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Friday, February 26, 2010

Space Cadets

I have a real affection for books as objects.  Plenty of books I probably will never read attract my interest and make it on to my personal bookshelves just because they're way cool-- as pieces of culture, in design or graphics, and out of sheer oddness and camp value.  The collection on the shelf just above my desk are candidates for The Museum of Weird Books, a project sadly lacking attention.  Some examples from this shelf are three different titles on poodle grooming (with great photos and diagrams), alongside a book called How to Set Your Own Wig.  We also have Swine Production, Secretion of Milk, and Our Tiny Servants:  Molds and Yeasts.

One way our focus has changed as an online-only bookstore, is that we carry a lot more non-fiction titles in all categories.  Someone was unlikely to walk into our Pike Street store looking for a book on swine production, (though I could see selling a How to Set Your Own Wig to a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence), but since now we sell to everywhere, even hog farmers are our customers.  When writing or thinking about books, it's more common to focus on art and literature as the main focus of the written word, but of course books are  great receptacles and transmitters of all kinds of information, even on milk secretion.

I have a special affection for old children's books, especially former library books with their decorative buckram covers, stamps, pockets (with check-out cards filled out in young handwriting), and special school library scent.  But I'm also fond of books from old children's sets with pictorial covers and decorative endpapers. Last weekend I picked up a copy of  A Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure:  Danger in Deep Space by Carey Rockwell (might he be related to Roy Rockwood of Bomba the Jungle Boy authorship?), Willey Ley (!) Technical Adviser, printed by Grosset & Dunlap, 1953.  I don't really know anything about Tom Corbett, Space Cadet or his author, but he seems rather, well, gay.  The picture on the cover emphasizes Tom's space-suited shapely bottom, he's holding a ray-gun, and the first few sentences emphasize manliness, phallic symbols, and thrusting:
        "Stand by to reduce thrust on main drive rockets!"  The tall, broad-shouldered officer in the uniform of the Solar Guard snapped out the order as he watched the telescanner screen and saw the Western Hemisphere of Earth looming larger and larger.
       "Aye, aye, Captain Strong," replied a handsome curly-haired Space Cadet.
It goes on...

Reading Notes

Sean and I are continuing to read True History of the Kelley Gang by Peter Carey aloud.  It's a good one for reading aloud because the diction, word choices, and minimal punctuation are unusual and very much the voice of the narrator, a boy very skilled at horsemanship and physical tasks, intelligent, but uneducated, he's learning to be a robber.  Other books that are fun to read aloud for similar reasons of dialect are Trainspotting and A Clockwork Orange (when I first read this, I didn't realize there was a glossary at the back; it was fun to figure out the vocabulary based on context).

Meanwhile, I'm still reading The End of Oil and I'm almost done reading Healthy Aging by Andrew Weil.  I've read quite a few of Andrew Weil's books, and find him very clear and objective in his explanations of scientific and medical theories and processes.  He's also written very reasonable, thoughtful books about drugs in human culture (The Natural Mind, and From Chocolate to Morphine).   I was amused, however, upon finding Andrew Weil brand calcium tablets at our local natural foods store.  Makes me a bit suspicious of his recommendations now...

I've found that since my plan to record what I'm reading on this blog, my reading has become a bit more reigned-in.  I have a couple of short story books I've been holding off on starting until I could catch up on writing this, and finish other books first.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Unexpected Vacation

I've had two unexpected days off work because the internet has been down. Our server is located in the basement.  You have to lift a mossy wooden hatch and then step down five steep stairs covered with damp and birdseed from the bird feeder hanging off the eaves above them.  Then you're in a dirt-floored partial basement with a computer and peripherals sitting alone in the middle of the space as if they're on a throne in an underground command center.  Press the re-set button, then back up the steps, hands muddy and greenish after putting the cover back over cellar entry.  Usually the server re-boots and in fifteen minutes the DSL is working fine, and it's not a common occurence, anyway.  This time something was wrong with the internet provider, then with the DSL modem, but our lovely friend and network guy, Steve, straightened it all out eventually.

Meanwhile I had no choice but to take two days off.  This morning Sean and I went to PettiRosso for coffee and we ran into Don, the proprietor of Horizon Books.  His store recently closed its long-term (20+ years) location in a house up on 15th Avenue and is now downstairs with Recollection Books on 10th Avenue and also online.  Don glanced at the books we had with us at our table.  Sean and I had both brought books about oil.  I don't know what Sean's was  called, but mine was The End of Oil by Paul Roberts (He also wrote The End of Food* which I read a few months ago).  Sean explained he had put that particular book in his personal reading pile because it was underlined.  "Ah," said Don, "that's how we booksellers can afford to read books, we get the underlined ones."  We talked a little about local bookstores that have come and gone over the years.  Elliott Bay Book Company will be moving to our neighborhood in a couple of months, and word is they won't be carrying used books anymore.  Supposedly the owner doesn't like the smell.

Today was bright and sunny, beautiful.  There's nothing like Seattle during these February days of false spring -- sun, birds, cherry blossoms, daphne-scented air, brilliant green new grass.  I went for a walk around the hill, to Volunteer Park, then the G.A.R. Cemetery, and on to the lookout overseeing Lake Washington with the floating bridge and the Cascades in the background. 

*More food books worth reading:
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
Animal, Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Monday, February 15, 2010


I'm always happy to find a copy of Granta I haven't yet read.  Although Granta calls itself "the magazine of new writing" and is published quarterly, it is more like a book, both in format and content.  Granta started in 1889, the literary magazine of Cambridge University, and was re-launched in the late seventies in its current form, with each issue having a theme and containing fiction, essays, and photos from new and established writers.  Currently there are 109 issues published, and I figure I've read maybe half of the issues in its current incarnation.  Even though it's a periodical, it really doesn't matter to me whether I'm reading an old issue or a new issue; I just want one I haven't read before.  I just finished reading Granta 70, Australia:  The New New World from Summer 2000.  My favorite piece in it is an excerpt from True History of the Kelly Gang, First Part.  This excerpt begins with an old-fashioned black and white photo of  the outlaw Ned Kelly with his big beard and swooped up forelock shot the day before he was hanged in 1880.  An introductory paragraph claims the following account is in Ned Kelly's own words, taken from a recently discovered autobiographical manuscript.  Writing for his own young daughter, Kelly tells the story of his poverty-ridden childhood with his mother, siblings and jailed father in lively dialect, often using the word "adjectival" to fill in for a cuss word:  "If youse don't come now you'll get no adjectival dinner."  After I finished reading the entire Granta (there's also some great photos of Aborigines in an alcohol/drug treatment program by Polly Borland), I passed it on to Sean who asked what story I liked best.  I told him to read the Kelly Gang piece, and he's the one who noticed that this supposedly autobiographical work was by Peter Carey.  A few days later I found the hardback novel True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey on the sale rack at Half Price Books for $2 and now Sean and I are reading it out loud to each other in the evenings.

I also recently finished two books of short stories by different authors.  One is called Throw Like a Girl by Jean Thompson, which actually inspired me to request a novel from the library by the same author.  The other is In Strange Gardens by Peter Stamm, a Swiss writer translated from German.  These are pretty understated (some are just a few pages long) slice-of-life stories often depicting missed connections and isolation.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Pistil Prose Redux

When Pistil was a retail store (Pistil Books & News 1993-2001), we had store journals for staff to record their thoughts, misadventures, sketches and of course "Retail Hell" stories in (Some of these stories were compiled in the store zine, Pistil Prose). These journals were old-fashioned college ruled composition books and besides writing, they grew fat with scrap-booked photos, postcards, fliers, and found items and dated from Volume 1 Sept. 1994 to Volume 6, April 2001, when our Pike Street retail store closed.

Now that we've been an online-only bookstore for the same number of years we were a retail bookstore, I'm finally starting a blog. This has been slow to happen because the obvious question is what will we (will my three other Pistil people join me?) write about? We're no longer open to the general public and have no retail hell stories to tell. An occasional yelling email (written in all caps) from a perturbed (or disturbed?) customer, "WHERE'S MY BOOK?" is about the extent of our customer service woes. Looking through the old store journals, I see they are more about people than about books. This blog can be more about books than people.

Reading is something that I do every day, often reading more than one book in the same time period (usually something fiction and something non-fiction) though not actually two books at the same time, one in each hand. My reading is somewhat indiscriminate in that for the most part I choose to read books that come my way through Pistil, that is a bit randomly, rather than specifically choosing to read certain authors based on reviews, recommendations, etc. With around twelve thousand books at my disposal, I rarely use the library or shop at other bookstores. Usually I am physically handling a book during a book purchase for the store and it catches my eye, or I browse our stock on the shelves, which lends itself to strange juxtapositions because our books are arranged by title, not by category and author as in a traditional bookshop. Looking at the shelf behind me, for instance, I see Dear Playboy Advisor (what are we doing with that in our stock?); Death and the Devil; Death Feast in Dimlahamid; Death in America; The Death of Adam; Death of a Guru; Death of Rapunzel; Debate in Tibetan Buddhism... you get the idea: erotica, a thriller,a book on British Columbian Native Americans, book of poetry, book on evolution, Yogi autobiography, another thriller, and eastern religion all rubbing spines. In this case, a disproportionate number of thrillers are showing up since the word "Death" starts the title. When choosing fiction to read from our shelves, I pull a promising-looking title -- cover done in literary rather than genre style -- yes, I do judge books by the cover, then read the first paragraph or so. Sometimes I read the blurb on the back and these can turn me off instantly. I know I don't want to read "a novel of romantic suspense which grips our attention and touches our hearts."

My preferred genre of fiction is realistic. I like getting a slice of real life, being able to step into another's shoes, or feel like I'm observing them up close. This morning I walked through Seattle's International District and saw five multi-colored flowing dragons dance in the street to drumming in the rain, scattering firecrackers and bits of lettuce in their wake, for the Chinese New Year celebration. People crowded around to watch, individuals with histories and voices and stories and relationships and a stream-of-consciousness going through their heads just like mine, but we were all separate and unknown to each other except in this tiny intersection of shared experience. In opening a book, I have access to another person's mind. I carry my current book around in my bag and know I can listen to the author's voice, step into another world, whenever I want. Though I do have favorite authors (Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Anita Brookner, Paul Bowles, Alan Watts, to name a few), I read so much and in such a haphazard manner that I strangely tend to forget authors and titles, even though this kind of memory has developed in me for the business side of bookselling.

Perhaps by writing about what I'm reading here, I will become more deliberate in my reading choices and maybe read with more depth. At least I'll keep a record of what I've read.