• I don't go to the library enough. Strange to hear that coming from me, a booklover, but it's true.

    This last sunday, I went with my partner, Lisa Morton, to the downtown central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. I was enthralled. Of course, I have been to this branch many times since it re-opened in 2001 (and re-named after then L.A. mayor Richard Riordan), but this visit was different. I felt like I was seeing this great library for the first time.

    Originally constructed in 1926, the Riordan library is the third largest library in the U.S. It was designed in a mock Egyptian style by architect Bertram Goodhue and then re-designed in a Mission Style after a terrible arson fire in 1986 (the largest library fire in U.S. history). The expanded and re-designed Central library opened in 1991 with 71 Branch Libraries throughout Los Angeles County. I was fortunate enough to visit the library during a six-month stay in Los Angeles back in 1983. I used to have breakfast at The Pantry (one of L.A's oldest deli style restaurants) and then walk to the library where I would spend most of the day wandering among the stacks and reading. I remember the old library fondly: wonderful light and space; comfortable chairs; quiet. You could feel the history of downtown Los Angeles in the building.

    But the new library is much better. The design is modern and up to date, while still keeping that sense of openness, quiet and light. This new version simply invites you to sit down and read. Everywhere you look there is a comfortable reading nook. The chairs are wonderful green leather and shaped perfectly for reading. Study carols, tables with soft light, nooks and crannies fill the structure.

    Lisa and I spent most of our time on the bottom floor in the History sections where she researched background information for her first novel "Netherworld". The staff were uniformly helpful. There were tours of the library going on at the time, some in Spanish. There were many people using the computer terminals and searching through the stacks. I found myself looking for interesting book titles and came across two books on the famous Zapruder film of the Kennedy Assassination that I took home. I was tempted to ask to look at some of the antique maps housed in large cases near us, but it was Sunday and I didn't want the staff to have to go to all that trouble. When it came time to leave, I was disappointed. It's too bad they don't have cots for people like me who want to stay at the library overnight.

    While searching in the open stacks, Lisa found an amazing old book, "Treaty Ports of China and Japan" by Wm Fred. Mayers, N.B.Dennys and Chas. King., London, Trubner and Co. 1867. She has her lead heroine visiting Shanghai around this time and wanted to gather details that her heroine might notice. This book had been rebound in a library binding, but was in excellent shape. There were several color maps of China and various cities, plus one large map that was damaged. She took notes and decided to check the internet for a copy she could buy for herself. Much to our surprise, this book is exceedingly rare and the sole copy we found online was going for over $2,000. I think we'll print out our info and head back to the library soon to let them know they've got to pull this book from the general stacks and put it in their rare book room.

    I love the new Riordan library and with the subway an easy walk away, I can go down there just about any Sunday. I think I'll get back into the habit of breakfast and the library. This time I'll be going with my gal, Lisa. I can't wait to go back.
  • I'm in the middle of writing a longish post on "Novels into Film" (The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins) and I thought I'd share some random book notes that came into my head the last few days. If I don't catch them now, they'll be gone like birds in a cornfield.

    Why I don't attend Antiquarion Book Fairs:

    The LA Times Calendar/Weekend edition of last week had an article on the upcoming California Antiquarian Book Fair. The author made a strained attempt to convince the reader that the new collectors of antiquarion books were young people. Amazing! One of the convincing arguments was from a Netherlands-based bookseller who was selling a copy of lyrics and notes by rapper Tupac Shakur for $47,500. His excited proof was this; "Tupac is the Shakespeare of our time". If I was selling an item for almost 50 K, I'd say they were Shakespeare and Elvis combined. Another bright comment was "...they (antiquarian book collectors) collect our of passion, enjoyment and admiration of the book and its place in history. They relish the hunt. They value the book as a text, an art object or a symbol, and oftentimes they don't even read it". Woah! Back up there, "oftentimes they don't even read it". Kind defeats the whole purpose of the book in the firstplace, doesn't it? And what happened to the "they value the book as a text?" part. No, my experience of book fairs has been one of greed and survival of the fittest. Most of the best books are traded and sold between dealers the night before the show. And I buy books because I'm going to read them, not collect them. Although there are books I read that I collect as well. I suppose I'm being grumpy here, but those kinds of statements are so silly, you know?

    How do you move 100,000 books in two weeks?

    Iliad Bookshop (the used bookstore where I work) is going to move sometime in March. We will move the entire stock of 100,000+ books in two weeks. Whew! I'm tired just writing those words. Our rent was raised astronomically and we were forced to find another building. Fortunately, our owner, Dan Weinstein, bought a building only a mile away from our present location. So, we'll be lugging thousands of boxes of books over to the new store next month. I like the idea of moving though. We can improve the bookstore by getting rid of old, dead sections and adding new ones. We'll have parking and a lot more space. We will eventually bethe largest used bookstore in Los Angeles. Once all the hard work is done, we should have one helluva bookstore.

    Old stores fade; new ones rise.

    The last year has seen the loss of several independent bookstores in Los Angeles. We lost Dutton's (North Hollywood), Green Ginger, Old Town Books, Bestseller Books, and Book City in Hollywood. Most of the losses are coming from astronomical rent increases, but a few are the result of illness and a move to the internet in order to reduce overhead. Fortunately, there is one store that just opened. My friend Jerry Chadburn, who was a printer by trade, just recently opened his "Always First" bookstore in North Hollywood. It's a smallish store, but it's packed with great books in excellent condition. Jerry has always been a stickler for condition. He's got mostly vintage paperbacks for sale, but there are sections of mystery, science fiction and cinema books in hardback. He doesn't have a website yet, but you can reach him at:

    Jerrry Chadburn
    Always First Books
    12041 Magnolia Blvd.
    North Hollywood, CA 91607

    Warning: if you get Jerry started on some of his favorite topics, expect to stay at the store a couple of hours. He's hard to stop once he gets rolling!

    Kate's Book Blog: It's what a blog should be!

    My favorite book blog on the net (yes, and that includes BookSlut) is hands-down, Kate's Book Blog. Lately, she's been on a roll. Last week she had a great post on creativity/books/writing and music, that had me mulling over her ideas for days. I'd completely forgotten that when I was younger I would frequently buy a new music CD at the same time I bought a new book; and then would proceed to listen to that CD over and over while I was reading the book. The music and the story got fused in my mind so that, to this day, certain books are connected to certain albums. Phillip K. Dick's "Ubik" is forever welded to Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here". She's got some wonderful observations on the topic with great links. You could stay busy for hours just following up. She's got an equally wonderful post on "Notebooks and Journals". It's ironic that I recently came across my old journals from 20 years ago and read many passages while cringing and laughing till I cried. Kate mulls over her use of notebooks and discusses several authors as well. I have fond memories of Camus's notebooks, the Notebooks of Athol Fugard, Robert Lowell's Notebooks and the recent Notebooks of Kurt Cobain
    When is a bookstore like a library?

    I've worked as a bookstore clerk for over 30 years. In that time, you meet a lot of people and you see them change. In the last few years I've noticed that young, high-school aged people are seem to have no idea how a used bookstore operates. At least a dozen times I've been asked by the confused young, "Is this a library? Can I check these books out?". I have to explain to them that even though we both have books, libraries and bookstores are very different. We buy and sell books here; at the library you can check books out and return them. They almost always gape at me curiously after I give them the spiel. It makes me wonder two things; are schools simply not teaching people how to use the library?; or, are used bookstores in decline so much that young people don't even know that they exist? Would the same young people ask if they could check out the books at a Borders Bookstore? or, a Barnes & Noble. I don't think they would. Hmnnn, the conclusions are discouraging. I'll just have to keep doing my part to educate younger folks about how cool a used bookstore can be. I hope you, the reader, will do the same.
  • "Since Rosario had been shot at point-blank range while she was being killed, she confused the pain of death with that of love. But she realized what had happened when she moved her lips away and saw the gun"

    Out of the gate, "Rosario Tijeras", is in your face and demanding to be taken seriously. The paragraph above could have come from any number of American hard-boiled novels from the fifties. But this one is taken from a novel published in 1999 by Columbian author, Jorge Franco. Written originally in Spanish (the translation by Gregory Rabassa is wonderful) and published in english by the excellent Seven Stories Press, "Rosario Tijeras" is a tale of L'Amour Fou told against the backdrop of the drug cartel wars in Medellin, Columbia. The "Rosario" of the title is immediately situated in the "femme fatale" tradition with the opening sentence and it's promise of death and sex. She will be both lover and destroyer to the men in her life. While this concept is pretty stupid when you consider the real women you encounter in life, I can attest to the power of a "mad love" in my own life. Reason, logic, common sense; all of them go out the window when you become obsessed with someone who is on the path to hell, so to speak.

    Our narrator, poor Antonio, tells his sad, sordid tale in the waiting room of the hospital where Rosario has been taken to die. In a series of beautifully constructed flashbacks, we learn that she got her last name by castrating the man who raped her as a young girl (Tijeras in Spanish means "scissors"), we discover that Rosario is a kept woman by high level members of the Medellin drug cartel and that she is simoultaneously having affairs with Emilio and Ferney, both local "hit men" for the cartel. Antonio is the young, reticent man who becomes her confidant and friend. After one night of sex, Antonio is besotted with her and spends a good deal of the novel trying to understand why. The ending of the novel (nope, I won't give it away here) is poignant and absolutely perfect. I could hear the Warner Bros. score well up as the camer pulls out the door and into a wide shot of the night lit city.

    This novel won the Premio de Novela Dashiell Hammett prize in 2000 (for best literary excellence in crime fiction) and has been made into a film. All of this praise is well-deserved since the novel is well-written and intriguing. What is troubling is that most reviewers fail to point out that the mix of love/melodrama and drug violence is not always a good one. The author strains credibility at times when he has Rosario embark on senseless killing only to have our young narrator explain it all away in a gush of self-deception. In fact, that's the basic problem with this novel: it simply isn't deep enough. In his effort to create the instantly interesting femme fatale, Rosario, he doesn't spend enough time with Antonio and he becomes a much less interesting character than her. His story structure is in keeping with the noir tradition, but it's clear he wants to step beyond those tropes and comment on the social issues of Medellin and the people in the drug trade. The novel suffers from the authors balancing act between noir and the social realism. It just never quite comes together in an original form. When the novel is tough, it's very tough and is completely convincing. But the softer, more ruminative passages are not as convincing and slow the novel down. And I wish the author would have abandoned the flashback structure and simply told the story as it happened to Antonio. We could have developed more sympathy and understand of this character and it would have added more weight to the story.

    Still, this novel is very good. It packs a punch believe you me. I was cringing in a scene where Rosaria shoots to death a motorist she has crashed into because of her own reckless driving. There is wonderful detail through out the novel that puts you right into the shoes of the characters and their various obsessions. And, as I've mentioned, the translation by Rabassa is brilliant. You don't have to know hard-boiled mysteries to enjoy this novel.

    Last note: the cover of this edition is a still from the film. While this Rosaria is beautiful, she's nothing like the character in the book. I like the Spanish cover much better. Here it is:

  • Teresa Nielsen is a science-fiction editor at Tor Books and her blog "Making Light" is an expression of her interest in publishing, books and writing in general. It is a very popular blog:her January 27th post, "The Life Expectancy of Books", has almost 300 responses (the post is about half-way down the page). I read about her comments in my favorite daily news site - boingboing.net, and headed over to read her looooong post.
    Essentially, Teresa is writing to authors and telling them it's time to face the fact that your book is going to go out of print. Hence, her catchy phrase, "falling out of print is a books natural fate". The second part of her post (and the most effective) is a solid evaluation of how the copyright laws have become "useful tools for the control of intellectual property" by Hollywood and Corporate America. The real push behind the last round of copyright extensions came from the big entertainment combines. They're bitterly opposed to the idea that cash-cow properties like Winnie the Pooh might ever go out of copyright.
    The "last round of copyright extensions" she's referring to in her blog is the infamous Sony Bono Term Extension Act of 1998 (also known as the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act"), which added 20 years to existing copyright terms. It also added 20 years to all works created before Jan 1, 1978. Her comments, while familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to this issue, aregood arguments that the new copyright laws actually produce results that are the exact opposite of what copyright laws were created for originally. I was amazed to read that certain authors whose works had gone out of copyright had actually come back in to copyright because of the 1998 law. She continues with a good discussion of electronic texts and their effect on copyright.
    Where I part company with Teresa is her implication that when a book goes out of print, it goes out of mind. Having worked in bookstores since I was 15 (I'm now 50), I've got a front line perspective on out of print books. I think that many authors whose books go out of print actually find their readers at this point. Melville is a classic example. I believe all of his books were out of print at the end of his life. It's taken a generation or two to discover the relevance and beauty of his works. Contrary to Teresa's suggestion that none of us have heard of list of bestsellers from 1920 (and so, the books are no longer worth reading), I think that when a book goes out of print it actually becomes part of a wider culture of readers. She rattles off a list of authors in her blog (like Frank Yerby, Mary Roberts Rinehart, etc.) and states that it's "natural" for these books to no longer be printed. The implication is that they should be forgotten as well. There's a little snobbery here that is probably what I'm reacting to. In the bookstore where I work, these authors have not been forgotten. In fact, we sell copies of their works every week. Remember Lloyd Douglas' "The Robe"? Remember Mary Roberts Rinehart's "The Circular Staircase"? These books are part of the everyday book language at our store and at hundreds of stores across the country.
    With the advent of the internet and out of print book brokers like Alibris, ABEbooks and Choosebooks, you can find an out of print book almost as easy as you can find a new book.The internet book trade has leveled the playing field between the in-print book and the out-of-print book. Amazon, which sells millions of books, has used and oop copies of a book listed for sale right next to the new book listing. I suppose what I'm proposing here is that while Teresa's comments are accurate, I don't like the idea of author's books having less regard because they are out of print and no longer in the publishers and advertiser's minds. It's understandable that she would think this way since her livelihood is in publishing, but I don't agree with that perspective. Part of my motivation for starting this Booklad book blog is to bring people's attention to works that are unusual and neglected. I don't think I'm alone in this effort either. Ecco Press did a great series called "Neglected Masterpieces of 20th Century Fiction" some time ago and I've read several of the books on their list ("Mooncalf" by Floyd Dell, being my favorite). Certainly the major publishers (like the one Teresa works for) wouldn't be interested in such a series, but smaller publishers and university presses would be. Why? Because these books are truly great and deserve a new audience; not because they would only make a very small profit, if any. It seems as if out culture is more interested in making money than in valuing our great artists and writers. Sigh....oh, well, back to reading forgotten authors!

  • The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion by Ford Madox Ford.1914. The Broadview Press, Edited by Kenneth Womack and William Baker. 2002

    "Ford's The Good Soldier is one of the fifteen or twenty greatest novels produced in English in our century" -back cover of 1951 Random House paperback edition

    I suppose there's something contrary in my personality that, when I read such puffery on the back of a book, I immediately assume the contrary: that the book is probably one of the fifteen of twenty most boring novels produced in our century. However, the list of authors who agree with the statement is impressive; William Carlos Williams, Louse Bogan, Allen Tate, Jean Stafford and Graham Greene. Their recommendation made me re-consider my instinctive reaction and coupled with finding a new, interesting edition of The Gold Soldier, I began reading this novel about a week ago.

    They were right. The Good Soldier is a masterful work of art. I don't think I've felt so deeply about a group of characters since reading Chekov for the first time. Written in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, Ford felt that it was his best book. After a period of time working as Joseph Conrad's assistant, he poured all that he had learned from that great author into a novel based partially on his own personal life. Initially greeted with little enthusiasm, it has come to be an important early work of modernism coming some 18 years before Joyce's Ulysses. I mention Joyce because Ford Maddox Ford has that same preoccupation with the contrast between appearances and reality; between convention and passion. This theme is at the heart of his novel.

    “The Good Soldier” (not Ford's choice for a title, he wanted “The Saddest Story”) tells the tale of two couples who, on the surface, seem to be "good people" who live lives of wealth and culture. Underneath, however, they are seething with lust, jealousy and guilt. In the hands of a less imaginative author, the story might have descended into melodrama. Ford wrote the novel in a style he calls "Impressionism", which is essentially a story composed of impressions and images of events rather than a literal description of events.

    In “The Good Soldier” the author's point of view is that of the main character, John Dowell, who is also the impotent husband in the ménage. What is impressive is the authors’ complete command of form and content; how each detail adds to the whole and how carefully he presents his characters as both caring and hateful people at the same time. This is the kind of novel that chapter by chapter becomes irresistible. By the end of the book, the story of these sad people is made even sadder since the author has so carefully crafted empathy for each character. You know why they act the way they do at the same time you wish they wouldn’t act that way. The tension between these two perceptions in the reader is delicious and deeply involving.

    If there are flaws in this masterpiece it would be that the author seems to share the masculine point of view. But then again the novel is like a hall of mirrors and the male narrator's own point of view is called into question throughout the novel. So, even the male narrator is flawed and unreliable. Another reason to think of this as a modernist novel – the flawed narrator is a major trope in modernist fiction.

    I urge you to read this brilliant novel. It’s not without it’s difficulties though and you’ll need a good edition with plenty of footnotes. I’ve chosen the edition produced by Canadian publisher, Broadview Press. Similar to the Norton Critical Editions, it includes a good introduction, chronologies (of the author and the events in the book), footnotes, essays and writings by Ford Madox Ford that help to shed light on the complexities of this subtle and beautiful book. Every item included in this edition is helpful and informative. However, I was disappointed not to see my favorite essay by Mark Schorer in the book. Titled “An Interpretation” it is the single most helpful essay I’ve read on the novel. Fortunately, it’s included as the introduction to the Random House/Vintage edition of “The Good Soldier” which is still currently in print.

    The design of the Broadview edition is very well done. I love the cover photo of “Miss Anderson” by turn-of-the-century photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn. Reminds me very much of the Lenora character in the novel. Her steely gaze from the cover photo stayed with me as an image for her. Perhaps that’s why I chose this particular edition.

    I’ve decided to create an audio book of “The Good Soldier”. I’ve begun reading the novel aloud for the Librivox.com site. I hope to make it available here at this site as well when it is completed in a month or so.
  • Over the years, I've had a love/hate relationship with the writings of Clive James, the brilliant critic from Australia. I remember watching his BBC documentary series, "Fame in the 20th Century" back in the early nineties and feeling like I was having an arugument with my television. There aren't too many people who can be alternately bitchy and brilliant in the same scene. You can get a sense of what I'm referring to in his famous quip on the subject of television: "Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world is probably just afraid of the world".

    Mr. James was a television critic for the British paper, The Observer, from 1972 to 1982. He then jumped into television production himself with his successful ITV show "Clive James on Television". He has continued to use television as a medium for his witty commentary on art, literature and contemporary life.

    I tell you all of this by way of introducing Clive James's official website - Clivejames.com. And what a wonderful website it is. Mr. James has filled the site with a healthy collection of his articles, a very nice collection of video programs, and, my favorite, a series of recordings from his conversations with his learned friend, Peter Porter, called "On Not Having a Classical Education" and "The Literature of the 20th Century". Their conversations are a headlong rush of brilliance and wit that must be heard to be believed.

    Mr. James has called his website a "cross between a space station, college campus and online pyramid". He hopes to preserve most of his prose, poetry and conversations on his site. Eventually, he wants to add his television programs as well. A truly multi-media website, the video section has around 18 interviews which he calls "Talking in the Library". You'll be able to watch his conversations with people like Terry Gilliam, P.J. O'Rourke, Martin Amis, Cate Blanchett, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, Jung Chung, Jonathan Miller and others. Brendan Bernhard, of the NY Sun, has written a good profile of the website along with with excerpts from a telephone conversation with Mr. James that is amusing.

    At this point the site is free, but the cost of streaming all of the material on his site is expensive and Mr. James has indicated in other interviews that he may start charging a small fee for the use of his site. So, get over to clivejames.com and learn something while it's free. Clive James is a very funny, infuriating, and articulate guide through books, literature and contemporary culture.
  • Xeni Jardin, over at NPR (National Public Radio), has an interesting post about a website devoted to public doman audiobooks. Apparently, at LibriVox.com you can volunteer to record yourself reading aloud public domain books, short stories or poems, send it to their site and they will make it available free to the general public. The site is well-organized, the forums are active, and the list of books is very interesting. While I'm not a huge fan of audio books (they tend to substitute for reading), I do like to listen to them from time to time. If you've got that favorite public domain classic novel or short story, why not head over to their site and see how to get started. Be sure to read their informative FAQ. I'm thinking of doing Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward" or William Godwin's "Caleb Williams". Any other suggestions? Remember, it the book has to be in the public domain.