Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Interview with Victor Lavalle

The Big Machine, Victor Lavalle's second novel and third book, is a brilliant exploration of class, race, doubt and faith. This is all covered through the story of Ricky Rice, a recovering heroin addict who, at the beginning of the story, is cleaning a bus stop bathroom in Utica NY. He receives a mysterious envelope with a note that references a promise he made in the past and a bus ticket to Burlington, VT of all places. From there he gets recruited into an organization known as "The Unlikely Scholars" who work for the Washburn Library. From the first page, the story develops a vibrant weirdness as you learn that Ricky's new job is to scan newspaper articles for evidence of a "Voice", that he was raised in and is the lone survivor of a radical Christian cult, and that he and the mysterious Gray Lady must team up against the messianic Solomon Clay. Lavalle has a brilliant ear for detail and is able to invest this wild and weird story with the pace of a page-turning thriller. Below is an interview with Victor Lavalle.

Ricky Rice is a recovering heroin addict. What do you think the recovering addict as hero can teach our society?

It's important that Ricky has a rough past--heroin addiction, petty crime, survivor of a religious cult--because I wanted to write a book about second chances. I can never really get into the books with heroes or heroines who've never done one thing wrong in their lives. Always virtuous, always kind. Even Jesus lost his temper once in a while!

So in the case of Ricky I wanted to write about the kind of person that many would think can never be redeemed. A person who's messed up so often that it's just become the norm. He and the Gray Lady have both hurt themselves and others in countless ways, but they work hard to turn their lives around during the course of this novel. And if folks like them can do it, then maybe readers will feel like they've got a little more incentive to change their lives for the better too. I know it sounds a little cheesy, but I think it's great when a serious piece of literature also offers readers some hard won optimism.

Do cults, whether fictitious like the Washerwomen (and to an extent The Unlikely Scholars) or real teach us anything universal about humanity or human society?

Human beings like to join groups. Human beings need community. Hell, even those totally anti-social teenagers at the mall all hang out in a clump while they glower at the rest of us and dismiss us as sheep! So if it's a natural human impulse then the real question is about when is that impulse good for us and when is it destructive? Sometimes the distinction isn't so easy to make. Even good institutions, wonderful groups, can be warped by bad leadership. And even groups that are dismissed as strange or even evil can offer profound wisdom to the rest of us. I wanted to write about two people, a man and a woman, who find themselves in this kind of tug of war. And I hoped that their struggle might reflect the very personal struggles each of us faces from time to time and even the kind of struggle that whole societies encounter.

One of the Washerwomen concludes a chapter by saying, "Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men." What is our society's relationship to doubt? Is there a politics of doubt or a spirituality of doubt?

I've been very happy that people have locked on to that saying, that idea. Partly because it's one of the central ideas of the novel, but also because it allows us to have a discussion about what doubt actually means. I like to think that doubt is one of the greatest tools we have as we try our best not to be swayed by chaos and insanity in this world. Some folks think of doubt as a negative, no other way to interpret it, but I just think they're wrong.

If there's a politics of doubt or a spirituality of doubt it might be summed up as: you've got common sense, don't you? Well use it! And not just on what others say, but on what we think/presume we know about the world as well. There are so many assumptions I was raised with, ideas that I took on as my own simply because people I loved told me they were true. But as I got older, I had to learn to make up my own mind. And sometimes I had to discover that the things I'd been taught were just incorrect. I had to doubt even some of my most basic beliefs and then go out and form my own. It's difficult work, but worthwhile.

Do you believe there is a "Voice" of some kind whose statements can be discerned by observing the world?

There's a great book I read a while ago called The Roots of Christian Mysticism. It's by Olivier Clement. The book is really a kind of anthology, collected writings of early Christian mystics. There's one line that jumped out at me when I first read it and stayed with me ever since: the universe is the first Bible.

I know how that's going to sound to some folks! More traditional Christians will see it as some kind of slander against the "real" Bible and people who have no stomach for religious conversation will roll their eyes and say, Why does he have to bring this nonsense up? But the heart of my novel is about wrestling with questions exactly like the one you've asked. I'd like to think that this book is, in part, a long narrative that tries to answer that question. I do believe there is a voice. The trick is for me to shut up long enough that I might actually hear it. I'm still working on that part.

There has been a lot of press about the year in publishing, with dozens of major authors all publishing books within weeks of each other. Do you think this has been good for books, bad for books, or something else?

I can't speak for the business side of things because I don't have that kind of access. I can only speak about how the year, particularly the second half of the year has been for me. My publisher slated Big Machine for release in late August and I thought this was a great idea. A chance to catch the last of the summer readers and to get a jump start on the fall. Plus, it had been about seven years since my last novel, The Ecstatic, so I was excited to get this novel out there, reintroduce myself.

Then I got the news that this little writer named Thomas Pynchon was coming out with a novel about a week before mine. And that a few other folks were going to be publishing in the fall too: Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Lethem, E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Atwood, Richard Powers. At a certain point I expected to hear that Ralph Ellison had risen from the grave because he'd finally finished up his second novel in the afterlife and he just had to share it this fall!

In other words, part of me worried that the trumpet blasts for all these folks were going to drown out my own. But, I'm a stubborn bastard. And I had a lot of faith in my novel. I felt like it could take on all comers. Nevertheless, I admit I held my breath. So the fact that you're talking with me now, talking about my book, many months after it came out is part of why I've been breathing easier. The year has been great because Big Machine folks have been digging it. Each time someone tells me they picked up the book because some friend read it and loved it I'm reminded that word-of-mouth is a gift. One I deeply appreciate. Big Machine is the wildest book published this year and that could've been a real weakness, but happily that's turned out to be one of its greatest strengths.

I hear you're going to Antarctica. What will you be doing there?

I'm going to Antarctica with my girlfriend. She's a writer as well. Her name is Emily Raboteau. She's working on her next novel and a portion of the book takes places on an ice breaker in Antarctica. She's the adventurous type so rather than just research the experience she decided she wanted to experience the experience. And, lucky me, I get to tag along. So she'll be taking notes for that book and I'm planning to work on a short novel that I plan to be done with early in 2010. But most of all we'll just be trying to appreciate the fact that we're enjoying such a rare and unlikely trip.

What books are you going to bring with you?

I'm trying to plan that out now, actually. I'm going to be bringing a whole load of Ambrose Bierce, including a biography called Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. I'm working on an essay/appreciation about the man--one of my literary heroes and look forward to the chance to dive in. Also The New Oxford Annotated Bible. I've never read the Bible straight through but about a year ago some very smart people suggested I should. Why would you put your faith in something you haven't actually read? That was the idea. They said to try a chapter a day so it wouldn't be so daunting and I've been trying. So far I'm up to Deuteronomy so I've got a ways to go! I'd like to knock out a couple of books while I'm sailing toward the Antarctic Peninsula.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Signed Books

Still struggling for a last minute gift. We still have signed copies of The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, Day After Night by Anita Diamant, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow, and The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell. We also have signed books by Mary Gordon, Pete Dexter, Aleksander Hemon, Kate Christensen, Ha Jin, Patricia Cornwell and others. Please call us at 617-491-2220 to reserve your copy. You can pay over the phone and have the book wrapped and shipped.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Three Books from 2009 You Might Have Missed

With the deluge of major authors publishing books this year, it was inevitable that good books by less famous people would fall through the cracks. Here are my three favorite new books of the year, all of which deserved a lot more attention than they got.

Ulysses and Us by Declan Kiberd. Kiberd believes that Joyce wrote Ulysses for everyone who can read and that it was kidnapped by scholars and specialists obsessed with elucidating Homeric parallels, instead of learning about the best way to live one's life. Kiberd believes that Ulysses is a hard book to read because life is hard to live and that everybody who tries to read it, will get something out of it. Kiberd then does a close reading of Ulysses, drawing ideas about life from the story. Someone familiar with Ulysses will appreciate Kiberd's interesting and original conclusions. Someone who's never read it, will get a handy introduction to its general ideas as well as a healthy dose of confidence. Regardless, the two introductory essays are worth the price of admission as both are brilliant explorations of the role of literature in society.

Everything Matters by Ron Currie Jr. The hero of Everything Matters, Junior Thibodeau, is told by an unidentified voice, in utero, the exact moment when the world will end. Then Junior lives his life with this knowledge. He is an intelligent young man and, with the Voice's help along the way, he is able to accomplish some remarkable things. But this knowledge always hangs over him covering every action and event in his life in a deep shadow. Within this conceit, Currie also manages to tell a unique and heartfelt family saga. What might be most remarkable about this novel is how it avoids all the potential failures such a plot contains. Currie is able to make a statement about life without being sappy or banal and to close the novel with a beautiful image of family that is touching without being saccharine or pandering.

The Big Machine by Victor Lavalle. The hero of this story, recovering heroin addict Ricky Rice, is plucked from a job cleaning toilets by an organization called the Washburn Library to become an Unlikely Scholar. From the first page, the story develops a vibrant weirdness as you learn that Ricky's new job is to scan newspaper articles for evidence of a "Voice," that he was raised in and is the lone survivor of a radical Christian cult, and that he and the mysterious Gray Lady must team up against the messianic Solomon Clay. Lavalle has a brilliant ear for detail and is able to invest this story about class, race, faith, and doubt with the pace of a page-turning thriller. This novel was, rightly, selected by Publishers Weekly as one of their top 10 books of the year and though it may be bumped off other end of the year lists by the big names, years from now 2009 might be remembered as the year The Big Machine was published. Look forward to an interview with Victor Lavalle on this blog some time in the new year.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Single Man

Opening in theaters this week, though apparently not yet locally, is a greatly anticipated new film starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore - A Single Man based on a novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood. The University of Minnesota Press has just reissued a movie tie-in edition of the novel and has relaunched a number of other Isherwood titles a selection of which are now in store including Prater Violet and Christopher and His Kind. Also currently in stock is the New Directions edition of Berlin Stories.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Holiday Wish Lists the online presence of the American Bookseller's Association offers a whole bunch of resources for book lovers and the people who buy them presents. Not only do they offer suggested reading lists, an iPhone App, and a live Ask Indies service via Twitter, they now also offer a Wish List function. With an IndieBound Wish List you can show your friends and family the books you're hoping to get this holiday season, add notes for more information, and direct them to your favorite indie bookstore. You can also use the Wish List to organize a book drive for a local library, school, or other charity.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Magical San Francisco

Once upon a time I read a lot of the subgenre know as "urban fantasy" -- stories of fantasy elements set in the mundane world and not necessarily "urban" at all. Gradually however, I left behind these tales of elves on motorcycles and dragon-run gambling dens. Aside from becoming too similar these books were either too mundane or not mundane enough; either the magical denizens were hopelessly prosaic, treating their mythical heritages as little more than glorifed college degrees or they moved through the contempary world like greek gods untouched and untroubled by the world around them.

So it was with no little surprise that I found myself reading Rosemary and Rue by Seana McGuire, a novel of faeries living and dying in modern San Francisco. Reading the prologue I was captivated with the narrator, a minor faerie struggling to maintain a precarious balance between a dangerous and wonderful magical world and a mundane existence that she -- and by extension I -- genuinely cared for. This heroine, eccentrically named October Daye, suffers such an outrageous and unexpected fate before chapter one that I was compelled to read on.

Published as an inexpensive paperback (a welcome bucking of publishing tradition), Rosemary and Rue is a fun, fast read with good characters, an overabundance of action, some great faerie elements, and a satisfyingly noir ending. Two sequels are due in 2010, giving Seana McGuire a flying start into the crowded urban fantasy landscape.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Going Rouge

On sale today is a welcome antidote to all of the media frenzy surrounding Sarah Palin's book Going Rogue. Going Rouge is a collection of essays put together by two senior editors of The Nation, Richard Kim and Betsy Reed, that examines how and why Palin is able to garner such enduring attention. Contributors include Max Blumenthal, Jeff Sharlet, Naomi Klein, Tom Perrotta, Eve Ensler, Gloria Steinem, Frank Rich, Robert Reich, Thomas Frank, Jane Mayer, Katha Pollitt and others.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Madras Press

We've just received the first selection of titles from Madras Press, a local Brookline publisher that puts out short works (short stories and novellas) in an attractive, 5"x5" format. The idea of the press is to find a home for short works that stand on their own but get ignored by commercial publishers, either because they're too long for magazines or too short for trade book length. In addition, the proceeds of each book will be donated to a charitable organization chosen by the author.

The first four titles are The Third Elevator by Aimee Bender, Sweet Tomb by Trinie Dalton, A Mere Pittance by Sumanth Prabhaker, and Bobcat by Rebecca Lee.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

One of My Deserted Island Books

Everyone who loves books has played the "If you could only take 5 books with you to a deserted island, what would they be?" game. One of mine is The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo. I first discovered Vallejo's poetry in an anthology called Conductors of the Pit, a collection of surrealist poetry translated and edited by Clayton Eshelman. It's one of the best poetry anthologies I've ever found and has also introduced me to Aime Cesaire and Vladimir Holan. But Vallejo stood out even among them. He stands out among everybody. His work so moved me that I bought both the hardcover and the paperback editions of The Complete Poetry (the hardcover to be safe at home on a shelf and the paperback to be thrown in bags and taken to coffee shops).


I have dreamed of a flight. And I have dreamed of
your silks strewn about the bedroom.
Along a pier, some mother;
and her fifteen years breast-feeding an hour.

I have dreamed of a flight. A 'forever and ever'
whispered on the ladder to a prow;
I have dreamed of a mother;
and some fresh sprigs of greenery,
and the aurora-constellated trousseau.

Along a pier...
And along a throat that is drowning!"

Vallejo's poetry tends to work through tangential images, by developing a comfortable flow and tone and then smashing them from the side with an image. You go from "fresh sprigs of greenery," to "the aurora-constellated trousseau." It's a unique effect--something I've never found in any other work--as my brain practically splits in half trying to follow the energy of the language.

This daring approach to poetry leads Vallejo to completely uncharted literary waters and produces groundbreaking poem after ground breaking poem.

"Of the Earth


--If I loved you...what then?
--An orgy!
--And if he loved you?
It would be
all rituary, but not as sweet.

And if you loved me?
The shadow would suffer
a deserved defeat by your little nuns.

Do whiplashes serpentize,
when the dog loves its master?
--No; but the light is ours.
You're sick...Go away...I need to sleep!

(Under the vesperal poplar grove
the blare of roses is stifled).
--Off you go, girls, quickly...
Already the forest is luxuriating in my windowpane!"

Three and two thirds ellipsis and a question mark for an opening line! And then a question of love. And then (in parentheses) an image any Romantic poet or post-Frost nature poet would kill to have written. Vallejo is a wicked jester made of bones and guts; a naked cackling human be-ing. To read his poetry is to tour dreams and nightmares with fearless bravado. He confesses to priests and demons in the same tone. He does not believe in hallucination for everything is fact when his pen and imagination wrestle.

"Naked in Clay

Like horrible batrachians in the atmosphere,
lugubrious smirks rise to the lip.
Through the blue Sahara of Substance
walks a gray verse, a dromedary.

A grimace of cruel dreams phosphoresces.
And the blind man who died full of the voices
of snow. Rise at dawn, poet, nomad,
to the rawest day of being man.

The Hours feverishly go by, and in the corners
blond centuries of happiness abort.
Who spins out so much thread; who ruthlessly
lowers our nerves, cords
already frayed, into the tomb!

Love! And you too. Black stonings
breed in your mask and smash it.
The tomb is still
woman's sex that draws man in!"

The words, the images, the ideas. The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo is a bilingual edition, discreetly annotated by the translator, and includes a forward by Mario Vargas Llosa, a chronology of Vallejo's life and a translation memoir by Eshelman which is a wonderful and fascinating essay in its own right. It's now a book I cannot do without.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Phaidon Cookbooks

A few years ago, Phaidon, a publisher known for their fancy art and architecture books ventured into the world of cookbooks. They published The Silver Spoon, an Italian cookbook purported to be a kind of Italian Joy of Cooking. I made it a staff pick when it came out and it is now my most frequently used cookbook.

After the success of the Silver Spoon, Phaidon continued with a series of "Joy of Cookings" for other European countries; 1080 from Spain, Vefa's Kitchen from Greece, and I Know How to Cook from France. More than just cookbooks, all of these act as snapshots of their respective cultures through their recipes. You learn what animals, what cuts, and what vegetables are important to which countries, as well as what preparations dominate and what flavors are revered. They are an anthropology dissertation waiting to happen.

Along with their tour of Europe, Phaidon also released one of the most interesting cookbooks I've ever seen; A Day at elBulli. elBulli is the restaurant of world renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adria. Adria pioneered entirely new techniques for cooking, employing, among others, a chemist to help develop his recipes. His recipes challenge ideas and expectations about how we eat, what we eat, why we eat, and what it means to eat. Unless you keep agar agar handy, A Day at elBulli really isn't a cookbook you'd get recipes from. Rather it's an exploration of the process of one of the world's most creative people. It is a source of inspiration, rather than ingredients.

Phaidon's cookbook being released for this holiday season is closer in spirit to A Day at elBulli than to The Silver Spoon. In Coco, ten world renowned chefs, including Ferran Adria, Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay, and Alice Waters are asked to select their ten favorite contemporary chefs. The result is a collection of profiles and recipes from 100 diverse and dynamic chefs from around the world. The organization of the cookbook is oddly intuitive. Each of the ten master chefs is assigned a color, and a colored book mark. The selected chefs are presented alphabetically by their name with a stripe of color on their pages indicating which master chef selected them. It's a brilliant way to organize the important information without preferencing any chef over another through the order in which they appear. The book closes with a recipe from each of the master chefs. Alice Waters gives us Chicories Salad with Brandade Toast, Mario Batali Two-Minute Calamari, Sicilian Lifeguard Style, and Alain Ducasse Provencale Garden Vegetables Simmered with Crushed Black Truffle.

This is the perfect book for foodies looking to stay on the absolute cutting edge of cooking, as well as travelers looking for the best meals around the world. Though it's unlikely I'll be making the sweet potato based espresso recipe or crushing much black truffle in my own kitchen, a cookbook like this provides fuel for my imagination and opens my eyes to the unexpected potential of the cabbage I have to cook before it goes bad.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Siegfried Sassoon

If you haven't taken a look at the sidebar to our blog there really is a load of information there. I clicked on the Guardian Books Page under Our Links and immediately spotted the news that Siegfried Sassoon's manuscripts have gone online.

I was first introduced to Sassoon through the fiction of Pat Barker in her wonderful trilogy of World War I: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road which won the Booker Prize. Sassoon; another wartime poet, Wilfred Owen; and psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers are all characters in Barker's fictionalized account of the period. It is always worthwhile to be reminded of who these individuals were fighting in the trenches, especially on Veteran's Day. It is particularly important that these men's experiences and reflections are left to us in their poetry enhancing our study of the literature of the period and our knowledge of warfare.

The following words were written by Sassoon in 1917 in his "declaration against the war" and are well worth another reading.

"I believe that this war, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest," he wrote. "I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise."

Asterios Polyp and Logicomix

After weeks of being out of stock at the publisher we finally have copies of the two best graphic novels of the year; Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli and Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou.

You can find out more about Logicomix in this earlier post and you can read about both of these great books in this earlier post.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why I Never Read

For an event at a library for my newly released paperback of The Last Dickens, one newspaper column listed “a reading by Matthew Pearl.” I have to confess the truth, though: my readings have very little reading in them.

Let me say, I have great respect for authors who stand in front of a room and read a chapter or extended section of their work aloud. Maybe my attention span wanders too easily, because when I've tried to do a straight reading I'd start thinking about what I'd eat for dinner and whether I went to third grade with that guy in the back of the room, and whether he once stole my Social Studies notebook.

Pretty soon after starting my public speaking career, I began reading less and less. Instead, I'd talk about how I started writing, about the bizarre experience of book tours, about the argument I'd had with my publisher about the book cover design--the kind of thing I'd do at dinner with friends. I felt more comfortable this way and I felt my audience perk up, too. I'm sure some authors have reading voices that would make James Earl Jones proud, but I'm not Darth Vader and I'm pretty sure my writing voice is more interesting than my reading voice. That's probably why they never ask me to narrate my audio books. Besides, the nice folks who go to the trouble of coming out to an event and hopefully buying a book can read without any help from me. If I can give an interesting behind-the-scenes peek at the creative or publishing process that enriches their reading, I feel like I've done my part.

Any author will tell you how hard it is to predict turnout for an author event. There's so much to compete with, especially in big cities. Many other things, like movies and TiVo, also conform more flexibly to most people's schedules, whereas a 6:30pm or 7:00pm weeknight author event is just about the most inconvenient time for many people getting home from work to rest or be with their family. The most inconvenient time, except for any other time. I try to do my part by keeping my events moving at a brisk pace. The times I've done events in Europe, I'm always struck by how long they go and also how little I actually speak! Usually, you're given a very long introduction, maybe as long as a half hour, and people ask extremely long, academic-ish questions.

During his reading tours in the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens would read, but not in a way we're used to. Dickens had extensive experience as a stage actor, and used his skills to actually perform his scenes and characters. In The Last Dickens, one scene depicts one of Dickens's readings in Boston, at the Tremont Temple, when a stalker is somewhere in the dark auditorium ready to strike, and the hero, Dickens's Irish porter, must find and stop the threat. I guess on some level it's my fantasy about the author-event-as-adventure.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

free e-books

The University of Chicago Press has just announced a new marketing program for their e-book editions in Adobe Digital Editions format. They're offering a new free e-book every month. This month's offering is The Birthday Book by Censorinus.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Two Mexican Writers for Fans of Roberto Bolano

With The Savage Detectives and 2666, Roberto Bolano exploded onto the literary scene in America. Both works were critically acclaimed with 2666 winning the National Book Critics Circle Award. Almost overnight Bolano went from an obscure Mexican author to a literary superstar.

I think there are two other Mexican writers, right now little known in America, who fans of Bolano would enjoy.

The first is Juan Villoro. There is almost nothing of Villoro's work translated into English, except an excellent short story in the Fall 2009 issue of the lit mag n+1. "Among Friends" is a brilliant story narrated by a Mexican journalist who acts as a contact for a successful and award winning American journalist, named Samuel Kramer. Kramer is back in Mexico to do an article about violence in the country when he is kidnapped. Much like The Savage Detectives, "Among Friends" is a kind of mystery but one that reveals different objects than those ostensibly sought. This is a story about representing the truth, about the predation of culture, and about the artifice of national identity. Here is an excerpt from Among Friends.

The second author is Mario Bellatin who I first read about in this New York Times article. He has two books available in English, a novella called Beauty Salon, and Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions. Beauty Salon is one of the weirdest books I've ever read. It would probably take more time for me to describe it than for you to just read it. The basic plot is that, in the presence of a mysterious plague, the proprietor of a beauty salon turns his salon into a hospice home of sorts; and he keeps an aquarium of fish. In some ways he is like the wonderful and maddening Russian surrealist Daniil Kharms, in others, he embodies Bolano's simmering mystery, and in others he is a completely unique writer.

Hopefully, the momentum Bolano generated will bring more works by these great writers into America.

November's Features SciFi/Fantasy Author

An English writer with a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Oxford, Susanna Clarke won worldwide renown with her debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, winner of the World Fantasy Award.

Both her novel and her short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, are set in an alternate 19th century England rediscovering its forgotten history of magic. Written in a Dickensian style, these books feature historical figures, undefinable magic both subtle and vulgar, deeply human characters and relationships, tragic twists, surprising turns, beautiful illustrations, and diverting footnotes.

J.S. & Mr. N. focuses on the sometimes stormy relationship of England's two greatest magicians: their scholarly debates, their petty disagreements, and their uniting love of magic. The Ladies of Grace Adieu focuses more on female protagonists and is a collection of stories combining English history, fairy tales, danger, and comedy. Not as daunting as Jonathan Strange, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is the perfect way to visit Clarke's England.

Clarke is reportedly at work on sequel of sorts which she says will focus on characters "a bit lower down the social scale".

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bill Simmons

A shout out to those of you who are Boston sports fans. As you may already know Bill Simmons is on tour with his new book The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy.. He is signing books at Hurricane O'Reilly's on Canal Street from 4pm today until tip off of the Celtics/Bulls game. Porter Square will be there selling books and if the DC and NY stops are any indication, this will be huge. So, come down and meet the most obsessive fan, in the best sense of the word, of basketball ever and get a book signed.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Interference and Other Stories

Local Cambridge author Richard Hoffman's latest work, Interference and Other Stories, recently arrived. I've read and recommended Richard's earlier memoir Half the House, and his book of poems, Gold Star Road. I wasn't aware he was writing fiction as well. Eager to see what the new book was like I read the first two stories on the train home yesterday and I found them both powerful and profound. I expect the rest are going to be up to that standard.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Logicomix Links

Logicomix, the graphic novel about Betrand Russell has taken off. I mentioned it in this blog post and made it a staff pick. We're having trouble keeping it in stock. If you're interested in the book visit the Logicomix home page. They've also put together a documentary about the making of the book.

Here's the trailer the publisher's created.

signed editions

Jeanette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, was kind enough to stop by the store before an appearance at another venue and sign copies of her new book Half Broke Horses. She calls her latest a true-life novel - a fictionalized first person account of the life of her grandmother.

We also have signed first editions of Margaret Atwood's new novel, Year of the Flood and Lorrie Moore's Gate at the Stairs.

We expect to have a limited number of signed first editions of Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence in early November. Let us know if you'd like us to reserve you a copy.

In all these cases, if you order online please let us know in the comments field of your order that you'd like to receive signed copies.

Next Queen of Heaven

Once again we are distributing the latest issue from the Concord Free Press. This time it's a new novel by Gregory Maguire titled The Next Queen of Heaven. Like all books published by the Concord Free Press, this paperback book is free. All they ask is that you make a donation to the charity of your choice or give some money to someone who needs it. How much you give is up to you. When you're done with the novel, pass it on so the giving can continue. For more info and to let them know where you gave the money go to Visit us right away as the carton we received won't last long.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Two Major Short Story Collections

Two major short story collections have come out in the last couple of weeks.

The first is The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard. Ballard is probably most famous in America as author of Crash, the novel the movie, and now TV series were based on, but he is a major force in late 20th century English Literature. His work is so distinctive and influential that you can now describe something as "Ballardian." The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard is a great opportunity to get a feel for this complex and prolific writer.

The second is The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Davis is one of the most innovative and vibrant short story writers in America, and one of my personal favorites. Her stories have an edge of intellectualism, humor, and surrealism that too many writers fearfully avoid. She was writing flash or microfiction before there was a name for it. For example, here is her "story," "Samuel Johnson is Indignant:"

that Scotland has so few trees.
"We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders," from her National Book Award Finalist Varieties of Disturbance, is one of my favorite short stories.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander

It's few months later but this link will bring you to some nice shots of the Inaugural poet when she was at Porter Square Books this summer. We were lucky to have Ms. Alexander in the neighborhood for awhile and pleased to say she was a frequent visitor. She has returned to Connecticut and her position at Yale University as chair of the African American Studies Department.

Tracy Kidder

As expected we had a sell out crowd for Tracy Kidder on Thursday night. Of particular interest was his decision to address his writing "style", as he is so often asked about it. As his readers know, he doesn't write dry tedious treatises on topics of interest, but compelling, inspiring and enthralling narratives about real people involved in diverse yet universally human pursuits. He has brought Partners in Health and the work they do to the forefront and let's hope Strength in What Remains will do the same for Village Health Works.

For further details about the evening you can take a look at this blog posted by Kevin Koczwara.

OR, check out for a video clip of Kidder.

We have signed copies of Kidder's latest on hand but they are going fast. Speaking of which, we have signed first editions of Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs available now. As of October 26 we will have signed first editions of Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood. You can call and reserve a copy or just come in the store.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Featured Author

Karl Schroeder was born to Canadian Mennonites and is the author of 10 science fiction books including Lady of Mazes and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction.

His books combine hard SF ideas, Space Opera action, well-drawn characters, and solid writing. His latest quartet of novels is set in the fascinating world of Virga: a 5,000 mile wide sphere filled with miniature suns, floating oceans, and zero-gravity. Within this magnificent piece of world-building, Schroeder unfolds a thrilling story of pirates, politics, war, plot and counter-plot.

Karl Schroeder now lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter and divides his time between writing and working as a technology and future-studies consultant.

This is a writer of bold ideas and captivating storytelling. If you enjoy the world-building of Ring World, the action of Star Wars, and the politics of Dune, you'll enjoy spending some time in Virga.

The Virga series includes: Sun of Suns, Queen of Candesce, Pirate Sun, and The Sunless Countries.

The Best Book You've Never Read, Sheppard Lee

"The psychologist (I hate big words but one cannot do without them) and the metaphysician will discover in my relation some new subjects for reflection; and so perhaps will the doctor of medicine and the physiologist: but while I leave these learned gentlemen to discuss what may appear most wonderful in my revealments I am most anxious that the common reader may weigh the value of what is at least in appearance more natural, simple, comprehensible."

So begins the adventure of Sheppard Lee, a lazy property owner who discovers an ability to reanimate dead bodies with his own spirit. Through this power, Lee experiences life as a wealthy brewer, an impoverished dandy, a miserly usurer, an exploited philanthropist, and a slave, and other lifestyles of Jacksonian America. Through the body-hopping Lee, Robert Montgomery Bird creates a scathing satire of American society as brutally honest and as humorous as the best of Mark Twain, that still celebrates the depth and breadth of American character. Lee narrates with a vibrant cynicism that reminds me of Lawrence Sterne's masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and Bird's talent with image and event prefigures Moby-Dick. And, in a lot of ways, there is something very Dude-like about Sheppard Lee. Originally published in 1836 Sheppard Lee is a uniquely American novel and should be a corner stone for the canon of American literature.

But the book is more than just a compelling artifact from our past. Occasionally Sheppard Lee breaks from narrating his adventures to reflect on what he has learned about society from his possessions. Lee's lessons are as wise and potent today as they were in 1836:

"It is no wonder that poverty is the father of crime, since the poor man sees himself treated on all hands like a culprit."
"In this way I have known a stock tossed up and down like a ball, while every ascent and downfall served the purpose of filling the pockets of the fraternity and emptying those of the victims."
"Why should the folly of a feudal aristocracy prevail under the shadow of a purely democratic government? It is to the stupid pride, the insensate effort at pomp and ostentation, the unconcealed contempt of labour, the determination manifested in a thousand keep the 'base mechanical' aware of the gulf between him and his betters--in a word, to the puerile vanity and stolid pride of the gentile and refined that we owe the exasperation of those classes in whose hands lie the reins of power, and who will use them for good or bad humour."
"The same arguments, varied categorically according to circumstances, convinced me that if my imperial elevation, or the notion thereof, was not sheer insanity on my own part, my doctors thought so--which was the same thing in effect."
"I can be happy or not just as I may choose to make myself."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Earlier this week Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol was released and was an instant best-seller. So it seems the perfect time to remember one of my favorite books, Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.
This brilliant, exciting, and surprisingly funny novel is a piercing examination of conspiratorial thinking and thinkers. With sly wit and byzantine reasoning, Eco builds, dismantles, then rebuilds an ever-increasing series of sinister puzzle boxes. The sheer amount, depth, and pace of the esoterica, histories, and pseudo-histories is nearly overwhelming. Unless you are a polyglot and student of esoteric histories (and I'm not) you will miss some of Eco's references, but do not be deterred; keep reading and you will not be disappointed. Like a trio of over-educated European postgraduate students arguing metaphysics over too much wine, too late at night, this novels grows madder and madder until it reaches its crazy, subjective, inevitable conclusion. This is the perfect book to read before, after, or instead of the new Dan Brown novel .

A Chair for Leslie

Some of our customers might have noticed a new chair in the store which is usually at the big round table in the back. It looks like one of those college chairs that normally has a college insignia on the back. But in this case, you will find a dedication:

To honor our dear friend and colleague, Leslie Riedel, reader extraordinaire.

We have worked with Leslie at our old store for many years and then here at Porter Square Books since we opened in 2004. Indeed, she is one of the owners. Leslie used to be a children's librarian and has an abiding interest in and great knowledge of children's books; a veritable expert. Her interests don't stop there, however. Mention a book for adults and chances are she's read that as well.

Leslie has recently been diagnosed with ALS and is home with her family. We miss her cheerful spirit, her enthusiasm, and the wonder and appreciation she has for books and life in general.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

sherrie flick/ladette randolph

On Thursday evening September 24th Sherrie Flick and Ladette Randolph will be at the store reading from their new novels, Reconsidering Happiness and Sandhills Ballad. Sherrie sent us the following link to an interview with her published in Pittsburgh City Paper - she is a native of Pennsylvania. This is an encore performance here for Sherrie and we look forward to it.

Joining her is the new editor of Ploughshares, Ladette Randolph. Both she and Flick have previously written short fiction and now a novel. Randolph knows of what she writes here having grown up in the region of Nebraska featured in Sandhills Ballad. A good part of Flick's novel is also set in Nebraska, so come to this event prepared to steep yourself in the Great Plains landscape and hear some great storytelling.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sci Fi/Fantasy Featured Author

Starting this month, we will be featuring a 'new' Sci Fi/Fantasy author. We may highlight a debut author or focus on an established author but the purpose is to present him or her to new readers.

The recommendations will be written by more than one staff member so we won't have you reading vampire romance all the time! We will even be adding in some graphica.

Our author for September is local and since 2007 has published 4 novels.

Mark Del Franco

Mark Del Franco's stories are set in a turbulent world where Faerie and modern reality have uneasily merged.

The 3 books of the Connor Grey series, located in Boston, feature Connor Grey, a former great Druid and investigator for the Fey. They are Unshapely Things, Unfallen Dead, and Unquiet Dreams.

Del Franco's latest book, Skin Deep, is set in the same fascinating world but located in Washington, DC and features Laura Blackstone, PR director for the Fey.

Mark lives with his partner, Jack, in Boston.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Great Issues this Month

A few cool issues have come out in the world of magazines this month.

The current issue Smithsonian Magazine is a special travel writers issue that is a who's-who of our top travel writers. Susan Orlean writes about Morrocco, Francine Prose writes about Japan, Frances Mayes writes about Poland, and Paul Theroux drives coast-to-coast across America. The special issue is introduced by none other than Jan Morris.

The literary magazine Tin House is celebrating their 10th anniversary with a special issue of new work by major authors they've published over the decade. It's an amazing list of contributors; Colson Whitehead, Jim Shepard, Stephen King, Steve Almond, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, and Sherman Alexie to name a few. They've also included a short story by David Foster Wallace that was previously only seen in his college literary magazine. This issue of Tin House is less a magazine and more an anthology of contemporary American fiction.

A couple of weeks ago, I highlighted the online lit mag The Exquisite Corpse and did an interview with their editor and all around literary badass Andrei Codrescu. They have released their first annual magazine. Hopefully it will be the first in a long line of annuals drawn from that great website.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Revisiting Breakfast of Champions

Somehow my partner missed Breakfast of Champions in her first go round of Vonnegut and seeing her read it reminded me of how funny and brilliant I thought the book was when I first read it over ten years ago. I just had to put everything else aside and pick it up again. There is always some trepidation when returning to a book you loved when you were younger. Will it still seem brilliant or will it suffer from the Holden Caulfield effect? Or, worst of all, will it prove that I just went through a "phase?"

But Breakfast of Champions is just as funny, accurate, and brilliant as it was when I read it as a teenager. Vonnegut's dead-on critiques of racism, classism, and consumerism in American society are still, tragically, relevant. His play with the relationship between writer, character, and reader still feels fresh and vibrant. It's hard to imagine a writer more beloved in his or her life time than Vonnegut was during his, but, there's the possibility that Vonnegut's work can grow in importance as long as the America he described remains unchanged.

As good as that might be for the longevity of his ouevre, that lack of change in the world, seemed to contribute to some of the sadness that surrounded him at the end of his life. In a great essay from his collection Not That You Asked, Steve Almond does an amazing job capturing not only what Vonnegut meant to so many people, but also Vonnegut's own sense of melancholy from trying his hardest for as long as he could and failing to save the world from itself.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I was researching Joyce Maynard's bibliography preparing for her upcoming appearance at our store and came across a column she wrote for the New York Times in July that I had missed. Reading it brought me up short. Ms. Maynard will be reading here on Sept. 21 from her new book, Labor Day.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Cartoons That Shook the World

When I was ordering The Cartoons That Shook the World for the fall I was warned by our sales representative that the book would contain the controversial Danish cartoons that sparked worldwide protests. Apparently that will no longer be the case. The New York Times yesterday reported that Yale University Press has decided to drop the cartoons as well as all the other images depicting the prophet Muhammad that were originally to be included.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dover Thrift Science and Mathematics

Books put out by Dover Thrift have always been great for filling out a library or trying an old classic you've been meaning to read. For a few bucks you can get copies of some of the great works of literature. The print is small and the paper cheap, but they're called Dover Thrift for a reason. However we just got a shipment today (8/12) that includes books from their math and science section and they have really out done themselves. General Chemistry by Linus Pauling, Quantum Theory by David Bohm, Thermodynamics by Enrico Fermi, and On Growth and Form by D'arcy Wentworth Thompson are just a few of the classic works of science Dover has brought back into print.

These are great additions to any science library, but they are also great reads for someone interested in the history of science.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

comfort books

Once again I am acting as agent for an author. I recently received the following message from Jennifer Ackerman who came to Porter Square Books a couple of years ago to read from her book Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body. She is working on a new book and is looking for recommendations of good books "to curl up with". With her permission, I am enlarging the pool of respondents to our loyal customers and bloggers. All is explained below and I hope you will take the time to dash off a comment here and I'll send them along to Jennifer. Thanks so much for considering. I think we all have a couple in us.

Subject: a writer's query

Hi Folks at Porter Square Books,

As you may know, I'm a writer (and a fan of your bookstore, which I visited
on tour for Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream). I'm writing today to ask a favor.
I'm working on a book about the common cold called Achoo! The Uncommon Life of the Common Cold, to be published by Twelve in 2011. The book includes a chapter on The Real Cure: Recipes and Readings, which offers recipes for comfort food from chefs such as Lynne Rossetto Kasper, and also, a list of books recommended by experts such as yourselves, that make for great "curl up in bed when you're down with a cold" reading. I know there's no end to the possibilities here, but if a title or two strikes you as particularly fitting (something under the sun to warm the bones, for example), I would be most grateful for your suggestions, along with a line or two about why your choice makes for good sick-bed reading. I will of course credit you and the store.

Thank you so much for considering this. I look forward to hearing from you.

Warm regards,
Jenny (Ackerman)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Two great new graphic novels

I'll write more about both of these titles later, but I wanted to draw everyone's attention to two great new graphic novels, one that is out now and the other that is coming out in September.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli is out now and is garnering a lot of well-deserved praise. It's a beautiful book with many of the pages works of art in their own right. The titular character is a brilliant but self-absorbed architect whose invincible egoism leads him to a crisis point in his personal life. Subtle details connect events in the story and it concludes with such a powerful moment that I had to take a long walk to clear my head of the effect.

Logicomix will be out in late September and tells the story of Bertrand Russell's quest to find a universal language of logic. It doesn't sound like the kind of topic suited to the comic genre but the book's creators do a brilliant job using their medium to communicate complex and challenging philosophical ideas. They also make this a real story, casting Russell, and many of the people around him, as traditional, questing heroes for truth. Despite all the heavy thinking, the authors create moments of humor and triumph that make the work a great story as much as it is a philosophical exploration.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Inherent Vice trailer

Check out this way cool book trailer put together by the publisher for the new Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice. The book went on sale Tuesday and has been flying out of the store since!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tooting our own horn department: Lynette Benton, who writes about writing as a career for, has been surveying local bookstores. She recently posted a terrific piece about us. Thanks Lynette.

Friday, July 31, 2009

jonathan tropper

The following post was written by Jonathan Tropper and is being posted for him by myself, a huge fan. This is Jonathan's second visit to Porter Square Books. One of the many perks of my job is being able to invite select authors to the store. I have read all of Tropper's books and they just keep getting better and better. You should really check him out in print OR in person Tuesday, August 11 at 7PM!

This Is Where I Leave You is my fifth novel, and like most of my books, it is not the novel I originally set out to write. I started out telling the story of Judd Foxman, who comes home one day to discover that his wife has been sleeping with his boss for the last year, effectively ending his marriage and his career. I was interested in writing about a man in his mid-thirties suddenly stripped of the two things that most defined him. That was the plan.

At one point, midway through my first draft, I brought Judd back for a visit to his childhood home for the first time since his marriage had ended, where he was forced to face his siblings and mother and confess his new reality to them. It was meant to be a single chapter, just another painful experience on Judd’s downward spiral, but then a funny thing happened; the family came to life for me. And as I wrote about Judd’s angry, dysfunctional siblings and his wildly unconventional mother, I realized that the characters, the dialogue, and the writing itself were clicking for me in a way that it hadn’t in all the preceding pages. So, after a few vain attempts to expand the role of Judd’s family in my existing framework, I decided to toss the framework and write the novel about Judd and his family instead. I came up with the idea of a shiva - the Jewish mourning ritual - seven days in which the entire family is basically trapped together under one roof, and it just took off from there.

Over the course of my career I have found that, despite my best laid plans, it is ultimately this sort of happy accident that determines the direction of my books. The trick is in recognizing when it’s happening, and being willing to scrap the blueprint and start over.

I’m looking forward to returning to Porter Square Books on the evening of August 11 to discuss This Is Where I Leave You.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Literary Smackdown

Folks at Green Apple Books in San Francisco have launched a 10-day literary smackdown of the books vs. the Kindle on their blog. Day 2 was posted today but the intro and day 1 can be found here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Our Noise

A new website has just been launched with a pretty cool design and info about a forthcoming book about the history of Merge Records, Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small. We'll have it when the book publishes on September 15.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I added David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest to our Summer Reading table display last week. Although unbeknownst to me at the time, over the weekend I read in the Boston Globe about Matthew Baldwin's online effort to get people reading Wallace's novel this summer. We did sell out of Infinite Jest over the weekend. Coincidence or not, we should be resupplied by Tuesday, July 21.

Friday, July 10, 2009

60th anniversary of the National Book Award

On July 7, the National Book Foundation launched a new campaign celebrating the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards that will culminate in a vote by the public this fall to choose the Best of the National Book Awards Fiction. To spread the word, and to highlight past winners, the National Book Foundation has created a book-a-day blog, featuring all of the fiction winners from 1950 to 2008. Visit their website,, to cast your vote. Members of the public who cast their votes (one vote per e-mail address) will have a chance to win two tickets to the November 18, 2009 National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner and a two-night stay at the Marriott Hotel near Wall Street in New York City. Whether you vote or not, you should check out this website and the daily blogs. They have laid out, or will lay out over the next couple of months, a handy little trail of literary history with synopses, critique, and authors' comments. The Foundation will create a shortlist for the public's review on September 21 and solicit your votes on that. Have fun with it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

So You've Read House of Leaves

Reading House of Leaves is quite an experience, and for those of you who have, the experience often leaves "traditional novels" lacking. The story of Johnny Truant reading Zampano's notes about the nonexistent (maybe) documentary about Navidson's epic battle against (or perhaps with) the labyrinthine house larger on the inside than it is on the outside would have been breathtakingly original and exhilarating on its own, but Danielewski uses the format of the words on the page to contribute to the meaning of the book.

The text and its layers of footnotes are formatted to make the reading experience mirror as much as possible the experience of the characters. When the characters are lost, confused, and trudging slowly through the maze, the text is heavily footnoted and the footnotes are arranged on the page so you have to turn the book constantly to read them. When the characters are running, there are few words per page, meaning the faster they are moving, the faster you are turning the pages. House of Leaves is an often overwhelming, but always compelling, testament to what is possible with the written word. Which makes choosing the next book almost impossible. Here are a few books that expand on, or are written in the spirit of House of Leaves.

The first book I recommend when I find out someone has read and enjoyed House of Leaves is The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. The novel starts with Eric Sanderson waking up in shock, not knowing where or who he is. Soon he starts getting mail from himself that explains he is plagued by a Ludovician, an information shark that eats his identity. The story then follows Eric's attempts to recover his identity, connect with his past, and conquer the shark. Information theory, code breaking, adventure, romance, Jaws references. The Raw Shark Texts is a brilliant exploration of our information driven society that manages to also be a ripping yarn.

The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball is a modern fable that dispenses with chronology, narrative conventions, and page numbers. Selah Morse, a "municipal inspector" sees a young woman struck by a car and though she is unhurt, she suffers amnesia. Selah assumes the role of her boyfriend, takes her to the hospital, and then tells her stories to keep her awake for the night. The stories twist around each other, double back and start again. Characters are revisited and transformed. What might be the most remarkable thing about the book, is that despite appearing so post-modern, it maintains a tone and atmosphere of our oldest legends and fairy tales.

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton is a novel in the form of an auction catalog. Through the objects and the descriptions of the objects Harold Morris and Lenore Doolan's entire relationship is narrated. Not only does the novel explore our relationship to the objects in our lives, it also asks the questions: what are stories made of? and what are characters made of? The most remarkable thing about the book, though, is that, despite just being a detailed list of stuff, it feels like a regular story and it ends with a profound feeling of closure.

Along with these three books, there are a couple that I've seen, but not read, that draw from the freedom of format demonstrated by House of Leaves. The Annotated Nose by Mark Estrin and Personal Effects by J. C. Hutchins.

And if none of these work for you, there is always Danielewski's second novel, the National Book Award finalist Only Revolutions. It is a very different book from House of Leaves, but I think it's just as good.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

July's Poet of the Month: W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin

"...Once once and once

In the same city I was born

Asking what shall I say

He will have fallen into his mouth

Men think they are better than grass

I return to his voice rising like a forkful of hay

He was old he is not real nothing is real

Nor the noise of death drawing water

We are the echo of the future

On the door it says what to do to survive

But we were not born to survive

Only to live..."

-an excerpt from W.S. Merwin's poem, "The River of Bees"

William Stanley Merwin was born in New York City on September 30, 1927. He was raised in Union City, New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania, as the son of a Presbyterian minister, and began writing hymns as a child. His poetry, translations, and prose have won praise from literary critics since the publication of his first book. The spare, hard verse comprising the body of Merwin's work has been characterized by many as very difficult reading. However, it is generally agreed that this poetry is worth whatever extra effort may be required to appreciate it.

Although Merwin's writing has undergone many stylistic changes through the course of his career, it is unified by the recurring theme of man's separation from nature. The poet sees the consequences of that alienation as disastrous, both for the human race and for the rest of the world.

The poetic forms of many eras and societies are the foundation for a great deal of Merwin's poetry. His first books contained many pieces inspired by classical models. According to Vernon Young in the American Poetry Review, the poems are traceable to "Biblical tales, Classical myth, love songs from the Age of Chivalry, Renaissance retellings; they comprise carols, roundels, odes, ballads, sestinas, and they contrive golden equivalents of emblematic models: the masque, the Zodiac, the Dance of Death."

Literary Critic, Eric Hartley, also commented on the importance of Merwin's background in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "From the first of his career as a poet, Merwin has steeped himself in other cultures and other literary traditions, and he has been praised as a translator. This eclectic background has given him a sense of the presence of the past, of timelessness in time that comes across emphatically in his poetry. Without some understanding of this background the reader cannot fully appreciate Merwin's poetry. Moreover, without such appreciation one cannot comprehend the thrust of Merwin's poetic and philosophical development."

Click on the PLAY button below to watch an excerpt on W.S. Merwin from, "The Poet's View: Intimate Profiles of Five Major American Poets."

Sixty Years Later

A very interesting copyright case has made the news recently regarding the publication of a novel by a Swedish writer Fredrik Colting titled Sixty Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. The book centers on the fictional character "Mr. C", although not ever explicitly stated as such, is clearly an aged Holden Caulfield, the main character of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Salinger sued to halt publication in the U.S. and a judge has issued an injunction against its U.S. publisher (the book has already been published in Britain).

There are many interesting angles in this case but what may be the most intriguing is if the case ultimately goes to trial, will the extremely reclusive, 90-year old Salinger agree to either be interviewed for a deposition or to testify?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Interview with Andrei Codrescu

Andrei Codrescu was born in Sibiu, Romania, in 1946. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1966 and became a U.S. citizen in 1981. He is a poet, novelist, essayist, teacher, and lecturer. Codrescu is MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he edits Exquisite Corpse: a Journal of Letters and Life. He is also a regular commentator on National Public Radio and winner of the Peabody Award for the film "Road Scholar." He received National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for poetry, and editing, the Romanian Literature Prize, the ACLU Freedom of Speech Award, and the Ovidius Prize.

His most recent book is The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenis Play Chess. A vibrant and playful work of philosophy, the book confronts the challenges of contemporary society with the ideas of a radical art movement from the early 20th century; dada. Through Codrescu's telling the joy and nonsense of dada become a powerful counterforce against the consumerism and dogmatism at the heart of so much of the world's problems. Along the way Codrescu introduces us to some fascinating and forgotten characters like the poet, artist, muse Mina Loy, as well as original ideas for describing contemporary society, such as the "e-body." Below is our interview with Codrescu.

What is a Posthuman?

The Posthuman is the technically enhanced biological creature that we are becoming. Count your wires, your extentions, and the environments you are part of: the screen that connects us, the light you used to see at night, your quasi-automatic house, your machine-run city, your car, the rails and roads that determine your geographical location, and the nature of your work. Your "self" or your "I" has been replaced by your iPhone, iPod, IRobot. If 40-60% of your activities and needs are technologically determined you're a posthuman-in-the-making. We also stand on the edge of physical immortality, and the things we think of as "human," such as "feelings" are in fact retrograde reactions and reflexes to a reality that disappeared at the start of the 20th century.

Is 21st century dada different from 20th century dada and if so, how?

The spirit of negation and the generating force are the same but the media has become more complex and there are a hell of a lot more objects and techniques to make Dada with.

Are there any contemporary artists of any kind, who you think embody the ideas expressed in the book?

Everybody does, not just artists, because culture is the way we now express ourselves, through various media. My book is just a current report on the obvious; we embody the creatures we are becoming because we have flesh bodies that need to be connected to the spectacle and the stage that we are performing and living on. Some artists are distinguished by a sense of humor about our hilarious hybrid condition, suspended like stunt actors between the branches of an old tree floating on a river of junk. The tree is the old idea-cosmology that used to have us in the middle beween heaven and earth: that tree's been uprooted and is being carried away fast on the objective excrescences of a disappearing material world. If you want names, take down Mel Chin, for instance, and all the multimedia postpunk saboteurs working in various virtualities, like The Yes Men.

Is there a "dada solution" to the problems of the 21st century, or are we even allowed to think about dada in terms of problems and solutions?

Dada doesn't demand solutions, it must reject them whatever they are. Reality has become Dada, so whatever the contexts are and wherever they shift, they meet the resolute negativity of Dada, the big NO that says, this ain't it, but it could be made more interesting by rearranging it, cutting it up, outing it, making its ridiculousness obvious. Dada is a kind of self-cleaning machine for the evolving "self" of flexible androids: it cleans out the pieties of "humanism" and the "eternal verities" invented by state, church, and centralization of labor and living spaces. Not to speak of the timid attempts of art since the Renaissance to offer virtual alternatives derived from the "real" world.

We all love your unique angle of approach, in your capacity as a sort of link between the New World and the European avant-garde tradition. Do you think the ghost of Tristan Tzara is happy with what he sees? How would he describe our world?

Thank you. Tristan Tzara didn't have Marcel Duchamp's good fortune to come to America and to know that Dada had already (by the 1920s) become the de facto reality here. Had he come and worked here he might have catalyzed American literature in the way Duchamp did American art; he could have saved us from the mind-numbing "realism" of ten billion bad books and the self-conscious "modernism" that tried to imitate typewriters and telephones, and ended up in the same "realist" mainstream. Now that the whole publishing biz is collapsing of its own conceits and because of the new media, it's obvious that our primitive psychology has not kept up with technology, and that we are like kids with pocket nukes who never had the opportunity to actively rethink and reject the kitsch and goo of humanism, or the ideas of "exploration" and human superiority that were part of American expansion into the wilderness. Tzara stayed in Europe to fight the Nazis, and became a communist by default (no one else was organized enough to fight Nietzsche's deformed children). Tzara never went away culturally or philosophically, so he is not dead in any essential way. The "virgin microbe" of Dada is more active now than it ever was; if Tzara "thinks" in any way, it's through the mouths and motions of our manipulations of the "reality" spectacle.

Do you see any parallels between your journey out of Romania and Tzara's?

Tzara went to Zurich in the middle of an insane war between national armies, and I came to America in the mid-sixties in the middle of a generational war. The butchery of Europe was a lot worse, so he got to overthrow centuries of artistic ready-made ideas and to deal with evil post-war ideologies, while I frolicked with my generational comrades in pleasurable communion and contradictory delusions. The only parallel is that we are both Romanian Jews and poets and take a similiar delight in absurd humor and theater. We may be related in other ways, but I can't see them right now.

Exquisite Corpse is one of my favorite websites. It's one of the few that I've seen that I really think reaches some of the potential the Internet possesses. How would you describe your ideal or utopian internet?

We got ourselves some cyber real-estate early when we went online in 1996. We had the good fortune of a webmistress, Andrea Garland, who is a fine designer and technologically savvy -- she kept up with the incredibly fast developments in internet technology. She was followed by Plamen Arnaudov, another techno-whiz, who learned his English from Animal Planet in his native Bulgaria, and built computers as soon as he was old enough to use a screwdriver. The Corpse changed with the internet: we added audio and video, we opened a real-time cafe that we had to shut down because it was hard to manage hundreds of instant discussions, we linked to sites with similar interests, and we played a number of practical jokes that stayed, mercifully, anonymous. As the whole world is now moving into cyberspace, it's nice to have such a large spread, and I'm glad that we bought it early and cheap; we are like a farm in the middle of Manhattan now, with a million page-views every time we change the Home Page.

When you got to America, what was the most jarring difference between your no doubt keen fantasy construction and the actuality?

The actuality was that you couldn't get anywhere without a car, that American cities had no centers, and that there were few real bookstores (this was before Barnes & Noble, not that they are so great), so I had to posthumanize myself in a hurry, but the only place I could live for a while was New York, which was only "Europe with an erection," as I put it somewhere. I also thought, of course, that the streets were paved with gold, and the truth was that they were covered with dogshit -- until the 90s in New York when Giuliani had the streets covered with mayonnaise instead, so that if midwestern tourists dropped their WonderBread they could pick it up already slathered. The great thing was that I was 19 years-old and so was mid-sixties America: I was an "alien" in an "alienated" generation that found me charming; I found the girls intoxicating.

It seems the arts respond to situational pressure from the surrounding world (a more intense example being Weimar). Have you noticed a new density of response to the geopolitical ugliness of the last eight years? As a generality, has more poetry addressed the slow lunacy of the world or gone more solipsistic?

Well, again, it's not a matter of art. The world is itself an art work that needs to be taken apart, reassembled, rethought. Weimar or WW 1 and 2 are egregious examples of bad art, of reality-constructs by bad megalomaniac mediocrities who dragged the sleeping spectators along. Dada did not believe in spectators or "art" for that matter, so it saw itself as a continual and total theater at war with the images and psyche of the times (any time). Our own recent geopolitical reality was the result of consumption-bloated and entertainment-bludgeoned masses going along with a foreign policy disconnected from the new realities of globality and instant communications. Artists, poets particularly, responded feebly, by singing to the choir and trading cliches with bored people who agreed with each other just fine. The only political response to G. Bush's stupid wars was forwarding e-mails. Happily, the collective nausea swept the bums from office and now we have a hipper fresh face in Obama, a guy who understands that a paradigm shift to the posthuman is in fact taking place.

Art has always been an interaction between a person and an "object" not made by that person. If the "world itself is an art work" and there are no "spectators" as the Dadaists believed, what happens to that interaction? Does that interaction have any value? Is there any activity with art that is not making art?

Well, the interaction between artists or any human beings IS the artwork, in the Dada view; if you and I got drunk together at Molly's on the Market in New Orleans and met fifteen people and wrote an Exquisite Corpse poem collaboratively (which has happened, often, though not when we were both present, as far as I know) we have made a collective work of interaction. We can even "sell" it to each other by making copies when we are "sober" (i.e, inattentive); the currency used in this "sale" is also known as "attention." Attention is the Dada dollar: in the current market 1A (one Dada Dollar) = $25 (US dollars).

Is there any honkin' good poetry in response to, or even coming out of, the Lower Ninth Ward? We've seen it addressed in the odd poem, but is there a work of elegant outrage like Alabanza out there?

The Ninth Ward was part of Prospect One, the New Orleans Biennale that transformed the whole city by handing out vacant buildings and various spaces to artists. I've seen some good documentaries, but as to anything that was truly transformative, I haven't seen or read anything. Whoever owns the real estate will transform the place any way they want to, so artists have a chance, if they want to, to get those owners in a room without windows and show them 66 hours of uninterrupted Dada film and provocation, and then take them back to their suburban manses where their families are living communally in naked harmony with parolees from the New Orleans Parish Prison.

In your PBS car trip documentary you compare notes with Mexican migrants about oppression in the bottom reaches of US society versus back in a soviet-style state. This was an eye-opening reminder that there are many kinds of human hunger, including simple freedom of thought. Do you see a revolutionary outflanking of the tyrant's impulse to thought control in the plethora of instantaneous communications (the Web etc.)? As in Iran, even now?

The tyranny of bad conventions will not go away until physical borders disappear, and they are. There are a lot of struggles ahead, but the new media is making it possible, as in Iran, to see directly what horrors governments are inflicting on demonstrators. I don't think that it will be possible to hide violence and deceit in the same way now that we've moved into a communal mental space (soon to be physical).

Finally, what are you reading now?

The Romanian newspapers and one billion submissions to

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