Monday, July 25, 2016

How I Would Introduce Frank Turner

One of the fringe benefits of working in a bookstore is sometimes one of your non-book heroes writes a book, goes on tour, and you get to meet them. (I met Bobby Orr!) So when I saw Frank Turner wrote a book, I did what any rational person would do and immediately started begging the store's events coordinator to beg for him to read at the store. The appropriate number of emails were sent and we were assured that someone would let him know he had an invite to read at Porter Square Books whenever he was in Boston next. Unfortunately, his tour schedule wasn't going anywhere near Boston for the foreseeable future and even when it eventually does, given his relentless touring schedule, I can't blame him if decides to spend his precious little free time doing something besides performing.

But, of course, it isn't just about meeting your heroes. If you're comfortable speaking in public (I am) and have a level of cultural capital at the store (I do) you can also introduce them at said events. We almost never get the chance to thank the strangers who are important in our lives, those big distant figures who occupy swathes and monuments in our emotional and intellectual lives and when I can introduce someone special to me, I think of it as both an introduction for an audience and a thank you for that person. I want them to know that all the effort that goes into making music and writing books means something, at least to me.

So given that I don't expect Frank Turner will read at the store any time in the near future, here is how I would introduce him.

It was about 1:40 in the morning on a Tuesday or so, and, as is part of my routine, I was up reading. My roommate at the time burst out of his room and said, “Dude, you've got to listen to this.” He queued up the song on his iPad again and hit play. “A teacher of mine once told me, that life was just a list of disappointments and defeats and you can only do your best.” For the first time in my life, I heard someone articulate my politics, express all the anger with both the authority that seeks to restrict and the strategies and techniques of those who seek to free, and describe the frustration of trying to figure out how to make a difference and the strange elation that comes from knowing you are fighting even when you're pretty sure you're going to lose.

As I listened to more of his music, it felt like he crawled into my head and wrote songs about what he found there, turning my hopes for what a new humanism in art and society might look like and the lower stakes quirks of loving books that will never be bestsellers into catchy choruses and sing along anthems. The goal of any writer, any musician, any artist really, is to give the rest of us something on which to hang our thoughts and emotions. To create words that capture the otherwise unapproachable thoughts in our heads. To tell us all that we are not alone. Whether I won't sit stand down and won't shut up or I've been having dreams or those bastards that kicked away the ladder and told the rest of us that life's a bitch or no one gets remembered for the things they didn't do, Frank Turner has been giving me my thoughts and telling me I'm not alone since that early Tuesday morning. Who knew my Bruce Springsteen would be a half-assed English country singer?

I don't know if this is a good introduction for Frank Turner, especially since I haven't even mentioned his book yet, The Road Beneath My Feet, a tour diary that lets you into the life of a musician trying to make something that resembles a living doing what he loves. I also haven't told you any of the information about Frank Turner that's usually included in these introductions and I haven't quoted from any reviews or recited any blurbs. And I'm sure I haven't captured the reason why you're here and why Frank Turner is special to you. But on the day I die they'll say at least I fucking tried.

Thank you all again for joining us and please welcome Frank Turner.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How Books Show What Stitches Us Together

This is stupid. This is so stupid. Really.

After admiring Helen DeWitt for years because of Lightning Rods and Your Name Here, I was finally able to get a copy of The Last Samurai, her debut novel that, despite establishing her as, well, a genius I'd say, had gone out of print not too long after it appeared. It came out in 2000 and, along with a few other books from roughly that era (Infinite Jest comes to mind, A Visit from the Goon Squad a little later), is in that strange middle time when writers and readers were beginning to explore what could replace postmodernism. It is a celebration of writing and culture and intelligence and it is also about the impossibility of being a parent and it is also about the impossibility of being a child and it is also about how beautiful it is to be different and it is also about how challenging it is to be different.

But that really isn't the point. At least, not this point at this moment. Though the book is filled with the kind of stuff I usually write about: the idea that “every great book teaches us how to read itself” and “a writer triumphs by giving us the resources for play and growth” and “language is a jail whose bars we can bend,” and even “'intelligence' is not an idea that behaves,” that isn't what I'm writing about now.

Since I'm talking about a recent experience, feel free to safely assume that events in the world beyond my control but not beyond my responsibility were making me feel despondent. (Good old 2016.) Most of the time you can say, “Well, there's always something, right?” and though that's true, there have been times in the last year or so when the reply would be, “Yeah, but not like this.” I could still remind myself about the good in the world, still be thankful for what was in my life, still identify and enact things that I could do that could, in their own small way, maybe help a little, but it wasn't always easy. And also, at times, it felt like, as important as self-care is, despondent was the best way to feel. Despondency is sometimes the correct response. There is something important about getting close to, but not crossing over into, despair.

And then, I'm reading The Last Samurai, and, somewhat obliquely (as is the nature of the book) I discover that Ludo, the child genius and one of the protagonists, and I have the same birthday. Knowing how well DeWitt balances reference universes, I wouldn't be surprised if she were playing games with astrological cusps and equinoxes or some crazy shit I don't know about, but that's not the point.

There's ennui and then there's CAT ENNUI.
I said, out loud, for only my cat Circe to hear, wrapped around a smile “Holy shit!” I know. Stupid.

I don't entirely know why this absolute total coincidence, this 1-in-366 (Leap Year) chance of convergence, made me so happy in this weird little quiet moment when there was so much other more important stuff going on in the world, but it did. Here randomly, really meaninglessly, was a stupid, simple, beautiful, connection between me and another human being. That date means something to Helen DeWitt and it means something to me.

When someone writes a book, they encase a fragment of their own humanity between the covers and then give it to us and then that fragment belongs exclusively to us and also universally to everyone who might read it.

But the book doesn't just stitch the author and the reader together. There are now stitches between me and every other person with my birthday who reads The Last Samurai, and between every other person who loves the movie The Seven Samurai and reads the book The Last Samurai, and between every other person who values and/or enjoys displays of academic intelligence and reads The Last Samurai, and I imagine through my connections to friends who are parents, between every parent who, in the moment, because they're so sleep deprived, stressed out by shit at their job, worried about the bills, suddenly, when their child asks, after knowing the water cycle since elementary school, have no fucking clue why it rains, and reads Sibylla's attempts to encourage, contain, and support a child far too big for the world in The Last Samurai. And those stitches are only limited by language and literacy. Time and distance, the usual forces of connective erosion, are powerless.

It is hard to see a connection to people you just see on the street. Sure, we all know we are connected. We all know about the whole human family and such, but you can know something in many different ways and some of those don't really mean all that much. But by encasing humanity in something that will stay still and wait for us, books are able to present those connections to us in some of those ways of knowing that mean quite a lot.

It would probably be too much to say that books themselves stitch us together, but there are few better ways to see those stitches than reading a book.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

New Galleys June 2016

Some day I will be able to read all the galleys I want to read and give the appropriate attention to all the good books that cross my path, but that day will probably require feats of science that spit in the eye of god, and though, I'm as into abominations of humanity's hubris as much as the next guy, that day isn't coming any time soon. But every now and then I can let you know about the galleys I've come across that I'm excited about, even if I never get around to reading them and even if I don't write about them as much as they might deserve. So, for those of you versed in the dark arts of Netgalley and Edelweiss, or really into adding stuff to your various TBR lists, here are some recent galleys to look for. 

The Hidden Keys by Andres Alexis

Andres Alexis' previous book, Fifteen Dogs, was just about the most critically acclaimed book in Canada when it came out and The Hidden Keys is his follow up. Some keywords in the plot summary: expert thief, dive bar, stolen diamond, hidden fortune, mementos, fake-German artist, a detective, philosophical concerns, Treasure Island. I assume I'm not the only bookseller who scanned the publisher copy and said, probably far too loudly for the comfort of those surrounding them, “Holy fuck! Well, then...”

Ema the Captive by Cesar Aira

Aira is on my personal Nobel Prize shortlist (with Anne Carson, Sherman Alexie and a few others) so I always look forward to his next book. At 128 pages, this is a hefty work for Aira, whose books usually clock in well under that. According to the summary, this also seems to be a bit darker than Aira tends to be, centering around a kidnapping, rape, and then sex work. But, of course, with Aira, the summary generally tells you nothing of importance about the book. Perhaps more than any other writer, Aira captures the logic and motion of dreams; where you begin has nothing to do with where you end and somehow it all fits together.

The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them by Stephen Burt

Some day, when I'm an eccentric millionaire and I have the time and money to write whatever I want whenever I want, I'm going to write books like this. There are some mildly grandiose claims on the back of the book about how it will guide readers through the fractious world of contemporary poetry, but I bet Burt just loves these poems and thought it would be rewarding to write about them.

And that is fucking awesome. Criticism isn't always about applying some preexisting theory to some work; it's also about how people read books and poems and the processes through which those poems become a part of someone's life. Furthermore, people are reading new books now, and so there should be criticism about new books now, beyond the initial reviews and the Amazon rating. New books deserve serious, book-length criticism as much as the old standards (do we really need another book about Jane Austen?) so, regardless of what happens next, I'm psyched to see this book exists.

Sirens by Joshua Mohr

I'm not much of a memoir reader. It's not that I have anything against memoirs per se, I'm just not much of a memoir reader. But I am a Joshua Mohr reader (Once you've finished noting down all these galleys go get yourself Damascus.) and so have read some of his personal essays already. And they are great. So that tells me his memoir is a book to be excited about.

Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy

“There really should be a collection of craft essays by someone who wrote a literary werewolf novel,” is something that all of us should have been saying for a long time. It is really interesting watching some very old, obsolete zombie ideas finally trundling towards the whirring chainsaw of progress, and the idea of “literary” and “genre” as qualitative rather than descriptive terms is one of them.

The distinction between “literature” and “genre” writing hasn't been meaningful, well I was going to say “since at least critical theorist Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose,” but the more I think about it, the more “literature” and “genre” writing have always co-existed (Hey, look everyone, it's Frankenstein and "The Murders of Rue Morgue!") and the distinction seems to have been created mostly as a way for certain people (you know who) to justify their favorite books as factually better than other books.

Which is a long way of saying Thrill Me sounds awesome. Literary nonfiction is having something of a moment and I'm glad that moment is beginning to encompass more than just the personal essay. (Which is not a knock against the personal essay. You've all read Jamison, Nelson, and Als, right?) As I mentioned above, there is so much room for criticism to grow into the conversation among readers, writers, and texts it was always meant to be, and Percy's Thrill Me might be a part of that growth.

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam

This debut novel is set during the course of a single day in an evacuation camp during the Sri Lankan Civil War and follows a young man who has been asked to marry an old man's daughter. This was personally recommended for me by Michele Filgate, who I will always think of as a fellow member of the Valeria Luiselli vanguard, so obviously it needs to go on this list of new galleys.

Scratch by Steve Himmer

Fram managed to blend the spy novel, adventure novel, office novel, and domestic drama into a delightfully quirky tale about following your dreams that is also, in a way, one very long pun on the phrase “The Cold War.” (And I am a big fan of the dark art of the longform pun. See also: Tristram Shandy.) With a stranger coming to town only to discover said town featured a shapeshifter known as Scratch, Himmer's new book seems like it's aiming for that similar interstitial ground, with perhaps and extra dash of Victor LaValle and maybe a pinch of Tristan Egolf as well.