Archive for July, 2011

The Wheeled Library

July 29, 2011

Detroit Bookmobile Brings the World to Shutins.


I’ve been wanting to post this for awhile. I don’t have much to say to go along with it, but I just thought it was a nice story about how books form a community, even among those who never leave their house.

Up to 40% means pandemonium

July 24, 2011

First, I love books (as evidenced by this blog). Second, I’m bordering on dirt poor. So, hearing that Borders is going out of business and will be liquidating their stores fills me with conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I hate seeing Borders go out of business. I enjoy the place, I get great deals for their free membership,and they are damn near everywhere. On the other hand, store liquidations means discounts. And, by the end of it, big discounts.

So the girlfriend and I made a point of going to the nearest Borders over the weekend to see what was going on, only to find the parking lot plastered with cars and 40% signs in the window. The first thought for both of us was, “This is happening quick.”

But once we got inside the store, we realized it wasn’t happening that fast, and that the 40% thing was only on select merchandise (magazines and cards). So, we were a bit disappointed, hoping to walk in and grab pretty solid discounts on some of the things we’ve looked at in the past and decided was overpriced and not worth our cash. After all, $20 for a paperback sounds kinda high, but take 40% off that thing and we’ll grab a couple of different books and end up paying $30 on our visit instead.

But seeing the discount being a bit more limited than we expected from the parking lot and the signs, we didn’t get much (I got a couple of lit mags). But other people were walking out with crazy amounts of books, and just because they were saving maybe $2.50 off the cover price.

At which point my girlfriend and I shared another WTF moment. Why are these people going nuts for a fairly mediocre sale? After all, I got much larger discounts in my email from Borders every single week. Which essentially guaranteed that I would be willing to at least step into a Borders every week and do my damned well best to find something to blow my money on. But these books were a whopping 10% off (unless you got them from the animal section,  which was 20% off). The only other time I had seen Borders (or nearly any other store) so busy is around Christmas when shoppers flood the stores in a near panic as they try to avert ruining the holidays for their loved ones with crappy gifts.

I had to wonder where these people were a week ago, or  a month ago, or a year ago, when Borders could have really used this sort of business? Would lopping 10% off the cover price once in awhile have pulled these people out of the woodwork to spend like sailors on leave?

And I, more of a true clearance shopper I guess, could only look on in disgust at my apparently more amateurish brethren. 10% isn’t enough to make me bat an eye, let alone consider opening my wallet. But here was a store full of people going batshit for it. And not just sort of batshit, but having to shift the line from going straight out from their roped off area, to doubling back on itself like a coiled snake batshit.

Maybe Borders should have tried this sooner. Throw up a bunch of 40% off signs, which are only applicable to a couple of sections, give everything else a much more modest discount, and see if the herd would stampede through the door.  Instead of constantly remodeling stores that didn’t need to be remodeled, or revamping their stocking systems, what they really needed was a good sale. Because, as we witness from every clearance sale, every store liquidation, every holiday free-for-all, people are willing to buy anything if they believe they are getting a good deal on it. I know I’m happy with my copy of the Paris Review. The William Gibson interview is fantastic.

So, Borders is Liquidating.

July 19, 2011

Anyone who has followed this for the past year or so can’t be overly surprised. There was always doubt that they would be able to right the ship or get someone to ride in and rescue everything with a huge bag-o-cash. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit to some part of me hoping for just that.

Since Media Play shut its doors, Borders has been my official (non-used) book store. I’m a member. I use the coupons, I browse the shelves and I paw through the clearance racks. Over the years, the place has become a lot less cool. As hey continuously re-organized the stores, they also kept not bringing in any real assortment. If you had been in one Borders, you had been in them all, so there was never much of a point in going to the Borders in Ann Arbor if you had been to the one in Toledo the week before. If one place didn’t have what you were looking for, neither would the other, and it would take half a year and a pint of blood to get something you ordered from them.

But, honestly, the coupons kept me coming back. Which, apparently, is more than a lot of people can say. While the selection ceased to be the best, and they didn’t have a lot of places to sit down and browse through a book you were thinking of buying, it was still a comfortable place, if only because of its relative anonymity. Towards the end, it was as if Borders was flaunting the fact that they weren’t a great bookstore any more, and they were all the more likable for it.

But when Borders finally closes up, and I have picked through the bones of every store I come across (I can’t help it, I’m a whore for clearance sales of any sort and liquidation screams cheap), my days of bothering with bookstores, at least the kind that only sell new, crisp, fresh from the printer books, will likely be over. I’m sure I’ll still wander in the occasional Barnes and Noble, or even Books-A-Million, but they won’t be destinations on my shopping trips. Instead, I’ll probably now stick to the second hand stores.  And if there is something I just have to have, and can’t wait for, well, Amazon is a couple of keystrokes away.

The Caul by Russell Banks – short story review

July 15, 2011

“The Caul” follows Edgar Allan Poe (yes, THE Edgar Allan Poe) for a few short while as he takes part in a reading and visits the grave of his mother. The reading is of “The Raven.” In the story, Banks makes note that Poe is sober, not overly thrilled with the trappings of his celebrity, and somewhat fixated on his mother. At the beginning of the story, is set up that he blames himself for it, or was blamed by others for his mother’s death and simply held onto it and allowed it to fester and grow within. I don’t think it would be a huge leap to say that Banks might be hinting that part of Poe’s obsession with the macabre, guilty consciences and young, dead women stem from the death of his young mother.

But the story isn’t really about that. First, I think it’s important to note what a “caul” is. The primary definition is:

1. a part of the amnion sometimes covering the head of a child at birth.
and Banks uses “caul” at one point in the story in such a manner, as Poe is visiting the grave of his mother and remarks on how the world around him disappears, as if his head is encased in a caul. This, of course, could be expanded to how Poe is largely blind to the outside world as a whole, being so fully consumed by thoughts and guilts over his dead mother. Which is really the focus, not his mother, but Edgar’s remaining fascination and focus of her. While his mother is a constant presence in the story, Edgar can’t remember what she looks like. His mother as a person, as who she was, no longer exists. Instead, his mother exists as a knot of anxieties.
The other important and repeating subject of the story is “The Raven.” The title of the story is a short stone’s throw from “caw,” or the sound a raven makes. “The Raven” is a tale of fixation (or undying love, or some middle ground, depending on how you want to view it) with a young man lamenting for his lost Lenore when a raven shows up, perches itself in his room, and the narrator will never again see his lost Lenore.  Reading Banks’ story, I think the jump from the poem being about a lost love to a lost mother is a small one, and it may even hint at some of the unhealthier aspects of Poe’s fascination.

Defenseman by Russell Banks – short story review

July 14, 2011

It starts off as a meditation about the isolation of his father’s life and how hockey prepared him to deal with it, how its speed, grace and violence gave him the tools to steel himself against the weight and blows of a lack of connection to humanity. It then drifts into a recollection of connecting with his father through the act of getting his first pair of ice skates and going to a small man made pond outside of town that was used as the local skating rink and learning to ice skate. It then wraps up with a trip back to the “present” and the narrator realizing that he doesn’t have any pictures of him and his father skating together, few pictures from their winters at all. For whatever reasons, summer dominated their photo albums, despite the fact that winter dominated their lives. The story concludes with the narrator putting skates on and stepping out onto a frozen pond himself, and breaking away from the weight of life.

The physical isolation of his father seems to have been carried on by the narrator, as he walks into his barn to get his ice skates and then across a meadow or field area to get to a small pond to ice skate in his adulthood. Earlier it is mentioned that he played hockey in a similar way, and from the same position – a relatively slow but violent defenseman. There is clearly a thread being woven that a son follows in his father’s footsteps and, intentionally or not, fathers set this thread in motion by providing key moments of impetus that are likely repetitions of moments they had with their own fathers.

I can’t help but think of my kid and trying to get him to play baseball (it hasn’t been fruitful). I can attest to a strong desire to see him excel at something that was important to me, that it does foster a sort of connection that is indescribable.  And when he doesn’t pick up on it, there is a distance that seems difficult to close.  And I do wonder if he will be lacking something to help him make it through at least the next ten years if he can’t throw a baseball properly, or shoot a basketball.  If there is a connection he will be missing.

Which ties back into the story. Learning a sport is a connection to other people, it is something that binds and ties you together. A commonality. To be without this is to be relegated to an isolation that is deeply personal and difficult to break. By taking his kid out onto the ice, by teaching him to skate, the narrator’s father was giving him a touch stone to rely on in all of his other dealings with other men. He wasn’t just passing down something personal, not just forming his son in his own image, but exposing and indoctrinating him to a foundational experience for pretty much every man of that area and culture, and an experience that could only, really, be handed down paternally.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga – review

July 11, 2011

Looking back on The White Tiger, I’m left with a sense that what we are reading isn’t just a tale of a battle of castes, of social inequality, but of the continuing influences (and even still occurring) colonialism. What’s different from the classic Orwellian colonialism from his time in India is that we are no longer talking about an occupying force setting up shop in a foreign land and bending the locals to the will of their oppressors through sheer force.

Instead, it’s an economic and philosophical colonialism. It’s the importation of ideas, of companies, and of culture that has set up shop and has quietly bent a society to the wills and whims of another. The entire book is a letter from the protagonist, Balram Halwai, to the Chinese Premier, Web  Jiabao, extolling the virtues of a capitalist and “democratic” system that is entirely imported from Britain and other western countries, and outlining how the only way to succeed within this system is to play within the parameters of its own lawlessness.

In the place of colonial powers, a wealthy class of criminals has stepped into the power vacuum, and people of Balram’s class are essentially feeder for service work. It is mentioned often that under different times, Balram and his family would have enjoyed higher standing in traditional Indian society. They would be “sweets makers,” what I’m assuming is the equivalent of a baker. It is only under this perverted economic system that they have been moved to the bottom of society, fighting for work amongst themselves and always tied to the anchors of familial expectations and worries. In fact, it is this tie to his family that Balram must eventually throw off to gain his “success.”

The jobs that seem to be the most exalted by Balram are almost entirely jobs that have been outsourced from America or other western companies, a large figure in this idea of economic colonization. And the group of people Balram eventually comes to depend on as the lifeblood of the taxi business he starts are people chained to these companies, doing telephone work, who have to live bizarre hours to correspond to the waking hours of the people who would be calling them from America asking for help with their computers, their DVD players or what have you. So to achieve a level of economic comfort, young Indians have to configure their lives ever more drastically to the whims and practices of foreign “masters.”

And what sets this off all the more is the distaste Pinky Madam has for the whole thing when she sees it. Balram’s employer, Ashok, has recently returned from America with his wife, Pinky. And while Ashok is slowly pulled back into the culture and its expectations of him, Pinky reacts with horror to it, and eventually flees from it. It is very reminiscent of Orwell writing about India, and how the British occupiers are slowly worn down by the experience of colonialism and how cheaply it values the lives of those being placed at its mercy. At the same time, the surest way for a people at the mercy of colonization to improve their social standings is to become a functioning member of it. If you’re willing to play ball, you can go far, and that seems to be what Balram eventually comes to do.

He turns his back on his family, adopts a ruthless bent that would suit the people who employ him as a driver, and then he finds success running his taxi business after buying off a high ranking member of the local police in the town he has moved to. While The White Tiger can clearly be read as a darkly comic take on life in modern India, I think it works just as well as a commentary on the shift of the idea of colonialism and how the “global marketplace” has taken the place of armies and musket fire.

War is Boring by David Axe and Matt Bors – review

July 3, 2011

War is Boring by David Axe, illustrated by Matt Bors, is powerful in its accumulated weight of boredom, death and more boredom. If I wanted to be cute, I’d call it an existential exploration of meaning in the face of depravity, but I’m not good at cute.

On the other hand, I can’t say it would be entirely wrong to throw “existential” at it and run with it. The narrator suffers from simultaneously finding war and peace both boring, though the latter more so.  Throughout the text, you don’t find any easy answers, any stereotypical refuges for hope. If there’s a god at this dinner party, it’s running a bit more than fashionably late. Instead, meaning seems to be searched for at home with girlfriends and parties, with family and friends. Abroad, it is glimpsed in the dregs of whatever society is being torn apart, in the drivers who show the narrator all of the sights, and in taking flights home with the living remains of someone who used to have far more remains attached to their body.

And humanity is never really found. The author’s quest for excitement or meaning comes up empty. Instead, what seems to be found is pessimism and desperation, both in abundance. While the scenes from “home” are fare fewer than his time in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chad and Lebanon, there is a strong impression that the desperation and pessimism encountered in these far flung places are just as prevalent at home, only in different ways. He soon becomes bored, he gets tired of covering conferences and having to wear a tie, he runs out of things to talk about with his girlfriend, and he reveals a life changing revelation over spaghetti to his parents that culminates in how he’ll be okay if everyone would just leave him the fuck alone.  Oh, and that Mogadishu has rally good pasta.

Which may make it all the odder that he chooses to go to Chad to cover Darfur. But I like to think it is the idea of humanity prevailing, even in the face of such pessimism. After all, he goes because it matters, and if it matters, then I think the logical assumption is that everything he has covered has mattered, even if he didn’t believe so at the time.Or even if he realizes it.

Which would be fine if you don’t read the afterward, but I did, and what I think is  really left is a sense of confusion. Axe doesn’t seem entirely sure why anything happens or why any of it matters, but from his reasoning to go to Chad, from his simple ability to keep getting up and to keep doing what he’s doing, I think it speaks for itself that it does matter, regardless of whether or not we can discover or articulate why.