. The third is that it is one of the few novels that engages America's agricultural heritage.

We're taught in school that we should persevere. Our nation was founded on sticking to impossible projects, and we should never give up on ours. Kaltenbrunner is an archetype of perseverance. Whatever task is set for him, no matter how challenging or degrading, he sticks to it until he has mastered it. But Kaltenbrunner isn't the only entity that sticks to things in Lord of the Barnyard. Baker sticks to its outdated, racist, classist, and just plain bigoted social structure despite an economic depression and a total lack of respect from the outside world and it is only when a flaming, stinking apocalypse envelops the town that there is a picometer of change. Therefore, it is not enough to persevere, one must persevere for the right reasons.

Kaltenbrunner sets himself on one of the biggest white whales available; the structure of society itself. He attempts to bend society into an actual meritocracy, where individuals are valued for the contributions they make to society and not through some antiquated social calculus. The result is what one would expect. But society has set its sights on Kaltenbrunner, hurling as many harpoons as it can find at him, as John presents a challenge to its fundamental legitimacy. In a sense, the mere presence of Kaltenbrunner is an affront to the workings of society, as the existence of the white whale is to the consciousness of Ahab.

Finally, the character of America was really forged, not on the river, or the ocean, or in a metropolis, but on the farm. The pioneers stampeding westward weren't risking their lives to found saloons and brothels; they were stampeding for farmland. The perseverance, frugality, and ingenuity central to the American character are survival techniques for the farmer a week from the nearest town. I can think of no other literary novel that truly engages America's agricultural heritage.

Lord of the Barnyard is intellectually and stylistically original and vibrant, with Egolf pushing the prose as far and as fast as it can go while challenging major assumptions about the American character. It's fun. It's hilarious. And John Kaltenbrunner is a great American hero.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sex and the City, c.1711

I've always loved the past. Growing up in Australia I was addicted to children's historical fiction by English writers like Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease. I don't think American children read those books, but they're absolutely fantastic.When I was writing my Ph.D thesis about garbage in eighteenth-century London, I ended up feeling that the past was more familiar to me than the present.
I wanted to give other people that same feeling, and by writing a fun, sexy historical novel. I didn't want it to feel "olde" or antique -- I wanted it to read like a modern comedy of manners, a "Bridget Jones' Diary" happening three hundred years ago.
So when I started writing the Scandal of the Season I knew I had to find out what eighteenth-century dating was like, and I suspected that fashionable women in London in 1711 weren't so very different from the girls in "Sex and the City." The London of the early eighteenth century wasn't like the world of Jane Austen novels -- people hadn't yet started behaving well!
Women could receive male visitors in their bedrooms in the morning -- in fact it was fashionable to do so. Couples could travel together in carriages with the windows shades down, and get up to all sorts of mischief. Men and women met in restaurants, at masquerade balls, bath-houses and public assemblies, and could behave more or less however they wanted to. Affairs were very common both for men and women -- married people took lovers so frequently it was considered more or less a matter of course among fashionable Londoners. Rich widows were especially desirable on the dating scene. They had their own houses, they were independent and respectable, and they could entertain male guests whenever they wanted.
Men often arranged to meet prostitutes and other "low" women in the bath-houses of London; it was equally common for a man to pick up a prostitute in his carriage on a street corner, drive around the block a few times and then let her out again.
Masquerade balls were all the rage because people were entirely disguised. It was not uncommon for a man to enter into an affair with a woman thinking that she was from the upper classes, only to discover that she was a whore dressed to look like
a duchess. In 1724, a London newspaper wrote that, “fishes are caught with hooks, birds are ensnared with nets, but virgins with masquerades.”
I realized that Alexander Pope had all of this in mind when he wrote his poem "The Rape of the Lock" -- about the fashionable, wealthy "bright young things" in early eighteenth-century London. It was exactly the world I wanted to write about, and so my first novel came into being.
People often ask me whether the sex scenes and the dating behavior and the dirty words in my novel are historically accurate -- they assume they're not. But that's because we're used to BBC adaptations of Austen. This is a very different world, 100 years earlier. It's much more like our own -- sexually free, disorderly, uncontrolled -- and therefore very risky for women who are trying to make their fortunes by marrying well. All these ideas are there in "The Scandal of the Season," which made it a very exciting book to write.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Book Buzz

Recently, I found a galley on the shelves in the back of the store. Maureen Dowd wrote about this upcoming book in the New York Times, so I took it home to read. Called American Wife and written by Curtis Sittenfeld, the acclaimed author of Prep, this powerful novel tells the story of Alice Blackwell (nee Lindgren) a normal and average Wisconsin girl until tragedy strikes. Eventually, Alice meets and marries Charlie Blackwell who comes from a prominent politically connected WASP family. He turns out to be nothing more than a spoiled rich frat boy with a drug and drinking problem until he finds God and is born again. He runs for office and soon enough Alice Blackwell finds herself the First Lady of the Land, a destiny that goes well beyond her, and our, expectations. If this all sounds familiar, it should. I wonder if Laura Bush will read this book? It's getting a lot of attention and will be published in September.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Interview with Chris Adrian

Chris Adrian's "Why Antichrist?" was one of the best short stories of last year and it is being released in his new short story collection A Better Angel. This is Adrian's third book and he's already carved out a sizeable spot for himself in landscape of American letters (which I would guess he does in his spare time, because he is also a pediatrician and pursuing his master's at the Harvard Divinity School.) His second book The Children's Hospital was a massive retelling of the great flood that broached a moral spectrum most writers shy away from. Here is an interview with him in the current issue of Bookslut: Chris Adrian Interview.
Joan Wickersham, author of The Suicide Index, was recently awarded a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and will be speaking here at the bookstore tomorrow, Thursday 8/7, at 7 pm. A link to the Council's blog is included here,, where you will find an interview with Joan about, among other things, her use of an index "structure" to tell the story of her father's suicide. Please plan to be on hand to hear Joan for yourself. It will be memorable.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How To Read Ulysses at Nerd Nite

Nerd Nite might be one of the coolest intellectual events in the metro Boston area. Basically, people who are passionate about some topic, in my case books, give Power Point presentations at a bar about their topic. The event features up to three different presentations. This Friday, August 1 at around 9 pm at the Midway Cafe, 3496 Washington St. in Jamaica Plain, I will be giving a presentation called "How to Read Ulysses." Ulysses is of course James Joyce's massive masterpiece that too often gets used as a shelf-spacer than as a novel. If you've never read it but have always wanted to this is a great chance to get the skills you need to finally get through it. If you have read it, this is your chance to heckle someone in a bar... about Ulysses. Is there a better way to spend a Friday night? There is a $3 cover charge but along with three presentations there will also be live bands. For the full August 1 line-up and for more information about Nerd Nite please visit Nerd Nite's Google Group, here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

And Justice For All

I find myself muddling through questions about 'Justice' these days. And maybe it's just justice systems that have me muddled.

It started with a book called Child 44 by Tom Smith (Hachette). The story is about a serial killer in the time of Stalin's rule in Russia. It is roughly based on the real serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, and is set in the 1950's. What could be just another serial killer story line (how jaded we've become) is wound around the horrors of the Stalinist concept of society and 'justice'. There was no crime in the perfect Russian state. So how could there be a serial killer!
But all citizens were treated as criminals. The hero and heroine find themselves on the wrong side of this very warped system and are hunted as if they were the killers, not the person they were pursuing.

In the midst of this novel, to relieve the stress , I picked up The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi (Grand Central Publishing). Not quite the light reading I imagined. It seems that Mr. Preston and family decided to move to Florence early in the new century so he could write his next novel.
He found himself more interested in an old unsolved serial murder case and investigated and wrote about it with the help of his co-author, an Italian journalist. During the course of their investigating and interviewing, they themselves came under the scrutiny of the Italian justice system. Preston was jailed, and upon release, hustled out of the country. Spezi was then hassled and ultimately arrested for the murders! It took an international effort to get him released.

Again, all citizens are treated as criminals. And this in a 'modern democratic' society!

I'm still looking for a little light reading!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Jack Kerouac's "specific elsewhere"

My book group just wrapped up our close reading of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. It was fascinating to see just how much depth the book has beyond the adolescent energy that most people talk about. In this reading of On the Road two things stood out to me in particular; the idea of Sal Paradise as "gonzo journalist" and Kerouac's concept of a "specific elsewhere."

"Gonzo Journalism" is mostly associated with Hunter S. Thompson and is a kind of journalism where the journalist is intimately involved with whatever is being written about, with the piece ultimately being as much about the journalist as about whatever was supposed to be reported on. (Desert race anyone?) In On the Road, Sal reports on two major entities, Dean Moriarity and America. In reporting Dean, Sal presents all of Dean's wild antics, his great rants, and his "digging" and in doing so Sal both creates and destroys one of the great mythological figures in American literature. In reporting America, Sal takes great care to give us a picture of everywhere he went and everywhere he drove through, building a portrait of the country through the accumulation of snapshots. On the Road is also filled with great Whitmanesque lists of the people of America. Juxtaposing these two subjects makes On the Road a book about the closing of the frontier. Both Dean and America vibrate with the energy of pioneers and the commitment to be always in a state of going where no one has ever gone before. But America has gone as far as it's going to go. There is no frontier left so that pioneering energy is turned in on itself, reverberating into the perversity of Wild West shows and eastern businessmen stuffing themselves into cowboy costumes. That same perversion of energy happens to Dean as well. He bounces from coast to coast, from place to place, leaving wreckage and wives everywhere he goes. In one moment this energy turns him into a godly hero and in the next it leaves him a raving madman. In a sense On the Road is an elegy to the frontier, a long wild wake for an American identity we have yet to replace.

Near the end of the book, when Sal, Dean, and Stan are in southern Texas, Kerouac uses the phrase "a specific elsewhere," and that described, to me at least, exactly where Sal and Dean were trying to go. A "specific elsewhere" is a paradoxical space in that the characters always know exactly where they are going—they're going to Denver, or New York, or Italy, or Mexico City, or "It"—and yet the place they are seeking is an inaccessible higher plane of existence that turns every arrival into the first step towards the next departure. Two techniques are presented as solutions to the paradox of the "specific elsewhere;" Dean's and Sal's. Dean's technique is to keep moving. Mexico City might be paradise but after three days, it's deficiencies in comparison to that higher plane of existence reveal themselves and push him on. Sal, however, creates a "specific elsewhere" through the writing of On the Road. By writing down his experiences, Sal creates a specific environment-- the words of the novel-- and in doing so creates The Denver, The San Francisco, The Texas, of his experience; he creates a place of inherent meaning, inherent it-ness. However, because it's a novel, its meaning has a level of flux and The Denver or The San Francisco will always be different to every reader and on every subsequent read.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

New England Crime Bake Mystery Writer/Reader Conference

If you're a fan of mystery and are looking for a conference to attend this year, check out the New England CrimeBake ( It's a great conference put on by the New England Chapters of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters In Crime. Now in it's seventh year the Crime Bake has attracted some great keynote speakers such as Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, and Lee Child. This year's keynote is Harlan Coben. The conference is November 14 through the 16th in Dedham, MA .

If you're interested you should register as soon as possible. The conference also offers a full Friday evening agenda with a pizza party, master classes, and manuscript evaluations also being offered (additional fees may apply for some events). The website contains information about registration and fees.

Don't overlook the downloadable Pitch Tip Sheet as the highlight of the conference is, of course, your own one-on-one pitch to a literary agent.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Josh Barkan and the Literature of Failure

Of all the topics available to writers, failure might be the most rarely written about, and it's not hard to guess why. Even the most depressing topics; war, death, squalor, hate, fascism, prejudice, etc, allow for some kind of victory for the protagonist and provide a payoff for the reader. Regardless of what happens, these topics always allow for progress and improvement, so that, at the end of the work the reader feels as though the characters got something out of the experience.

But for an author to accurately explore failure, that progress can't happen, because once some kind of success is gained from the events that presentation of failure is compromised. You can't call a protagonist a failure if he or she gets something from his or her experiences. Furthermore, there's no moment of payoff for the reader, no event in the book where the reader can say "This is what we're supposed to get from the book," and no emotional release from the struggles of the protagonist. The reader has to find some way to develop through reading about failure, rather than through any provided epiphanies from the protagonist or the author. So writers tend to avoid the topic, so much so that I can only think of three protagonists I've read that are true failures.

First is Tyrone Slothrop from Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. In the beginning it is believed that Slothrop has some powerful psychological connection to the rocket development program in Germany. He's recruited as a spy, sent into Germany, subjected to psychological testing, and by the end, well, he's an unshaven grifter (at most) whose story concludes long before the end of the novel.

The next is George Harvey Bone from Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square. Bone is a decent somewhat likeable, but ultimately pathetic character who is a borderline alcoholic with a split-personality. He becomes enraptured with Netta, a selfish, manipulative, would-be actress who strings Bone along for free drinks. Ultimately, Bone's melancholy conquers both of his personalities and his suicide is made all the more poignant by the glimmer of kindness that Bone still shows, by asking for someone to watch his cat in his suicide note. This kindness, though, was always in Bone, and he neither woke up to Netta's maliciousness nor developed as a person through his struggles against alcohol and mental illness.

Then there is Hal Incandenza from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Hal Incandenza is an intelligent, talented, tennis prodigy with a wildly dysfunctional family. When the novel opens we meet Hal after some kind of major mental breakdown. At a college interview, most likely his last chance at getting into any college, all his attempts to talk come out as incomprehensible screaming. The story then follows Hal (and dozens of others) through the events that lead up to Hal's breakdown, but we never see the direct cause. The book ends before the moment of Hal's breakdown and readers can only guess at what ultimately happened. So not only is Hal denied any chance of redemption, but there is also no way to evaluate the breakdown in terms of its ultimate cause.

Josh Barkan's first novel Blind Speed, and his protagonist Paul Berger enter this slim shelf in literature. Paul is a drummer but his band didn't quite make it; is a teacher, but he couldn't get tenure at a community college; and is a writer, though he's never finished, let alone, published anything. He happens into a New Age retreat while researching gun-shows in the Midwest, and gets a portentous (and accurate) palm reading from a guru named "Buffalo Man." Paul flounders throughout the novel, yet he never really does anything wrong. He takes his fiance to a reenactment in Concord, MA and she is wounded in a freak accident. He does copious amounts of interesting research for a book (about the modern American response to failure), but never even gets the first chapter done. He solicits the help of a ghostwriter, who turns some of Paul's research into an article on Jackie O, that never gets published. He is kidnapped by group of fake eco-terrorists as a political ploy to bolster his brother's Congressional campaign, and his attempt to expose his corrupt brother is brushed off by the media as the wailings of an emotionally broken, jealous young man. He returns to Buffalo Man to exorcise the palm reading but does not complete the tests Buffalo Man sets for him.

In all of this Blind Speed raises another issue you don't see broached much in literature; one can be a good person, always try one's best, have good intentions, and still fail. For some reason, some people don't have what it takes to succeed and exploring this idea makes Blind Speed a challenging, often uncomfortable read. Barkan mitigates this challenge by making the book very funny, by making Paul charming (if a little pathetic), and by engaging intelligently with contemporary politics. However, he doesn't let readers get away from the fact that one can do everything right and still end up baffled by life and its consequences. Josh Barkan will be reading at Porter Square Books on July 17th at 7pm. You can read more about Josh at his blog Josh Barkan: Blind Speed.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Unfortunates

I finished reading The Unfortunates, B. S. Johnson's unbound experimental novel, and in doing so, finished an amazing reading experience. The novel follows the narrator in a quasi-familiar city on a hack sports writing assignment. Soon after arriving in the city, he realizes it's familiar because he's been there before, only in the context of his friend Tony, who died of cancer. The primary action of the novel is the narrator's attempt to write the assigned article and to remember Tony.

The chapters in the novel are unbound and, with the exception of the first and the last, can be read in any order. This format looks radically experimental, but given that the primary action is memory, this format is far more accurate in terms of how memory is experienced than anything rigidly linear. Memory rarely maintains chronology. We compress multiple events into singular events, stretch singular events into multiple events, shuffle the order of events, and forget them completely. Traditional narrative is the least accurate representation of memory. So, not only does Johnson's unbound organization challenge the physical definition of a "book" or a "novel," it also mimics the fundamental action of the book. This problem of memory is reinforced as, over and over again, the narrator revises the events, questions his memory of the events, and deduces forgotten memories rationally from subsequent sequences.

Without a linear narrative, many traditional storytelling techniques aren't available. Johnson can't foreshadow anything. His narrator can't progress. There can be no chapter to chapter set ups and payoffs. There can be no mysteries in the plot and no accumulative thematic explorations. However, the random order that I read the chapters in still felt natural. At one point I thought to myself that a particular theme was set up very well, when that wasn't the case at all. The individual chapters are so well written and so thematically cohesive that details can function as both set-ups and pay-offs or as the introduction of a theme and the elaboration of a theme. The word-for-word writing skill necessary to pull off such hyper-cohesion is dazzling.

Along with that cohesion the novel displays a breathtaking universality. It's accurate to say that The Unfortunates is about memory or about cancer, but as the narrator remembers and observes, the story manages to be about everything else as well. When the narrator describes the state of the soccer stadium, he is also describing the destructive greed pervasive in professional sports. When the narrator grumbles about the popular newspaper reporters, he is also grumbling about media's willingness to pander to the public. When he struggles to write his article about the boring soccer match, he shows the struggle everyone goes through when doing a job they don't love. And in his hands cancer not only becomes the disease devouring his friend, but also the affliction that defines modern society; the slightly altered body, destroying itself.

This new edition presents as accurately as possible Johnson's vision for the novel, with epigraphs from Lawrence Sterne and Samuel Beckett on the inside of the box. The introduction by Jonathan Coe sets the book in its historical context, while providing the reader with a structure for interpretation. The box even includes a copy of the article that brought Johnson to the city in the first place. The Unfortunates is literature at its best with the experimentation driven by the author's attempt to more accurately portray the complexities of human life in words. Johnson has earned himself a place among the English language's great modern writers for creating it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Legend at PSB

The staff of PSB is universally excited that legendary musician Al Kooper will be with us this evening at 7pm...He has worked in the music industry for FIFTY years starting when he was a mere lad of 14 in New York.  And, as many know, he has worked with giant talents such as Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Stephen Stills and The Rolling Stones.  Besides being a brilliant musician Al is a great storyteller and we look forward to hearing his insights, thoughts and experiences.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


The American Booksellers Association at this year's Book Expo America launched a new initiative called IndieBound that taps into the growing national localism movement. The IndieBound website is a gateway for the entire indie community with access to The Declaration of IndieBound manifesto, the Indie Next List, Indie Bestsellers, and merchandise, with more functions to come.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Boston, Real City destined not to join the Wasteland

This post to Porter Square's blog is in advance of my in-store reading next Monday from "Prescription for a Superior Existence," a new novel about a pleasure-addicted man who gets caught up in an anti-desire religion called PASE.

At the risk of sounding like a bad stand-up comedian ("Hello, Cleveland!"), I want to say first that I love Boston. Deeply and sincerely. My sister went to college in your fair city, so as a teenager I visited several times from northern California to marvel at your architecture and sense of history and fearless accents.

One thing I parcticularly liked was that you didn't worry about earthquakes, the specter of which haunted me, when in school our quarterly dive-under-your-desk drills had nothing to do with communism and everything to do with plate tectonics. I envied you very much and wished I could go to school in Boston when my time came.

For your sake it's best that I didn't. A big quake hit in 1989 that leveled large parts of Santa Cruz, where I would matriculate in a couple of years. Later I went to graduate school in Iowa City, which is 20 miles away from Cedar Rapids and currently half-devastated from flooding (I happen to be here today, in fact). From Iowa City I moved to New Orleans, where I was living in 2005 when Katrina struck. All this is to say that recently I, like Robert Oppenheimer, have had reason to quote from the Bhagavad Gita, "Now I am become Shiva, the destroyer of worlds."

Perhaps, though, I am less like Shiva than Jonah, and the world's metaphorical waters will calm once I mend my ways or am thrown overboard. A similar question can be asked about the hero of "PASE," Jack Smith, whose interest in the book's eponymous religion arises when news about climate change begins to penetrate his consciousness, and reports about extreme weather and shapeshifting glaciers and extinct species begin to suggest that something is wrong with the planet that only he can fix.

Now comes the reassuring part. Any resemblance I have to Shiva or Jonah is entirely in my head. Not necessarily so in Jack's case. I encourage you, therefore, to come to the store on Monday to hear about how in fiction, if not in real life, our planet's turbulent future might be steadied, at least for a while. It would be an honor to see you there.

Josh Emmons

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Comfort books

We read books for so many reasons: for entertainment, enlightenment, information, thrills, amusement, inspiration, escape. But when the world is topsy-turvy and novelty seems utterly undesirable, books can bring comfort.

Lately I've been reading my comforting books, the books I grew up reading, which are old friends that have served me well long into adulthood.

Madeleine L'Engle's "Time" series tops the list, and gives me something new to think about -- about the nature of time, the universe, human relationships, good and evil -- each time I revisit them. These books were spellbinding when I first read them over 20 years ago, and even after a dozen more readings, they still elicit the same thrill.

I also reread Harriet the Spy, a classic that seems both timeless and nostalgic. What 11-year-old child can wander around Manhattan so freely these days? It makes me wish for my very own Ole Golly.

Next, I think I'll go back to my favorite Roald Dahl book, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, Edward Eager's Knight's Castle, and Tove Jansson's Finn Family Moomintroll. They're all childhood books that aren't the least bit childish, that absorb my heart and my head in equal measure, and that serve as touchstones I can go back to again and again.

What are your comfort books?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Thoughts on BEA 2008

Five of us from PSB winged our way to Los Angeles on May 28th to attend BookExpo America. I had never been to a book trade show so my expectations were high and filled with curiosity. Our American Airlines flight was packed and the six-hour plus trip interminable. But we arrived in sunny Southern California and found our way to Hollywood, where we were to stay for four days of hard work, good fun and discovery.

The four days in LA were quite eye opening and I learned a great deal about bookmaking, bookselling and booksellers. I found most book people to be enthusiastic, mildly competitive and most importantly totally involved and in love with their work. The educational meetings arranged by the American Booksellers Association (independent booksellers) were most enlightening and it was a treat to hear events organizers express their experiences, thoughts and ideas. One workshop discussed green retailing, now seen more than ever as an important part of customer service.

Besides meeting many authors, the most extraordinary thing was the reception I received when I mentioned I was from PSB. All the publishers, authors, and publicists heaped praise upon the store and were infinitely positive. Often I would hand a publicist our press kit then launch in to my spiel about how great our store was and invite them for a visit. It was heartwarming to know how respected and appreciated PSB is by so many people.

We all attended many author breakfasts, lunches and some dinners. For one breakfast Eoin Cofler was a brilliant MC and we were regaled with stories by such authors as Sherman Alexie, Neil Gaiman and Judy Blume.

Thomas Friedman from the NY Times spoke; his new book will debut in August. Entitled, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America. It is described as a, “manifesto for our climate-challenged future". We all shuddered at what he had to say.

We had the great good fun of seeing our old colleague Emily Pullen, who now lives in LA and works at the Skylight Book store.

There were sightings of many authors; Jane had a glimpse of Barbara Walters signing her autobiography, Audition. I literally bumped into singer Dionne Warwick, who has written a children’s book. Local authors Dennis Lehane, Julia Glass and MT Anderson attended as well. All in all this was a fascinating experience and well worth the effort.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Next week I'm leaving on a cross country road trip. My traveling companion and myself have been planning this trip for just over a year, so I have to say I'm really ready to hit the road and see where it takes us. In order to sustain my excitement for the road trip I started reading cross country travel books- stuff like On the Road, even though I didn't read that particular book. I did read and enjoy Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins a non-fiction book about Jenkins' walk from Alfred, NY to Mobile, AL accompanied by his dog in the 1970's. It takes him over a year to walk that distance while stopping to work along the way. He first walks to D.C. where he talks to National Geographic about his trip. They give him a camera and ask him to photograph and write about his experiences en route and submit the results for possible publication in the magazine. This book made me want to get up and go, leave tomorrow, no planning-nothing just see who I would meet and where I would go. Jenkins met some very interesting people along the way, all local American folk, but each with a lot of character.
Next I read William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways. Very different from Walk Across America, but with a few similarities, this trip takes us to different parts of the country and talks about his search for long lost dead relatives ( now buried under a reservoir). He travels from town to town on only the little back roads and choosing towns based on names like, Nowhere, TN. "Life doesn't happen along the interstates. It's against the law." This has been a bit of an inspiration for us, confirming our decision to keep to the 2 lane roads and avoid any sort of chain store or restaurant. By keeping our travels confined to local and rural America we have a better chance of meeting a diverse group of people.
I also re-read one of my favorite books the Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. This book has been an inspiration to me since my high school days. It has always affirmed my belief that living unconventionally is OK and though it requires hard work it spawns true adventure. Set in the 1920's, Larry is expected to marry Marr, settle down and work at a law firm or brokerage. But having witnessed death up close in the last war Larry is inclined to "loaf" which isn't as easy as it sounds. He is always striving to educate himself, reading classics in their native language. In some ways his travels are a search for god, or at least a higher understanding of the universe. He goes to India and studies under a guru until he reaches enlightenment and then gives up his small fortune to drive cabs in New York. I think in some ways I search for the spirit of this book in my own travels, that sense that anything is possible even when frowned upon.
See you in a few months!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Smithsonian Magazine

Smithsonian Magazine is a great general interest monthly magazine. Each issue features articles about events in American history, world or environmental issues, science or nature, travel, and art and culture. The current issue, June 2008, has pieces on Great White Sharks, the almost civil war with the Mormons in Utah, the golfer John Montague, and small private museums in Europe, as well as shorter pieces about artifacts at the Smithsonian Institute, sightings of rare species, and musical and artistic culture from around the world.

One of the founders of Smithsonian Magazine, Edward K. Thompson, a former editor at Life describes his vision for the magazine this way:

The magazine I envisioned would stir curiosity in already receptive minds. It would deal with history as it is relevant to the present. It would present art, since true art is never dated, in the richest possible reproduction. It would peer into the future via coverage of social progress and of science and technology. Technical matters would be digested and made intelligible by skilled writers who would stimulate readers to reach upward while not turning them off with jargon. We would find the best writers and the best photographers.

The variety of topics means that there's always something of interest in every issue and the writers are nearly always successful in imbuing whatever they are writing about with a sense of importance. Each issue also presents a range of article length and depth so there are pieces perfect for passing time in a waiting room or on the train and pieces perfect for an afternoon of reading at the cafe. Furthermore, the magazine is a great resource for people who have a general interest in history or art or science but aren't so focused as to seek out specialty magazines.

Because of its scope and accessibility, Smithsonian is a great magazine to flip through if you have no idea what you want to read.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cook's Companions from Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and No Reservations, is my favorite food writer. What I like most about his work is that rather than trying to tantalize readers with illicit descriptions of food, like much of what passes for food "journalism" on the Food Network, or assassinating careers like so much food criticism tends to do, Bourdain writes to convey an overall experience that has its source in food. He seeks an expansion of awareness and consciousness and the vehicle for that expansion is food.

It's a very literary perspective, so when he lists his favorite food books in The Nasty Bits, I put them right on the pile. Here are his four "cook's companions" in his own words:

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell was a revelation to me when I first turned its pages. Within I encountered Orwell's descriptions of his life as a plongeur (dishwasher) and prep cook at the pseudonymous Hotel 'X' in 1920s Paris and of his later misadventures at an undercapitalized and slightly shady bisto.

Nicolas Freeling's The Kitchen takes place in the late 1940s Grand Hotels in France. Describing his rise from lowly commis to chef, the author creates lovingly detailed portraits of chefs, sauciers, grillardins, entremetiers, patissiers, and commis. For its enduring relevance and accuracy to the world of cooks, Freeling's entertaining, near-perfect re-creation might just as well have been written today.

The king-hell, jumbo foodie bible, however, the Talmud and Dead Sea Scrolls combined, has to be Emile Zola's gargantuan masterwork, The Belly of Paris. This is a work of fiction set in the then spanking new central market of nineteenth-century Paris, Les Halles...Zola describes an entire universe of food, traveling through the bowels of the marketplace, describing, beautifully at times, the live poultry markets, the fishmongers, the produce vendors, butchers, charcutiers, and market gardeners of that time. Once again, the reader will be surprised by how little has changed.

Finally, there's David Blum's painfully hilarious Flash in the Pan, a savage and painstakingly documented account of the life and death of an American restaurant...It's an invaluable book for anyone who's ever opened a restaurant, or worked to open a restauraunt, and a cautionary tale, filled with the kind of hubris, stupidity, vanity, and desperation many of us may have seen, at one time or another, in our own checkered careers.

I would also add Bourdain's book A Cook's Tour to that list. He may have made his name with the tell-all Kitchen Confidential, but he writes as a true artist in the essays that make up A Cook's Tour.

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