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

I'm Looking for a Book. It's Got a Green Cover . . .

Many times customers looking for specific books are apologetic when they don't have the full title and author. Sometimes all they have is one word from the title or a vague subject or even just a tidbit about the author. Sometimes they feel a little silly or that they're imposing on my time. Well, the truth is I love hunting down books. My favorite part of my job is helping someone find that book they heard about on TV about gay bush pilots written by a Spanish dentist. And I suspect the same is true for most of my fellow booksellers.

We love finding books and we're pretty good at it. We have Books-in-Print, Google, and a few other "secret" databases at our disposal. And if that's not enough there is, on average, over 50 years of reading experience in the store at any given time.

So come in, give us a challenge. Occasionally we'll even recognize the cover.

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