Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Absurdity of Twain Fever

Mark Twain is the hottest author in America right now. The Boulder Book Store along with just about every other bookseller in America can barely keep ahead of the demand for the recently released 738-page Autobiography of Mark Twain. The reason the book is in short supply is that no one in their right mind saw this book taking off like it has. The University of California Press, which published a well-researched, finely edited, fairly academic book is simply not equipped to deal with a bestseller of this magnitude.

They shouldn't have to worry about this problem; although I'm sure they are happy to have such a profitable concern. Observing the demand for this book, it seems to be sheer madness and a herd mentality that is driving the Mark Twain frenzy. People are buying this book who haven't glanced at Twain since they were forced to read him in high school or college. My guess is that many copies of the Autobiography now in the hands of gleeful customers will end up, after great disappointment, flooding back into the bookstore in 2011 as forgotten used tomes.

I love Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It's a book that I read in high school and college and returned to for a third time about a decade ago. I've never been disappointed with Huck, and each reading has yielded more rewards and a greater admiration for Twain. My 12th grade English teacher introduced the book as the greatest novel in American history. To this day, I wouldn't quibble with that. (By the way, she considered William Faulkner the greatest American fiction writer and James Joyce the greatest writer of fiction in English. I'm not sure I consider Finnegan's Wake English, but that's besides the point.)

The Autobiography of Mark Twain is no Huck Finn. Not by a long shot. Nearly 500 pages of the 4-pound book is either unreadable doggerel composed of false starts and academic self-aggrandizement or notes and appendices that only a grad student would ever need to dive into.

Esquire did a great break down on how to read the book in one day that serves to highlight the book's shortcomings more than anything else.

In Adam Gopnik's insightful piece in The New Yorker's November 29th edition, he shows how the book's main two selling points aren't really that impressive. The first is that the manuscript was suppressed for 100 years on Twain's wishes. Twain wanted to make sure that everyone he mentioned in the book was dead by the time it was publicly disseminated. The problem with this according to Gopnik is that only 5% of the new volume actually contains unpublished Twain material. His autobiography has been published three previous times, and this one doesn't add that much. The other selling point is that readers are getting a truly authentic view of Twain's life. However, Gopnik notes that Twain gave up on candor early into the writing process.

Gopnik's conclusion on the Twain volume: "A book that had been a disjointed and largely baffling bore emerges now as a disjointed and largely baffling bore."

Of course there will be some true Twain devotees that will relish every fresh word and enjoy rereading some of the other material in here. But enough true admirers to push the book to the top spot on all the bestseller lists? No, no, no. Most of those books are going to people who will put the book on their shelf and perhaps read a page or two from it. They'll have just enough to quote at a New Year's Day party if the topic comes up. It will be gathering dust by Martin Luther King Day.

If you want a memoir that will bring a fresh perspective from an entertaining raconteur, I'd humbly suggest a copy of Life by Keith Richards. Oh yeah, there is no problem getting copies of it. Hachette rightfully expected that the Rolling Stone who remembers it all would produce a bestseller that no one would consider a bore.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Christmas Season is a Bear

This is my favorite time of year to be a bookseller. The hours are long, the store is crowded and it can be frustrating when everyone wants the same book because they heard about it on NPR. However, those minor complaints are outweighed by the fact that the store is packed with people that want books. Men, women and children that value the experience of reading and that are open to recommendations and book conversations.

My favorite moment of Black Friday came towards the end of the day. A middle age woman from Chicago came into the store with her two college-age daughters. The woman was dressed nicely in an expensive knee-length black coat and silver earrings and she was all business. She approached the counter and asked me where she could find a book featured in the window.

"Which book do you want?" I asked.

"I don't know the title. It's in your window with the Christmas books. It's about an old bear."

Instantly, I knew she was referring to Olivier Dunrea's Old Bear and His Cub. Dunrea's picture book came out just two weeks ago and already is a classic. His simple but finely drawn pictures and elegant story of a loving old bear keeping his cub safe and secure resonates in a way that brand new books rarely do. It's as if you've known this tale and illustrations since your own childhood.

I led the woman back to the children's room and pulled the book out of the dump and placed it in her hands. "It's a wonderful book," I said.

"We'll see," she said holding the book and gazing at its delightful cover. "If it makes me tear up by the end, I'll know it's worth buying."

I left her and her daughters with the book without much hope that we'd get the sale. She did not look like a woman who would ever cry in public. I returned to the front counter trolling for another customer. A few minutes later I was putting a book on hold when I passed my Chicago customer still standing where I left her.

"Well, did the Old Bear and His Cub do the trick?"

She looked up at me and her steely eyes were filled with water and her face was blushed red. Her daughters stood behind her and rolled their dry eyes. She dabbed a tissue to her eyes and simply said, "I'm going to buy the book."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

ReGenesis: God is Movement

Here's a reprint from the Boulder Weekly of my review of ReGenesis, the concluding volume of Robert Dresner's The Astral Imperative trilogy. I met Dresner when he was painting my house and we began an interesting relationship that was detailed in my review of his first book. It was one of my most commented upon blog entries and now nearly two years later people still ask me about it. The focus of that article was largely on Dresner's decision to self publish and his near misses with New York publishers.

In my review of the second book , I did not mention that Dresner was self publishing the book and the same holds true in this review. It seems less relevent now than it did two years ago that Dresner decided to publish the books on his own. We sell self published, or what I like to call quasi-published books every day at the Boulder Book Store. These quasi-published books are ones from presses that are very small and are often just publishing their authors books on demand. Some of our best events come from the ranks of Independently published authors and our customers don't seem to make distinctions between major publishers, small publishers and independent publishers as long as they enjoy the work and get to meet the author.

Personally, I still believe strongly in the publishing houses and the work that they do. I'd love to see Dresner get picked up for a few reasons. I'd be interested to see how a great science fiction editor would polish his work. I also think his books have something meaningful to say and that a large press could give them the distribution that they deserve.

Here's the review:

Yuri Popovich sits silently in the lotus position on Mars, his heart registering just one beat a minute, as Robert Dresner’s thought-provoking novel ReGenesis opens. Popovich, a lone survivor of the original mission to Mars, has completely retreated into himself and has sat in his seemingly unconscious state in a cave for 12 years as new settlers come and gawk at him.

In a moment of desperation, another astronaut, Richard, who has been stranded on Mars for over a decade and is feared and ostracized by the other colonists, pleads with the meditating man to help him save the petty, earth-centered colonists from themselves. He doesn’t expect an answer but he gets one. Yuri simply states, “I am here.”

Richard is startled. He asks, “What happened to you Yuri? Where did you go? Tell me, please, if you can. I need to know. What did you see?”

Yuri’s answer is simple, but sets up the fantastic plot to this concluding book in Dresner’s Astral Imperative trilogy. “God. I saw God.”

The questions of the existence of God and the possibility of another level of consciousness permeates this novel set in 2053 simply because our existence on Earth has become so tenuous and our means of escape so limited. Environmental catastrophes combined with rampant nationalism and runaway technology has threatened the viability of the human race. Depending on the characters point of view and to some extent the readers, Yuri is either a savior or a charlatan.

“Yuri was the one who had to bear witness on our human existence,” Dresener said. “He inhabits different realms and realities. Is he delusional? Do you believe him or don’t you? What happened to Yuri is not out of the realm of human experience. In my travels to India I met people like that.”

The Yuri of the first two books did not seem a likely character for enlightenment. An astrobiologist by training and a world renowned poet, he spent much of his time involved in all too human entanglements on the ship to Mars and on the Red planet’s primitive space station. His conversion to a spiritual state did not occur until a battle between the colonists broke out at the end of the second book. Slowly, Yuri begins to reveal to the other characters just what he has seen during his twelve-year sojourn communing with the divine.

“I’ve seen so much; I’ve lived so many lives and still live them. I’ve seen so much violence between beings, between countries, between worlds, between entire solar systems – even galaxies that demand more space to expand at the expense of other galaxies. I’ve seen suns that are jealous of one another’s light.”

Gradually, some of the colonists’ curiosity turns to revulsion as they learn just how radical Yuri’s visions were and just what they may mean for their own existence. Is he a madman or a prophet? It’s a question that has been asked for centuries on Earth. It’s not an easy question for the reader when we hear Yuri get to the base of his creed.

“God is movement. God is evolution. God is war. God is peace. God is raping and killing children. God is suffering for the sins of other beings in this life and in other lives, and dying for them….And the greatest sin of all is when we are consigned to see the half of it, when the light of creation is divided into good and evil, and right and wrong, between what is divine and not divine, when we choose sides instead of choosing life when your very lives are at stake.”

For Yuri, the highest purpose of God is simply survival. Nothing truly dies. Our energy must be put into the effort to survive. Of course for much of the novel the very continuance of the human race is in doubt.

“Implicit in the movement to destruction is the will to survive,” Dresner said. “So far humanity by the narrowest sliver has moved ahead on the evolutionary scale. We always choose to live even if we aren’t conscious of how we make that choice.”

Dresner’s Earth is still recognizable with a few tweaks. Nationalism, especially a powerful Russia and China, still dominate the political landscape despite the fact that most of the world’s problems transcend geographic borders. Our worst fears of global warming won’t prepare us for his vision of 2053 where terrible earthquakes and fierce storms have visited the globe. Many parts of the world experience perpetual summer while Western Europe and the East Coast remain mired in deep winter conditions all the way into May. Things are degrading so quickly that even the man on the moon can see our problems.

“The view of Earth from moon orbit was not as beautiful as it once was because of the smoke bellowing out of Australia and Africa, which clung to passing clouds and turned them gray,” Dresner writes.

Even simple conversations in the future are changing in subtle ways with the emergence of techno-glasses. These eyeglasses act as computer screens as well as communication and recording devices. They make today’s laptops, Ipods and Bluetooth headsets seem downright clumsy and unobtrusive. A sense that technology will continue to march on producing everyday gadgets on the one hand and potentially destroying the human race on the other imbues this novel with a sense of fatalism.

“Like it or not the next evolutionary step will be bio-technology,” Dresner said. “Our physiological beings will be married to tech expertise. That’s what can take us out of the solar system. A lot of the story is predicated on whether we are prepared for that evolution.”

On Earth one charismatic man, Fritz Kreiger, believes that we are not ready to make the evolutionary leap into space. After reaching prominence during the first manned mission to Mars as an opponent to the program, he disappeared during the intervening years. The awakening of Yuri, an event that has as many repercussions on Earth as on Mars, forces Krieger out of his anonymous life and back into the forefront of the battle to save mankind.

Krieger visits the man who helped create the powerful Dream Machine that is housed on the Mars colony. The Dream Machine started as a simulated holographic game in the first novel, but has now achieved sentience and has either communed with the divine or been hijacked by an alien intelligence. As Yuri and the Dream Machine set off from Mars to return to Earth, tensions build between nations vying for control of the all powerful computer. It is Krieger, one of Dresner’s most balanced and finely drawn characters, that tries to take the lead in the response.

The question of just who Yuri is becomes paramount. In a world that is even more skeptical and cynical than ours it is certainly hard to accept Yuri at his word as he speeds towards Earth with something more powerful than all the bombs on the planet. The Dream Machine contains the power to both destroy and save humanity.

“We don’t have seers. We are such a regimented culture that we are losing our seers,” Dresner said. “Sometimes the greatest transformations of enlightened beings are discovered at the bottom of despair. How you get to that bottom on Prozac or Ritalin? We are denying humanity the full range of experience. When you have hooded instincts and padded senses, it is easy to get blind.”

Perhaps as readers contemplate some the technological, ecological and spiritual issues that Dresner raises in ReGenesis, they will begin to see just a little more clearly into the future.