The Seattle Public Library Sale is held twice a year in a hangar in what was once a local naval base. It's a three day event with the price of books declining as the event wears on, but most anyone in the book biz lines up outside the place before opening. It's like the Christmas sale at Wal-mart, except book sellers are too polite to trample workers fighting their way to the items for sale. We've been attending this sale for many years and we see regulars of the other stores sitting on the curb huddled around their stacked boxes they will fill as the huge hangar door slides open. A grungy lot, generally, old guys in hats and beards clutching cloth bags, the motley crew of used book stores in the University District and here on Capitol Hill, Russian families, the legions of Central Americans who pick for the conveyor & warehouse on-line retailers who buy only because the electronic device they carry tells them to, often not even knowing the title. When the appointed hour ticks to being close the line outside the place -- often many blocks long -- tightens up as people get up, put away their coffee thermos, clean up their donuts or bagels and cream cheese and shuffle toward the big doors. An excitement ripples through the line as the people in back don't know the doors haven't actually parted. We do "grabbing exercises:" thrusting our arms out and back in counted form whilst limbering and exercising our grabbing muscles, standing in horse pose as a mock team spirit hurrah before setting forth. Once the line begins to move in earnest it speeds as it approaches the entrance, when people whip past carrying their cargo of empty boxes and dash to their favorite section. The room is laid out by general category. Within the first 15 minutes the aisles build with bodies pouring through the books on the tables and then moving to the boxed books on the floor until it is difficult to move your now filled box through the bodies, now becoming close and often full of the odors of stress and excitement and pastries gone south. The aisles get clogged with baby strollers and shoppers with huge backpacks and people butt-to-butt scavenging under opposite tables, spreading their finds on the floor. Having been to many such events by this time I've noticed several book sale archetypes. Firstly, and most dangerous/annoying is the strapping young tech book buyer. This type only wants late model texts and technical books he can sell for real money, often to students and profs, who are used to paying the grossly inflated prices of the latest editions. He is exclusively male, and often slightly overweight, pale but determined, smart but narrowly focused and single-mindedly rapacious. He will approach a box, whether someone else may be dawdling through it or not, with both hands and lunge into it as if it were filled with so many bricks he is winning a prize to be the quickest to remove. For his prey can be easily spotted: shiny covers, square corners, large and 500+ pages, no d.j., bright graphics. Anything else is flotsam. Once a box is looted of anything meeting his criteria he quickly leaves the now tousled box and goes to tear open another, elbows and arms flailing ahead of the methodical scanning of the large Central American families/teams. Next there is the Homeless guy who buys only for retail stores. This is a frugal business because as everyone knows, stores pay hardly anything for books, often only offering trade for the books they take in, but this buyer looks for only the late, bright and perfect, though it may be a novel or non-fiction. Ex-library books hold no interest for him, and he is nearly as driven as the tech-book buyer, but because the margins are lower, not quite as insane, desheveled, wearing a cast-off jacket from the late 80's and worn tennis shoes. Then there is the mean, mumbling beer-bellied older guy in fatigues, who knows all about the business and deeply resents being in competition with anyone who's been engaged in the trade for less than 37 & 1/2 years. This type does not move that quickly and when asked anything is willing to pontificate at length, but with a scornful bluster and a dismissive frown towards all who deign to get in the way of his front side protrusion. He mumbles because what he has to say is important, even if all the fools of the world refuse to listen. There is the skinny high cheek boned crazy Chinese man with terrible breath. He searches only for copies of Sweet Valley High that he has yet to collect. He wields a cane, more to gesticulate and point with than for support, and has a long hand-written list of the eighty or so S.W.H. he has collected , crossed with a wavy line through those that his grand daughter (supposedly) is now reading. His breath smells like six root canals festering with detritus as he expounds at length in very broken English on the completion of his list. He likes encyclopedia sets too. Such sales attract a wide audience, to be sure, and this list can go one for a long long time, but these are a few of my favorites.
I ushered a few days ago for the Seattle Arts & Lectures talk of Laila Lalami. A year or so ago, I ushered for SAL for a couple of seasons. Then I changed my email address, so I didn't get the email for "ushers needed." But now I'm back on the email list again. I didn't know anything about Laila Lalami, but the description said she was from Morocco and she looks pretty glamorous in her author photo: heavy eyeliner, pretty face, black wavy hair. SAL happens at Benaroya Hall, the fancy new symphony building downtown with Chihuli and Starbucks, northwest bigshots, both in the lobby in the forms of a giant chandelier and a coffee stand. I arrived about 10 minutes ahead of the 6 pm scheduled usher arrival time, and bought a small cup of bitter, icky Starbucks coffee, finding no other option nearby. There was a gelato place across the street, but it was closing. Then I went back into the lobby where Elliott Bay Book Company had a table, and a woman I recognized from there who used to work at Red & Black Books Collective (a feminist bookstore that was on 15th Ave. in the eighties and nineties, but closed, followed in that location by another short-lived bookstore, Pages; now it's a funky dollar store full of made -in-China crap), named Karen. She recognized me too, and we re-introduced ourselves. She said she had read Lalami's short stories and her blog and that she was trilingual, speaking French, Arabic, and English. The table had other Moroccan-themed books by other authors, I noticed, but not Paul Bowles. Then, the ushers were called to order, and I went inside the big Benaroya auditorium with the others and we had a logistical meeting while Laila Lalami and the director of SAL practiced using the microphones on stage in front of the giant pipe organ. They sat in some armchairs and Lalami showed her slender stockinged legs. As far as I can tell, ushering at SAL is a piece of cake. There is some bureaucracy: before you begin your career as an usher, you have to attend an orientation run by Seattle Symphony volunteers who can be really uptight; then when you're working, you must sign in, wear a name badge, and deal with usher politics-- there was some whispering about rude emails from the office and mix-ups in scheduling. All I've ever done is stand in an aisle by the wall, which hardly anyone goes down, and keep the peons in the "main" section from venturing into the rows up front reserved for the "patrons." People seem to buy series tickets, so all the patrons have been there many times before and boldly stride to their front-and-center seats with no help from me, yet dutifully flashing their "P" marked tickets as they pass. The tickets are pretty expensive, $30 or thereabouts, I think (I tried to check the website, but now we're between seasons, so the info wasn't there), but the patrons pay even more and they're quite catered to with special receptions and "meet-and-greets". I was noticing how most of the audience literally had gray hair, which I have too. The program started with two school children reading horrendous poems. One was an 11 year-old girl, and the other was a tiny boy and both were quite fearless and cute. Then the SAL director came out and introduced Lalami and thanked a list of sponsors. Lalami's talk was about her experience as a journalist in Morocco right after college in her first job when she learned she was supposed to "keep her integrity" and take bribes as a matter of course. She later went to grad school in the U.S. and meanwhile Morocco got a new king who was supposed to be an improvement over the previous king, his father, but in reality there was a crackdown and imprisonment of journalists under the new monarch. She read a list of names of thirty imprisoned journalists. After the talk, there was a question period involving the armchairs and people asked Lalami how she dressed in Morocco. She said she dressed the same as here (which was very stylish and femme). We had Laila Lalami's novel in stock, Secret Son, so now I'm reading it. I'm enjoying it; it's a pretty character-based, straightforward story involving family drama: the narrator is a bastard "secret" son of a wealthy father and poor lower class woman who raises him, telling him his father is dead. The boy finds out the truth that he's sired by a rich businessman father, who, it turns out, never had a son, only an inferior daughter, and the son confronts him. (That's as far as I've gotten.) I like the scenes of the Casablanca slum; the run-down school full of social/political factions; the movie theatre, tea shops, streets. Plus, the narrator sounds like a hunk: blue eyes, black hair, aquiline nose.
Sean and I also saw Peter Carey read from his new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America at Elliott Bay Books. It was the first reading we've attended in their new space. The readings room is in the basement and noisy water pipes gurgled directly over Carey's head, so he incorporated many glares and exaggerated, but humored, reactions to the noise into his presentation. Carey explained that one of the influences on this book was his reading Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and that he understood de Tocqueville's concern about anyone being able to rule here. He mentioned the current decline in reading as evidence that "Culture is crap."
I've also finished several complete books! I read Plaintext (University of Arizona Press, 1994), essays by Nancy Mairs. These are a collection of personal essays written by a 40 year-old woman with MS who has been depressed and suicidal for much of her life, and who is a feminist. They were very honest and thoughtful; she admits at times to not liking her husband and child and saying she wouldn't raise her foster son if asked to do it again. The prose is clean and insightful. But much of it is a little too personal; a lot of going over teenage love affairs with excerpts from journals of the time: "I feel so inadequate, so small.... If something doesn't happen, I'll scream. I am so empty, so hungering. I know that deep within me lies something but I see it in comparison with the talents of others & it is so pitifully small." Yow.
Then I read a book of short stories by a young Vancouver writer, Nancy Lee, called Dead Girls (McClelland & Stuart, 2002). The stories were all linked in that they featured a backdrop of serial killings of street women.
We purchased a dozen or so really beautiful foreign language children's books recently. They're all in excellent condition, and each has a bookplate inside from a language education center's children's literature collection, with the name of the country the book is from neatly printed in pencil at the bottom. I can usually recognize Czech because I was in Prague for three weeks a few years ago-- so at least I'm familiar with the look of written Czech and a lot of really beautiful children's books of fairy tales and myths have been illustrated and printed in what is now The Czech Republic; a few of them have passed my way before. But in this purchase there are also books from Finland and Slovakia, and I'm grateful to have those penciled notes, as I wouldn't recognize the languages. A helpful clue to finding out what language a book is in is to check the place of publication. Helsinki, Bratislava, Prague, cool. Though of course a book published in Prague could be in any language. Certain parts of almost all books are the same; the copyright page, for instance, where I can almost always find date and place of publication. Not always. Sometimes there's no date. Sometimes no place of publication. A good reference book that describes and names all the different physical and printed parts of books isABC for Book Collectors by John Carter.
I was trying to identify a children's book in Czech by Jacques Prevert, the French surrealist, poet, and writer of screenplays. I couldn't really figure out right away what the title was, because the words of the title were written in a tricky way, with two horizontal lines of type, apparently two words, which were bisected by two diagonally slanted lines of type, presumably two words. I couldn't tell which order the words went in, because the arrangement was, to me, ambiguous. (A lot of architecture and graphic design books have titles which are difficult for me to decipher because their cool graphic quality was given more importance than their meaning by the book designer.) I looked at the cover of the book, then the title page, but they both had the title written in the weird slanty way. But when I turned in a few pages, the first lines of text in the book, apparently poetry, matched the title words, so now I had the order: Pohadky pro nehodne deti. A book search of this title on Amazon and Abebooks produced nothing. So I tried different versions of the title, shortened. Then I used a translation program, and it translated the title as Pohadkny Nehodne for Children - now I had a partial translation. So then I Googled the title and came up with a bunch of results in Czech. I translated the first one, using the "translate now" button, and it came up with a Wikipedia article on Jacques Prevert translated by computer into English. It looked so pretty, like a real Wikipedia article, but the English was absurd, perhaps fitting for a surrealist.
About Prevert's life, and then his death: "In 1948 he fell out of the French windows (on the spot where it was previously installed machine gun). He was in a few days in severe coma .Prévert injuries caused serious neurological sequelae. Died from lung cancer.Inherent cigarette he became fatal."
Finally, I found the French title in the printer's imprint, which was hidden at the back of the book: Contes pour enfants pas sages, or Tales for Naughty Children.