Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Great Essay

This article in the New York Review of Books by Helen Vendler is one of the best works of poetry criticism I've read in quiet a while. Too many critics end up speaking a near foreign language when they analyze a work, but here, in the context of a book review Vendler takes a complex, abstract topic, W. S. Merwin's line breaks, and presents an accessible, tangible analysis. A great article if you're a poetry reader or looking to become one.


We now have something else to go with the most excellent coffee and sweets from Cafe Zing. They're called Buks (the u has an umlaut so it's pronounced boooks)! The publisher defines a Buk as "an inexpensive pamphlet containing one provocative essay, short story, portfolio of pictures, collection of poems, or other surprising entertainment, readable in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee." Each booklet is only $1.49 and you'll find them in a spinner rack on our front counter right next to the Cafe.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Interview with Jesse Ball

The Way Through Doors is a beautiful spiraling novel of story telling, folk tales, mystical pamphlets, and identities. It's hero, Selah Morse is a pamphleteer by vocation and a municipal inspector by profession who witnesses a young woman get hit by a car. She is miraculously unhurt except that she has lost her memory. He identifies himself as her boyfriend and spends the night telling her stories. Selah's stories double back on themselves. The Way Through Doors has the humor, wisdom, and warmth of our most comfortable stories while radically experimenting with the novel form and the fluid nature of storytelling. Jesse Ball is the author of Samedi the Deafness, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Believer Book Award. His first volume, March Book, appeared in 2004, followed by Vera and Linus, and Parables and Lies. His drawings were published in 2006 in Iceland in the volume Og svo kom nottin. He won the Plimpton Prize in 2008 for his novella, The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp and Carr. His verse appeared in The Best American Poetry 2006. He is an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He will be reading at Porter Square Books on March 24 at 7 pm. Below is an interview with Jesse.

Storytelling is a central theme in The Way Through Doors and constantly shows up in literature in general. Why do you think storytelling is so compelling, that writers include and readers appreciate moments of storytelling in stories they are already reading?

The act of telling stories and the act of hearing them are processes and engagements by which we can understand our human situation. By that, I don't mean understand factually -- I mean intuitively.

Many of the early important novels were not straight ahead chronological narratives. Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and others, were digressive, spiraling stories that did everything but go from point A to point B. However, that is now the conventional way of telling a story. Do you think people are naturally attracted to linear narratives, that they learned to be comfortable with linear narratives from conventional novels, or that we have some other relationship with linear narratives?

The main issue, as I see it, isn't between linear and non-linear narrative. It's between two types of rendering: rendering a reality that is already the consensus, or rendering one that is more precise, more clear and more real because it is ambiguous.

What do you mean by rendering reality?

To create a world.

The Way Through Doors doesn't have page numbers, implying that how the words are physically arranged in a book is incidental to the story. What do you think the relationship is between the reader and the book as a physical artifact? What does the action of turning a page mean to a story and a storyteller?

The physical arrangement of the words is very important to me! It doesn't have page numbers simply because pages were not one of the constructive architectures. As storytelling is the heart of the matter, so the inception of speech, the paragraph, is the numbered unit.

What are constructive architectures?

The tools that are being used in making the tale -- in this case the paragraph was more important than the page.

In describing this book to customers, I'm going to have to use terms like "experimental" and "cutting edge." What do you think those terms mean to literature?

It is kind of you to say so, but I believe I am, on the contrary, extremely old fashioned.

What makes you "old fashioned?"

It matters to me that a thing be intended. I'm not very interested in culture or contemporary work.

Much of The Way Through Doors feels like a folk tale. First of all, it is an impressive feat to conjure the atmosphere of a story refined over hundreds of years of oral history. What do older forms of literature, especially those derived from oral traditions, like folk tales, legends, nursery rhymes, and hymns have to offer contemporary literature? What can we learn from them and what can we use from them in exploring new methods of expression in literature?

It is kind of you to say such things! I don't know about offering anything to contemporary literature -- I think it's a huge problem to talk at all in terms of contemporary literature. If that's involved in your writing process, it's almost a sure indication that your work will lack ambition. The work of today is a poorly fitted suit. It nearly always is. One must think only in terms of the great things of which one is fond, some of which may have been written by your contemporaries, but most of which will not. I think folk tales, legends, nursery rhymes, the oral tradition -- they all offer mechanisms that can help anyone who goes to them. Help them with what? Help to relearn how to think.

Your point about contemporary literature creates a complex chronology. Where does literature exist in time (if it does at all)? What happens to literature over time that turns it into a well-tailored suit?

Well, I think that a book is a good book when it is written and thereafter. I just don't think that there are enough good books written at a particular time to justify the fascination that exists around contemporary literature where it ends up being all that people read. There are more good books that have been written by dead people than by living ones. That's for sure.

Are there any writers you think of as "kindred spirits" in the literature you're writing?

Writers that I read to magnify what I know about myself: Rilke, Whitman, Proust, Kafka, McCarthy, Basho, Gogol, Chekhov,
Abe -- the list is endless, these are just a few. I shouldn't leave Walser off it. I adore him, too. And Merwin's Ballad of John Cable and Three Gentlemen. I love ferocity and intricate dwelling.

What are you reading now?

Boswell's Life of Johnson.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Saving Face

Someone solves a problem and the solution to that problem provides a surface for personal expression, and people express themselves on that surface. In the case of the goalie mask in hockey, the problem was that goalies were getting hit in the face with pucks, sticks, skates, fists and just about everything else that could make its way into a hockey game. The blank surface on the outside of the masks quickly became canvases for the goalie's individual personalities and over time the goalie mask became the most expressive article of sports equipment. Saving Face by Jim Hynes and Gary Smith is a concise, entertaining history of the goalie mask from the most rudimentary masks worn in the 30s to the bulletproof masks worn today. Along the way you meet a number of fascinating people, the NHL goaltenders who are some of the most unique characters in sport, constantly walking the fine line between bravery (putting their physical health in jeopardy for the sport they love) and stupidity (putting their physical health in jeopardy for the sport they love).

The other neat thing about this book is that it provides a historic record of the development of an artifact. When archaeologists encounter an object they've never seen before, they have to deduce its function in its society from whatever information they have at hand. The story Saving Face tells is exactly the kind of story that archaeologists attempt to recreate. It's a really cool book and will be fun for hockey fans, art lovers and anyone interested in the stories objects tell.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New arrivals

A couple of recent arrivals in the store that I think look interesting:

The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess by Andrei Codrescu - described as an impractical handbook for practical living in our posthuman world.

And in a totally different vein:

Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing, and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon by Dr. Nick Trout - Trout's a surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. The cover alone is worth a look at this book!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Something To Look Forward To

On May 5, 2009 author Reif Larsen's illustrated debut novel, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, will be published by Penguin Press. Having just read the galley, I highly recommend this book and look forward to its publication. T. S. is a genius cartographer with a vivid imagination and the skills of a seasoned professional. This book is best described as a modern day picaresque novel with one of the most engaging heroes ever. We watch as young T. S. attempts to understand the ways of the world and what he discovers is both heartwarming and honest. Ostensibly written for younger readers, this book has broad appeal for both the young in age and the young at heart.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Leslie Riedel, one of the more voracious readers on staff, sent me the following comments after reading The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell. The book just arrived in the store today and is beginning to receive major attention most notably in yesterday's New York Times.
"I've read many books about the Holocaust but never read anything as powerful, riveting,and as controversial as Jonathan Littell's new fictional memoir, The Kindly Ones. I can't say I enjoyed reading parts of this tome but I was fascinated with the voice Littell chose: the first person memoir of a young educated and dedicated Nazi SS officer, an internal investigator for the SS. Culling historical war facts of the eastern front of WWII, the reader is placed face to face with the protagonist, Max Aue, a Nazi murderer, a sexual deviant, and a sadist. Littell, using his background as aid worker in war torn conflicts, looks at the Holocaust from the loser's side, the motivation of killing of innocents and the bureaucracy surrounding this deadly task. Can war turn humans into beasts? Will I too revert to murder of innocents in the maelstrom of war? I think Littell has at the very least reopened the discussion. A fascinating, thought provoking read".

Monday, March 2, 2009

PSB Presents: March's Poet of the Month!

For the month of March we're featuring the highly-acclaimed poet and social activist, Sonia Sanchez, as part of Porter Square Books' Poet of the Month Series. Be sure to check out our in-store display!

Sonia Sanchez

Sonia Sanchez was born on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her mother died a year later, and Sanchez lived with her paternal grandmother and other relatives for several years. In 1943 she moved to Harlem with her sister to live with their father and his third wife. She earned a B.A. in political science from Hunter College in 1955. She also did postgraduate work at New York University and studied poetry with Louise Bogan. Sanchez formed a writers' workshop in Greenwich Village, attended by such poets as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), and Larry Neal. Along with Madhubuti, Nikki Giovanni, and Etheridge Knight, she formed the "Broadside Quartet" of young poets, introduced and promoted by Dudley Randall.

During the early 1960s she was an integrationist, supporting the philosophy of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). But after considering the ideas of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, who believed blacks would never be truly accepted by whites in the United States, she focused more on her black heritage from a separatist point of view. Sanchez began teaching in the San Francisco area in 1965 and was a pioneer in developing black studies courses at what is now San Francisco State University, where she was an instructor from 1968 to 1969. In 1971 she joined the Nation of Islam, but by 1976 she had left the Nation, largely because of its repression of women.

Sonia Sanchez is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, including Homegirls and Handgrenades (White Pine Press, 2007), Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems (1999); Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums: Love Poems (1998); Does your house have lions? (1995), which was nominated for both the NAACP Image and National Book Critics Circle Award; Wounded in the House of a Friend (1995); Under a Soprano Sky (1987); I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems (1978); A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1973); Love Poems (1973); Liberation Poem (1970); We a BaddDDD People (1970); and Homecoming (1969).

Dr. Sanchez has published a variety of plays and has also lectured at more than five hundred universities and colleges, travelling extensively throughout Africa, Cuba, England, the Caribbean, Australia, Nicaragua, the People’s Republic of China, Norway, and Canada. She was the first Presidential Fellow at Temple University, where she began teaching in 1977, and held the Laura Carnell Chair in English there until her retirement in 1999. She currently lives in Philadephia.

Click on the link below to watch Sonia Sanchez reading her poem, "Our Visions is Our Voice" at Def Poetry Jam:

Hope to see you soon!

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