Saturday, August 04, 2007

After the Summer Hiatus

It's been a long, hot summer here at Kash's Book Corner. We (my wife and I) took a three-week trip to the East Coast to visit, literally, a hundred relatives. During our adventures to my mother-in-law's family reunion, we managed to squeeze in the Maid of the Mist boat ride at Niagara Falls, July 4th fireworks in Washington D.C. and a dolphin-watching trip off of the coast of Cape May, New Jersey.

But the true highlight was the family reunion in Allegany, New York. My wife met dozens of second cousins and I spent the weekend wearing a name tag that said, "in-law descendant of Eugene Martiny." It made me feel a bit like an outcast, and for awhile I tried to float the idea of an in-law escape to a minor league baseball game (with all the other guys stuck wearing in-law name tags) or at least organize an in-law-only softball game, but I didn't get any takers.

Once we returned home, my softball career got going in earnest. I signed up with a slow-pitch team for the first time ever and suddenly found myself back on the mound after a 29-year break. It was an eye-opening experience as I got shelled for about 15 runs a game. At least I didn't walk too many people, and now our team has turned it around and we are winning big. I have learned that you can't intimidate hitters by beaning them in slow-pitch like you can in Little League.

In between games, I was at the store helping with the Harry Potter madness, visiting with dozens of reps shilling their Fall books and pulling returns as fast as I possibly could to make way for the new books. All of this as the temperature soared to a high of 87 degrees in my mezzanine office shared with the other buyers and the promotions staff (we have swamp coolers, not air-conditioners at the store). At least at those temperatures, the reps have to think twice before taking the time to try selling me a lousy book.
Through it all, I have had a book, sometimes two, by my side. In fact, I read incessantly at the family reunion, got sand in the spines of two different books at the beach and was toting a large John Updike tome as the bombs were bursting in air over D.C. on the Fourth. Here are some of my thoughts on my summer reading and experiences:

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: I am convinced that we will never again see a scene like the midnight release of J.K. Rowling's last installment. It was complete insanity at the store, with thousands of people participating in activities and waiting for midnight. I spent the night out in front of the store, signing "graduation certificates" to all of the "kids" who completed our various activities. Over 600 people graduated, including several people who were a lot older than Harry Potter.

As midnight approached, we booted everyone out of the store, set up a table at the front door and brought the books out of their secret storage location. The crowd was pushing against the table and people were gazing with a look of savage anticipation at the boxes of books behind the table. The level of excitement was unbelievable. Suddenly, I knew how the Rolling Stones must feel right before they run (or nowadays, limp) on stage. After a raucous countdown of the last 30 seconds until midnight, we began handing out books as fast as possible. We redeemed 850 vouchers in 30 minutes that night, the line nearly two blocks long. Our sales are well over 2,000 copies at this point. All of this at a store where 100 is considered an excellent sale and enough to land a book in our monthly top five.

As a bookseller, it was a thrilling evening, but as a reader, I don't really care too much. I just can't work up any enthusiasm over wizards and school boys. There are enough stories and characters in the real world to keep me occupied. Several people I trust have told me I must read these books, but I just shrug my shoulders and say "someday".

Amy Bloom's Away: I truly admire Amy Bloom's writing. She exhibits a level of craftsmanship and emotional honesty that is rare. Her collection of stories, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You contains some of the most perfect sentences that I have ever read. After I got a few stellar recommendations, I picked up the reader's copy of her new novel, Away, with eager anticipation. The first 90 pages met my expectations. Bloom tells the story of Lillian Leyb, a Jewish Russian emigre in 1924 New York.

Leyb has lived through a pogrom and is now trying to survive in the Lower East side tenement houses by finding work as a seamstress for a Yiddish theater. She soon begins an affair with both the handsome leading man and his father, the theater's owner. These scenes bring to life a lost world in a way that would have made I.B. Singer proud. The writing features finely honed description, beautiful language, striking scenes and characters that are revealed in a few deft strokes.

It's when Lillian leaves this rich world of broken New York Jews that the novel falls apart. She decides she must return to Russia to find her daughter, who she believed was dead. A cousin has landed in New York and told her that the four-year-old survived the night of terror at the hands of Russian peasants and is now living with a neighboring family back in Russia. Because of a lack of funds, Lillian decides to cross America by hook or by crook, get to Alaska and walk into Russia over the Bering Strait. Bloom turns Lillian's adventures into a picaresque. After she exits the world of the Yiddish theater, the novel just becomes a series of events. While Bloom might be able to match I.B. Singer, her Lillian is no match for the hero of Saul Bellow's picaresque, Augie March.

An action-packed adventure story does not suit Bloom's skills. We learn very little of Lillian's interior life, and the characters she meets are barely more than caricatures. We even get the tough whore with the heart of gold, for god's sake. It is terribly disappointing that Bloom would hurry a story along like this. I only know of one other person who has reacted to this novel as negatively as I have, so perhaps it will be a big hit. Maybe booksellers will be pushing it into the hands of female readers, but I, for one, will patiently wait for Bloom's next effort.

Sex in the Sixties: Ian McEwan's version of sex in the early 1960s, as depicted in his new novel On Chesil Beach, is bleak. Two lovers on their wedding night are horrendously awkward with each other in a beach side resort on the Dorset coast. Edward is so excited by the thought of finally possessing Florence (of possessing anyone, really) that he can't even manage to get her dress off. Florence is so repulsed by the idea of sex that she hurries things along because she can't stand the feel of Edward's tongue in her mouth.

Much has been made about how 1962 was really still the 1950s as far as sex was concerned. In a short film about the novel made by Powell's Bookstore, McEwan's esteemed editor Nan Talese makes that exact point. People were uptight, little was said about sex and wedding night disasters were not uncommon during the early 1960s.

I was feeling relieved not to have lived during the repressed times of the Kennedy administration, until I read Couples by John Updike later in the summer. This 1968 novel is set between the fall of 1962 and the spring of 1964. It's initial action, which involves wife-swapping, clandestine affairs, and outrageous flirting, occurs at almost the same moment in time that Florence is trying not to puke during her wedding-night French kiss.

Couples is the story of 10 married couples in their thirties living in the small New England town of Tarbox. They party, go on ski vacations and jump into bed with each other. Two couples, the Applebys and the Smiths, are so entwined that that rest of the couples refer to them as the Applesmiths. It all made me wonder if people like McEwan's Florence and Edward really did exist in 1962. Perhaps if Florence and Edward can just survive their honeymoon, the secret world of marital sex and extramarital sex will suddenly open to them.

I've come to think that these two books represent sexual extremes of that year. In Updike's America, where the pill has taken hold, these bored married couples are free to experiment in ways that weren't open to them previously. In McEwen's England, the pill is just a rumor, and in the straight-laced world of Oxford's upper crust, sex is only whispered about.

I found that reading these two books within a few months of each other was a fascinating look at what fiction can do. I realized how it can illuminate the inner lives of people and the complex attitudes of a time much better than history can. My guess is that both of these sexual realities existed. It entertains me to think about Florence and Edward leaving the Dorset coast behind to emigrate to the hothouse of Tarbox.

A World Where Lattes are Offensive: Nathan McCall, the author of the superb memoir, Makes Me Wanna Holler, tackles the issue of urban gentrification in his debut novel, Them, to be released in November. Set in Atlanta, Them shows how young, white, rich couples (gay and straight) come to take over the neighborhood of Martin Luther King's birth home. We see the story through the eyes of Barlowe Reed, a single 40-year-old man renting a home in disrepair with his 25-year old nephew.

McCall's novel does an excellent job of getting in the heads of both white and blacks in this neighborhood. What seem like improvements to the whites (bike lanes, coffee shops) are anathema to what is important to the black residents, who are just trying to pay their next month's rent or mortgage. Barlowe is trying to navigate this world as he begins a wary friendship with his new white female neighbor. They talk through the fence that the white neighbor has put up about the changes in the area and how they feel. As halting and as misunderstood as their conversations are, they seem to represent about the only attempt being made to bridge the gap between the races.

McCall is not the most nuanced of writers. Some of his scenes seem too direct to be realistic, but he creates true characters on both sides of the racial divide. He allowed me to see this issue in a much more human way. Every year, and this summer was no exception, my wife and I visit neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. that have been gentrified in the last 10 years. Sometimes we enjoy our latte at a cool new coffee shop without even considering what might have stood on that spot before the cafe, filled with smartly dressed whites, took over.

McCall makes it clear in an entertaining and interesting way that gentrification has its human toll, and that we need to recognize this before these traditionally black neighborhoods disappear. There is history and life in those ramshackle neighborhoods that whites are scared to even enter, or that they drive through with their windows rolled up tight. There is community and common decency, even if the yards aren't kept up and there isn't a place to get a good cup of coffee.

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