Saturday, August 31, 2013

Locally Grown

ISBN-10: 087140379X ISBN-13: 9780871403797 Published: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 09/01/2013 Pages: 352 Language: English
Well, we've been waiting a long time for this one. Next month, Hillsborough novelist and local fixture Allan Gurganus will be publishing his first new book in 16 years, a collection of three novellas titled Local Souls. It's worth noting at this point that he will doing a reading at Flyleaf on November 4, so get your questions ready. I'd also recommend the excellent cover article printed in the newest Indy Week and accessible online. There are a number of choice quotations from Mr. Gurganus featured in the article, but I particularly enjoyed this one:

"If you can break through the codes of the middle class, and get the passwords, and get inside how people live their lives every day, you find that it's as dramatic as the people who are climbing Everest or going in bathyspheres three miles down into the ocean.

"Sometimes, to me, waiting in line to pick your kids up from school can be as awesome and inspiring or exhausting as anything else in the world. That's sort of where I've pitched my tent. And it's a nearly inexhaustible source of fascination."

That's a perfect description of how Local Souls' novellas expand small-scale conflicts and let the reader see the infinite complexities of emotion and human psychology contained inside of them. For instance, while one of the novellas is ostensibly about a massive flood, it is much more concerned with the intricate, somewhat one-sided relationship between one of the Fallen (residents of Gurganus' fictional small town Falls, N.C.) and the retired town doctor. Here's where another quote from the Indy Week article comes to mind: 

"There's a real sense of belonging, a real sense of knowingness that extends beyond what can be said about any given person or family," he says. "And I'm fascinated with public secrets about certain people in the town that were kept. In a town of 24,000—the size of Rocky Mount when I was a child—a lot of eccentricity was allowed. A lot of exceptions were made precisely because your family had lived there for so many years that people had gotten used to the eccentricities."

You see, after retiring, the former-doctor becomes fascinated with carving wooden ducks, a field in which he proves inexplicably talented. The town starts to find his hobby slightly isolating, perhaps even elitist, especially after his having been so available to the community as their doctor. This small, odd change has a tremendous effect on his neighbor, who starts to question the nature of their previous relationship, and, indeed, his own intrinsic value, if his company and friendship can be so easily discarded. It's just like Mr. Gurganus to show how even retreating into semi-hermitage has profound effects on those around you-- true isolationism, however desirable, is essentially impossible. Maybe that's why the article depicts Mr. Gurganus in dual roles: the civic-minded, politically active member of society, and the solitary writer who works beside a Confederate graveyard, quietly chipping away at his next masterpiece.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Little Heartfelt Cross-Promotion

ISBN-10: 1421519186
ISBN-13: 9781421519180
Published: VIZ Media LLC, 02/17/2009
Pages: 200
Language: English
Last Sunday, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting fellow independent bookstore Chapel Hill Comics to attend, for the first time, their monthly Comic Book Book Club meeting. The attendees and staff were uniformly friendly, pleasant, and very engaged in the subject matter. I had a fantastic time discussing Pluto by Naoki Urasawa, a heartbreaking re-imagining of a classic Astro Boy story by the late master of manga (very roughly speaking, the Japanese equivalent of comics) Osamu Tezuka. Because reading is primarily a solitary activity, the joy of a great Book Club is that it connects you with fellow enthusiasts, and reminds you that reading can also be a shared experience. If you have any interest in comics, manga, or graphic novels, come on out to next month's Book Club meeting at Chapel Hill Comics. We'll be discussing Joe Hill's wonderfully terrifying comic Locke & Key, and I predict it will be a blast.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Next Big Thing

ISBN-10: 0778315339 ISBN-13: 9780778315339 Published: Harlequin MIRA, 08/27/2013 Pages: 352 Language: English
Continuing Flyleaf's pretty spectacular run of author events, Jason Mott will be launching his debut novel The Returned at Flyleaf tomorrow. The Returned has been garnering some great reviews and impressive pull-quotes from the likes of Douglas Preston and Eowyn Ivey, and has had the rights optioned for a television show by Brad Pitt's production company. As Independent Weekly noted on its Eight Days a Week feature, this may very well be the best chance you'll have to see Mott before he really blows up.

The Returned's plot revolves around a very sci-fi premise: what would happen if our departed loved ones started returning to life? This begins to happen all over the world, eventually returning Harold and Lucille Hargrave's (our protagonists) long-dead son to their family. Naturally, this causes its fair share of problems-- over-population, prejudice, etc.-- but Mott is less concerned with the sociological implications of his sci-fi scenario than the emotional ones. The Returned is, at its heart, a meditation on grief, but it's not without sprinklings of humor, Southern charm, and even a few action sequences. If you would like to see for yourself how Mott took on such a difficult topic, I'll see you at Flyleaf 7:00 tomorrow.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Preparation for the Big Event (Part Two)

ISBN-10: 140006788X
ISBN-13: 9781400067886
Published: Random House, 08/20/2013
Pages: 624
Language: English
In just two days, Marissa Pessl will be interviewed by Haven Kimmel at Flyleaf Books. Since I've already praised her debut novel to the high heavens, I thought I would take a moment and tell you why you should read her new novel, Night Film. In some ways, Night Film is actually a significant departure from Special Topics. Instead of a teenage girl, the story concerns a reporter and his obsessive investigation into the death of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of an enigmatic director whose films have inspired obsessive devotion from his many followers. It's very difficult to discuss the plot any further without spoiling the many twists and turns the narrative takes, but it's safe to say that the novel's structure creepily echoes a descent into madness. 

Pessl is able to mine huge amounts of dread and horror out of seemingly typical noir scenarios. However, things quickly take a turn for the weird that will pull the reader further and further into a terrifying rabbit hole of obsession, ambiguity, and mystery. I practically flew through the book, especially during one of Pessl's many masterfully executed set pieces, which take advantage of the author's extensive knowledge of film and the mechanics of suspense. Indeed, the book's interest in the darkness that lurks beneath the surface of the everyday reminded me of David Lynch's masterpiece Blue Velvet. The oppressive atmosphere of paranoia and confusion also reminded me of Hitchcock's late-period psychological thrillers, especially Vertigo. Rarely has Hitchcock's axiom: "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it" been so thoroughly proven correct. 

Film buffs will likely tear through Night Film, but even the least cinematically inclined will appreciate Pessl's extremely detailed, vividly imagined world. Pessl's prose remains as acrobatic and funny as ever, with the noir trappings suiting her voice perfectly. Even the pieces of "evidence" that break up the prose-- coroner's reports, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, web pages, etc.-- feel realistic and necessary. The wonderful thing about Pessl's work is that she doesn't trade surface entertainment for depth. An engaging, enjoyable mystery forms the backbone of Night Film's narrative, but if you care to dig deeper you might find yourself as entranced as Cordova's acolytes.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Coming Attractions

ISBN-10: 0061714356
ISBN-13: 9780061714351
Published: Harper Voyager, 07/01/2012
Pages: 416
Language: English
Flyleaf has a spectacular line-up of upcoming events-- including the aforementioned Marisha Pessl reading-- and I've been struggling to get through as much of each author's work as possible before they visit the store. One of my deadlines is August 29, when fantasy author Richard Kadrey will be discussing the latest book in his Sandman Slim series, Kill City Blues. For the sake of time, I probably should have simply read Kadrey's new novel, especially since I've been told that the individual books work perfectly well as stand-alone stories. However, I'm deathly allergic to experiencing any piece of entertainment out of chronological order, so I began with Kadrey's first book in the series, titled simply Sandman Slim.

Sandman Slim is (roughly speaking) an entry into the genre of supernatural fantasy mixed with hard-boiled detective fiction, pulp novels, and noir. If you happen to be  familiar with John Constantine, Harry Dresden, or others of their ilk, you'll be right at home, but James Stark is such a compelling antihero that Sandman Slim makes for a great entry point into the sub-genre. Stark used to be an arrogant young magician who was betrayed by his occult friends and given an express ticket to hell. A little over a decade later he's back and spoiling for some vengeance and-- as Alex from A Clockwork Orange might say-- "a bit of the old ultraviolence." 

Kadrey is fantastic at describing the various pummelings Sandman Slim metes out and receives, but the real heart of the book lies in its perversely likeable characters and wonderful sense of black humor. Kadrey also has an ear for dialogue and the pithy, hard-bitten one-liner: "I'm steel-toed boots in a ballet-slipper world," Stark complains at one point. Searching for other juicy quotes, I found that most of them were far too profane to include on a bookstore blog. This is the kind of series that people call unapologetic, which doesn't make much sense to me, seeing as how you shouldn't have to apologize for a great, ripping read. Sandman Slim is a bottle of nasty mountain moonshine that burns on the way down but more than gets the job done. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

One Last Gift

ISBN-10: 038553521X ISBN-13: 9780385535212 Published: Doubleday, 07/16/2013 Pages: 128 Language: English
When David Rakoff died a little more than a year ago, the public outpouring of grief was enormous and often-- given the literate company Rakoff kept-- devastatingly articulate. For an example, I would suggest reading Linda Holmes' magnificent essay on NPR's blog (Rakoff was known to many for his frequent inclusion in the popular radio program This American Life). Holmes begins her essay: 

"Being funny, unashamedly angry, and deeply human is something a large number of people try and a relatively small number of people do well. One of the people I've always thought did it well was David Rakoff, who has died so very much too young..." 

Rakoff's new, posthumously released book Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish was hurriedly finished by the author in his final months. Thankfully, the book feels like a beautiful capstone to a short life rather than a rushed footnote. Rakoff has written in both verse and prose, but Love... is almost entirely composed of rhymed couplets. Rakoff's playful style might be jarring at first-- I've heard it called Seussian-- to those readers expecting existential grimness. However, part of Rakoff's genius lies in how he contrasts the whimsical form with the deeply sad content. Another surprising aspect of the book is its structure: around a dozen characters are given their own "stories," which sometimes intersect in odd or touching ways. The setting of the book spans an entire century but can be read in one long sitting-- that's how I read it, anyway, and the characters are still bouncing around my brain. 

Rakoff pulls off the rare feat-- as Linda Holmes suggested-- of creating satire that is caustic and funny without ridiculing its characters or dipping into pointless misanthropy. The reason his stories are so sad is because his characters are worth caring about. I must return to Holmes' essay at this point:  

"Rakoff was a practitioner of a kind of writing that can sometimes seem to have become ubiquitous somewhere between Usenet and Twitter, because everyone thinks they can do it: blistering, unforgiving, yes-I-said-it cultural criticism, dark and mad. But with Rakoff, everything bounced off a deeply human way of looking at other people — after all, it's only that humanity that makes your anger and your melancholy mean anything. Who cares if you can't dance if you wouldn't want to because hey, the hell with dancing? Who cares whether you despair for your society if you don't like anybody anyway?" 

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the outstanding presentation of the book. It's a beautiful object designed by Chip Kidd and filled with gorgeous illustrations by a cartoonist credited only as "Seth." It seems only fitting to end with a quote from the book, this one from a scene where the protagonist is delivering a wedding toast and elaborates on the famous fable of the scorpion and the tortoise: 

"I think what it means is that central to living
A that is good is a life that's forgiving.
We're creatures of contact, regardless of whether
to kiss or to wound, we still must come together.
Like in Annie Hall, we endure twists and torsions
For food we don't like, and in such tiny portions!
But, like hating a food but still asking for more
It beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.
So we make ourselves open, while knowing full well
It's essentially saying, 'Please, come pierce my shell.'"

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Preparation for the Big Event

ISBN-10: 0143112120 ISBN-13: 9780143112129 Published: Penguin Books, 04/24/2007 Pages: 528 Language: English
On August 24th, author-to-watch Marisha Pessl will be reading from her new book, Night Film, at Flyleaf Books. Night Film won't be published until four days before the event, but I had the opportunity to read an advanced copy (Perks of Being a Bookseller?) and I can assure you that it is all kinds of awesome. I have also been authorized to reveal that Marisha Pessl will be interviewed by New York Times bestselling local author Haven Kimmel, author of eight books that range from adult fiction and memoirs to a middle-grade novel and a children's picture book. In other words, expect a really terrific interview.

Night Film may not yet be available for the general public, but Pessl's excellent first novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics is on sale right now. Special Topics was published in 2006, when Pessl was an envy-inducing 28 years old. The book has all of the ambition (Special Topics is one of the most referential and thoroughly annotated works of fiction I have ever encountered)  and none of the typical blunders of a first novel. Pessl's protagonist is the improbably named Blue van Meer, the daughter of a traveling professor who eagerly stuffs her head with "literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge" of extraordinary breadth. The encyclopedia-brained Blue excels in school but has a more complicated relationship with her peers. 

When an eccentric group of students at her new school-- brought together by a mysterious, magnetic teacher-- more or less recruit her, she becomes spectator to a number of spoilerific events, including a (possible) murder. The plot unravels into dizzying complexity from there, with each fresh wrinkle and twist pulling the reader along helplessly. Expect to spend at least one late night bulldozing through the final hundred pages or so. Special Topics is not just a noir, a coming-of-a-age story, or, really, anything remotely classifiable. That-- along with the obvious bonuses of great writing and characterizations-- makes Pessl's book a fascinating and intoxicating genre mélange. 

To borrow a page from Pessl's learned and referential handbook, I encourage you to read Special Topics in Calamity Physics and to come to the Night Film reading for the simple reason that "it is only a novel... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language" (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey).  See you there!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

How to How-To: A Lesson from the School of Life, care of How to Stay Sane

If there's a fault I'll acknowledge about the way I evaluate books, it's this one: I can't stand a long tome. There are a select few lengthier titles whose wordiness is a virtue -- the appropriately short list is comprised of all the Harry Potters, anything by Charles Dickens, Proust's In Search of Lost Time series, and a few of the great Russian writers -- but otherwise, I am often wont to judge a huge volume. My rationale depends on the day and my mood, on a scale of one to Oscar the Grouch, but usually it's either my vehement belief that their editor didn't do his or her job (unfounded) or a suspicion that the writer loves to hear themselves talk (er, read their own words? Equally unfounded).

ISBN-10: 1250030633
ISBN-13: 9781250030634
Published: Picador, 12/24/2012
Pages: 192
Language: English
All of this is just to say that I love a good, short read. Concision is a virtue, particularly when it comes to a genre one might otherwise avoid. Fiction and literary memoir are my favorite categories, but recently I veered into the psychology section for a small, pocket-sized book called How to Stay Sane, part of the School of Life series championed by Alain de Botton (you might know his book The Architecture of Happiness). I opened it out of curiosity, and its combination of straightforwardness and brevity pulled me in further. I still had some misgivings after the fallout from reading a certain solve-your-twenty-something-crises title, and I was hesitant to get psychological again for fear of feeding my own neuroses. Still, Perry's style of writing was winsome from the beginning, and I gave it a shot.

So far, this little guide has been a refreshing exercise in how to advise, minus the preaching. I've never read an advice book in which the barrier between subject and author is so removed, but Perry is the first to admit to her own faults and bad habits. A psychologist with a sense of humor? A forthright example of how one fails, and then how one subsequently succeeds? It's all here, in a few well-chosen words that combine prose, exercises, references to other useful literature, and more.Heck, Perry even wrote a graphic novel (2010's Couch Fiction) to debunk certain myths about what it's like to see a psychologist, and I'm already chomping at the bit to read it. It's so lacking in judgment that I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop, and desperately hoping it won't.

Maybe the fact that I picked up this little blue-hued book was fateful. After all, if anyone needs to lighten up
on the judgments -- be they literary, self-directed, or otherwise -- it's probably yours truly. So far, I'm an eager student in Perry's latest School of Life master class.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Book Everyone's Talking About

ISBN-10: 140006922X
ISBN-13: 9781400069224
Published: Random House, 07/16/2013
Pages: 336
Language: English
A little more than a week ago, I began to notice Flyleaf customers were suddenly eager for a book that had initially shipped only a modest number of copies called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Naturally, we were caught by surprise by this sudden sharp increase in demand (although I'm happy to say we now have a stack of copies prominently displayed) which, according to our customers, was all due to an interview Fox News conducted with the author of the book, Reza Aslan. Without wading into the controversy, I think it's fair to say that many, including the author, were surprised by the line of questioning taken, which emphasized his personal beliefs rather than the scholarly content of his book. For example, the interview began with the question: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” to which Aslan responded: “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim.” A tad more combative than your typical book interview, certainly.

The fires of controversy were apparent sparked by a series of articles written by conservative pastors and thinkers, who took offense at what they perceived to be Aslan's bias against Christianity. Aslan has now become a religious/political football for both the right- and left-leaning media, frequently to the point of obscuring the book's actual content, which is a shame, because it seems quite fascinating. I haven't managed to read Zealot just yet (I do, occasionally, have to meet basic human needs) but I have read and heard enough about it to put it at the top of my reading list. 

For the curious, I recommend the pre-Fox News-incident  interview conducted with the author on NPR's Fresh Air program. Aslan retraces his formative years with host Terry Gross, and does, in fact, explain why he is so interested in Christianity and the historical Jesus Christ. More importantly, perhaps, he explains some of the finer points of his book's thesis, which involves reinterpreting Jesus as a kind of Jewish freedom fighter: "...that's why if we really want to know who Jesus was and what he meant, we should start not at the beginning of the story — with him in a manger — but at the end of the story, with him on a cross. Because if Jesus was in fact crucified by Rome, he was crucified for sedition. He was crucified because he challenged the Roman occupation."

Regardless of whether you agree with Aslan's interpretation-- there have been scholarly critiques of his central thesis-- I think it's a little bit wonderful that the literary world still inspires such passionate debate. Who's right? I couldn't tell you. But I have an opinion, and I'm glad other people do too.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

On Opening Sentences (Part Two)

I could hardly waste the opportunity to provide a few examples of my favorite opening sentences, even if my opinions might not carry the weight of, say, Stephen King. Naturally, many of my favorite openers-- "Call me Ishmael," etc.-- have already been covered extensively, so I've tried to venture slightly off the beaten path. First off:

"Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach"--Watchmen by Alan Moore. 

Watchmen, one of the greatest comic books ever written, begins with a brutal gut-punch of a sentence (for once, pun not intended) that immediately places the reader inside the vigilante Rorschach's warped brain. It's an uncomfortable place to be, in part because Rorschach's cracked logic and grim view of the world make a disturbing amount of sense.

"When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton" --The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien.

Like many of his high fantasy peers, Tolkein has often been saddled with accusations of long-windedness, but here he expertly establishes an entire world in one sentence. Plus, there's something wonderful about the almost Seussian delight he takes in warping and manipulating language.

"The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him 'WILD THING!' and Max said 'I'LL EAT YOU UP!' so he was sent to bed without eating anything"-- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

For a picture book with only a handful of sentences, Sendak had to make every word count. He does so by capturing all of its themes in the first sentence, a rollicking, weird, poetic meditation on the terrifying wildness of childhood.

"Gentle reader, I presume thou wilt be very inquisitive to know what antic or personate actor this is, that so insolently intrudes upon this common theatre, to the world's view, arrogating another man's name; whence he is, why he doth it, and what he hath to say; although, as he said, Primum si noluero, non respondebo, quis coacturus est? I am a free man born, and may choose whether I will tell; who can compel me?"-- from The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

Now, I realize a 2,000 page 17th Century treatise on melancholy (similar, but not identical to what we now call "depression") does not exactly have mass appeal, but it's a very important book to me and a few English nerds, so I thought I would go ahead and include it's playful, faux-modest, even irreverent introductory sentence. Burton delights in knowledge and language in a way that I-- surprise!-- find incredibly appealing.

I hope I've succeeded, at least, in producing a highly idiosyncratic list. I could think of more great opening sentences, but I'd rather hear which ones resonate with you, dear reader.