Musings on books and the book business by an opinionated, somewhat cynical, yet optimistic bookseller.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Klosterman, Hodgman and Lardons
The word "lardons" on the menu of The Blue Star in Colorado Springs caused me a bit of concern at a Simon & Schuster author dinner last weekend. I was trying to find a meal that fit in with my dietary restrictions (I don't eat land-roving animals) and had settled on the scallops. However, the seared scallops, in addition to being served with creamed corn and pear relish, also featured Saint Germaine lardons. The word lard, or anything related to it, generally strikes fear in most vegetarian or semi-vegetarian hearts.
What was I to do? The shrimp came with pork, the special fish (a tuna) was sold out, and I was trying to avoid the summer squash cappelletti since I'd had noodles for lunch and summer was over. I conferred with my wife, and she guessed that lardons was a type of French cheese. I didn't believe her. Finally, I broke into the conversation at the table and said, "Does anyone know what lardons are? Saint Germaine lardons?"
I was met with quizzical looks from the dozen people at the table. Just as I was beginning to despair that I might have to rely on the waitress, who didn't seem to know that andouille sausage was not a vegetable, one of the dinner's featured authors, John Hodgman, came to the rescue. Hodgman, who many might recognize as the human P.C. in the Apple computer commercials, whipped out his iPhone.
Hodgman dramatically held up his iPhone for all to see and announced over his shoulder to the rest of the diners in the restaurant (who weren't paying any attention to our table), "I am using my iPhone."
Within seconds, Hodgman had our definition. "Small strips or cubes of fat or bacon. It's bacon," he said as he dramatically put his iPhone back in his pocket. I was disappointed. What was I going to eat? This dinner at the Mountains and Plains Independent Bookseller Association Show had already caused me more heartburn than usual for a trade show event, and now that I was in Colorado Springs, I didn't see a suitable entree.
Originally, I was supposed to go to a Random House dinner at The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs' fabled hotel. That invitation fell through in a terribly embarrassing fashion. After the rep proffered the invite, I asked him if it would all right if I brought my wife with me. She's accompanied me on dozens of these dinners over the years. He hemmed and hawed and said that he only had eight places and if an extra one opened up he'd be happy to invite her. In fact, he was relatively sure that a bookseller from Utah was going to cancel out on the meal.
I apologized for being a pain in the neck, but my wife, who is nearly eight months pregnant, wouldn't be too happy about being stuck in a Colorado Springs hotel room, while I went to dinner without her. My rep, who is actually the first person I ever bought books from as a new buyer in 1997, said he'd let me know as soon as possible if she could attend.
A few days later, I still hadn't heard from him when the Simon & Schuster rep called me and asked if I'd like to have dinner with Chuck Klosterman, the author of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. I could hardly believe my luck. Klosterman has been a personal hero of mine ever since I read his article and interview with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant in Chuck Klosterman IV. Anyone who would ask Plant why he sang, "I'm gonna give you every inch of my love," in the Zeppelin song "Whole Lotta Love," rather than using the metric system in the lyrics, was sure to be a hilarious dinner companion.
"When is the dinner?" I asked. The rep suggested Friday night, which was when I had my tentative Random House dinner. "Can Emily attend?" I asked. The rep said she would be happy to have Emily along. In fact, she was looking for more people for the dinner because they were scheduling it so close to the trade show that most booksellers already had plans.
Once I knew Emily could go, I said yes. I didn't call my Random House rep to see what was going on with his dinner. I didn't have the courtesy to tell Simon & Schuster that I needed to find out about another engagement. No. I just thought, "Dinner with Chuck Klosterman. I'm going. Thank God, I have a way out of the Random House party."
Well, I didn't get off the hook that easily. The phone rang early the next Monday morning and it was my venerable Random House rep on the line. "Arsen, imagine my surprise when I was in Utah last Friday and I ran into the Simon & Schuster rep. She said you were planning to go to her dinner," he said. I felt the blood rush to my head.
"I can explain. I was just about to call you," I said into his rueful chuckle. "I hadn't heard back from you and she had room for both me and Emily."
"Sure, sure," he answered in a perfectly calm voice. "Run off with Simon & Schuster. Take up with them. Here I was telling everyone that you and Emily were coming to our dinner."
I apologized profusely, and mercifully he let me off the hook with just a mild ribbing. Perhaps anger would have been easier to handle, because I still feel very guilty about the whole thing.
On Wednesday, just two days before the dinner, things got even more complicated. I was sitting down to buy the frontlist from my Penguin hardback rep when I got a call from the Simon & Schuster rep. She wanted me to know that Klosterman's friend, and fellow speaker at the Mtns & Plains author breakfast, John Hodgman, was also going to attend the dinner. Now, some astute readers of Kash's Book Corner might have already asked themselves: what was Hodgman, the author of the Penguin bestseller The Areas of My Expertise and the forthcoming Penguin title More Information Than You Require, doing at a Simon & Schuster author soiree?
Unfortunately, I did not think of the awkwardness of all of this and blurted out to my Penguin rep that I was going to have dinner with John Hodgman. Oh boy, that set him off.
"Shouldn't Penguin be setting something up with him if he's in town for dinner? Shouldn't I have something set up?" he asked incredulously. "I've got to deal with this." He was clearly agitated, and I could see that the sales call was going downhill quickly.
I implored him to do nothing. "I'm already in trouble with Random House for this dinner. I don't need any more problems. No one can know that I told you Hodgman was going to dinner with Simon." Grasping at straws, I suggested, "Perhaps you could get an invite. They're looking for people because they are setting it up so late."
Well, he never did get an invite because with the two marquee names attending one dinner, Simon didn't seem to have any trouble filling the table. It turned out to be one of the most amusing author dinners I ever attended.
Klosterman, a tall, gangly guy with a full beard and slightly messy hair, who seemed to have Red Bull coursing through his veins, held court on rock music and other topics. We briefly touched upon his new novel, Downtown Owl, but he seemed on much more comfortable ground discussing the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks. At one point during dessert, we were having a discussion about first concert experiences, and he recalled that his first show was seeing the metal band Ratt.
"I think I still have the ticket in my wallet," Klosterman said. He thumbed through his wallet and found a small ticket and looked at it appreciatively. "How much do you think it cost in 1989 to see this show?"
A bookseller from Durango, Colorado guessed $12.50. Klosterman was impressed with the guess and put the ticket down on the table. It was a show with three bands, and it cost less than $15. My, how times have changed.
Hodgman was more reserved than Klosterman but just as funny. I guess you don't get a regular role on the Daily Show if you can't entertain people. His humor was droll and often unexpected, but always clever. We got in a long discussion about the pros and cons of children's television with Hodgman passionately opposed to the new-look Sesame Street.
Hodgman showed his serious side in a conversation with Emily, a middle school teacher, about failing schools and highly recommended Paul Tough's new book Whatever it Takes. Tough profiles Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, and his efforts to not only educate poor children but to eradicate poverty by restructuring the educational system and providing radical levels of support to parents and families at home.
Perhaps the most humorous moment of the evening happened away from the table when I headed towards the bathroom. In front of the bathroom, I ran into a young female sales rep, who shall forever remain nameless. She was attending a different author dinner at the restaurant, and was just waiting there by the men's room. I asked her what she was doing.
"I saw Chuck Klosterman go in there," she said pointing to the door of the men's room. "I really want to meet him so I'm waiting for him to come out."
I wanted to tell her that she could just come over to our table and any one of the booksellers would be happy to introduce her to Klosterman, but I just couldn't ruin the moment for her by making it that easy. After all, she had worked up the gumption to follow him to the bathroom in order to get a private moment.
When my entree finally arrived that evening, I noticed what appeared to be shriveled beets or overly roasted red potatoes on my plate. I had ended up ordering the scallops, without the lardons. Just as I was about to try one of these strange looking beets, I heard Klosterman yell from across the table, "Hey, I think you've got my lardons."
I looked up, and he had a plate of scallops (actually just three scallops, good thing Simon & Schuster was paying) and it was free of the offending meat. We traded plates, but before Klosterman's food was back on the table, Hodgman was asking for a taste of the treasured lardons. He took one into his mouth, savored it and looked over at me.
"They're really good," he said with a devilish grin.
Top 10 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. 2000. White Teeth by Zadie Smith. 2000. Atonement by Ian McEwan. 2002. Any Human Heart by William Boyd. 2003. The Known World by Edward P. Jones. 2003. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. 2004. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. 2005. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. 2006. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. 2007. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. 2007.
Other Favorites The Inventory by Gila Lustiger. 2000. The Human Stain by Philip Roth. 2000. Erasure by Percival Everett. 2001. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. 2001. Spies by Michael Frayn. 2002. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. 2002. Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon. 2002. Roscoe by William Kennedy. 2002. American Woman by Susan Choi. 2003 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. 2003. Sabbath Creek by Judson Mitcham. 2004. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. 2004. The In Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vassanji. 2004. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud. 2006. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. 2006. After This by Alice McDermott. 2006. Echo Maker by Richard Powers. 2006. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. 2007. Peace by Richard Bausch. 2008. Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. 2008. Border Songs by Jim Lynch. 2009. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. 2009. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. 2009. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. 2009. All Other Nights by Dara Horn. 2009.
My Favorite New Books
My Abandonment by Peter Rock. A girl and her father live off the land in Portland's Forest Park in this novel that is based on a true story. Told through the eyes of the young girl, it's a poetic work revealing our connection to the natural world. True Confections by Katharine Weber. Zip's Candy is the setting for this outstanding satire. Alice, who turns out to be an unreliable narrator, details the company's history and her own place in its scandalous past. New World Monkeys by Nancy Mauro. The death of a boar, a pervert trying to perfect his craft, and the unearthing of the bones of a murder victim are just a few of the plot elements in this comic debut.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Shortly after World War II, a young Irish girl is forced by her family to emigrate to Brooklyn. Cut off from all that she knows she finds love at Dodgers games and Coney Island in this subtle but suspenseful novel.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Phillippe Petit's remarkable 1974 tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers is the jumping off point (pun intended) of this novel of love, loss and beautiful convergences in a gritty New York City.
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. Nothing is as it seems in this brilliant bizarre novel set in an almost recognizable New York City. The revelations at the end left me reeling although I knew that surprises were lurking. Another novel with shades of Saul Bellow. Border Songs by Jim Lynch. Hilarious novel about a strange border agent on the Canadian border. Lynch effortlessly tells the story from several points of view including the criminal, the cops and everyone in between.
The Signal by Ron Carlson. An adventure and a love story set in the pristine mountains of Wyoming. A sense of both hope and foreboding hangs over the sparse narrative.
Wanting by Richard Flanagan. This historical novel featuring both Charles Dickens and the explorer John Franklin is really a meditation on desire and what was thought to separate the civilized from the barbarians.
Woodsburner by John Pipkin. Henry David Thoreau burned down the Concord Woods before he wrote Walden. This novel explores that incident from several different perspectives, including a bookseller who is forced to sell porn to stay in business.
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. A British Bellow with a West Indian cricket fiend cast as a Chicago University Professor. Humboldt plays cricket. Chicagoby Alaa Al Aswany. Egyptian students and their professors try to navigate America in this magnificent novel set in the heart of contemporary Chicago.
Gossip of the Starlings by Nina de Gramont. A haunting novel about the seductive power of friendship.
Wifeshoppingby Steven Wingate. Thirteen great short stories of men sabotaging their relationships.