This is the first of what I hope will be many "guest reviews" here at Booklad. Scott Ingalls is the director of a recent short film called "he Wright Bros. Episode 4". You can see the film and the previous episodes at channel101.com. I worked as an actor on this episode. So, when we shot the first scene a few weeks ago, I found myself at Scott's supercool "faux Elizabethan" apartment in West Hollywood. It used to part of Charlie Chaplin's Studio, as his guest cottages, and is a wonderful place to shoot a scene set in the late 1800's. Of course, actors always have to wait and I made a bee-line to Scott's bookshelves. They were very impressive with sections on design, film, modern fiction, graphics and travel. I could see Scott had broad interests and was a good reader. So I asked him what he was reading and he said "Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets" by Stephen Smith. He showed me the book and it looked so interesting I knew I wanted Scott to do a guest review. Well, here it is. PS. They took a neat picture of Scott with the book, but he didn't send it along with the review! I think I can forgive him (this time...)
UNDERGROUND LONDON TRAVELS BENEATH THE CITY STREETS by Stephen Smith, Little,Brown, 2004,
ISBN 0316 861340
Stephen Smith has a distinct, personal voice, and he takes what could be a dry history, or stoic travel guide, and really creates his own story out of his discoveries, and so it is not only the arcane and forgotten passages, and practices, that lie beneath London, but also his journey through them, that the reader is allowed to glimpse in UNDERGROUND LONDON.
Interspersed among the conversationally written pages are rare gems of exciting antiquity, that inspire the reader to delve deeper into the topics that are so colorfully introduced in the book. For the avid Anglophile, the text may be too remedial to be truly enjoyed; to the initiate, maybe a basic historical text should be read first, in order to fully enjoy the author’s many witty references, but for those with a foundation of English history, and a basic taste of modern British culture, the book can be a easily dipped into and enjoyed to readers taste, making it a very good bed-time read.
I bought this book, second hand, in a charming used bookstore near Queensgate, on my last visit to London. It was almost midnight, and the store was open. In the shop window the owner had arranged only books with a red (or predominantly red) book jacket. Frankly, the shop had me at “open”, but the display was too good to resist. The shopkeeper was friendly and exceptionally helpful. We had the place virtually to ourselves, and soon had assembled a tower of books at the register. I can easily say that I enjoyed buying the book much more than the text itself. I am planning to relocate to London this year, and I am currently doing research for another show based, not surprisingly, on some of the more mysterious parts of London.
Since 1975, Mike Hoy and his publishing company, Loompanics, have published over 300 books with titles such as, "The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving", "Secrets of Metamphetamine Manufacture" and "Understanding U.S. Identity Documents". Now, it looks like Loompanics is going out of business. Via boingboing.net, I read that Mike is closing up shop after 30 years of business. He says that he is going out of business because of the poor economic climate and not from polictical pressure.
Some Loompanics titles have long been a problem for me. When they were publishing books about how to eat cheaply, how to drop out of society and political tracts on corporate fascism, I found them interesting. But when they published books that seem to be nothing more than how-to manuals for criminal activity ("Making Crime Pay" and "Techniques of Safe-Cracking", et.al.), I was very uneasy. I mean, Jesus, I don't want to sell these kind of books.
Until the Iliad Bookshop, I had never worked in a bookstore that carried a lot of Loompanics titles. We keep them in the "oddities" section, and for good reason. These books deal with controversial topics that stretch our constitutional right to free speech almost to the breaking point. Does a book on how to set up a metamphetamine lab really serve a purpose other than to help crooks make money hooking people into a lifetime of drug addiction? Does free speech cover this kind of expression? My good friend Skye and her husband, Skip, had us over for Hoppin John and biscuits on New Year's day, and Loompanics came up during our hours-long conversation. Skye and I both felt that while some Loompanics titles were questionable, the books were still covered by free speech. Lisa and Skip, on the other hand, were adamant that these books did not benefit our community in any way and that local law enforcement should be allowed to have a record of those who sold and purchased books like the metamphetamine one.
They made compelling arguments, but I still think that you sacrifice too much when you start policing certain books. It's the principle of free speech which is being tested in the case of the Loompanics catalogue. And sometimes you have to allow speech that is questionable in order to stay true to the broader freedom. If we start forcing certain types of speech/books to be curtailed, where does it stop? And I don't trust government to make free speech decisions for us either. Politics and money would rear it's ugly head and principles would go out the window. I wouldn't sell them in my own bookstore, but I don't think others should be prevented from selling them, or have other resptrictions placed on access to these books.
I think Lisa and Skip are probably pleased that Loompanics is packing it in. I'm not so sanguine. At least Mike Hoy's departure from the anarchists book scene is not due to the Patriot act, but the fact that people just aren't buying his books like they used to.
Wikipedia has a good backgrounder on Loompanics, if you are interested in learning more.
Increasingly, the Sunday LA Times Book Review has become my favorite section of the paper. David L. Ulin was named the new editor of the review back in August and, boy howdy, is he doing a good job with the book review. Yesterday's review section was their best yet. From the opening review (by Chris Abani) of Jorge Franco's novel "Paradise Travel" to the superb, full page review (by William Deverell) of "Frank Norris: a Life" by Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Jesse S. Crisler, there isn't a boring or marginal book in the whole section. The review is twelve pages in length, with very few ads to break the flow of reading, and the range of subjects and quality of writing is outstanding. My favorite review in this issue is the delicious vivisection of Bernard-Henry Levy's pompous "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville" by Marianne Wiggins. One sentence in particular had me slapping my leg in delight;
Whereas peppering a magazine article with famous names makes for a quick and jazzy read, "American Vertigo" begins to sound less like "Democracy in America" or "On the Road" and more like "Celebrity in America" or "On the Make"
At a time when many major newspapers are eliminating or drastically reducing their book review sections, the LA Times seems to be bucking the trend. I remember being passionately attached to the NY Times book review back in the 80's; maybe I've finally found a new review to get excited about. Bravo, Mr. Ulin!
PS, Because of the Norris bio we've had a run on his book "McTeague" and are now out of stock. Fortunately, it's still in print.
I Missed noting the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe yesterday (January 19th, 1809). I'm always late for birthdays....
Mr. Poe is one of my favorite authors. I regularly re-read his stories (Hop-Frog being one of my favorites, along with William Wilson). I also love to read about his life and times. The Kenneth Silverman biography, "Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance" is about as good as it gets in literary biography. Very well written and yet highly detailed biography that covers the era he lived in as well as Poe's life. A superb portrait of a sad, but brilliant writer.
Interesting story of a mysterious figure (apparently called the "Poe Toaster") who appears at Poe's grave every Jan 19th to leave flowers and cognac. CNN has a good account. Apparently, this person has been leaving flowers since 1949! Amazing.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Poe..
From Sarah Weinman's excellent Crime Fiction blog "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind" comes a link to the Miami Herald's quick overview article on crime fiction being written in contemporary Cuba. I read the excellent "Outcast: A Novel" by Jose Latour last year (it's mentioned in the article) and loved it. The article, written by Enrique Fernandez, quotes from what seems to be a very interesting book-length study of Cuban and Mexican Crime fiction titled "Crimes Against the State, Crimes Against Persons" by Persephone Braham. Both authors point up the strong differences that exist between the Spanish "policiaco" and the American/British "police procedurals". There's another interesting overview of Cuban crime fiction at G.J. Demko's "Landscape of Crime". Both articles makes me hungry for the Leonardo Padura novels and more from Jose Latour.
PS, the Sarah Weinman blog is very, very good. It's the kind of book-related site that should be an example for everyone. She writes clearly and with passion. There is a large amount of interesting information posted and it's frequently updated. I came to her blog while researching my upcoming "novels into films" essay on George Higgins's "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" book and film. There is a fascinating post in Sept of '04 about her not liking Elmore Leonard (who modeled his early books on Higgins) and wondering if there are gender differences among crime fiction readers. Many excellent responses to her rather provocative post (and I'm envious). Here's a direct link to save you all the digging:
Link to Gender post at Sarah Windman's blog
After great pain, a formal feeling comes -
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs -
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round -
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought -
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone -
This is the Hour of Lead -
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow-
First - Chill - then Stupor - then the letting go -
Emily Dickinson, 1862
Today, I had the sad task of euthanizing my cat, Victor. He suffered from a congenital defect that caused him to form large crystals in his bladder. He had several major operations during his 8 years of life and suffered a great deal from infections and urinary tract blockages. For the last few weeks he had developed a severe infection and had stopped eating. Our excellent doctor, Dr. Liz Koskenmaki at the Aloro Pet Clinic, concurred with us in deciding to end his life. Lisa, my partner and friend, went with me to have the doctor perform the procedure. Victor was in sad shape and could barely move when we put him in the carrier. We spent a good deal of time with him, reflecting on good memories we had; petting him and talking to him.
Eventually, we went into the examination room where Dr. Liz explained that she would be injecting him with an overdose of barbituates. We talked some about the history of his illnesses and speculated that his condition was probably congenital; brought about by in breeding at the pet store where we bought him. She took Vic away to insert an IV into his right front paw. She came back and set him on the counter where we touched him and petted him. I put my forehead to his forehead and held it there for a minute. Dr. Liz injected him first with a "flush" fluid (probably water) to make sure the passage was clear; she then injected him with the barbituates which was a strange pink color in the syringe. I asked her about it and she said it was to "make sure no one got the drug mixed up". I saw Vic try to pull his paw back a bit as the fluid rushed into his veins. He shuddered a bit (I could feel him through my hands) and then after a second or two, collapsed completely with his tongue sticking out of his mouth. The doctor put her hand over his side and said "he's gone". She told us that he might have some involuntary reactions after death, but that this was normal and did not indicate that he was aware or alive. She said we could stay with him as long as we would like and they would take care of his body (we had made arrangements for cremation).
We stayed with Victor's body for a few minutes; just saying goodbye and touching him. Twice he seemed to gasp for breath, but these were the involuntary reactions Dr. Liz had mentioned to us. Still, it was startling and both Lisa and I were overcome.. We gathered his carrier and while Lisa paid the bill, I went outside in cold, looked at the slowly darkening sky and held Vic's empty carrier in my arms. I felt very, very sad. We drove home in silence; holding hands and trying not to sob aloud. When we got home we went into the bedroom and started playing with our three other cats, Roxie, Sylvia and Buster. They were starting the process of accepting Vic's death and living with it.
Victor was a good friend. He liked to lie on his back in the middle of the floor and fall asleep. Everyone had to go around him because he was so big (18 lbs). He would follow me around the house and brush up against me with his big 'ole head so hard it would hurt sometimes. When I was at the computer too long, he would let me know by plonking down in front of the monitor. He loved to come in and lie next to me while I was reading in bed. I think those times were my favorites. Victor loved to eat. We called him "Fei Chai Mao", which is "Fat Cat" in Cantonese. All you had to do was crack the lid on the can of cat food and before the sound had stopped echoing, Victor would be at your feet meeowing for his dinner. He also had the delightful habit of throwing all of his weight on to your foot so you could scratch him with your toes. Lisa has put together a page of photos we've taken over the years. One photo in particular has to be the craziest photo of a cat I've ever seen. You'll know it when you see it. He was really something.
Goodbye, Fei Chai, I will miss you terribly.
(Answering phone at the bookshop)
(long pause) Is this the Iliad Bookshop?
Yes, this is the Iliad Bookshop.
Do you have rare books there?
Yes, we have rare books. What are you looking for?
What book are you looking for? Do you know the title and author?
It's "Trader Vic's Bartending Guide"
(Looks in the Bartending section. Comes back to phone)
We don't have a copy of that book right now. I've seen it here before , but it's a hard one to find.
It's a hard book to find.
But I thought you said you had rare books!
We do. But we don't have that one. Do you have access to the internet? You could try abebooks.com they...
Aw, I don't like that stuff.
Well, you'll just have to call around to different bookstores. You could call...
That's what I've been doing!
I don't know what to tell you. You'll just have to call some other stores to see if they have a copy. I can give you...
Naw, never mind. (Hangs up)
Katharine Thalberg died on Jan. 6 at the Aspen Valley Hospital from cancer. I worked for Katharine at Explore Booksellers in Aspen, CO. from 1988 to 1990. She had moved to Aspen in 1973 where she opened the bookstore in 1975. Katharine was an extremely intelligent and well-read person who kept her bookstore open despite financial difficulties. She had enough energy and passion for two people. It's hard to believe that she is dead.
I've been sitting here after reading the Los Angeles Times obituary of Katharine, remembering her and her bookstore. Explore was a new bookstore, but had a great stock of books. Much better than most independent bookstores. She had a great passion for literature and would always order any book you felt should be in the store. Even when the book might come from a small press or university publisher and the discount might only give her a very small (5%) profit. She still wanted the book in the store. She was a demanding person and could be difficult to work with at times. I think this was because she was so out-spoken with her opinions and such a perfectionist. She was possessed of superior intelligence (degrees from Vassar, Stanford and USC) and had a boundless enthusiasm for literature and social justice. She did not suffer fools gladly.
I worked for her during a difficult transition period when the bookstore (a beautiful, large Victioran House on Main St. in Aspen) was being re-modelled to add an upstairs Bistro. The construction was a difficult process (in part because she kept changing her design ideas) and during one long day after the store had closed, this tough lady broke down and embraced me because she was so distressed. I was touched that she would ask for my support. Of course, I helped her as much as I could. Now the Bookstore is thriving and the upstairs Bistro is, I believe, the only vegetarian restaurant in town (in addition to having a great selection of books). If you follow the link and read the Aspen Times obituary, you'll find more comments by her friends and people who worked for her.
My time at Explore was very unique. I remember a Christmas rush where I picked out all of John Denver's books for Christmas. I had a wonderful conversation with the author Elaine Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels) right after I had read her book (recommended by Katharine, by the way). I also remember a wild signing for Donald Trump when his best-selling book "The Art of the Deal" was hot. With bodies pressing against us on all sides, I got him to admit he had never read Plato's Republic and that he'd better get to reading it soon if he wanted to write about business and society. When I told Katharine about it she thought it was hilarious.
I only knew Katharine for a few years, but I respected and admired her. Coming from the family she did (yes, she is a child of THAT Thalberg), it is remarkable what she made of herself. I've often wondered why she never wrote an autobiography. Considering how articulate she was, it certainly would have been a fascinating book. She rarely spoke of her childhood, but I remember her speaking fondly of Chaplin and others. She was passionate about literature and very proud of her bookstore. I don't think I ever saw her without a book in her purse or under her arm. She will leave her community, family and many close friends grieving for their loss. Explore Booksellers will continue under the leadership of her husband, Bill Stirling. I can't think of a better monument to her life. Goodbye, Katharine...
The Associated Press (via Boston.com - sorry for the registration requirement) is reporting that several major libraries across the country have books bound in human flesh as part of their special collections. Most of the books are medical texts and are many hundreds of years old. One particualar mention caught my eye:
Boston Athenaeum, a private library, has an 1837 copy of George Walton's memoirs bound in his own skin. Walton was a highwayman -- a robber who specialized in ambushing travelers -- and he left the volume to one of his victims, John Fenno. Fenno's daughter gave it to the library.
You can see a copy of this volume by going to Boston Anthenaeum website here. In addition to a long, in-depth article on the book and it's history, they provide the complete text of the book itself. I didn't realize so many libraries had books of this type. Apparently, they are accepted into the library collection if they are books that further legitimate scholarly research. It gives me the creeps, but I think it would be a fascinating experience to see the Walton book in person. Here's another interesting article via the Harvard Law School on these creepy "anthropedermic" bindings. Including a speculative history of the practice of using human skin to bind books. Apparently, it gained popular credence during the French Revolution where copies of "The Rights of Man" where bound in flesh. Probably one of history's more ironic moments. The article also covers the "lampshade myth" from the Jewish Holocaust of the Second World War. There is a short, but interesting bibliography at the end of the article.
A few days ago I was researching book reviews and came across an interview with Henry Rollins at the excellent websiteThe Modern Word. In the interview he called Jack Kerouac "a pussy" and thought that "On the Road" wasn't the great classic that it was made out to be..."because it was so nothing like what I was enduring on the road". Well, I thought he was full of shit and was all set to let him have it here at booklad. Ah, but reality likes to reach out and smack you sometimes. Who shows up at the bookstore where I work the very next day? That's right, Henry Rollins. Before I could jump on him for the Kerouac crack, he's going "Wow! What a great bookstore!" Drove by here last night and saw the lights on in the store. We went around the block twice. What a great place!" and proceeded to charm and entertain the hell out of me for the next hour. All thoughts of Kerouac's pussyness went out the window. I'm here to say that Mr. Rollins is now one of my favorite people. He loves books. He had a copy of Fitzgerald's journals in his hand and was incredibly enthusiastic. But here, let me quote a bit from the interview at Modern Word...
How long have you been reading and writing?
Well I was raised primarily by my mom, and my mom’s place was always shelves, many shelves, groaning under the weight of many many books. And so she taught me to read before I was in school. And we would read aloud to one another. And that’s how she helped me with reading and as a kid I would read a lot from Dickens’ Great Expectations. In school I really didn’t dig math or science but I liked literature. I was one of those introspective skinny boys who read because I would get my ass kicked on any level playing field with athletics, so I read my mom’s Dylan Thomas and E.E. Cummings and I really enjoyed John Steinbeck – I read Grapes of Wrath when I was in 6th grade and completely dug it. So as a kid, I read voraciously as kids do. You know, you just tear through stuff. And I was very fond of Truman Capote, who I still really like. American literature, I read a lot of it, like Hemingway, so I’ve been a fan of books since I was a little kid."
Now, that's my kind of guy! He takes the money he makes and puts it into a publishing company, hence the 2.13.61 (the date of his birth) In addition to publishing his own excellent work, he's got Nick Cave, Tricia Warden , Joe Cole and others. I can't wait to listen to him reading from his classic "Get in the Van" which is his account of touring with the punk group Black Flag. I picked it up in the spoken word section of Amoeba Records over the holidays.
Henry walked out with a couple Fitzgerlad books and some Theodore Dreiser. We were all so happy to meet him. His enthusiasm and love of life is infectious.. I admire his frank, no-nonsense style. Thanks, Henry! I'll remember not to judge people so quickly next time (However, I still think you are full of shit about Kerouac ....)
Booklad will be updated and revised over the coming weeks. I hope to add more pictures and selected links to sites and blogs of interest. I'm researching right now and finding a lot of interesting sites (Kate's Book Blog, BibliOdyssey, etc). I'll be adding more photos and possibly changing the format of the site as well.
I'm trying to see what kind of blog I can create that will provide unique and unusual book related news and commentary. One thing I don't see a lot of is commentary on what it's like in a large used bookstore (at least at this point in my research). Having worked in bookstores for decades, perhaps in addition to reviews and essays on books of interest, I'll cover some of the daily issues and ideas that come up in my days work.
Scottish novelist Ali Smith has won the 2005 Whitbread Novel Award with her novel "The Accidental", it was announced yesterday. The Whitbread is a world-class literary award that goes to the best first novel, novel, poetry, biography and children's book from an author living in the UK or Ireland. The Whitbread has always been a great source for interesting and consistently good books (unlike many of the American award-winners). Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime by Mark Haddon won the Novel award in 2003 and was one of my favorite books of the last few years. Vernon God Little by D.B.C. Pierre ( a controversial winner) was another outstanding read. While Ali Smith's book will leap to the top of my "to read" list, I haven't read any of her books yet. Ms. Smith will be taking home a check for Fifty Thousand pounds sterling.
Ironically, the Whitbread prize will be looking for a new sponsor because the giant brewer Whitbread has stopped funding the award last year. I'd like to suggest that the prize committe consider other great brew makers of the world as sponsors. How about the "Dos Equis Award"? Or the "Blatz Prize"? My favorite would be the "Old Peculiar Award"
The other winners include:
First Novel: "The Harmony Silk Factory" by Tash Aw
Biography: "Matisse the Master" by Hilary Spurling
Children's: "The New Policeman" by Kate Thompson
Poetry: "Cold Calls" by Christopher Logue
Over at the National Endowment for the Arts, they are working overtime to squeeze out the 200k they need to organize giant reading groups around the country to read one of four American novels: "Their Eyes Were Watching God", "The Great Gatsby", "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Fahrenheit 451". I say "squeeze" sarcastically because it seems like a pittance compared to what they should be putting out for this project. I applaud the NEA for doing something to get people interested in books and reading, but they should have come up with three times that amount. Still, considering the political climate towards anything cultural in these United States, we should be grateful that there is any money at all.
The program looks to be the result of a study the NEA did last year called "Reading at Risk" in which, based on questions from the 2000 Census, they apparently found a steep decline in reading across a wide range of Americans. I've downloaded the free pdf file and am reading it now. Pick up one for yourself here.
Er...I have to admit I haven't read "Their Eyes Were Watching God" yet, but I hope to remedy that situation this year. Personally, I like the list of books the NEA are using. I would have thrown in a Mark Twain or a J.D. Salinger, but I suppose they don't want any controversy. Too bad, controversy gets the blood pumping and the brain thinking.
"When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest"
-William Hazlitt (1778-1830)
PS. At Grand Text Auto there's a lively critique of the NEA report. Check it out here.
Booklad began as a drawing that Nancy Holder gave to us at a book signing at one of my favorite bookstore, Dark Delicacies. It was a drawing that her daughter, Belle, made. My partner (Lisa Morton) and I both loved the drawing and put it on our kitchen bulletin-board where we would see it every day. You can see the drawing just to the left of this text. I've added a little to make the name clearer, but it's pretty close to the original. Although the image is fun, it's the word "booklad" that has stuck with me these last several months. When I was mulling over new projects for the coming year, booklad was there whispering in my ear to start a blog about books. After all, I am a booklad. Books are my life. Every day I talk about books, sell books, alphabetize books, order books, read books, discover new books and look for new books to read. Then when I get off of work, where do you think I go? To the bookstore, of course! A booklad's work is never done.
With this "Booklad" blog, I hope to bring you news from the front lines at the bookstore where I work (Iliad Bookshop), stories of books and book hunting, reviews of interesting books from my own personal library, essays on book aesthetics and book history, and comments on new and unusual books that come my way. I will also have profiles and interviews with writer friends and an ongoing picture essay on "What are you reading?" where I will snap pictures of people I find reading and ask them about themselves and their book. Finally, I hope to learn more about books through this blog. I've always been interested in the history of bookstores, printing and publishing, but I've never studied it carefully. I hope to read extensively in these areas and to bring you my discoveries and commentary. It should be an interesting journey!
And thanks for the great drawing, Belle!