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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Attack of the Gadgets

I just finished an essay in Granta 111:  Going Back called "One Hundred Fears of Solitude" by Hal Crowther.  The author is highly critical of the current wired state of Americans, always hooked up to some electronic device, living without valuing privacy or solitude.  As a person choosing not to own a cell phone (a choice more and more looked upon as a freaky oddity), a laptop, or use Facebook, I found this essay refreshing, even though its evidence and conclusions are pretty bleak.  I also recognize the irony of being an online bookseller writing a blog who feels this way.  On the other hand, my computer was purchased second hand from Re/PC about four years ago, runs Windows 2000, and it works just fine.  Yesterday Sean and I went into Radio Shack downtown while walking home from visiting Inner Chapters bookstore because Sean was looking for a USB cable to connect a hard drive full of music to his computer.  While he looked at cables, I glanced at the giant array of cell phones and other devices displayed at the front of the store and I felt like I was visiting an unpleasant shrine to the latest ever-changing consumer electronic gadgetry.  The cable was $20 at Radio Shack, and I suggested to Sean we just stop in the Value Village on the way home, and sure enough, we found the cable he was looking for hanging from a pegboard in the basement for 99 cents.  According to the essay I just read:  "Americans alone discard 100 million computers, cellphones and related devices every year, at a rate of 136,000 per day.  Half a billion of America's old cellphones sit in drawers, dead but not buried."  Another disheartening message of the essay is this:  "Technological saturation coincides precisely with a general decline in literacy.  The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, a test administered just once a decade by the US Department of Education, found that between 1992 and 2003 the percentage of college graduates scoring 'proficient' or above in reading comprehension had shrunk from forty  to thirty-one."

Reading Notes
Speaking of bleak, I read a novel called A Week of This:  A Novel in Seven Days by Nathan Whitlock.  The "story" (it's really just a slice of life) is set in a small cold Canadian town and the characters are a woman who works in a call center (and, returning to the subject above, whose own cellphone is often dead), her husband who runs a failing sporting goods store in a mall, and her two brothers, one of whom is disfigured (by a childhood burn inflicted by their crazy mother) and disabled and works at the Giant Tiger store, the other lives in a freezing squalid apartment, coaches hockey, and is mostly unemployed.  After following this group of depressed underachievers around for a week, I was happy for the book to conclude (inconclusively), yet I have to admit it was well-written, and the characters seemed dishearteningly real.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book Desire

 Sean and I recently watched a film based on (and named after) Michael Pollan's book, The Botany of Desire, which tells the history of four different plants and how they have evolved with help from humans:  apples, potatoes, marijuana, and tulips.  The premise is that while we think we are so clever at using certain plants for our own benefit, although plants don't "think", they are using us humans for their own advancement, as our desire and cultivation of them has made their propagation successful.  For instance, flowers are desirable to humans because of their beauty.  The most extreme example of flowers' desirability is shown in the tulip craze of 17th century Holland, when a single bulb sold for as much as a house.

We just received an order from a book dealer in the Netherlands for fourteen gardening books.  We sell quite a lot of books going to other countries, probably about a quarter of our sales, but rarely such a nice big stack going to one person, as shipping the books costs almost as much as the books themselves.  It's a good feeling to have a colleague in Holland, land of the tulip and beautiful gardens, choose books from our stock.

Reading Notes
I just read After Dark, a very short novel, by Haruki Murakami.  I had read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles a couple of years ago on the recommendation of a friend.  Both books had a dreamy (in fact, one of the characters in After Dark is asleep), surreal quality and I kept wanting there to be a clear explanation for what was happening, but to no avail.  In After Dark, this dreaminess was juxtaposed with scenes of modern Japanese pop culture:  alienated youth, cell phones (okay, maybe these things aren't particularly Japanese), Denny's (not Japanese), love motels (Japnanese!), convenience stores, motorcycles, names of songs.

I'm also reading The Penguin Anthology of Short Stories by Canadian Women and Moving Targets:  Writing with Intent 1982-2004 by Margaret Atwood, which is a book of occasional pieces, including many book reviews.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

RIP Joe, our neighbor

Joe LaMagno, who lived across the alley from the bookstore and who was a daily presence in our neighborhood was murdered just half a block away last week on November 22.  We will miss him.

Joe Dead

Joe with Simone with the crooked paw out at the gate,
Joe talking, yelling at the dogs, plaintive but not demanding,
Joe talking slowly and having his cigarette,
Joe coughing,
Joe, everybody's friend,
Joe of no evil,
Joe of no complaint,
Joe with the little pipe and the little stash,
Who would suck until his lungs could get no bigger,
Joe in the cap and the coat, huddled,
Joe of no ambition,
Joe of routine, of stationary positioning,
Joe who preferred the alley to the street,
Protector of dogs,
Of chores and trips to the 7-11,
Joe with his long hair and easy laugh,
Friend to Troy and anyone who wanted to chat,
Joe leaning on the street with two dogs pulling,
Joe who would yell but not discipline,
Joe who reserved his enthusiasm,
Joe who would pour water into a dumpster instead of calling 9-11,
Joe who I never saw eat anything,
Whose place I never visited in the ten years I saw him at the back gate,
Joe who was not a gossip but sometimes had news,
Joe who was not optimistic about life,
Who thought about moving back in with his parents and quitting smoking and drinking,
But liked his routine enough to start it again each day,
Who tried indoor baseball but didn't like it too much,
Who was not old but resigned even so,
Who was not a health nut,
Who smoked and coughed and coughed and smoked and coughed and coughed and coughed,
Who appreciated simplicity,
But was complicated enough to know a simple life was not so simple,
Who wouldn't pick a fight,
Who liked getting high,
Friend to beer,
Whose environmental foot print was quite small,
Who never hit the dogs,
Buzzed sometimes but not drunk,
Who did not demand to be greeted,
Who left without a sound,
Phantom Joe,
But visited, or waited in a pall for visitors,
Who was harmless in every way, but to himself,
Who almost everyone liked,
Joe, pretty content,
Of little means and smaller claims,
Who trained Simone to sit in the open gate but not Jake,
Joe who would praise the sky but not complain about it,
Joe lacking bitterness, knowing humility,
Not unhappy,
Who didn't seize life, but cooperated with most of it,
Whose eye was calm if not always focused,
Who didn't want to interfere,
Joe who would like to help out but was no longer strong,
Who never asked for favors,
Never borrowed a buck,
Who let Simone bark for hours in the middle of the night when she pinned a possum beneath the shed,
Because he couldn't catch her,
"She was wild," he said,
Joe who doesn't expect you to be friendly,
But is always friendly himself,
Joe who not everyone is warm to,
Joe on his way to the 7 -11, walking slowly,
Joe dead on the sidewalk,
Passing quickly into death instead of slowly,
By the hand of someone far more unfortunate than him,
Dead Joe,
Dead Joe,
May his smoke linger in the heavens,
His body mix in the soil,
What does it mean Joe,
That we will only know you now
In our minds,
In our hearts,
In ourselves?

-- Sean Carlson

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Holiday Craft Sale

Our friends at Petti Rosso Cafe, 1101 East Pike, are having a holiday craft sale this Friday from 2pm to 8pm.  Several of the Petti Rosso staff  and others will be selling their wares:  lampshades, knitted hats, glass lanterns, laptop / ipad / iphone covers, cards,  cookies and candy, and other delightful items.  I will be there selling recycled ex-library blank books and some hand printed cards.  I have a new batch of blank books ready to go, thanks to the help of the marvelous Troy Carlson, who is also Pistil Books' packing and shipping department.  I take apart the books, cut the paper, and choose any pages that may be re-bound with the blank pages.  Troy is the one who binds the blank text block, first with glue, then with a drill and thread, adding headbands (the colorful decoration at top and bottom of spine), and a ribbon bookmark.  Then I re-assemble the blank text block back into the library binding.  I hope anyone reading this in Seattle will stop by and say hello.

Reading Notes
I just finished another past issue of Granta magazine with the theme  "Women and Children First", which had a horrific account of the inside of a refugee camp in Rwanda, "The Problem Outside" by Linda Polman.  I'm also reading a collection of short stories called Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry, set in an apartment complex in Bombay.  I had previously read Mistry's great novel, A Fine Balance.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bread for books

I like to barter.  Over the years we've traded books for movie tickets, coffee, picture framing, artwork, restaurant gift certificates, admission to plays, and bread.  Pistil has a baker friend who arrives at our door each week on his bike and delivers his handmade whole-grain nutty bread to us in return for book credit which he uses to purchase advanced chess books.  I've never played chess, but I know from his description to look for books with a lot of notation.  This bread-for-books scheme is a natural one, since "bread" and "dough" are slang terms for money.

Speaking of dough, a recent acquisition which may end up in The Museum of Weird Books is a bright orange scholarly volume by Steve Penfold called, The Donut:  A Canadian History.  Although I've visited British Columbia, our close neighbor, regularly, I had never realized that the donut is Canada's national food.  The epigraph of this book states, "For the historian, there are no banal things."--Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command:  A Contribution to Anonymous History

Reading Notes
I've been pretty busy reading since my last post, finishing four books.  Today I read The Bear's Embrace:  A True Story of Surviving a Grizzly Bear Attack by Patricia Van Tighem, from start to finish.  It is one of those books with suspense built right in, since you know from the very title what terrible thing is going to happen, and the first page describes the narrator heading out to a hike on a beautiful autumn day with her husband.  The ordinariness of their trip contrasted with the dreadfulness of what follows creates an engrossing tension from page one.  The book is not only about the bear attack itself, but about the lifelong consequences:  living with facial disfigurement, constant infections and surgeries, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and depression.  It's a powerful, well-written, story, and a good reminder of how much chance, luck, and randomness drastically shape our lives, for better and for worse.

I've also read a novel, a book of short stories, and a non-fiction book about one of my favorite activities, walking:  Nothing is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn by Alice Mattison; Dimanche and Other Stories by Irene Nemirovsky, and The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Filthy in a box

Over the course of the summer, our cat, Filthy, has been transformed from a scaredy-cat mostly indoors pampered white fluffy kitty into a mostly outside rough and tough, no longer terrified of raccoons, beast who spends much of his time in the front yard, sleeping in his basket or hiding in the grass.   His indoor time has moved into the bookstore, as is appropriate for a literary type such as he is (he especially enjoys climbing onto your chest for a drool fest if you're on the couch trying to read a book).  Sean didn't like Filthy sleeping in his chair in the bookstore, though, for some reason not appreciating sitting in a layer of cat hair.  So since he's been banished from the office chairs, Filthy has been restlessly scouting around for a new place to dream of chasing mice, resolutely ignoring the cushion and fuzzy towel I placed on the floor for him.  Today he decided a box newly emptied of books was the perfect bed.

Last week we went to the Moore Theatre to see a screening of the film I Am Secretly an Important Man, a documentary about a local poet and musician, Steven Jesse Bernstein, who performed in Seattle in the eighties, often opening for various grunge bands.  A really funny clip of  Jesse Bernstein being featured on a local television news program after being voted best poet in Seattle by Seattle Weekly (not exactly a bastion of alternative culture) readers opens the film, with the carefully coiffed anchorwoman asking the heavily bespectacled and tattooed-knuckled Bernstein how he would describe his poetry and him replying, "dark."   Although dark it is, his work is often humorous, and can be heard on the Sub Pop album, Prison, with music recorded by Steve Fisk.  A lot of longtime Seattle artists were featured in the film, and many were in the audience.  Left Bank Books collective, who published a book of Bernstein's poetry, More Noise, Please!, in 1996 was tabling in the lobby. 

Reading Notes
I started reading Larry's Party by Carol Shields, but quit about half way through.  I thought it was pretty boring to begin with - the main character was a male florist who becomes obsessed with building hedge mazes, and the story followed his romantic and family life.  But Shields' habit of repeating not very interesting bits of biographical information drove me to quit reading.  I'm not sure what purpose the repetition was supposed to serve, but I found it very annoying.  I'm a bit disappointed, because I was hoping to like Carol Shields just for being a Canadian woman writer, since I'm quite fond of Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Mavis Gallant.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Evil Megalisters

One of the more frustrating and disturbing developments in the online bookselling business in the past couple of years has been the rise (or more accurately, the race to the bottom) of "megalisters."  These are companies that buy books in large quantities--one method they have for acquiring books at library sales is to send in groups of scanner-wielding employees with no book knowledge to scan bar codes and buy the books their device tells them too-- or the megalisters collect donated books by touting their supposed green stance.  They then handle and list their books in the most automated method possible, treating books like widgets, using pricing bots that undercut each other until books sell for the minimum (one dollar on Abebooks and one cent on Amazon) and giving no description of what they're selling except a blanket disclaimer, using "may" and "can".  Here are some examples of megalisters' so-called descriptions:

Paperback. Book Condition: Good. Good: Typical used book. All pages and cover intact (including dust cover, if applicable). The spine may show signs of wear. Pages can include limited notes and highlighting. Occasionally these may be former library books. Overall you will be surprised at how good our used books are. We just want to remind you that this is a used book. Satisfaction Guaranteed!.

Book Condition: Used. 4th Edition. 4th Edition-Inventory subject to prior sale. Used items have varying degrees of wear, highlighting, etc. and may not include supplements such as infotrac or other web access codes. Expedited orders cannot be sent to PO Box. 

Paperback. Book Condition: Acceptable. Acceptable: may have one or all of the following; light corner bends, scuff marks, edge chipping, may have name written on inside title page and or, missing DJ, some light damage to binding, writing or highlighting on pages, possible light water stains.  

Event Coming Up
Paul Constant, the book editor of The Stranger, is hosting "Get Lit":
It's time yet again for Get Lit, the twice-yearly bookseller, librarian, and book-lover's happy hour! This is an opportunity for book-minded people to hang out, drink, and talk shop about books in a casual setting. Suggested topics this time: Freedom, Jodi Picoult's Freedom backlash, whether Seattle needs a Bookfest, and any interesting gossip you may have heard at PNBA this year. We'll be meeting in a reserved upstairs room at a nice bar just to the east of downtown, The Living Room. It features comfy chairs, stiff drinks, and no television. Hooray!
So here's the skinny, highlighted for your convenience. 
6 pm until whenever. Sunday October 17th.
The Living Room—1355 E Olive Way Seattle, WA 98122—(206) 708-6021
Save the date! And please forward this e-mail to anyone you think might be interested. Get Lit is all about having a fun, laid-back, inclusive time. Literally: The more the merrier.

Reading Notes
I just finished reading Postcards, and I feel like I'm done with E. Annie Proulx for some time.  Her writing is somewhat literary, but it's also quite trashy and sensationalistic (this book had a whole chapter describing shotgun suicides, for instance).  I think it's a matter of what you like to read, but I get bored with such melodrama fairly quickly.  I also read Changing Places by David Lodge.  This was set in the sixties (and written in the seventies); about a British English professor and an American English professor who exchange universities for the academic year.  It's a comedy and a slice of the times, full of swinging chicks, student protests, and the like.  Fairly amusing, and fluffy.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Free Pole

My friend Tim and I went to see a performance by Stokely Towles called Trash Talk about garbage and garbage men just a few blocks away at the Shoebox Theatre.  The show had the feel of an anecdotal, casual lecture (Tim, who is a math teacher, said it was like a spiced-up college student presentation), complete with visual aids in the form of photos and illustrations placed on a magnetic board, samples of garbage and recycling in shiny mason jars, and a model "transfer station" (a.k.a. garbage dump) with a miniature fence, red pickup truck, and little people.  Towles had spoken to a lot of garbage collectors in his research and reported back what they had to say in the first part of the performance, telling us about the different kinds of dumpsters (or "boxes"), stinky and sweet (soap factory dumpsters); relationships between garbage collectors and their clientele, such as gifts of work gloves left on garbage cans, preschool children who waited at the window over the dumpster for the arrival of the garbage truck every week, and an incidence of a topless woman appearing regularly at a window of a house on the garbage route.  The second part of the show was a history of American garbage, from the time when people recycled as a matter-of-course from making old bedsheets into washcloths to taking a pail to the store to fill with beer, to the aftermath of WWII and America's affluence and the beginning of planned obsolescence.  In the last part of the show, Towles reported anecdotes from a transfer station, using toy people and red pickup truck to act out the disposal of chairs, buckets of sand, and an ex-boyfriend's clothing, among other garbage.  He ended by depicting his fantasy version of a transfer station in which a giant conveyor belt carried unwanted items around the perimeter of the garbage dump so people could take what they wanted and re-use it.  This made me wonder:  Didn't he know about thrift stores?  Actually, I know of a version of his fantasy dump.  On Lopez Island the transfer station has a covered area full of neatly folded clothes, shelves of shoes, books, tables with household goods and appliances, an area for building materials, old bicycles, and furniture-- all of it donated and free.

Closer to home, just steps away from the door to the Pistil office/warehouse, we have a "Free Pole."  It's a telephone pole on the sidewalk at the end of the alley and has become the neighborhood site for giving away anything and everything, from really good stuff to not-so-good, and whatever's left there almost always disappears.  Once a friend of ours who owns a local apartment building dropped off at the bookstore door about six boxes of really crappy books leftover from a former tenant --we're talking incomplete encyclopedias and Reader's Digest Condensed books, and much to my chagrin, Sean let him.  I hauled them all over to the Free Pole, and like magic they were gone by the end of the afternoon.  There's nice stuff left there too - we have a lovely handmade wooden table in our living room gleaned from the pole.  Actually, one of the "rules" of a free pile (should you wish to start one) is to only leave usable, working goods.  Currently, there's a somewhat damaged overstuffed armchair sitting at the pole that's been there two days; we'll see what happens to it.

Reading Notes
I just finished a very enjoyable comic novel, Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge.   The book takes the form of a diary written by a retired British linguistics professor who has a serious hearing problem.  This leads to some very funny conversations in which Lodge juxtaposes what the narrator hears with what is actually said.  Museum of Modern Art becomes "mum tart," for instance.  Since the narrator is a retired professor, he also has some interesting things to say about pop culture, art, and language, too.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Glean Team

In the late days of summer we find ourselves not just in good books but purusing with interest and appetite the local foliage as well.   Though we are very urban here, just a mile or so from downtown, there a good many fruit trees in the area filled with bounty that is dropping earthward.  We’ve been getting in the way some.  Troy and I climbed to the roof of a local abandoned building (easily accessible as it’s on a steep slope and one side is very low) and harvested apples and figs last week.  A few days later we ravaged an Italian plum tree in front of an apartment building just a block away.  And today Amy and I went with ladder and tarp to a local cherry plum tree, as Amy had procured a cherry pitter from her mom.  As with operations of the recent past, I climbed up the ladder and sometimes into the tree, and Amy worked the ground.  When we arrived there were a couple of urban hipsters already harvesting the tree we had planned to pick.  One was draped sloth-like across the lower branches and the other holding a glass bowl over his head like a Greek statuette one might pass on at a garage sale.  When we expertly unfolded our tarp and ladder, they examined our approach with interest and commented grudgingly on our “technology.”  There was plenty for all parties.  We tried both branch shaking and picking the fruit individually.  The tree was really heavy with fruit and it was fermenting all over the ground.  We left with two large bags full; Troy pitted them all, and we made plum butter. 

Reading Notes 
Gleanings in literature have included a very clean copy of Joe Sacco’s Palestine, the award-winning graphic depiction of his visits to Jerusalem and Palestine and the very gritty times he had there.  It’s a very real and accurate, often dispassionate look at the extremely sorry state of affairs there and the ease with which so much of the world, including the local Jewish population can overlook, or justify even, the prison-like atmosphere that pervades the region.  Sacco is a skilled artist and the pages sometimes rival Crumb for the minute and intricate cross hatching and complex layout.  Sacco has a thing for mouths though, and teeth, lips -- his own, notably -- that is a little hard to appreciate.  But it sinks into the experience he creates on a page and stays with one: all the talk, the hunger, the shouting and the words, the coarse manipulation lips can wrap themselves around when backed by the black steel of guns and concrete.  Edward Said impressively writes the intro, mincing about as few words on the matter as his long-time associate and co-author, Chomsky, who has called Israel a "pariah state," responsible not just for behavior that rivals anything ever done to the Jews short of gas chambers at home, but for supporting black operations and the most brutal of regimes with arms, equipment  and training all over the world.  It’s great to see the form broach such a heavy issue of our times with the poignancy that documented personal experience can provide. 

I’m also reading Death Beat, “a Columbian journalist’s life inside the cocaine wars,” an ARC that’s falling apart in my hands, by Maria Jimena Duzan.  It’s a pretty great story, told firsthand from an employee of  the paper El Espectador, who witnessed the rise of the cocaine economy in Columbia through the 80’s and 90’s with the likes of Pablo Escobar and the Cali and Medellin cartels doing battle between themselves, the government, the U.S. and just about everybody there.  She writes from a very classist perspective, and her opinions about the various players certainly are in accord with this; but she is a skilled reporter as well, and the sheer madness and lawlessness that grips the entire country as their economy gets sucked into an enormous battle of wills, with competing forces inside and outside the historical power structure all earning huge sums of money providing the U.S. with snortable goods is truly an amazing story.  It’s kind of like what the U.S. would look like if all the war and covert operations and economic manipulation we do throughout the world all happened within our borders.  As if the back room deals between the Contra mercenaries and coke heads and Iranian hostage takers and Israeli mercenaries and guerilla armies were to all center on New Jersey.  Imagine how  this would tear the fabric of this culture as tens of thousands of our most notable persons were gunned down by all sides and how it would shred the polite (comparatively) system of government we live with at home like so many stacks of El Espectador when their headquarters was bombed.  It’s a very lively and astounding tale,  just down the coast from the home we know. 

-- Sean

Friday, September 3, 2010

Chicken Soup

I started volunteering at the Chicken Soup Brigade kitchen last week.  My first shift was Wednesday afternoon and I helped package meals assembly-line fashion for an hour-and-a-half (there was a machine with a conveyor belt for putting plastic wrap over the paper food trays), and I peeled potatoes for an hour-and-a-half along with three other volunteers, two of whom had obviously been working there some time.  This was a big, industrial kitchen with seven paid staff who all looked like they were working pretty damn hard, and who seemed cool and friendly.  They make 450 cooked packaged meals and give out 450 bags of groceries per week, tailoring meals and food bags to meet different dietary needs.  The food looked appetizing, and the kitchen smelled great.  When I arrived, the lead cook was slicing fragrant roasted peppers.  We packaged Cajun chicken stew, brown rice, and a frozen vegetable mix, mostly broccoli.  The 160 pounds of peeled potatoes were going to be for roast chicken and mashed potatoes.

I first knew about Chicken Soup Brigade around eighteen or nineteen years ago when I shopped at their first thrift store in the Central District, near where I worked at Seattle Vocational Institute.  I was collecting stock for our future bookstore and storing it in the attic of the apartment building I lived in at the time.  Chicken Soup had paperbacks for 35 cents, or something like that, and I stocked up on clean fiction paperbacks.  For me shopping at thrift stores and yard sales started as a way to purchase books and quickly became the way Sean and I buy (nearly) everything, except for underwear, toiletries, and food.  On one side of the equation, such shopping promotes recycling and thrift, but on the other it's so easy to acquire things in the endless abundance of (slightly used) consumer goods.  We live cheaply, but we're certainly not ascetic or deprived in any way; quite the opposite-- in addition to kitsch and art,  we have three of all kitchen utensils, appliances, and gadgets.   Of course books are the ideal second-hand object, because they can be read over and over again.

Lifelong AIDS Alliance seems like a really good organization to support--besides feeding people, they help with case management, insurance, housing and AIDS prevention.  Lifelong is a big part of the Capitol Hill neighborhood and, lucky for me,  I can walk from home to the Chicken Soup Brigade kitchen in five minutes.

Reading Notes
I finished a book of short stories by Debra Dean titled Confessions of a Falling Woman.  I enjoyed the last story, "Dan in the Flannel Gray Rat Suit," about an actor who wins the role of a lab rat in a photocopier commercial.  I've also been reading Germaine Greer's The Change:  Women, Aging and Menopause.  I'm curious to find out more about Germaine Greer - I understand she trounced William F. Buckley on his own show, as he admits himself.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Big Surprise

We recently acquired a copy of Andy Warhol's Index (Book).  Published in 1967, this work is a fine example of book as art, "toy for hipsters", ephemera, piece of pop culture, and reflection of the times.  Here is Sean's description:

Silver foil wrappers with b&w photo.  Contributors include Andy Warhol, Stephen Shore, Billy Name, Nat Finkelstein, Paul Morissey, Ondine, Nico, Christopher Cerf, Alan Rinzler, Gerald Harrison, Akihito Shirakawa and David Paul. Unpaginated (74 pages), with pop-ups, fold-outs and affixed items, one flexi 45-rpm record and black-and-white illustrations throughout. 11-1/8 x 8-5/8 inches. CONDITION: Binding and spine are tight; Covers have some surface wear, scuffing, and minor creasing, very minor edge wear, sharp corners.  Castle pop-up is in excellent condition, red accordion is attached, complete and excellent in form but only inhales and exhales with gentle silence, bi-plane pop-up is attached, complete, clean ready for lift-off and fully-functioning; "The Chelsea Girls" paper wheel mounted on a spring is in fine shape, the self-inflating dodecahedron is complete (rubber band is slack), on string and with sharp corners revolving around subject's nipple,  the Lou Reed Picture Disc Record is attached and in excellent shape with center hole unpunched, the double image of the rainbow nose with pink overlay is complete, functioning, clean and sharp, as are the fold-out pages, the "Hunts Tomato Paste" can pop-up is complete, functioning and in excellent condition, all eight of the rectangular tear-offs, from the "FOR A BIG SURPRISE!!!" page are present including all four printed with "Andy Warhol" (though prospective buyer should verify this at time of purchase, as we may determine shelf life), the balloon has melted and stuck the last two pages together, though you can still see Warhol's arm raised in the bifold where he would be holding the balloon's string.  Wrapped in protective jacket and will be shipped with extreme care only.  

It's funny to see how various dealers have described the "rectangular tear-offs, from the 'FOR A BIG SURPRISE!!!' page (I particularly like "warm water tester"):
presumably dissolving 'Andy Warhol'/blank rectangles on perforated sheet
eight rectangular name tabs
signature labels
"For a big surprise" 8-part paper, 4 sections with warhol's name
warm water tester
achtgeteilte wasserlösliche Zettel "For a big Surprise"
"Big Surprise" drop-in water tabs
sheet of moisture sensitive tabs
"acid tabs"

Reading Notes
I've finally started reading E. Annie Proulx, after having tried The Shipping News in the past, but not having been able to get into it.  Then I read one of her stories in The Best American Short Stories about a young homesteading couple who buy land, but have no money for food.  When the deer meat is running out, the husband travels a few days away to work on a cattle ranch, leaving his pregnant wife alone.  A few months later, she gives violent birth, the baby dies, the mother dies after burying her baby where the coyotes will get it; meanwhile, the young husband catches pneumonia and dies along with his pal in a hunting cabin in a snowstorm.  Since reading that, I've read a book of short stories, Heart Songs, and a novel, Accordion Crimes, and there's a definite death and music theme going on.  In Accordion Crimes, so many deaths are described (often the future deaths of minor characters are described parenthetically), that they're rendered absurd.

Here's an article by Proulx, "Inspiration? Head Down the Back Road, and Stop for the Yard Sales," which has some interesting comments about books and bookselling; she isn't a fan of the internet.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Long Walk

The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz is the tale of a man gone walking-crazy.  Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish officer, escapes from a Siberian labor camp in 1939 with some pals and spends a year walking across the Siberian arctic, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalyas with next to no provisions and handmade shoes.  He makes it all the way to British India to recuperate from his trials and near starvation in a hospital where he can't stand staying put and tries to walk off every night.

Well, Sean and I just completed The Long Walk.  In our version we walked with a group of forty other people 40 miles over three days from Kenmore, just north of Seattle, to Snoqualmie Falls, mostly along former railroad beds, camping for two nights in King County Parks.   On our Long Walk we experienced blisters, sore muscles, mosquito swarms, relentless sun, and unmarked trails, along with dangerous highway shoulders and speeding SUVs.  Our hardships were countered, however, by a U-Haul truck carrying our camping gear, other walkers with GPS devices and cell phones, stops at restaurants and a natural food store where we were give Odwalla products galore; plus free pizza each evening, a party with a keg and formal wear next to the Snoqualmie River, not to mention pastries and coffee in the morning.  Ah, roughing it.

Though the hike's organizers had done a lot of work to put the event together, they obviously hadn't walked or biked the route ahead of time.  This led to some unnecessary walking (as well as plain getting lost) on busy arterials, that were also construction sites, when a trail through the woods was only a short distance away.   Sean and I  learned to scout our own alternate route with our equally renegade pal with the GPS after that, and walked on quiet roads through horse ranches and on a powerline trail while the group trudged along a major highway wearing bright orange safety vests.  Throughout the trip, the sun was glorious (okay, it was hot) and we passed through some beautiful farmland, wetlands, and woods, including through my hometown of Carnation.  Sean and I are good walkers--it's one of my favorite activities, and I like to organize "urban hikes" with groups of friends--but by the time we reached Snoqualmie Falls all we could do was collapse on a grassy knoll, take our shoes off, and fall into a delicious stupor until we were taken back to Seattle on a "party bus" (with dance floor and the remainder of the keg) with our fellow long walkers.  A day's rest, and I'm ready to do it again...

Reading Notes
It's been a while since I've posted what I've been reading.  I finished a couple of entertaining, not particularly remarkable, novels in rapid succession:  The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan, and Love Invents Us by Amy Bloom.  I'm also almost finished with A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright-- a book from the Massey Lectures (which also gives us Margaret Atwood's Payback:  Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth).  This is a great book for getting a perspective on the place of humans in the world:  how young a species we are; how much and how quickly we've grown in population; and how we really have no clue as to what we're doing:  "Nature let a few apes into the lab of evolution, switched on the lights, and left us there to mess about with an ever-growing supply of ingredients and processes.  The effect on us and the world has accumulated ever since."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Book Sale Extravaganza

Yesterday we had our annual outdoor book sale.  We finally had summer weather this week, with temperatures in the eighties, so we didn't have to worry about being rained out, which has been a problem in the past.  Luckily, we were in the shade--for the first half of the sale, anyway, as it was a bright hot day and I noticed sunburns-in-the-making amongst our visitors.   When the sun full-on hit the book sale, we set up chairs for staff and friends on the other side of the alley in the shade of our neighbor's building, or hid in the doorway of the shop.

I worked hard on advertising the sale, including making hand printed posters, which our old friends at Keep Posted distributed around town on walls of coffee shops and businesses (It was fun to run across one in odd places, like at the liquor store.)  Troy, our wonderful shipping staff person, also covered the neighborhood telephone poles with photocopied book sale fliers the day before the sale, and we had notices on local blogs--thanks Paul Constant--and sent out emails.

Sean, Tim, and I were setting up the sale in the parking area outside our building, which meant hauling out about 30 boxes of books (when you're in the business, it's common to think of numbers of books in terms of numbers of boxes)-- about 750 books-- and unpacking them onto tarps laid out on the ground, spine up.  It's funny how a pile of 30 boxes of books looks a lot bigger than the same books laid out on the ground.  Sean wondered aloud what our policy was about "early birds", the canny hunters of every yard sale:  "What if Eddie (a fellow bookdealer whom we always run into at book and yard sales) shows up early?"  I said, "Early birds are okay with me!" and at that moment Eddie pulled up in his car.  He was our first very gracious customer and bought three boxes of books, as did another bookseller friend, Roger, who showed up shortly after.  From then on we had non-stop shoppers, including old retail store customers, friends coming by with treats - we received delicious juice popsicles, organic flax bread, Vietnamese sandwiches, and homemade black currant preserves.  In return we gave out lemonade or bottles of beer.  It was an all-day party.   It was fun to see someone spend twenty minutes browsing through all the titles and then come up to buy just one or two-- why did they pick those?  A local political activist bought The Selling Out of the President 1973 (which has a cool vintage cover of Nixon on a cigarette pack); artist Jon Strongbow bought comic books; one nice fellow filled a whole box with mostly political books, including Chomsky who is too "common" (imagine that) to sell online.  One woman asked to look at our signed copy of Ray Bradbury's Match to Flame - she had seen it on our website and was pleased to examine it up close.  Alas, it wasn't for sale at $2, but I told her she could visit it any time.

By the end of the afternoon, as the sale was wrapping up, a couple of longtime Pistil customers from 15 years ago as well as former Pistil employees were all here together and we had a photo op.                                  

L to R: Greg Bachar (an English teacher who sent his students to us to buy their class Bukowsi books); Nevdon Jamgochian, former Pistil Employee; Tim Ridlon, Pistil staff of 15 years; Sean and Amy.

By the end of the sale, we had sold about half of what we put out.  Yay!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Happy Solstice

We've been having a cold, rainy June here in Seattle, with a nice sunny day thrown in now and again.  A couple of days of fair weather happened in the middle of this week, so Sean and I headed to the foothills of the Cascades, an hour away, where we have a special camping spot on private land.  This is one of the benefits of an Internet business--we can go away on an overnight trip at our whim and Pistil Books still carries on 24 hours a day by itself.  The huckleberries and salmon berries were ripe, the birds were noisy, the bears were leaving droppings full of cherry pits, a waxing moon, and it was lovely.

We also recently experienced one of the pitfalls of an Internet business recently:  database failure (We use Homebase, Abebooks' book inventory program, built on Access.)  After making a mistake while re-pricing all of our inventory, I thought "No problem, I'll just recover using my backup file (which we are very conscientious about making at least once every day)." So I "recovered" the file, only to find the data stopped at April 5, more than two months behind.  Internet bookstore nightmare!  It was a Thursday night, after Abebooks' closing time, so I waited until 8 a.m. the next day to talk to tech support.  Of course we really wanted to get our database back up and working ASAP, so we we would have it over the weekend.  But due to some bad (or absent) communication on Abebooks' part (they gave us the wrong email address to send the backup file to, for instance), we ended up being without a working Homebase for five full days.  This meant we couldn't list new titles, update our online inventory, or create invoices.  Even so, we were still selling books during this time.   And we were inspired to contact a techie friend about possibly creating our own custom data base.

Reading Notes

Last week I saw Spencer Wells lecture and read from his book, Pandora's Seed:  The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, at Town Hall.  Spencer Wells is a geneticist, anthropologist and host of National Geographic television shows.  The gist of talk was that humans were actually healthier back when we were hunter-gatherers, the proof for this being fossil evidence which shows less tooth decay, bigger pelvic girth, and longer lives in the time before agriculture.  Hunter-gatherers also lived in groups of less than 140 people, which meant closer relationships and self-rule, though he didn't use the term "anarchy."  Wells ended his talk with an admonition that our current way of life with its dependence on fossil fuels is not sustainable and that we must change our ways, but he was hopeful that we could do so, since humans are "innovators" which has given us our evolutionary edge.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma Michael Pollan eats four very different meals:  A McDonald's meal consumed in the car (conventional industrial food, based on corn); a meal made from organic food purchased at Whole Foods (industrial, not local); a meal made from food grown at a small intensively managed farm (not certified organic, but definitely local and using minimal inputs, based on grass); and a meal that Pollan foraged (mushrooms) and hunted (wild pig) himself.  He traces each meal back to its origins in an entertaining and thoughtful manner.  Interestingly enough, given Spencer Wells' talk, the meal Pollan found most satisfying was the hunter/gatherer dinner.

I also finished Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, a 500 page novel from 1995.  The narrator, Mr. Ryder, is a famous pianist visiting a small central European city for a big musical event.  The novel reads like a very long nightmare; not so much scary as endlessly frustrating, surreal, and nonsensical.  Ryder is constantly being led astray from one task or event to the next, never quite knowing what is going on, but trying to act like he does.  I can't say I actually "enjoyed" this book, but for some reason I felt compelled to get to the end.

I've also been reading essays from The Best American Science Writing 2009, and making my way through the New Yorker's summer fiction issue, with stories by writers under 40.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Snake Eyes

During the week before Memorial Day, Sean and I took five days off to go on a cheap bookseller vacation:  camping.  This was car camping, so we had all the accoutrements, including the necessities of tent, stove, two coolers, and a pile of books.  Our plan was to camp first at Cooper Lake, only about two hours away, just the other side of the Cascade Mountains.  This was the lake where on a previous camping trip, Sean was almost scooped out of the water by a fire-fighting helicopter's big dipping bucket (really!).  This time it was too cold for swimming, with snow still on the ground in places, and the first trilliums peeping out.  The campground, in fact, was officially closed, which meant it was free, as the national forest payment drop boxes were covered with plastic and taped shut.  We weren't the only campers, though.  As I was unloading the car, a young couple carrying a wine bottle asked if I had a phone.  I didn't.  They were the owners of the spray-painted pick-up truck parked nearby and said that their brakes had gone out.  Later in the evening, Sean went over to their campsite to see if they needed anything.  He returned saying they seemed pretty well set up:  they had an axe, a roaring campfire (ours was small and smoldering, having been built from scavenging what leftover damp wood we could find at other sites), and they offered to give him some great one-inch thick steaks.  Sean declined politely, without mentioning we were vegetarian.  Then the guy came over to our camp to chat, which disconcerted me a bit because he had a hunting knife strapped to his leg.  Okay, I'm from the city.   Next day they apparently made it out okay, as their truck was gone by mid-afternoon.  Some new neighbors had arrived, however, one of them being a guy with a boom box playing classic rock.  Ah, nature.  He declined to turn it off when asked, but did say he'd turn it down.  A couple of his buddies arrived later and instead of hearing owls and frogs, we went to sleep to the tune of a thumping bass.  The next day we decided to move on.  We went to Sun Lakes State Park in central Washington.  This is a giant 200 space campground  next to lakes carved out by ice age floods.  The places to set up your tent were in gravel right next to the parking spaces in a vast parking lot/campground.  Normally, we wouldn't camp in such a developed spot, but this time of year it was almost empty and the scenery was quite dramatic. Plus, there were showers!  Here we came across a couple of large bull snakes, many yellow-bellied marmots scurrying across the road, a very aggressive raccoon who clambered all over the car determined to get into the cracked windows and thus the coolers, and lots of birds, including seemingly out-of-place seagulls.  On our third morning out, we woke to rain.  We decided to continue east and went all the way to Spokane, where the rain just got heavier.  We went to the visitor information center and used their computer to Priceline a three-star hotel for $70.  The check-in process involved giving us warm chocolate chip cookies and the elevators were full of advertisements for thick steaks (was this a theme?).  Spokane was the site of the 1974 World's Fair.  I remember seeing "Expo" stamps by Peter Max as a child.  The Spokane Riverfront Park, left over from this event, is quite lovely with lots of public art, bridges, and walkways.  There's also a brand new food co-op (Spokane's first), The Main Market, and a big independent bookstore, Auntie's Bookstore.  The next day was even rainier, so we cut our trip short and returned home.

Reading Notes
Around the campfire and in our tent, we read stories aloud from T. C. Boyle:  Stories.   This is a fat book of stories, 704 pages, and the stories are organized by theme: Love, Death, and Everything In Between.  A particularly creepy story (appropriate for campfire reading)  was "Bloodfall" about a group of rich young people (maybe they're in a band?) trapped in a house as blood and gore rains from the sky, flooding the basement, and spraying from the shower-- particularly apt as oil now rains from the sky in Florida.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


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.


Friday, May 14, 2010


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."

Reading Notes

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.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Inherent Cigarette

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 is ABC 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 . PrĂ©vert 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.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Out with the Old

Our neighbors' old truck, which has been parked, unmoving, alongside their house for many years has suddenly acquired a very dapper appearance.  I think its about to read The New Yorker.

We are running out of space in the bookstore, with about 12,800 books in our database, and thirty or so boxes of books waiting to be described and priced.  Tim, who is Pistil's official shelver, has been pulling books off the shelves that he's noticed have been sitting there forever to make room for the new, and he's also re-arranging as he goes.  Somehow, like magic, he manages to fit more books than should be possible on to the shelves.  When the Seattle weather becomes reliably sunny (ha!), I plan to do a big cull of a few hundred older titles and have an outdoor book sale.

Reading Notes

I just finished reading a novel by  Mischa Berlinski called Fieldwork, which as the title suggests is the story of an anthropologist, but also involves a bit of a murder mystery.  The narrator (who has the same name as the author, though the story is definitely a work of fiction) is a journalist living in Thailand who becomes caught up in investigating the story of a missionary murdered by an anthropologist, both of whom are involved with a Thai hill tribe (one converting and one studying), until the anthropologist becomes the lover of a native man and participates in a mystical corn ritual, leading to the murder and her downfall.  Several stories interweave and overlap:  the story of the narrator and his  teacher girlfriend; the story of the missionary family, the story of the anthropologist, and a look into a different culture.  The journalist/narrator throws in excerpts from anthropological history and  memoirs and the whole thing makes for an absorbing, enjoyable read.

I've also been reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which is an account of what will happen to the physical world after humans are gone.  Once I hiked to a hot springs that was formerly reached by a paved road.  The road had been closed for ten years or so, and it was completely falling apart and disintegrating; barely visible in places, covered with greenery.  Seeing that was pretty cool. I've only read forty or so pages thus far of The World Without Us (and I'm not sure I'll read the whole thing), but reading about how nature (microorganisms, plants, animals, and the effects of weather and time) will basically take back the human made world, no problem, is actually pretty heartening to me.  Here's a couple of sentences from the chapter on what will happen to Manhattan:  "In the first few years with no heat, pipes burst all over town, the freeze-thaw cycle moves indoors, and things start to seriously deteriorate.  Buildings groan as their innards expand and contract; joints between walls and rooflines separate.  Where they do, rain leaks in, bolts rust, and facing pops off, exposing insulation.  If the city hasn't burned yet, it will now."  Yippee.

And I've started Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.  I've read a lot of similar-themed food books in the past few years (and food movies-- I highly recommend Our Daily Bread, a European film which has no commentary, only a depiction of industrial food production at work), including In Defense of Food (also by Pollan), so it's more of the same important information.  Namely, don't eat processed foods.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Reading Fits and Dribbles

I'm back to my old "bad" reading habits:   picking up books randomly, reading a bit, then losing interest and starting something else.  I've tried several novels--  Immortality by Milan Kundera.  This seemed not to be a novel to me, but scenes of contemporary characters interspersed with authorial discourse on the nature of immortality, the kind famous people get for being famous, along with some imagined scenes of conversations between Goethe and Hemingway.  I was somewhat interested, but not enough to keep going after about a third of the book.  I also started In America by Susan Sontag, whom I've never read.  This was the story of an actress and her friends who are planning to move to America in the 1870's to start a new life.  The first chapter was amusing because the narrator (who seems to be the author) crashes a party and warms herself, invisible, by the fire while eavesdropping on the characters of the subsequent chapters, trying to figure out what their stories are.   After this, the story gets pretty sappy (though again, I only read the first third).  For instance, one of the Polish crowd's scouts sent ahead to find a place for them to start their Utopian community is sailing first class on a luxury ocean liner.  He's an aspiring writer, and goes down into the bowels of the ship to experience the riff raff.  There he visits a prostituted girl (her father is her pimp) and feels so bad about her predicament, that he only penetrates her thighs...  Let's see, then I read the first chapter of After This by Alice McDermott, which I liked.  It was a realistic day-in-the-life depiction of an unmarried thirty year-old woman who works as a secretary right after World War II.  Then suddenly in the next chapter, she's married with several children... damn!  For whatever reason, I like the gritty day-to-day details and it disturbs me to suddenly jump forward in time.  Though of course it happens all the time in fiction.  Now I'm reading (or at least starting!) The Magic Kingdom by Stanley Elkin.

We have been buying many books recently.  We've added about 600 new titles from a recent estate purchase, and we have about a thousand more new books to be valued and catalogued waiting in boxes in the wings.  Our shelves are already full, with no more room at all in the oversized book sections.  This means culling old stock and getting ready to have an outdoor book sale at the first opportunity.

Meanwhile, in our neighborhood Elliott Bay Book Company will be opening tomorrow with a street party celebration.  And Open Books on Madison Street is closing its doors.  Book-It Repertory Theatre, a company that produces plays based on books is having free readings this weekend, a Novel Workshop.  I'm planning to go to the Alice in Wonderland reading for sure.  And the Seattle Public Library is having their big book sale in an airplane hanger at Magnuson Park.  It's crowded, dirty, and filled with non-readers scanning ISBN's with their electronic devices telling them which titles to buy for the evil megalisters based on robot pricing, but hey, there's lots of cheap books.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Found in Books

Found most often in book are bookmarks--those advertising bookstores, or decorative bookmarks of one sort or another.  Then there's the bookmark of convenience--ephemera either forgotten or tucked away between pages for safekeeping:  napkins, grocery lists, to-do lists, homework, recipes, money, a silver certificate, poems, love letters, condolences, tickets, boarding passes, snapshots, drawings, pressed flowers, newspaper clippings, greeting cards, postcards, comic strips, invitations, a valentine, calling cards, membership cards, coupons, letters, prayer cards, business cards, a motion sickness bag, lottery tickets, pamphlets, a page torn from a calendar, a sheet of music, a report card, envelopes, photo booth strips, doodles, notes, a quotation written in inexpert calligraphy on an index card ("There can be no rainbow without a cloud and a storm--"  The Wind in the Willows), receipts.  Some recent favorites include a bunch of hotel receipts, diplomatic invitations, and calling cards from Paris in the sixties found in a set of nice hardback Proust volumes and a poem written in ballpoint on a page torn from a spiral notebook found in You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense:

Fuck Suck Shit  Piss Fuck Suck When you feel Your life Is Zero Charles Bukowski Becomes Your hero

In an earlier post I wrote about making collages from Golden Book publications.  Here is a link to some wonderful postcards made by sometimes Pistil shelver (or un-shelver), Andrew Bleeker:  Alice Blue Review

Reading Notes

I am about two thirds the way through The Best American Short Stories 2009.  So far I've not made any great discoveries of writers whose work I want to pursue.  The two stories I like best are both set in China:  "NowTrends" by Karl Taro Greenfeld, and "A Man Like Him" by Yiyun Li.  I'm also reading the current issue of Harper's Magazine, which has a great editorial about Haiti.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Okinawa revisited

As co-owner of the store, I have to be the level-headed one around here (just kidding) and for me, this means reading a lot of non-fiction. Fiction is great n' all and more fun to write than non-fiction, mostly, but I find the world itself more fascinating than the world as interpreted. I have a bias as well: so much of fiction is either genre, which though not always, by its nature is corny, or "classic" such as the Brontes: gigantic tomes of complex social interaction and character studies spending near-lifetimes examining the minutiae of the trappings of the well-to-do. It's interesting for a bit, but who cares really? I have this bias to the gritty. Yes there's plenty of gritty fiction to be found, but I'm making sweeping generalizations here.

Thusly, I just finished reading the Okinawa Program, subtitled How the World's Longest-lived People Achieve Everlasting Health. The book's got a forward by Andrew Weil, someone I've come to trust regarding health advice generally: he's low-key, writes well and I've never seen him compromise for financial gain. The early chapters start with how this book encompasses a 25 year study, and how the subjects lives under the Japanese were very well documented. Many studies concerning aging focus on people who may or may not have good records indicating their true age. This was not the case here. Then there's lots of evidence laid out about their general health: many charts illustrating how disease rates for Okinawans are significantly and amazingly lower than that of the U.S. So how is this accomplished? Firstly, diet: Okinawans eat very little processed food, a great many fruits and vegetables, whole grains, soy products, good fats, fish, low glycemic index and high-fiber foods and foods with flavonoids -- mostly from soy foods: tofu, tempeh, miso, soy milk and textured vegetable protein. Omega-3 fatty acids are high on the list, derived most commonly from fish, but one can eat flax seed, walnuts and black currant oil also. Water intake is high, via tea and alcohol is low or nonexistent. A good many specific foods are listed also, as well as their western counterparts and there's a section on healing herbs that are commonly used. But it's not just what they eat but how: the authors suggest grazing instead of large, heavy meals, and eating a low calorie diet generally: such that the percentage of fat on the body remains low.

Then there's all kinds of lifestyle differences between Okinawans and Caucasians. Okinawans stay physically active much later, they walk, do martial arts, garden. Manual labor is considered a crucial and integral part of normal life. Older people will often work into their 90's. Older people are thought of as more valuable than in the west, and people lead lives that are a good deal more stress-free than is common here. There's a thing called Okinawa time, something I can relate to strongly myself. There's a whole section in the book on how stress kills and what to do about it: relaxation methods, attitude changes such as not being pissed all the time, the importance of mellowness as a means of respecting your body. The book ends with a lot of recipes and a thick series of appendices, the last of references. It is not the end-all to eating and living healthy, Weil, I notice says things about carbs -- bread in particular and the false "whole grain" breads in particular this book says nothing about -- but I found it to be a very well documented solid and useful read. As I approach my 1st 50 years in this mortal coil I'm making plans for my next, and the days of debauchery, frantic hijinks and sleepless grind are giving way to flax seed oil yoga and long massages. Not so bad, really.

I also came across a thin volume called the Palm Leaf Fan by Kwai-yun Li, written by a Chinese resident of Calcutta. I read about 1/2 of it; very slice-of-life stories taking place in the 1950's and 60's. I'm fond of books like this that illustrate very different cultures from a street-level perspective. This one had some good stories, but the author was a bit too good of a girl for it to hold my interest through the book. Bowles, it was not.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Double, Short, Skinny Book

We were at the University Bookstore today, and so took a look at the Espresso Book Machine, the new print-on-demand machine that's getting a lot of attention.  There's a big sign in the middle of the store with an arrow pointing to the beast.  Much like Homer Price's Uncle Ulysses' donut machine, the Espresso B.M. has plexi-glass sides so you can see into the works.  On one side there's a big printer that has normal, opaque sides.  Apparently the printed pages are stacked inside a holder which probably shakes them so they are aligned (we ourselves own an electric "paper vibrator," salvaged from a print shop that was closing), then they are perfect-bound, somehow trimmed, and spit out a chute.  The guts that you can see must be the binding apparatus, as there are many signs warning "hot" . The machine wasn't running while we were there, but the operator was posing shiny p.o.d. books around the base of the machine and taking photos of them.  The books were bound in a plain blue and white glossy paper that had a really bad chemical smell.  They didn't look terrible, but they didn't look that great, either.  As a used book dealer, I know that p.o.d.s, like all books, will eventually make their way into the used book trade, where they will be just another book, not a special magically appearing publication.  I spent a little time at the keyboard and computer screen rather awkwardly mounted on a post, typing in "Chomsky"  to see what came up on the database of  p.o.d. books.  The only ones that my search brought up were a few books about Chomsky, not by Chomsky, and they were fairly expensive, $40 and more.  I didn't see a better search page, with an author field, but wasn't really thinking about how I should be researching this carefully for the blog while I was there....
Reading Notes:

The problem with reading a book aloud with someone, as Sean and I have been doing with True History of the Kelly  Gang, is secret reading ahead by your so-called reading partner.  Yes, Sean read several chapters of the bloody Kelly story at 4 a.m. while I was asleep, and then he read some more by himself in the park on a sunny afternoon while I was away visiting my mother.  Since True History was getting a little repetitious (Ned Kelly gets into a fight and goes to gaol, time and time again), I just asked for a summary of events from him, then he read the last chapter, depicting Ned Kelly's meeting with the hangman, aloud to me.

I'm also getting tired of The End of Oil.  A blow-by-blow of OPEC's pricing strategies in the seventies just doesn't hold my interest.  I have a policy of not forcing myself to read things I start if I really don't want to anymore, so I might give up on that book.

Meanwhile, I finished Jean Thompson's Do Not Deny Me and have started The Best American Short Stories 2009, edited by Alice Sebold.  This series is a great introduction to short story writers, both established and new, who have been published in magazines for the year in question.  There's a biographical note and contributor's comments at the back of the book, arranged alphabetically by author, like the stories are, which I always turn to as I finish each piece.

We also have a subscription to The New Yorker, mainly because I was offered this extremely cheap deal of $25 for a year.  (Which has supposedly expired, but I'm still getting them.  They've been very persistent in trying to get me to renew, even telephoning. The chipper call center girl hung up on me shortly after I complained about The New Yorker having sold my name to junk mail lists.)  I like to read the restaurant review in every issue, "Tables for Two", it's called.  This column often exhibits lurid example of food porn: 

"Keenly constructed appetizers such as the charred octopus and the cauliflower soup topped with trout roe and a creamy soft-poached egg were undermined by the likes of smashed potatoes flash-fried in duck fat-- 'out of this world,' according to the waiter, but, in essence, a cafeteria's greasy spuds." 

There's a lot I don't read in The New Yorker:  much of it is local, of course, or about the Obama administration, which I have zero interest in.  And there's the time constraint - it arrives every week!  But there's usually an article or two each issue I enjoy, and of course there's the fiction.