April 24, 2013
Oh how I wish book-selling would forever stay in the trusted hands of the independents. This bookshop is a perfect example for the why of that. It’s a spacious room with floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with new, collectible and signed mystery and crime books. In the center are tables displaying new, old and favored books to browse, and working behind desks is that rare species, the knowledgeable bookseller.
This is The Mysterious Bookshop in New York’s Tribeca, or TriBeCa, referring to the district that’s the “Triangle Below Canal Street.” The photo to the left below was taken by my traveling companion while I browsed the shop in a state of hysterical joy. On the main display table, I discovered not only American editions of new books, but also their British counterparts in first editions.
For book collectors, that’s a big deal. If you’re collecting the works of a British author, say, Ian McEwan or Hilary Mantel, the American first edition of their novels sold here are not the real firsts, and online access to those real firsts is not always easy, or guaranteed.
A few years ago, British author A. S. Byatt spoke at a local university. Knowing about this in advance, I purchased her new novel The Children’s Book from the London Review Bookshop, so I could get her signature on the British edition. The British edition cost double the American edition, mostly due to shipping, but I didn’t mind. Also, I knew it was a gamble as to whether or not what came in the mail would be a first edition because the novel had been out for several months in the U.K. If the LRB shop did have a first, it was likely buried under a group of later printings. In other words, if I had lived in London, I would’ve gone to the store and digged for the possibility of it, which often proves fruitful. Alas, the gamble didn’t pay off. I now have a signed fourth printing of the British edition of The Children’s Book and a signed first American edition.
So here, on the main display table of books at The Mysterious Bookshop, was the recognizable dust jacket of Kate Atkinson’s new novel that’s been getting a lot of attention. Beside it, a completely different dust jacket for the same book, which I knew was the British edition – and it was a first British edition, signed by Kate Atkinson. I flipped through and petted that book so many times the bookseller casually remarked, of all the books I was deciding to buy, obviously that was the one I really wanted. He was right.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is about a girl named Ursula Todd born in 1910 only to die and be born over and over again throughout the century. From Atkinson’s website: “What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?”
I also bought The Beauty of Murder by British author A. K. Benedict. This is Benedict’s debut and not yet published in the U.S. (The bookseller told me it’s not confirmed whether or not it will be.) The premise of this mystery was too intriguing to pass up. From inside the dust jacket: “As [Stephen] Killigan [a senior lecturer at Cambridge] traces a path between our age and seventeenth-century Cambridge, he must work out how it is that a person’s corpse can be found before they even go missing, and whether he’s being pushed towards the edge of madness or an astonishing discovery.”
Should that description intrigue you, too, you can buy The Beauty of Murder online from The Mysterious Bookshop. Also, you can sign up for their newsletter, and if you want the booksellers to make selections for you, they have seven Crime Clubs that send you a book a month. (I love those kinds of surprises in the mail!)
April 4, 2013
Every year on Easter weekend, I travel with friends to Akron, Ohio, for the Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society’s Antiquarian Book Fair, otherwise known as the NOBS fair. Booksellers from the tristate area and beyond (Wisconsin, New York, Kentucky and, one year, Montreal, Quebec) bring their rare and used books to display in booths organized in one big room. This year, there were a little more than 35 exhibitors, which is almost half of what it used to be in better economic times. Nevertheless, it was a bonanza of new discoveries for book collectors and readers, and for me a budget-busting challenge. Accessibility to so many booksellers in one room for a limited time eliminates any chance for my preferred “peruse and think about it” style that allows me to buy carefully. In Akron, in that one-room mecca, I shop like I’ve got Warren Buffett as a Sugar Daddy. Fueling the frenzy is the reality that every time I walk away from a booth to think about a book, I have to be prepared someone else, right behind me, might buy it.
That happened one year with a 1929 edition of Robert Graves Good-bye to All That. No dust jacket and nothing really collectible about it. What I liked were the black-and-white photographs. It was $40, and I don’t collect Graves, so I walked away. But as my friends and I were getting ready to leave for dinner, I rushed back to buy it, giving in to my impulse. The bookseller saw me looking for it on the shelf and said it was gone. He then casually mentioned the book was the first he’d seen in that edition in his 30 years as a bookseller. By those very words, I became afflicted with the haunting of “the one that got away.”
I began to search for the book online that same night, after I got home, at midnight. It had to have all the same parameters — no dust jacket, 1929, $40, first edition, sixth impression — and true to what the bookseller said, the book didn’t show up anywhere. But a few weeks later it did, in England, and I purchased it online, and then a day or two later the British bookseller sent me an email saying he couldn’t find it.
The one rare-books merchant I look for every year at the Akron fair is Booklegger’s Books from Chicago. His modern first editions are in beautiful condition, and his selections never fail to hook me because they are the novelists and poets whose first editions I want on my shelves. Over the years, they have included a first edition of Jean Genet’s 1954 The Thief’s Journal; a signed first edition limited to 250 copies of Diane Wakoski’s poem Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons; and a signed first of Tim O’Brien’s 1978 Vietnam classic Going After Cacciato. One year, there was The Three Cornered Hat, published in 1928. I’d never heard of it, let alone seen it before, and yet I was drawn to it for the construct of the dust jacket, with the edges cut out like a paper hat.
This year, leaving NOBS, I felt the hint of anxiety that comes with the realization I’ve once again so easily, without question, ignored my budget. It keeps happening, despite my proven ability to control myself and honor limits at other book venues. Had I time to think about all the books I wanted to buy — lay them out in front of me and determine which ones I could put back for another time (or forever) — I’d have faired better. But that’s not how this works. At Booklegger’s, as I wrote my check for the beautiful Pulitzer Prize Edition of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, gorgeously illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, a man approached and asked Larry, the bookseller, if he had anything illustrated by Wyeth.
There are two books from other booksellers I did indeed walk away from to think about. I guess I felt I wouldn’t miss them, if I went back and they were gone. In fact, I didn’t go back for them. One, The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, is a common find, although this first edition was in perfect condition — “very fine,” as described by the trade. The other, a novel by R. F. Delderfield, who wrote God Is an Englishman, holds nostalgic strings over me from my youth, and that one, A Horseman Riding By, I admit, I was looking for online at midnight, after I got home.
February 20, 2013
Here’s a book I bought several years ago because of its cover. Those soulful child’s eyes looking at me, how could I resist? Even the rare book cost didn’t deter me. I had to have it.
Simon & Schuster published The Sweet Flypaper of Life in 1955. It was created by an African-American power-duo, photographer Ray DeCarava and poet/writer/playwright Langston Hughes. DeCarava (1919 – 2009) was the first African-American photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952). He used the grant money to create a portrait of Harlem via black and white photography. He drew from that collection to create this book.
Hughes (1902 – 1967) rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920′s and became one of the 20th century’s most recognized poets and interpreters of the African-American experience. He connected the book’s photos with a fictional story narrated by a grandmother named Sister Mary Bradley.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life is now out of print but sells on the used and rare book market. A high collectible item, it gets expensive, especially if signed by one or both of the authors. That’s unfortunate, to be so out of reach, because the photos and story capture and relate 1950′s Harlem better than a textbook version might attempt, due to the combined, sensuous textures and tones created by these time-honored artists.
On the back cover of the book, Langston Hughes is quoted: “We’ve had so many books about how bad life is [in Harlem]. Maybe it’s time to have one showing how good it is.’” In its 98 pages, the book takes us through photos of parents hugging their kids; friends and family laughing and working in their homes; people walking the streets; working mothers riding the subway and kids playing and daydreaming.
Sister Mary Bradley wonders without judgment about her grandson Rodney, who sleeps all day and goes out with the women all night, and she counsels her youngest daughter Melinda not to fret over her husband, a good family man, who some nights doesn’t come home: “Melinda got the idea she can change him. But I tells Melinda, reforming some folks is like trying to boil a pig in a coffeepot — the possibilities just ain’t there — and to leave well enough alone.”
Our narrator tells us she’s “a little sick.” There’s reference to her “going home,” but she stubbornly tells the Lord and everyone else, she’s not ready . “‘I done got my feet caught in the sweet flypaper of life — and I’ll be dogged if I want to get loose.’” Her confident, grand-mothering voice speaks with love, reverence, joy and purpose from the center of Harlem’s hard, unrelenting everyday life, thanks to her gift of seeing that life through a lens of blessings and hope.
November 5, 2012
What would you do if you found a naked woman floating face down in the swimming pool of your summer vacation villa? The British characters who make such a discovery in this brief, complex and stunning drama don’t reach for their cell phones. It’s July 1994, and we weren’t all addicted to portable electronics then. They also don’t – true to British, stoic reserve – panic and run for a land phone. They’re not sure the woman is dead. (She’s not). It’s a droll and inconvenient moment for the vacationers as the woman they come to know as Kitty Finch rises Venus-like from the pool and frantically searches for her clothes.
The setting is southern France, outside Nice. The vacationers are two couples: Isabel, a war correspondent struggling with an identity crisis; her husband Joe, a famous poet who’s haunted by his Holocaust childhood; their 14-year-old daughter, Nina; and their bankrupt friends, London shop owners Laura and Mitchell. The languorous summer activities provide the perfect tepid backdrop for the explosion about to be visited upon them, with Kitty as the igniter and their personal troubles the unexploded bomb. It starts when Isabel invites Kitty to stay with them (without consulting the others). Clearly, she’s baiting her philandering husband. Soon, to make it worse, the group learns the young, beautiful Kitty intentionally arrived at their villa in pursuit of the poet. More than a fan, she feels she has a “nerve contact” with Joe, and she’s written a poem she wants him to read.
Had the author Deborah Levy opened Swimming Home with the pool scene, she would have set us up with a mildly intriguing premise, but she ramps it up by giving us a glimpse of what’s to come in less than 300 words that begin the story. The future moment takes place in a car on a mountain road with Kitty a menacing force and Joe regretful over their fling in a hotel room. Levy writes, “When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.” The foreknowledge from this scene creates foreboding that lasts ‘til the end — because the Brits fail to fear Kitty, and we’ve been introduced to a smidgen of the deadly ending.
Day by day the disturbed, often incoherent Kitty mocks Mitchell, woos the teenager Nina, studies the area’s flowers (she says she’s a botanist) and randomly dresses in her birthday suit. The Brits are so caught up in themselves they either can’t see Kitty’s danger or they doubt it. Levy writes, “…[Mitchell] couldn’t work out why he thought someone as sad as she was might be dangerous.” They tolerate her odd behavior just as they tolerate the cloudy pool water and the mouse in the kitchen.
Swimming Home is highly entertaining and profoundly unsettling for the human flaws that make the vacationers so vulnerable. Levy sustains masterful control over Kitty’s slow-building intent to manipulate herself into Joe’s psyche, all the while portraying a wider lens that encompasses the relational complexities of the other characters. That includes not only the vacationers but also the villa’s hippy caretaker, a café owner in lust with Nina and an 80-year-old neighbor, Madeleine Sheridan, who’s a retired physician. Madeleine is the Greek chorus that warns of “the mad girl with her halo of red hair,” knowing first-hand that Kitty is mentally ill.
The book gets its title from the poem Kitty wants Joe to read. She hopes he’ll discuss it with her when he invites her for cocktails at a nearby, upscale hotel on day seven of her stay at the villa. Needless to say, discussion is not what’s foremost on Joe’s mind. And then comes the mountain road scene revealed in part to us in the beginning, followed by a gasp-worthy ending that’s brilliantly executed with Levy’s incisive brevity and vivid prose.
Written in 157 pages, Swimming Home, short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is a shocking story about the limits we push for love and the denials we invest in to keep it.
October 21, 2012
I’m delighted NYRB Classics Series has re-printed the long out-of-print Thomas Tryon novel The Other, newly available again this month. I read the chilling bestseller with complete absorption during my teens in the 1970s. It left me rattled, though, disturbed by how it so successfully lured me into its darkness and twisted my reality. I’ve never forgotten that uncomfortable feeling it gave me, which became a haunting of sorts, apt for the book and this Halloween month. All these years it’s stoked an inner voice telling me to re-read the book and face again what rattled me. Well, here’s my chance.
NYRB writes in its description, “Thomas Tryon’s best-selling novel about a home-grown monster is an eerie examination of the darkness that dwells within everyone.” That home-grown monster refers to identical 13-year-old twins, Holland and Niles Perry, the one evil, the other good. Their relationship is frighteningly close — they know each other’s thoughts in a way that appears supernatural. At their family’s New England farm one summer in the 1930s, their father comes to an accidental death, and then ”…the family–the whole town–is shaken and bewildered by the advent of a horrifying series of inexplicable deaths and disasters.” (That quoted line comes from the dust jacket of the original hardcover edition of the book.)
Writing about this horror novel is challenging because one has to be extraordinarily careful not to reveal too much. Likely that’s why the new NYRB edition has an afterword and not an introduction by Dan Chaon, whose most recent book is story collection Stay Awake. The restraint required in an introduction to The Other, so as not to give away or even suggest the plot’s deepest secret before readers have entered the story, would be too limiting for a creative introductory analysis.
The novel was first published in 1971 (the same year as William Blatty’s The Exorcist), and while it received wide praise, one New York Times critic called The Other implausible, and some readers over the years have complained they were bored in the beginning, i.e. it took a while for them to be hooked. That’s a small minority. I offer the information here, though, to prepare you in case you, too, are not hooked immediately. Stick with it, because millions of readers found this book riveting — it sold more than 3.5 million copies. The Fawcett paperback edition in 1972 alone sold 2,810,000 copies, as reported by the NYT February 11, 1973.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the novel when it first came out, “Truly extraordinary, truly — it’s one of those books over which everybody will take leave of their senses, all seven of them.”
A final note, regarding 20th-century bestsellers: I found a website related to an English course at the University of Virgina that used best-selling 20th-century American literature as a means of understanding 20th-century America. The course, offered in the fall of 2002, required students to read bestsellers and complete information about them in an online database that includes – and of likely interest to book collectors:
- a bibliographical description of the first edition
- publication history
- reception history
- an analysis of the work in its cultural and literary contexts
May 18, 2012
A few years ago, in a local used/rare bookshop, I came upon the original Signet paperback edition of The Catcher in the Rye, published in March 1953. I couldn’t resist owning it for the memorable illustration of Holden Caulfield entering a squalid New York City neighborhood, carrying a suitcase and wearing his red hunting hat and scarf. The paperback was the version of the classic I read in high school, and I paid $50 at the shop for what once sold for 50 cents — a worthy investment in book nostalgia.
In Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of J.D. Salinger, I learned the legendary recluse hated that Signet paperback design. He fought it but couldn’t get it changed, having acquiesced to it in 1951, the year Little Brown first published The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger blamed Little Brown, which controlled the paperback rights, for allowing such a tawdry cover to be used by Signet, “caring nothing for the presentation of art.”
Before reading this engaging biography, my frame of reference regarding Salinger conformed to popular stories about the legend’s seclusion. Like most everyone else, Salinger to me was simply an eccentric hermit who once wrote a lasting classic novel. I was aware he fiercely fought any invasion of his privacy at his home in New Hampshire, fought (and won) in court Ian Hamilton’s unauthorized biography and suppressed the sale of another author’s sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. And then there was that embarrassing tell-all by Joyce Maynard. But in J. D. Salinger: A Life, I came to understand a person who grew into his extremes from accumulating personal experiences.
That includes his soldiering in the 12th Infantry Regiment during World War II. I was surprised to learn Salinger stormed Normandy beaches on D-Day and took part in the horrific events in the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. He also was among the American troops discovering Nazi concentration camps. Needless to say, the psychological and emotional impact of his war experiences were profound and enduring. Slawenski writes, “Salinger the man and the events of war are as inseparable as the author and the works that he penned.”
But it was the perceived betrayals by editors and publishers in the 1950s and 1960s that significantly contributed to Salinger’s eccentricities. Shortly after he returned to New York, after the war, he learned Lippincott Press would not publish his collection of short stories (Salinger had been told it was a “done deal”). By this time, he’d already experienced magazine editors changing his story titles and The New Yorker accepting a story and then not publishing it. Yet to happen was Harcourt Brace’s decision not to honor the verbal contract to publish The Catcher in the Rye in 1950. (That’s a famous moment in literary history – Little, Brown and Company became the publisher.) Salinger reached a point where he couldn’t trust the publishing community to value and respect his work. He became extremely difficult, refusing to let editors and publishers control the presentation and publicity of his stories and novels. He would demand, resist and fight, guarding his characters and their fictional worlds as he guarded his own privacy. “Striving as he was for perfection, the thought of allowing his work to be mangled by editors in the pursuit of profits incensed him.”
In reviewing J. D. Salinger: A Life last year, critics consistently made the point it’s impossible to write a successful biography about a writer who lived a secluded life, destroyed his letters and demanded friends say nothing about him to journalists. I agree that’s probably true; however, with what is known, and what is able to be pieced together from research, a story can still be told with significant value for readers. I believe here Slawenski triumphs, as he covers not only the WW II years but also Salinger’s privileged young years on Park Avenue with his parents, his trouble in school, his family life, his interactions with the staff at The New Yorker and his struggle between his ego and his spiritual beliefs.
Salinger’s publishing life ended in 1965 with the story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in The New Yorker. Slawenski writes about this time and Salinger’s remaining 45 years with the same engaging detail and warmth as the more notable early years. He describes Salinger’s death on January 27, 2010, as “a kind of terrible extinction.” That description fell hard on me with its heavy truth. I especially loved this line: “J. D. Salinger was unique, and many found his noble opposition comforting.” Amen.
Random House published the hard cover edition of J. D. Salinger: A Life in 2011. I read the trade paperback edition, released this year. Kenneth Slawenski is the founder of deadcaulfields.com. In January, in Salon, he wrote this interesting article: “What was J. D. Salinger working on?”
April 19, 2012
I attended the New York Antiquarian Book Fair last week and fell in love with a signed paperback, first edition, of Steal This Book, Abbie Hoffman’s anti-establishment survival guide self-published in 1971. Nostalgia gripped me – to own the book would be to own a tangible reminder of the years I was growing up when Hoffman appeared on the evening news protesting the Vietnam war or the capitalist pigs he despised, or causing trouble at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention with the Chicago Seven. Those were the years when music, politics, war, feminism, psychedelic drugs, Ed Sullivan, the moon landing, mini skirts and tie-dyed shirts and civil rights marches filled the nation’s psyche. I can see as clearly as I see this computer screen my sister one hot August night in 1968 imitating President Lyndon B. Johnson and putting me in hysterical laughter while the Democratic Convention broadcast on our television. More than a paperback, a signed edition of Steal This Book sitting on my bookshelf at home would provide a sensory journey into that decade of social change, the opportunity to glance at its spine and experience that flick of an emotional go-back in memory.
Abbie Hoffman wrote the introduction to his book from Chicago’s Cook County Jail. He was charged with conspiracy to disrupt the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and intent to incite riot. He was acquitted of the conspiracy charge but sentenced to five years for the other charge, which eventually was overturned (1972). He self-published Steal This Book because the content made publishers and booksellers nervous. It instructs readers how to live a life of protest without depending on the social order. In other words, how to steal and make bombs. The chapter titled “Free Food” in the “Survive!” section begins:
“In a country such as Amerika, there is bound to be a hell-of-a-lot of food lying around just waiting to be ripped off. If you want to live high off the hog without having to do the dishes, restaurants are easy pickings. In general, many of these targets are easier marks if you are wearing the correct uniform. You should always have one suit or fashionable dress outfit hanging in the closet for the proper heists.”
The book sold well. According to a 1990 New York Times article about books stolen from libraries, “Is There a Klepto in the Stacks?”, Steal This Book came out in April 1971 and by July sales reached 100,000 copies. The article listed Hoffman’s counter-culture classic as number 5 on its most-stolen list. Alas, the rare, signed copy of Steal This Book was beyond my budget at the Antiquarian Book Fair, and I walked away from it. Considering its title and interior messaging, I should mention the desired book was behind a locked, glass cabinet door.
Two days later I found myself in Bluestockings, a self-described radical bookstore in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a far cry both in location and subject matter from the bookstores I visited in the Upper East Side. Shelving categories included, to name a few, Activist Strategies, Civil Liberties and the State, Class and Labor, Global Justice and Anarchism. I didn’t linger very long, as I did in the Upper East Side stores, Kitchen Arts & Letters, Crawford Doyle Booksellers and The Corner Bookstore. As I left, I noticed Terry Bisson’s new novel Any Day Now on the display table. I had finished it a few days before I left for NYC, so understood its presence in Bluestockings.
Any Day Now follows the young Clayton Bewley Bauer from Owensboro, Kentucky, through his coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, from dating a car-hop and reading Howl and On the Road with a beatnik neighbor to dropping out of college and hitch-hiking to New York City, where he hangs with radicals involved with the Black Panthers and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He leaves NYC on the run from the FBI and lives in a commune in Colorado. There’s no mention that I recall of Abbie Hoffman but certainly of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention where Bisson provides an alternate history — Senator Robert F. Kennedy appears at the convention with a bandage around his head and becomes the democratic presidential nominee. Martin Luther King also survives his assassination and is RFK’s vice presidential pick.
The story is rich with atmosphere of the radical times, and anyone who lived them will get lost in the period details mentioned throughout. It’s like flipping through an absorbing Life magazine photo essay of the era. Readers born after 1970 may find the story dry. It lacks an emotional draw that makes us care about the characters and is written in short paragraphs with a staccato narrative voice. When it comes to the 1960s, however, if you lived it, you don’t need someone to create a seductive narrative draw. It’s already built into your own emotional core. You’ll hear the music, feel the revolution and know just how Clay feels when he says, “If I had twenty bucks, I would hit the road, stick out my thumb, go where the wind takes me.”
April 5, 2012
I recently re-read John Gardner’s Grendel, the 1971 novel that re-tells the first part of the epic medieval poem Beowulf from the monster’s viewpoint. The willingness to give reading time to a book I’ve already read, when there’s not enough time to read all the books I haven’t read, got triggered by an advanced reading copy of Grendel inscribed by the publisher to the intended receiver, “Please read. You will love this.” The ARC is a rare acquisition for my library that took me back to the time one of my college English literature professors gave me his copy of Grendel, thinking, I suppose, I’d appreciate Gardner’s extraordinary imagination and lyric monster writing. It was not an assignment, rather something Mr. Parks enjoyed and wanted to share with the student (me) who was interning with him that quarter. I read the book, but the story and all its meaning sailed right over my head.
So here, decades later, I’m reading Grendel out loud and walking around the room at the same time because one cannot sit still under that sheer magic created by Gardner, a narrative of such magnificent lyric words and insights you can’t help but to dramatically read the story out loud to hear them. I relished the rhythms of the lonely, philosophical monster’s fretting and roaring as he struggles to understand the purpose of his existence. Grendel doesn’t see himself as people see him, a violent fiend from hell, and Gardner skillfully brings to life the monster’s sweet, emotional confusion.
Grendel lurks outside King Hrothgar’s magnificent mead hall, spying on the drunken feasts and listening to the poetry of the harpist, known as the Shaper, who sings of goodness and hope. One day, the Shaper tells the story of Cain and Abel, “an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light.” Grendel learns he’s from the darkness, “the terrible race God cursed.” Filled with scorn and doubt, he seeks the counsel of a gold-hording dragon, who dismisses the idea there’s any meaning in life, light or dark, and claims the Shaper creates illusions. The dragon casts a spell on Grendel, making him invulnerable to any weapon. “I could walk up to the meadhall [sic] whenever I pleased, and they were powerless. My heart became darker because of that.”
Grendel rampages through the mead hall, savagely killing Hrothgar’s men night after night, seeing no worth in any life, especially because he can so easily take it. When he decides not to kill Hrothgar’s wife, he says:
“It would be meaningless, killing her. As meaningless as letting her live. It would be, for me, mere pointless pleasure, an illusion of order for this one frail, foolish flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity.”
He’s a horrible creature, but Gardner gives him humanity, and you can’t help but love Grendel — he’s intelligent, funny, self-loathing and monstrously witty. He knows what he’s doing isn’t right, and yet he can’t stop because he can’t reconcile the senselessness he sees in the world. He’s a beastly creature capable of love and sympathy — desiring it, actually — who transforms into evil because no one gave him a chance to be anything but evil. There’s a great life message here, and many more like it in this classic, right up to the end when Grendel finally is overcome by the hero Beowulf.
One doesn’t need to have read the original medieval poem to enjoy Gardner’s spin-off, but there’s so much more to Grendel’s story after his death, when Gardner’s novel ends, that it’s worth reading Beowulf either again or for the first time. I did (again). I picked up the wonderful translation by poet and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney. Published in 2000, Heaney’s version became a national best-seller, which says it all – how often do you see translated medieval poetry described as a best-seller?
As for Gardner’s Grendel, it’s poignant, spiritually and psychologically rich, and delightful to read. I understand now why Mr. Parks wanted to share it.
Update: The title to this post was slightly modified after publication.
March 18, 2012
Nathan Englander’s new story collection illuminates Jewish life and consciousness with exceptional, soulful clarity. Each of the eight stories uniquely employs character, plot and tone to lay before us the challenging and sometimes ugly elephants that can materialize around anti-Semitism, holy law, secular temptation and Jewish suffering. While the subjects are large, the stories feel intimate, reaching deeply into readers’ sensitivities as they explore vulnerability and holy angst.
For me, the book became a kind of secret treasure I thought about during the day, looking forward to it as if I were going to meet a special friend. I attribute that to not only these eight being simply good stories, but also those imposing elephants, so fascinating by their invisible presence revealed.
In the book’s title story, the first in the collection, Mark and Lauren are Hassidic Jews from Jerusalem visiting Mark’s parents in Miami, Florida. They spend an afternoon with their more spiritually casual Jewish friends, Deb and her narrating husband, who regards the Hassidic couple as “strict, suffocatingly austere people.” Loosened up with liquor and marijuana, the couples verbally spar over issues of modern Jewish life, including intermarriage, liturgical absolutism and the significance of holy ritual. Mark’s ultra-orthodox certainty hides an elephant in his marriage, which becomes visible when the couples engage in an unsettling Anne Frank game that asks players who would hide them in the event of a second Holocaust.
Englander probes the demands of religious absolutes in several of the stories, and while it is Judaic law in his telescope, all faiths can fall within its field of vision. In the story “Peep Show,” a successful attorney, Allen Fein, spontaneously enters a peep show on his way home from work. When he drops a second token into the slot to see the pretty girl one more time, the partition raises and reveals his childhood rabbis. In this symbolic story of sexual guilt imposed by holy leaders, Fein says, “You painted for us the most beautiful picture of Heaven, Rabbi, then left us to discover we’d all end up in Hell. Some room – maybe if you’d left us some room.”
The stories are equally compelling and richly imagined, but diverse in style, testifying to Englander’s breadth of creativity. For example, “Everything I Know about My Family on My Mother’s Side” is written in numbered paragraphs. There is so much underlying the plots of these truly amazing stories that none are simply open-and-closed fictional narratives. They move us to the edges of eternal contentions, encouraging us to look into their depths, such as in “How We Avenged the Blums.” A Russian Jew training a group of boys to fight an anti-Semitic bully says to them: “Do you know which countries have no anti-Semite? … The country with no Jew;” or in “Sister Hills,” an extraordinary political fable about Israeli settlements, asking probing questions about ancient covenants with God.
It’s unusual for me to claim all stories in one collection as a favorite, but that’s the truth of it here. One more to shout out about – “The Reader,” a story about an old man who follows a has-been author across the country to attend his bookstore readings. He is the author’s only audience. Through the old man’s obsessive attachment to the author’s novels, we understand, as I experienced with What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, “an intimacy as real as a friendship.”
Update: Grammatical corrections were made to this post 3.20.12.
March 7, 2012
I discovered a Southern novel often described as the one that deserved the classic status held by Gone With the Wind. Caroline Gordon’s critically praised fiction about the American Civil War, None Shall Look Back, came out in 1937, but by that time the reading public had fallen in love with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. According to an article about Caroline Gordon in The New Criterion, (October 1989), None Shall Look Back “promptly drowned in the wake of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Gone With the Wind.” The writer, Laura Weiner, further refers to Gordon’s response to what happened and also to the praise:
“Scarlett O’Hara was ‘a Civil War Becky Sharp, and Lord how they’re gobbling it up,’ Gordon wrote. ‘They say it took [Mitchell] ten years to write that novel. Why couldn’t it have taken her twelve?’ Oh, well. Katherine Anne Porter raved about None Shall Look Back in the pages of The New Republic and John Crowe Ransom sent Gordon a personal letter calling her ‘a Great Artist’ for having written it.”
The literary chatter about what could’ve been or should’ve been regarding None Shall Look Back made me curious, and so I found a copy – a first edition, no dust-jacket, south of $50 – and read it. There’s a Southern Classics Series paperback available; however, I wanted to read the ‘organic’ version, without notes or prefaces providing hind-sight interpretation.
None Shall Look Back begins with a birthday party celebrating 65-year-old Fontaine Allard, patriarch of Brackets, a prosperous Kentucky tobacco plantation near Clarksville, TN. The party introduces us to the key family characters, including Fontaine’s orphaned grand-daughters Lucy and Love, his sons Ned and Jim, and his nephews George Rowan and Rives Allard, from Georgia. Ned, George and Rives are surprise visitors to the party – they left school the night before, riding their horses home to join Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry. There’s a dance and some romancing on the plantation, and then the boys ride off to fight at Fort Donelson.
The strength of this story lies on the battlefields. Gordon puts us in the tents and through the binoculars of Union and Confederate commanders. She powerfully captures the troops as they wait for action and then fall into the horror of it. I don’t have deep knowledge about the Civil War battles and, in the case of Fort Donelson, read online about the 1862 surrender to General Grant. The historical background information made a huge difference in my understanding of what was happening in Gordon’s fiction. If only she had included a map of the battle, that would’ve been sufficient. Did readers in 1937 not need that?
Gordon anchors us most closely to Rives, who scouts for Lt. General Forrest and, along with Ned, follows Forrest in escaping Fort Donelson before the surrender. The two boys return to Brackets, where they hide in the woods from Union troops, who pillage and burn down the plantation house. With the Union victory and control of nearby Clarksville, Brackets’ plantation slaves have walked away and Lucy thinks, “…we are sinking, sinking; and they know it and have deserted us.”
Rives marries Lucy and takes her to his home in Georgia. Fontaine Allard collapses into ill health, and the family becomes dependent on others for their shelter and food. Rives continues to fight with Lt. General Forrest, whom Gordon portrays heroically throughout the novel, such as at Murfreesboro and Chickamauga. Meanwhile, Lucy nurses wounded soldiers with her mother-in-law in Georgia. Ned escapes from a Yankee prison and returns home a broken man.
Gordon’s characters are well-drawn but don’t call us to care about them. It makes for less dramatic reading – there’s no “I’ll think about that tomorrow” Scarlett O’Hara or “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” Rhett Butler to make us cheer and weep — but the historical significance of the Allards’ fictional lives more than makes up for the lack of emotional drama. There’s an unforgettable final scene of Rives on his horse “carrying the colors” into the middle of a battle, when the original carrier lost courage. Like so many other scenes in None Shall Look Back, it left me with an indelible portrait of the Confederate soldier in battle and, long after the last page, thinking about the American Civil War, more than Mitchell’s classic ever did.
Caroline Gordon (1895-1981) wrote nine novels and three story collections, as well as non-fiction. She was born in Clarksville, TN, where she lived with her husband, poet and critic Allen Tate, on family land.
January 26, 2012
The following new and relatively new books are sitting on my desk, only they’re not physically present on my desk. They’re represented by pieces of paper torn from pages in book review publications. I consider this growing handful of paper a reading table of sorts. Actually, it’s a control measure due to books now living on the floor in my house, something I said I would never allow. Clearly, books on the floor is a sign I need to control my literary acquisitions. Hence, this style of reading table that gathers paper as a first step versus impulsively acquiring at first love.
I share these books because readers who don’t comb book review journals, especially those from London, may not be aware of them.
Act of Passion by Georges Simenon
NYRB Classics recently published this Georges Simenon novel, Act of Passion, about a successful doctor who abandons his comfortable married life to pursue and attempt to possess a love interest. Sounds like a common plotline; however, in the hands of Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, the story’s probably a well-crafted stunner. The Times Literary Supplement writes, “Simenon creates a character both compelling and repulsive, clear-eyed and deluded at the same time.” The novel was originally published in 1947 in France as Lettre à mon juge, a more fitting title to the story, considering it’s written as an apology letter from the doctor to the magistrate in his murder trial. Act of Passion is translated by the late Louise Varèse.
Julia by Otto de Kat
Perhaps it’s unfair to list this novel because it’s not published (yet?) in the U.S., although you can still purchase it online. I’ve come across it a few times in U.K. reviews, and it’s one I’ve got my eye on. Julia by Otto de Kat was originally published in Dutch in 2008 and recently translated into English by Ina Rilke. This slight, 168-page novel concerns a Dutchman’s encounter with a woman (Julia Berger) for a brief time in Germany, 1938. From The Independent: “De Kat’s ambition of theme is served by astonishing tautness of construction and spareness of language, beautifully rendered by Ina Rilke. And, most movingly, the novel offers us glimpses of uncompromising virtue, not always in expected places.”
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
Canadian author Emma Donoghue may bring to mind her best-selling Room, a ripped-from-the-headlines story about a kidnapping. She also wrote The Sealed Letter. It was published in the U.S. and Canada in 2008, before Room. It’s historical fiction based on a scandalous Victorian divorce in 1860′s London. Picador recently published it for the first time in the U.K. It was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement, where it got my attention. On Donoghue’s website, a quote from the Daily Mail says it’s ”a page-turning drama packed with sex, passion and intrigue.” Also, according to The New York Times review in 2008: “the plot is psychologically informed, fast paced and eminently readable.”
The Manuscript of Great Expectations: From the Townshend Collection, Wisbech by Charles Dickens
This book intrigues me because of the opportunity to experience an author’s decision-making, word by word, sentence by sentence, as he brings a story to life. It’s an exact reproduction in color and size of the hand-written manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The museum that owns the 1860 manuscript collaborated with Cambridge University Press to produce the original papers in book format for the first time (according to this article in The Guardian). I love that The Guardian provides a gallery view you can click through for a taste of what’s inside the book. What a wonder to think this is how books used to be written. Pen and ink seems so much more of an intimate, demanding experience with words than typing.
The New Granta Book of Travel
edited by Liz Jobey, introduction by Jonathan Raban
This collection of travel narratives will be available in the U.S. April 2012. It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in travel memoirs. One of my long-time favorites is Mary Morris’s Nothing to Declare. More recently, I wanted to read but didn’t Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. And so here, a collection of diverse travels essays calling to me. From The Independent: “What’s particularly interesting is how it illuminates the diversity of modern travel. In ‘Arrival’ we have an asylum seeker’s first experience of coming to Britain. Albino Ochero-Okello’s poignant tale turns the idea of travel for pleasure on its head. For a refugee, travel is a means of survival.’” Also, reading the book’s introduction via Amazon’s preview option, Jonathan Raban describes an essay about a Victorian-style imperial expedition into the heart of the Congo as well as a walk in East Ayrshire – ”Her journey lasts an hour or so, and covers perhaps a mile, but one need not travel far or for long to travel deep…”
How It All Began by Penelope Lively
I became a Penelope Lively fan with her Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger, so a new book always gets my attention. How It All Began is getting positive reviews by the major U.S. papers, a story that starts with the mugging of a retired schoolteacher in London and then unfolds with the resulting consequences. The publisher’s website says, “Through a richly conceived and colorful cast of characters, Penelope Lively explores the powerful role of chance in people’s lives and deftly illustrates how our paths can be altered irrevocably by someone we will never even meet.” Sounds like another good one — How It All Began is Lively’s 20th work of fiction.
December 31, 2011
I found this unusual, 58-page book on a table at Brooklyn’s Spoonbill & Sugartown. The sales clerk told me the author brought it in, the store decided to sell it and purchases have been steady. I understand why. There’s something seductive about this self-published book: the soft feel of the pages; the intriguing black-and-white, muted photographs; the simple recipes with easy instructions and a handful of fresh ingredients; and the narrative about what we see and taste.
19 Pictures, 22 Recipes, while sub-titled “A Cookbook by Paola Ferrario,” is neither a photography book with recipes, nor a cookbook with pictures. It’s a sensual congregation of both, including essays. Ferrario tells personal stories, philosophizes about cooking and life, and provides interpretive thoughts about the photos. All the while, she emphasizes the exquisite pleasures to be experienced through simplicity. No need for expensive photography equipment to create a meaningful photograph, let alone some chef’s super meal to experience great taste.
Ferrario writes,“The photographer/cook only has to take what the planet has given and transform it into pictures or dishes with as little alteration to the original as possible.”
Consider her “Pasta with Tomatoes & Basil.” You just need a few Roma tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and basil, a simple recipe that makes a jar of Prego or Newman’s tomato sauce seem pointless. Ferrario pairs it with a Polaroid of a woman’s hips in a flowered polyester dress taken with a camera Ferrario purchased in a thrift shop.
“When I look at this picture I remember that my youth was serene because I was a dreamer with simple desires. I envied people who could dance well and read fast but never the ones that had more than I. Whenever I feel old or poor I make this dish, which is as beautiful as youth seems through the eyes of a happy middle age. It takes a little time to make and it costs almost nothing. It’s the perfect meal when we are assessing our needs.”
Paola Ferrario is a Guggenheim award-winning photographer represented by the Sue Scott Gallery in New York. She also is a cook by nature, telling us in the essay “La Scampagnata: An Apology” that hers is a generation of women who grew up having been taught how to cook and then choosing to cook in their adult lives. That choice is becoming more and more a rarity; however, given Ferrario’s musings here, it’s apparent we’ve needlessly complicated and avoided kitchen life.
My favorite pairing is “One-Egg Cake,” featuring the photograph of a newly built house. “The image freezes the moment when desire has become reality through labor, will and destiny,” the author writes. She adds, “A freshly baked cake and this photography produce in me a sense of admiration for people who can do tasks which require skills that are no longer routinely imparted in our society.”
It’s hard to detect detail in many of the slightly blurred photographs, but that doesn’t detract from their purpose. Together with the recipes and narrative, they create intimacy, bringing us close to the people sharing an ordinary moment with the camera lens. These are old photos Ferrario collected from flea markets and antique shops. The recipes – family recipes from Ferrario’s Italian childhood – include pasta alla carbonara, cantaloupe with prosciutto, waffles, minestrone, perfect steak, sugar cookies, strange rice and others.
You can read the book’s introduction on Ferrario’s website in PDF format. Published by Ferrario, the book is available for purchase on the site, or you could contact Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers. 19 Pictures, 22 Recipes is edited by poet Daisy Fried and designed by Ken Botnick at emdash studio in Saint Louis, Missouri.
December 21, 2011
The Conference of the Birds is being referred to as the perfect gift book this season. It definitely fits that pocket, being the book is beautifully illustrated and tells a meaningful story about the human journey to make sense of our lives. It sheds light on the arduousness of the journey, the obstacles encountered and the reason why, as Winston Churchill proclaimed during World War II, one should “never, never, never, never give up.”
I don’t like the gift-book designation for The Conference of the Birds because it makes me think of relegating it to the coffee table for public display, and the story is one that should be kept more intimately near, at the bedside or in a personal drawer at the office. Its philosophies are worth revisiting to help us keep sight of life’s higher purpose, beyond the minutiae on our iPhones and Blackberries.
Peter Sís’ is a seven-time winner of The New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year award. He’s also a MacArthur Fellow (2003). The Conference of the Birds is an adaptation of Sufi poet Farid Ud-Din Attar’s masterpiece with the same title about one’s search for divine truth. Attar lived in northeastern Persia between the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, according to the book’s end pages.
Sís’ version opens with the poet Attar waking one Kafkaesque morning and realizing he’s a hoopoe bird. He gathers together all the birds of the world and rallies them to search for King Simorgh, hidden behind a veil of clouds, who has the answers to the world’s troubles. Some of the birds are reluctant to embark on the journey because they don’t want to leave their comfortable lives, and they’re not sure the king exists.
Nevertheless, off they go, filling the skies, soaring high and far. On their journey to find King Simorgh, who lives on the Mountain of Kaf, the birds must pass through seven valleys: quest, love, understanding, detachment, unity, amazement and death.
Some perish in these valleys; some lose hope; some get confused. In the Valley of Unity, “All who enter here are bound at the neck by one rope.” In the Valley of Detachment, “It is here that all curiosity and desire expire.” Most perplexing is the Valley of Amazement, “place of constant pain and gnawing bewilderment.”
Valleys are typical representations of challenges in a journey. Sís, however, keeps his storytelling unique and vibrant not alone with the colorful, abstract illustrations but also with the experiences of the feathered characters. Throughout, he reminds us the birds’ long flight is a pathway to wisdom by frequently incorporating into the artwork the symbol of a labyrinth, that circular path one walks to find the way to the center.
The most powerful and direct messages come toward the end with the explanation of why many birds don’t make the full journey. That is, why they give up. It’s a piercing reality check about human weakness, and one of those reasons I suggest the book be kept near. The power of fear and discouragement can be overwhelming, and that’s not only on spiritual journeys, but also the personal journeys one takes when following the heart or pursuing a dream.
Layers of new meaning reveal themselves with each new reading of the text. As I work on this post, I recognize for the first time, after two readings, the foreshadowing behind a statement the hoopoe makes in the beginning, pointing the birds toward a truth that will be revealed regarding the king on the Mountain of Kaf: “He is as close to us as we are far from him.” When you read the book, you’ll understand why.
December 6, 2011
Oh that every city had indie bookstores like those in Brooklyn. I visited five in the New York City borough this past weekend and was reminded what we miss out here in the other-land that sells books via food markets, big-box “I can sell you everything” stores and, of course, Barnes & Noble. The browsing was extraordinary, tables covered not with the typical and predictable, rather the unusual and hard to find in novels, art books, travel memoirs, classics and literary non-fiction. Here I found shelves devoted to the New York Review Book Classics Series and Melville House Art of the Novella Series. I found signed books in paperback and hard-cover, including The Day Before Happiness by Italian author Erri de Luca at Book Court in Cobble Hill. A very nice store with a wide space for author readings. This independent has been around since 1981.
The Community Bookstore in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn is a small, comfortable shop filled with literary discoveries. A cat snoozed beside a bookcase and a lizard chirped in the back of the store. This is the kind of shop we all think about when imagining an independent bookstore, crowded with books but easily navigated and smartly organized, cozy in lighting and exuding a sensory feel of profound riches. One shelf provided the personal recommendations of authors who reside in Brooklyn, including Paul Auster, Mary Morris and Jonathan Safran Foer.
I came away with one of those Melville House novellas, Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master, and also Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, which recently won the National Book Award for fiction – a choice copy because it’s a first edition without the NBA award sticker. Also, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, which somewhere in my reading this year someone said must be read, and also The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis.
Greenlight Books is nearby in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a bright modern space offering a plethora of signed books, many of them paperbacks stacked among the unsigned, the signature within signified by a sticker. Here I purchased a signed copy of my all-time favorite Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem and also a debut novel by Justin Torres, We the Animals, which I’ve been meaning to read since it came out this year. A glance at their literature shelf, and there I saw not only Hans Fallada’s popular Everyman Dies Alone, but also his lesser-known books. It’s just that which is so lacking in literary mega-store retail and depriving us of possibility and exposure – the lesser-known books kept in stock to be discovered.
Most impressive for its distinctive selections is Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers (“I’ve been to Sugartown, I shook the sugar down”*) in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. I couldn’t figure out its focus at first, seeing eclectic art, philosophy and design books among recently released novels on its large center table in the small space. The bookseller told me “it’s not a literary bookstore,” and then added the owners don’t like it when she says that, but it’s true.
There’s something very different about Spoonbill & Sugartown, as if the selections come from someone’s vision for the store, which has been around since 1999. The store’s website says, “We also hand pick thousands of good books every month for our voracious clientele.” The bookseller told me the owners are descended from a former gallery owner in New York City and that the bookstore opened with books from his personal library. I wish I could’ve spent more time asking questions about the store’s history, but it was time to move on. I came away with a copy of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Hard Travel to Sacred Places.
Also in the Williamsburg area, selling used books and specializing in literary fiction, both classic and contemporary, is bookthugnation. I didn’t spend much time here, but I came away with a vintage paperback, Aldous Huxley’s After the Fireworks and Other Stories. It was originally published as Brief Candles by Harper & Bros. and likely one of those paperback editions bestowed with a passionate,romantic illustration to sell more copies.
Across the street, not a bookshop but the Brooklyn Art Library where the Sketchbook Project is underway, a collaborative series of art books created by 5,000 artists. Anyone can participate. The Brooklyn Art Library sells vintage notebooks, art supplies and stationary inspired by the past.
If you go to Brooklyn, here’s where you’ll find the bookstores:
- BookCourt 163 Court Street, Cobble Hill
- Community Bookstore 143 7th Avenue, Park Slope
- Greenlight Bookstore 686 Fulton Street, Fort Greene
- Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers 218 Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg
- Bookthugnation 100 N. 3rd Street, Williamsburg
*Quoted on the Spoonbill & Sugartown bookmark, this line is from a Bob Dylan song, Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.
The title of this post was changed 12.13.11. It formerly was ”I’ve been to Sugartown.”
November 29, 2011
In Joshua Mohr’s new novel, Kris Kringle is drunk on cheap booze most of the time and using a pool table for a bed. Of course, he’s not our North Pole man — it’s not even Christmas – rather, he’s Owen, the owner of Damascus, a dive bar in San Francisco’s Mission District. His out-of-season costume is a means to cover up an embarrassing birth mark underneath his nose that looks like a Hitler moustache and to find asylum from his insecurity.
Owen’s deadbeat bar customers similarly find asylum behind the doors of his bar, where the ceiling is a star-filled night sky created from mirror shards and cotton balls. Damascus may be, in simple definition, an alcoholic’s hangout. To understand its true nature, though, this colorful establishment is better described as a demented Cheers in atmosphere and an assisted living facility in function. The perpetually soused Owen desires to give everyone a break. He provides refuge to an ex-Marine paratrooper, Byron Settles, who’s too drunk to drive home, and opens his bar to Sylvia Suture, an artist needing space for her olfactory installation that’s been rejected by 15 galleries.
No wonder, there. With the sound of whirling helicopter blades in the background, Sylvia nails dead catfish to 12 portraits of American soldiers who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, recreating what she believes is the stink George W. Bush created for our nation. Her effort lays the groundwork for explosive tension to arise between Syl’s fans and Byron Settles’ fellow U.S. Marines, who threaten Owen and storm Damascus in anger.
If the novel Damascus is beginning to feel like just another bar story showcasing the antics of the alcoholic down-and-out population, don’t be fooled. Yet I’ll admit to having gone down that path, when I first heard about this book being set in a dive bar, thinking I might be getting into one of those novels where the prose virtually reeks of stale beer and rank drunks. You could say I was engaging in literary profiling, and would’ve made a big mistake, had I let the preconceived misjudgment influence me. Because what we’re given in Mohr’s third novel is not the problems and burdens of alcoholics crawling around in society’s margins, rather a brilliantly quirky and compassionately heartfelt story about diverse people wearing their own versions of a Santa suit while seeking a semblance of self-worth.
That’s especially true for the most memorable Damascus customers, Shambles and No Eyebrows. No Eyebrows is a gifted litigator, now suffering under the ravages of stage-four lung cancer. He skipped out on his family to spare them the hardship of his death. Shambles is the “patron saint of hand jobs,” claiming the Damascus bathroom as her office. She walked away from a stable marriage, unable to cope with that very stability. These two find themselves cruising the San Francisco streets in a cab that’s unable to make progress going forward due to street flooding, a metaphor for their own inability to go forward as a couple.
I don’t want to tell you what happens to Shambles and No Eyebrows, let alone the consequences of Syl’s installation under the wrath of the Operation Iraqi Freedom vets. That’s meant to be discovered when reading this unique and exceptional story that reveals the inner being of a bar and its inhabitants. Instead, I’ll offer what comes to mind for me as I think about the conclusion of Damascus. It’s an image of No Eyebrows’ daughter tap dancing her heart out on a tiny plywood stage to cheer up her mother. It’s working because, “There’s something naked about it. Something simple.” The novel Damascus is working for the same reason, with kudos to a bizarre cast of characters you can’t help but love.