Friday, February 26, 2010

The Coming Insurrection

Last year when ordering new titles from the MIT Press catalog I passed on a title that recently has been getting quite a bit of attention. It's a French-leftist, political manifesto that analyzes the current economic and political crisis as a colossal failure of capitalism and calls for a youth-led overthrow of the system. I was amused when reading the catalog description, remembering like tracts I took so seriously 40 years ago. Of course, only the French, I thought, could still think this way.

But low and behold, Glenn Beck got a hold of a copy of it, read it, and proclaimed on his show that it is "quite possibly the most evil thing I've ever read'. As you can imagine sales immediately spiked across the country and MIT Press has had to go back to press several times.

We now have a few copies in stock with more on the way.

You Shouldn't Feel Bad about Being a Librarian

I was listening to WBUR in the car last weekend, as I am wont to do, and heard a piece ( that immediately sparked my interest. Brooke Gladstone was talking to Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All. (Johnson is also the author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries). I'm a librarian so I'm a little biased, but I think it's about a time for a book like this. Librarians are next to independent booksellers in godliness. I've worked the public reference desk so most of the revelations in Johnson's book don't surprise me. We've heard all the stereotypes about the shy, retiring, repressed lady behind the desk with her nose in a book. Well, Johnson is here to obliterate that misconception. As Christopher Buckley blurbs…"move over Google, make way for the indispensable and all-knowing lady behind the desk". In the detritus that is the result of the big bang of the digital age we need librarians now more than ever. They are the guardians of the individual's right to privacy, they are proactive, creative, imaginative, discerning and best of all their services are free! I'll get off the soapbox now but if you are a closet librarian and want to check out this title you should be able to find it on the Staff Picks shelf in March.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Best Book You've Never Read: Life A User's Manual

What kind of novel needs an index, a chronology, and "An Alphabetical Checklist of Some of the Stories Narrated in This Manual?" In a lot of ways it's hard to answer that question because it's hard to say exactly what Perec's work Life A User's Manual really is. In some ways it's a novel, in others it's an anthology, and in others it's a puzzle book.

Life A User's Manual (note the absence of any punctuation in the title) is the story of "the twenty-third of June nineteen seventy-five" just before "eight o'clock in the evening" at 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier, a building in Paris. The story moves room by room in the building describing the room and the people and objects in it, and then tells the stories of how the people got to be where they are at this moment. In describing it, the premise sounds limiting, but this is one of those rare books ( Ulysses and War and Peace come to mind) that feels like it contains nearly everything. From the much-married actress to the neurotic trapeze artist to the ambitious chemist, to soldiers, junk sellers, manslaughterers and artists, stories from all walks of life are told.

The guiding spirit of the work (because there really is no protagonist in the traditional sense) is Bartlebooth, an eccentric English millionaire who has set himself a curious quest. He learns how to paint watercolors (which takes 10 years) and then he travels to 200 ports around the world, does a watercolor of them and ships the watercolors back to another resident of the building, the carpenter Winckler, who turns them into jigsaw puzzles. When Bartlebooth returns from this expedition, he put the jigsaw puzzles back together in the order they were painted, fuses them, removes the original water color from the wooden blocks and then dips the watercolor into a solvent that erases it.

At the heart of the novel is the question, What should one do with one's life? Bartlebooth has one answer, Winckler another, Valene another. Perec, in showing all of these lives, shows the reader a path to answering that question.

Whether read from beginning to end or a chapter here and a chapter there, Life A User's Manual is a triumph of late 20th-century literature. The novel demonstrates an astute eye for detail, a profound respect for the stuff of humanity, and a tireless commitment to beauty.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

For Further Reading, Logicomix

Logicomix is a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell's search for a fundamental base for mathematics. It's an excellent book, surprising many with how compelling and entertaining Russell's struggle with logic was. The story got me interested in issues of logic and mathematics. Unfortunately, most of the problems that Russell dealt with were far, far beyond my ability to understand, but I did find Godel's Proof , by Ernest Nagel and James Newman.

The presentation of Godel's incompleteness theorem was devastating to Russell's ideas, showing not only that the foundation that Russell helped create didn't work, but also that no mathematical foundations as understood by Russell and others could ever work.

Nagel and Newman do a great job explaining Godel's famous theorem and the challenging philosophical ideas it raises. They do so clearly and concisely without patronizing the less mathematically inclined. It's a fun and challenging read for anyone looking to explore more of the ideas in Logicomix.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

McSweeney's San Francisco Panorama

After a several month delay, Porter Square Books now has copies of McSweeney's Issue #33, San Francisco Panorama. McSweeney's has always tested the limits of what it means to publish a "magazine," but they've managed to outdo themselves with this issue. San Francisco Panorama is formatted like a Sunday edition newspaper, complete with a full color paper, a magazine, and a book section.

The format itself is interesting enough to check out, but they've also gathered an amazing list of contributors; Michael Chabon, Stephen King, Nicholson Baker, William T. Vollmann, Chimamanda Adichie, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Jessica Abel, Alison Bechdel, John Ashberry, and Junot Diaz to name a few. Originally priced at $24 (which is how its listed on our website) the issue is now only $16. Get here quickly if you're interested. Given how long we had to wait the first time around, there's no telling when we'll get more when we've run out.

Monday, February 1, 2010

February's Featured SciFi/Fantasy Author(s)

Steven Erikson
(& Ian C. Esslemont)
The Malazan Book of the Fallen Series

Born in 1959 in Toronto, Canada, Erikson is a trained archaeologist and anthropologist. It is no doubt this background that has enabled him to create the varied and fully-realized cultures that populate his world of Malaz. Created with the help of his friend and colleague Ian C. Esslemont (originally as a setting for a role-playing game), Malaz is an ancient, sprawling world in flux: nations rise and fall, gods are born and die, men war and create. Erikson's plots are complex, his twists sudden, and he delights in subverting fantasy stereotypes. His characters are deeply human and deeply flawed and none of them -- no matter how important or central -- are safe from death.

Like George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice and Glen Cook's Black Company, The Malazan Book of The Fallen series is harsh, militaristic fantasy and is sure to please any fan of imperial wars and byzantine scheming.

Though not written linearly, it is recommended that the Malazan books be read in order of publication.

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