Monday, April 27, 2009

PSB Presents: May's Poet of the Month!

Taha Muhammad Ali

One of the leading poets on the contemporary Palestinian scene, Taha Muhammad Ali was born in 1931 in the Galilee village of Saffuriyya. During the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, he was forced to flee to Lebanon, together with most of the inhabitants of his village. A year later he slipped across the border with his family and, finding his village destroyed, settled in Nazareth, where he has lived ever since. 

The Saffuriyya of his childhood has served as the nexus of his work, which is grounded in everyday experience and driven by a story-teller’s vivid imagination. A self-educated poet, in his youth he spent nights studying classical Arabic poetry, as well as the works of American and European poets, while supporting himself (and still does) by selling souvenirs from his shop near Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation.

Ali is the author four books of poetry in Arabic and a book of short stories. So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971–2005, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin, was published in September of 2006 by Copper Canyon Press. A new, recently published biography of Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, written by Adina Hoffman, is currently on sale.

Click below to watch Taha Muhammad Ali reading at the Dodge Poetry Festival:

Also, make sure to check out our in-store display!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Best Book You've Never Read: The Death of Virgil

Steel-blue and light, ruffled by a soft, scarcely perceptible cross-wind, the waves of the Adriatic streamed against the imperial squadron as it steered toward the harbor of Brundisium, the flat hills of the Calabrian coast coming gradually nearer on the left...

Of the seven high-built vessels that followed one another, keels in line, only the first and last, both slender rams-prowed pentaremes, belonged to the war-fleet; the remaining five, heavier and more imposing, deccareme and duodeccareme, were of an ornate structure in keeping with the Augustan imperial rank, and the middle one, the most sumptuous, its bronze mounted bow gilded, gilded the ring-bearing lion's head under the railing, the rigging wound with colors, bore under purple sails, the festive and grand, the tent of Caesar. Yet on the ship that immediately followed was the poet of the Aeneid and death's signet was graved upon his brow.

Thus begins Hermann Broch's beautiful, ponderous, novel The Death of Virgil. Philosopher and critic Hannah Arendt describes the book like this:

The Death of Virgil, one of the truly great works in German literature, is unique in its kind. The uninterrupted flow of lyrical speculation leading through the last twenty-four hours of the dying poet begins when the ship that, in accordance with his imperial friend's desire, should carry him back from Athens to Rome, lies in at the port of Brundisium, and ends with the journey into death, when Virgil has left the feverish, over-articulated clarity of a conscious farewell to live, and lets himself be led through all its remembered stages, over childhood and birth back into the calm darkness of chaos before and beyond creation.

In between the book is filled with beautiful images that comprise a museum of masterpieces. A mysterious street urchin leads Virgil's litter through the back streets and alleys, a Dante-esque journey through the gritty guts of a city. The bird-filled near silence of Virgil's room with the chest containing the manuscript for the Aeneid sitting by his bed waiting. Virgil's conversation with Octavian Augustus that paints one of the most complex, subtle, and complete portraits of power I've ever encountered. There are even moments where the ideas expressed break the syntax of prose and Broch breaks the ideas into verse:

....this was laughter, a constant flight from the haven of refuge, beyond the game, beyond the world, beyond perception, the bursting of world-sorrow, the eternal tickle in the masculine gorge, the cleaving of beauty-fixed space to a gape in the unspeakable muteness of which even the nothing became lost, enraged by the muteness, enraged by the laughter, divine even this:


the prerogative of gods and men was laughter

springing first from that god who recognized himself

springing dumbly-aware from his intuition

from the intuition of his own destructability...

The Death of Virgil presents its challenges. There are long, dense philosophical explorations on the nature of life, death, art, poetry, empire, power, etc. that challenge the attention spans of even the most devoted readers, but the novel is worth the effort. There is good reason for George Steiner to call Broch "the greatest novelist European literature has produced since Joyce." The Death of Virgil is one of the most beautiful books ever written.

Rexroth translations

One of my favorite poets is Kenneth Rexroth and some of my favorite poems among his work are his translations from the Chinese and Japanese. For National Poetry Month New Directions has issued two new, handsome, pocket-size editions containing a selection of these translations, Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind and Written on the Sky. Both are perfect to carry with you about town.

Beyond the Fields We Know

Spring has arrived; the cherry tree outside the store has suddenly blossomed with an almost audible pop, the sunlight has a brighter softer quality, and the rains fall gently on the patient thirsty earth. So let us leave the dreary monsters of March and turn to lighter, sweeter things.

Among the tangled wilderness of my bookshelves there is a tiny garden of Spring books: delicate books of fancy and fantasy that you may have missed in your travels. I’d like to point them out to you, if I may.

Our first blossom is Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner (Host of NPR’s “Sound & Spirit”). Published in 1990 and based on the ballad and folklore surrounding the 13th century True Thomas, this novel is a beautiful and lyrical book. It tells the story of Thomas’ love affair with the Queen of Elfland, his sojourn in Fairy, and the bittersweet consequences thereof. Told from the perspective of Thomas and the mortals that he leaves and returns to, this is an elegant, gentle book about love and music and truth.

Little, Big by John Crowley is a big magical hedge maze by turns playful, enchanting, elusive, and maddening. It follows several generations of the Drinkwater family as they live in, and try to understand, the great Tale that envelops them. The action is subtle (or if you like: slow), the plot is complex and inconclusive, but the writing is beautiful and catches the reader up in the joy, the terror, and the wonder of magic intersecting with the ordinary world. Little, Big is a dream: strange, half-remembered, but somehow feeling so right.

Like the fairy fruit that beguiles its eponymous city, Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrless is strange and sweet, and tastes of the forbidden. Despite the best efforts of its respectable citizens, Lud borders the Land of Faerie. They refuse to talk of the strange happening in the graveyard, they will not acknowledge their magical neighbors, and they've certainly outlawed the mysterious fruit. Still the fruit comes and with it a joyous, frightening enchantment. Written in a flowing 19th century style (it was written in 1923), Lud-in-the-Mists concerns itself with love and art, life and hope, and the intrusion of the romantic into the prosaic. Mirrless writes, "the written word is a fairy" and in her hands that is perfectly true.

If – in this little metaphor of mine – the other books I’ve mentioned are gorgeous Spring flora then Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart is an overlooked pebble that, when examined, turns out to be a tiny sparkling diamond. Set in an “ancient China that never was” it follows Number Ten Ox and Master Li Kao as they search for the Great Root of Power. Simply told and full of mystery, adventure, and humor, it is a perfect leisure novel. It is charming and witty, exciting and beautiful, full of real joy and sorrow, redemption, forgiveness, bawdy jokes and lovely poetry, and the happiest of happy endings.

Finally, in the middle of this garden of fancy, we come to the great spreading tree that is Lord Dunsany. Lord Dunsany (rhymes with “rainy”) was a prolific writer of the early 1900’s whose craft ranged from dream-like fantasies to horrific mysteries to cozy humor. In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales is a capital introduction to his work, including nearly the whole spectrum of his writing. The book opens with the “The Gods of Pegana”, a majestic mythology that reads like a pagan Old Testament. There are several of his best fantastical stories like the lyrical “Idle Days on the Yann” and the sad tale of “the Wonderful Window”. The travel-tales of Mr. Jorkens are funny and rousing and comfortable. “The Two Bottles of Relish” is a slow-burning murder mystery with a chilling ending that is both stunning and obvious. Triumphantly the collection ends with “The Pirate of Round Pond”, a defiant salute to wicked boys. Lord Dunsany collaberated with W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory. He was a major influence on Tolkien, Poe, Lovecraft, LeGuin, Gaiman, Arthur C. Clarke, and many others. It is partially from his seeds that the garden of Fantasy grew. Read him and find out why.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Manifold Destiny

As you will notice the next time you're in the store we've been moving some sections to different locations. For example, Cooking is now in the center of the store where Travel used to be. In rearranging the cookbooks I was really excited to find a new edition of a long lost classic first published 20 years ago. It was quite the sensation then. I was surprised to find out we've had it in the store since before Christmas but I hadn't noticed. The book is Manifold Destiny. The One! The Only! Guide to Cooking On Your Car Engine. This newly updated edition has new recipes such as Prius Pork and Scion S'Mores!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Joni Mitchell

With some regularity in the publishing world either by sheer coincidence or confluence of forces in the cosmos several books on a particular topic will be published at about the same time. Right now, for instance, several books examining the life and work of Joni Mitchell are in the store. Having been a devotee since her first album in 1968, I've been particularly excited. The latest, by Michelle Mercer titled Will You Take Me As I Am, focuses on what she calls Mitchell's "Blue" Period, the work leading up to that seminal album through "For the Roses".

The details of Mitchell's personal as well as professional life (and also that of Carole King and Carly Simon) are chronicled in Shelia Weller's book Girls Like Us just out in paperback.

Finally, for those more interested in a more rigorous look at her music Lloyd Whitesell has written The Music of Joni Mitchell. For this book familiarity with music theory is assumed.

Buy Indie Day

I want to thank Marie who blogs at bostonbibliophile for the news about Buy Indie Day and for her support.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Essential Pleasures

In honor of National Poetry Month Robert Pinsky and W. W Norton and Company have sponsored a website inspired by an new anthology edited by Pinsky entitled Essential Pleasures. The anthology collects poems Pinsky feels are distinguished by being read or heard aloud. Naturally, a cd accompanies the book. The website displays blogs, audio and video clips, etc. by Pinsky and many other invited poets with new postings daily.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

IndieBound Wish Lists

Among the other cool things that IndieBound has done online, it has also created a Wish List function. With the Wish List you can let friends and family know what books you want and direct them to the Indie bookstores you want them to buy from. Just go to IndieBound and sign up if you haven't already (it's great way to get involved with independent businesses around the country). Click on "MY WISH LIST" and you're off.

Monday, April 6, 2009

PSB Presents: April's Poet of the Month!


James Tate. James Tate. James Tate. Did we mention James Tate? Porter Square Books is very proud to present James Tate as April's Poet of the Month!

Currently teaching English at the University of Massachusetts, this renowned poet is the author of several award-winning books such as The Lost Pilot (1967), Constant Defender (1983), Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994), Return to the City of the White Donkey (2004), The Ghost Soldiers: Poems (2008), and many more.

Just as acclaimed, as he is prolific, James Tate also has been the recipient of numerous awards including the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry, the Wallace Stevens Award, a 1995 Tanning Prize, and a number of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2001, he was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Here's what fellow poet, John Ashbery, had to say about him: "Local color plays a role, but the main event is the poet's wrestling with passing moments, frantically trying to discover the poetry there and to preserve it, perishable as it is. Tate is the poet of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous, and these phenomena exist everywhere... I return to Tate's books more often perhaps than to any others when I want to be reminded afresh of the possibilities of poetry."

Don't forget to check out our in-store display on the work of James Tate! Oh, and if you'd like to hear the poet read one of his poems, click HERE for a free mp3 download. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tea time of the living dead

So – like a bloody, mindless, hungry horde – the zombie books have arrived. First came Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry shambling from the dark depth of delivery trucks. Then the anxiously awaited and much feared Pride and Prejudice and Zombies burst from its cardboard box like the horribly mutilated (but strangely fascinating) corpse that it is. And the customers came, emerging from the admittedly not-foggy-at-all March afternoon and snatched away the newly-dead novels. But don’t stop panicking, more zombies will arrive in mid-April.

Both Patient Zero and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies have proved popular and received favorable reviews (from those who have acquired a taste for zombies) so I would like to frantically point out a few older zombies.

The first two books are by Max Brooks (yes, he is the son of Mel Brooks). Published in 2003, The Zombie Survival Guide is not a novel but a survival manual for dealing with the living dead. It is written in a completely serious and straight-forward tone and provides detailed instructions on preparing for an attack, identifying threats, and of course fighting the dead. The Zombie Survival Guide is often classified as “humor”, but I’m not sure why; it’s certainly not funny. What it is is very entertaining. Read it with your friends, plan your escape route, contemplate the different scenarios, give in to your inner survivalist.

Following in the dragging, shuffling footprints of ZSG and using the “rules” set down in the guide, Brooks’ next book was World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (published in 2006). This novel takes the form of a journalistic report on a recent global zombie pandemic, told through a series of interviews with survivors from across the globe. The main focus of the book is wide and satisfyingly global, including a Chinese nuclear submarine, the US government’s campaign to retake America, a disgraced profiteer hiding in Antarctica, a satellite crew watching helplessly and hopelessly from orbit, and a terrible and repulsive South African plan that may have saved the world. When the focus tightens Brooks delivers moments of gripping, personal horror. Despite its relatively low “gore-factor” this book can be quite frightening. It is also thoughtful and even moving from time to time.

The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore (2004) is a short, funny novel of yuletide horror. The story is set in the sleepy Californian town of Pine Cove and features a cast of eccentrics that will be familiar to Moore's readers. Common holiday malaise turns to panic and horror when the undead shamble out of the December night. It's Shaun of the Dead meets A Christmas Story. I know it's springtime, but if Patient Zero and P&P&Z don't have to wait for Halloween I see no reason The Stupidest Angel should wait for Christmas.

And for those whose hunger goes beyond the printed word there is Zombie Outbreak 2009, New England’s own zombie parade. Cover yourself in goo! Pretend you’re dead! Shuffle in a parade! Just stay away from my brain! I have a sharpened shovel and I know how to use it! For more information go to:

New Magazines

We've started carrying a number of new magazines in recent months.

Tokion is an art and fashion magazine and a collage artist's dream.

Paste is an indie music magazine, something to replace or supplement Rolling Stone and Spin.

Buddhadharma is a Buddhist practice magazine.

Eating Well is one of the bestselling health and nutrition magazines in the country.

Aperture is a premier photography art magazine.

We've a few more new titles coming, so stay tuned.

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