Monday, April 21, 2008

From Fugitive to Professional

The word terrorist is thrown around quite a bit these days. We can all agree that the events of 9/11 was the work of terrorists. Few people would hesitate to call Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, a terrorist. But what about Palestinian children who throw rocks at Israeli soldiers? What about the Zapatista movement in Chiapas? Those are more difficult questions, especially now that the Zapatistas aren't using military weapons to achieve their revolution. But they are actively working to overthrow the Mexican state.

For a brief moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s the protest movement against the war in Vietnam took a violent turn. Frustrated protesters made the argument that the immoral war needed to be stopped by any means necessary. Bombs were set, people were killed and many of the perpetrators went into hiding. They became fugitives. Were they terrorists?

In Janis Hallowell's new novel She Was, Doreen Woods, a professional mother living in Denver, is one of these fugitives. A student radical at Berkeley in the 1970s, she has eluded capture for 35 years and transformed herself from a violent teenage war protester into a mother nervous about her son's attendance at a peaceful anti-war rally. She hardly seems like a violent enemy of the state.

"I wanted to write about a fugitive woman," Hallowell said in a wide-ranging interview. "These women really existed, more than one. There were few notable political things that women did, but women took starring roles in this kind of action."

The action in question is a bombing at Columbia University that kills a black janitor. Hallowell recounts the night from the perspective of Louis Nilon, the victim, in a spellbinding prologue that evokes pathos without being sentimental. The janitor makes his rounds thinking about his life while listening to the Ali-Frazier championship fight. It's clear that a human being has died in this explosion. There's no writing off of Nilon as collateral damage.

That's more damage than Hallowell's real life model for Doreen Woods, Kathleen Soliah, did when she planted bombs in Los Angeles police cars in 1975. Those bombs didn't go off. Soliah went into hiding and 24 years later was arrested living under the name Sarah Jane Olson. She was back in the news last month, when she was released from jail and rearrested due to an administrative mistake.

"I decided to turn up the volume a little more," Hallowell said. "I wanted to bring into higher relief the moral ambiguity of the situation. It's one thing if you set a bomb and it doesn't go off. But it does explode and kills a black working-class man--the very kind of person that the radicals said they were doing these things to help. I made it harsh on purpose. I didn't expect to feel compassion for her."

Gradually, the reader does come to feel compassion for Woods. Hallowell not only shows us the life that Woods leads in Denver, which includes taking care of her sick brother, but also her personal history leading up to the fateful evening at Columbia University. It's a story set in the turbulent, emotional times of the Vietnam war. The beliefs of sons and daughters are set against the values of their own parents as American living rooms became increasingly hostile places. It's easy for a smart, impressionable 19-year old to be lured into the world of violent student radicals after seeing the damage the war has inflicted on her beloved older brother.

More importantly to developing compassion, Hallowell shows us Woods' life after the bomb explodes. She gives us the story from a variety of viewpoints including those of her husband, the woman pursuing her and her brother Adam, a troubled Vietnam vet. These different narratives add texture and a scope that couldn't be achieved if we were with Doreen the whole time.

"I had to find ways to get into their skin," Hallowell says of the characters she writes. "You have to find the humanity of everyone you write about. There are memoirs about the subject, but as a memoir you only get your perspective. In fiction you have the freedom of telling the story from any perspective. That's what's powerful about fiction. I didn't even try first person with this book."

It's a good thing, too, because the scenes from Adam's point of view are among the most powerful she writes. Adam has some harrowing memories of cruelty and inhumanity from Vietnam that are floating to the surface of his hallucinating mind throughout the story. It's not the kind of writing that you'd expect from Hallowell. Her first book was the excellent novel The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn, a first-person tale of a teenager who might have the divine spirit in her set in a fairly tame Boulder. It hardly seemed like the resume of someone who would write searing scenes of the Vietnam War.

"When it became clear to me that Adam's story involved being a vet, I resisted it. I'm a woman. I had no business writing about a war that I couldn't have fought in. I talked to Nick Arvin (the author of Articles of War) and he told me some of the best war scenes were fiction. I decided to dip my toe in with some research and went to the Vet center in Boulder. One of the vets told me that everybody in the war knows the war from the 10 feet around them. Everyone's experience was insular and different. That gave me the confidence to write the scenes."

Once you read this novel it's almost impossible to think of Doreen as a terrorist. Her mistake, which haunts every day of her life, seems like a terrible youthful indiscretion. It pales in comparison to the atrocities that Adam witnessed in Vietnam. When a grandstanding politician refers to her as a fugitive terrorist at the end of the novel, it is jarring. Surely Doreen Woods isn't what we mean when we talk of the war on terror.

But it's our contemporary situation that gives this novel such resonance. Hallowell might be writing of the anti-war movement in the 1970s, but its impossible to read She Was without thinking of Iraq and our grappling with how to handle terrorism now.

"When I proposed the book, I had to stick to my guns and say 'I think this is going to be timely'", Hallowell said. "If we'd pulled out of Iraq, I wonder how easy it would have been to sell the book. It has to be relevant to what's happening now. I'm pleased it's coming out before the election. After the election, things could really change in Iraq. A novel has to work in a timeless way, but it taps into the zeitgeist of today and that is nice."

Hallowell will be speaking about and signing She Was at the Boulder Book Store on May 8 at 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bay Area Indies

For most tourists, San Francisco conjures up images of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf and historic trolley cars climbing steep urban hills. The tastes of sourdough bread, fresh seafood and authentic Chinese food are all promised in a visit to the city. It's a bonanza of unique museums (show me something that beats the Exploratorium), stunning neighborhoods and gorgeous views of the Bay.

I enjoy all of those attractions, but what I'm really interested in are the independent bookstores in the city and beyond. You can get amazing views and good food in just about any city in America, but finding a great bookstore is never easy. I always make an effort to derail our vacations and steer us into these stores. It's a bit like a hijacking. My wife develops a great itinerary after hours of studying travel guide books. Usually, we get about 30 minutes into her plans before I notice that we are within 3 miles of an independent bookstore and insist on a detour.

Here are some bookstore observations from our recently completed California trip:

City Lights Books

The store founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti continues to amaze me. I'm not sure if they do anything the way a modern bookstore is supposed to do. Their signage is haphazard at best and often illegible, their books are almost universally displayed spine out instead of face out, there are books on their shelves that probably should have been returned months -- if not years -- ago, and yet shopping there is pure joy.

There's a true sense of discovery at City Lights. They carry a wide variety of university press titles in several different subjects and often prominently feature these books. In the window, there were more university titles displayed than titles from mainstream publishers. Books that I had skipped when buying for our store, I suddenly found fascinating in City Lights.

It seems like the buyers at City Lights (whom I do not know) have a real sense of the store's identity. They're not trying to find the next popular trend, or ride Oprah's wave (although I did see dozens of copies of Eat, Pray, Love squirreled away in overstock), or take advantage of sweetheart co-op deals from corporate publishers; instead they are buying books that fit the City Lights aesthetic and inviting customers to partake in it. It's a gutsy way to try and survive in today's book market, but at least from the outside, it seems to work. There were dozens of people in the store on the Monday night I visited.

The store's quirky layout, with rooms opening onto other rooms and a warren-like basement with strange, yet fitting section names like "Situations and Actions" or "Topographies," lends itself to satisfying browsing.

The greatest space of all is the poetry room. Easily the most pleasant physical area in the store, it is entirely devoted to verse. I was stuck in the room for over an hour reading stanzas, taking in odes and breathing couplets.

Gradually, I came out of my reverie and began to look for specific poets that I longed for. I searched for Richard Hugo, Lucia Perillo, Paul Guest and Paul Zimmer and somehow came up empty handed. I found a Philip Levine's What Work Is, but was turned off by the $16 price tag on an 80-page paperback. I took a deep breath. Here I was in what might be the most extensive poetry section in an independent store in the country, and I couldn't find what I wanted.

It brought to mind the problem we face every day at our store. Customers come in and ask for fairly obscure books, and when we tell them we don't have them, they are surprised by our lack of selection. We offer to special order the title for them, and they just tell us that they'll order it from Amazon. Well, I wasn't going to go to Amazon, and I really wanted a book of poems for the plane ride home.

I refocused and decided to see what City Lights was recommending. Perhaps I'd actually discover something new. They were featuring Bob Hicok's Insomnia Diary on an end cap. I picked it up and read a few of his narrative poems and was soon laughing to myself. I decided to buy the book when I read "The bald truth." Hicok is as bald as I am, so I could identify with his opening line, "My hair went on a diet of its own accord."

Those other authors will have to wait for another day. I've read them all before anyway. Thanks to City Lights, I've discovered somebody new.

Book Passage

The renovated Ferry Building is one of San Francisco's great places to grab lunch and just look at the Bay Bridge stretch out over the blue water. The independent bookseller Book Passage from the Marin County town of Corte Madera opened a small store facing out onto the bay in the Ferry Building. It's the opposite of City Lights in many ways -- good signage, faced-out titles, fairly slick marketing.

The challenge of a small store in a tourist location is to retain some identity while catering to both locals and travellers from all over the world. Book Passage manages to appeal to both audiences in a limited space without feeling cramped or schizophrenic. Their recommended section was interesting and featured an eclectic range of novels, memoirs and other nonfiction. It added a real personal touch (especially since I know one the main recommenders) to what would otherwise feel like a busy airport or train station store. I also thought that their board listing events held at both of their stores was impressive yet homey. Immediately upon returning to our store, I told our promotions manager that we should think of posting a similar board.

Once again, I thought: here's a store that really seems to know itself. Comfortable in its own skin, it isn't trying to overreach. It was hopping with customers perusing the staff picks as well as the travel titles. The staff was enthusiastic, helpful and seemed glad to be working in such a beautiful place. I found several books I wanted, mostly on the sales table, but alas I was pulled away by the relatives before I could make my final decisions.

Cody's in Berkeley

Has anyone been to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley lately? Wow, what a disappointment. I remember going there 15 years ago (long after its true heyday) and really enjoying the energetic music vibe, radical politics and great shopping. The heart of the experience for me was Cody's Bookstore, along with the two giant record stores, Amoeba and Rasputin. Well, Cody's is gone and it's a miracle that the record stores are still there.

My wife and I wandered around for about half an hour searching for a decent place to eat lunch. Most places looked like student dives with inedible food. There was no real feeling of progressive politics, protesting or even anti-corporate sentiment on the street. Instead, we were met with overly aggressive pan-handlers, a band standing outside of Rasputin trying to hustle their own CDs and lots of fashion-challenged college kids. We didn't return at night, but it would be easy to imagine how the whole scene might turn menacing after dark.

No wonder Cody's packed up and left. It's a true shame though. On our last visit to Berkeley, we spent hours searching through their left-wing political books, extensive international fiction selection and staff-selected titles. Making matters worse is that Cody's second location on 4th street, a much more upscale neighborhood, is also shuttered now.

Now, the biggest draw of that 4th street neighborhood is the East Bay Vivarium. I have to admit that the Vivarium (that's reptile store in English) is one of the most amazing places I've visited recently. It features a plethora of snakes, lizards and turtles. Some of these animals are huge, including a monitor lizard that looked quite a bit like a komodo dragon.

After we left the Vivarium, we wandered past the just-closed Cody's location. I remember visiting a few years ago, just after it opened. It was a beautiful location with high ceilings and wooden fixtures. The staff had done a magnificent job creating tables that just made you want to buy books you didn't need. But frankly, the store didn't seem quite right to me. It was too pretty for what was really a gritty independent bookstore. Sure enough, the rent was jacked up (that's what happens to new buildings in pretty places) and Cody's was back out on the street. They are now in downtown Berkeley in a relatively tiny 7,500 square-foot store.

As I stared in the windows of the nearly empty store, a shiver went through my body. It was more than the cool breeze blowing that March day. It felt like I was looking at the future of independent bookselling in America. A few unidentifiable, forgotten author photos hung up on the far wall, empty spinner racks populated the selling floor and a silent cash register was permanently shut. A man in his late forties tried the door and was alarmed to see that it was locked shut. We told him they were closed for good.

"Well, that sucks," he said, before heading down the street to Anthropologie.

I found it hard to tear my eyes away from the windows. It was like looking at the body of a relative before the coffin is shut. It's painful to see, but more painful to turn away.