My favorite book of 2014 (so far): Wolf in White Van

Summer’s over and we’re hurtling through September into the fall, into October, the start of the last quarter of 2014. While three months and a fortnight remain in the year, I’ll be surprised if anything released in that time blows me away like John Darnielle’s* new novel, Wolf in White Van, which hit shelves this past Tuesday, Sept. 16. (and, the following day, was long-listed for the National Book Award).

The story, in broad strokes, is about Sean Phillips the designer and sole creator, owner, and administrator of a text-based role-playing game, Trace Italian, conducted over snail mail. Phillips conceived of the intricate, almost infinite, post-apocalyptic game, its universe and game play elements during his long recovery from an…incident…that left his face severely disfigured. The story starts with present-day Sean dealing with a legal issue resulting from one of his Trace Italian players dying after moving his game play out of the mail and his imagination into the real world. The narrative then moves backwards in time to reveal how Sean got to this point.

I am loathe to write too much about Wolf in White Van’s story and plot elements. It’s something I don’t want to spoil in any fashion for potential readers. I’ll just say the book is a stunner…a gem…a cosmic gut-punch.

wolf

But “spoiling” Wolf in any traditional sense isn’t really possible. I would argue that while the “how-and-why” details of the story comprise the central narrative questions, the point of the book is the impossibility of answering them in any objective way. Like life itself, you will have to take in and account for the minutiae, the ephemera, the seemingly meaningless details to even start to grapple with the idea of “why”.

A search for meaning and a desire for things to make sense are human instincts: find the inflection points, separate the genuine from the simulacra, label the “telling” moments.  They also are components of a reader’s expectation when picking up a book.  But, in the end, the Meaning (capital “M”) of any moment, event or entire life is only a wholly subjective construct of an individual, limited and shaped by his/her experiences and choices (or, more often, mindlessly inherited from others)…a “dark smudge of an idea shared among believers,” as Darnielle’s narrator describes the idea of Satanic messages purportedly encoded backwards into some music.

An exploration of finding meaning in others’ actions is worthy, profound, fertile ground for a writer. The genius of what Darnielle achieves, however, is to have the central construct of the plot, the book’s narrative style, the narrator’s personal details and even the physical act of reading a book harmonize, reflect and amplify each other**. If this sounds complicated, meta and/or naval-gazing, it’s only due to my failure to effectively communicate Darnielle’s feat. Wolf in White Van is deceptively simple, elegantly designed and plainly and powerfully written.

Upon finishing the final, devastating page, I spent the next half hour re-reading key portions of the book.  I’ve returned to it several times since.  The further away I get from completing it, the more this book unpacks itself in my mind, revealing new layers and concepts, undiscovered feats and treasures.  Wolf in White Van is stunning.

* I should mention that Darnielle is the creative force and lead singer of the Mountain Goats, a band I’ve only vaguely heard of and have never actually heard

** There is undoubtedly an apt music metaphor to be used here. I’m not the guy to come up with it 

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A great book isn’t always a great book

Despite our booksellers sharing varying degrees of a defining trait—the love of and belief in the importance of books—it is rare that any one book engenders consensus and fervor among any critical mass of the staff.  We all love books, but we don’t all love the same books.

 

This state has been upended a bit recently, as many of us at The Booksellers at Laurelwood have gone wild over Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (of which the third and final installment, Acceptance, was released last week). These books are maybe a little sci-fi, kiiiiinda horror and very much a mystery, but not at all a mystery mystery. They are all these genres, yet truly none of them. They are compelling, weird, unsettling and beautiful in their way. They are a strange grunting and clicking and rustling you hear in a dark, wooded area, the “what the…?” you get that raises your hairs, puckers your flesh and makes you think—“is it possible?”—you still hear its movements hours later within the comfort of your home.

 

They’re fantastic. A half dozen Booksellers agree. There is real excitement here about Vandermeer’s trilogy.

 

But, as great as they are, even the biggest fans among us know they are not for everyone. Truthfully, they aren’t for most. They challenge. They unnerve. They don’t always explain. They instill existential dread. They are sui generis.  

 

Those for whom the book is right, however, will be blown away. To wit: a Bookseller recommended it to a regular customer who he thought would appreciate it. The customer left with the first book, returned later that night for the second installment and, having devoured them both in one day, returned the following day to get the last book in the trilogy.

 

This is what independent bookstores offer that big box chains and the online behemoth that sells books as commodities don’t: we don’t care about just putting a book in your hands. We care about putting the right book in your hands.  We listen to your wants and understand the particular tastes of our customers and do our best to hand-curate an inventory that meets your needs and maintains the ability to surprise and delight you with something you didn’t expect.

 

Over the last decade, the U.S. has seen an explosion of independent brewers and bakers and artisanal craftsmakers creating and selling niche products to meet niche tastes. The healthy growth among independent bookstores over the last three years can’t fully be tied to the same craft movement. Catering to the needs of our particular local customer base is what we’ve always tried to do.

 

Maybe customer appreciation is growing for what is special and unique about independent bookstores: that we understand that you, in your reading tastes, are special and unique. In that way, we’ve always been stocking and selecting for and selling to a niche market: the niche market of you.

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How One Book Can Change Your Life

We want to share with you all, our book-loving family, a letter from one of the most passionate booksellers this store has ever known, Steve Corrigan. We hope it means as much to you as it does to us.

Steve

When my brother handed me a copy of The Stranger, he told me it was a book I should read.  He was not in the habit of selecting books for me, so I realized the importance he placed on this one.

I was nineteen at the time, a sophomore in college.  The last thing I needed was another book to read.  I had enough textbook assignments to keep me busy for weeks.  Besides that, reading ranked low on my list of priorities.  I had never read anything which was not required of me in the classroom.

My brother was no different than me. So what was he up to?  What could The Stranger have to tell me?

So, after the obligatory insults–“What’s this you’re giving me?  A book?  Are you feeling alright?  Do you have a fever?  Getting delirious in your old age?  — I opened the cover to see what was inside.

I did not put the book down until I had completed it.  Its pace gripped me.  Its power stunned me.  I sat cross-legged on the edge of the bed, as if shell-shocked, immobile, after closing the cover for several seconds.  I had never read anything like it.

It was a relief I felt.  Yes, relief.  I was not alone.  Someone else was driven by similar thoughts which drove me.  I felt more sane that night than ever before.  One could think such things and not be mad.

There in that strange tale of a man who commits a reasonless murder under an indifferent sun and is convicted, not for his crime, but because he did not cry at his mother’s funeral and because he had no belief in God.  I heard a familiar voice, a voice of the stranger within myself, that spoke of my mind’s same preoccupations.  It was not the stranger’s thoughts I identified with, but the writer’s.

Camus became my spiritual father.  I sought him out in other books, reading first his novels and his short stories, then his plays and what essays I could understand.  I studied his photographs on the back covers, pouring over his notebook, sober-faced, cigarette in hand, eyes set on some Faustian haunt.  It was this photograph which first taught me that from his writing was unquestionably serious business.  Was it not the writer’s duty to keep civilization from destroying itself.

From Camus I went to Sartre, Hesse, Kafka.  I was neglecting my studies for a different education, what to me was a more pertinent education.  I can not say I understood much of what I read.  In retrospect I would say I misunderstood more than I did not, but the trend was set.  It was from that day to the present that a self education was my intention.  One book led to another until I had little time for anything else.  I might take wing with one author after another, the loftiest praise I could manage for whomsoever I might be reading at the time, but I always came back to Camus, if only to re-read a passage here and there.

It was years later that my sister found the book.  She had been helping to remodel a waterbed store in which she worked, and the book was lying amidst all the debris on a back shelf.  The Modern Library edition of The Stranger, due at the Memphis Highland Street Library in October, 1966.  It was then the spring of 1980.  Fourteen years lost.  Fourteen years abandoned to a dusty shelf.

My sister knew my fondness for the book and was quick to let me know of her find. She, too, read the book and passed it onto several friends.  When it was returned to her, rather hastily I might add, her friends were unimpressed, she decided to keep it rather than return it to the library.  She not only liked the text, but the size of the book as well as the feel of it in her hands.  It would make a handsome addition to her paperback collection.

From there it traveled where she traveled, from Memphis to Springfield, from Springfield to New Orleans.  All the while it occupied the same space on her shelf, unread.  No better off now than its fourteen year hiatus, except that it’s dust was periodically removed.

One night as I was writing her a letter I mentioned the book and asked her to bring it back to Memphis with her the next time she came.  I said something to the effect that her doing so would please Camus.  I sealed the letter and mailed it.

The next morning I scoffed at myself for what I had done.  “You don’t know Camus”, I told myself.  “How do you know what would or would not please him?”  But my words were in transit to New Orleans.

My sister’s letters back to me over the months said nothing of the matter, so it was forgotten.  Or, at least, it seemed to have been.

This past Christmas while visiting New Orleans my sister handed me a wrapped package.  Inside was the lost copy of The Stranger.  I was to take it back to Memphis with me.  My sister thought it would be amusing for me to hand the book to the librarian so as to witness the reaction.  And was not a prize given each year for that book returned which was longest overdue?

But I wanted neither praise nor prizes. And what reaction the librarian would have I could more vividly imagine than witness.  I simply wanted this book, which had meant so much to me, to be given the chance to reach another mind.  There is something depressing to me about seeing a book resting on a dusty shelf.  It should always be in transit toward another mind.

So, I dropped the book after library hours into the curbside bin for the librarian to find the next morning.  It pleased me to know that, ridiculous as it sounds, uafter eighteen years The Stranger had finally made it back home.

It was something I felt I owed to Camus.  More, it was something I felt I owed to the next reader who would pick up the book, open the cover, and look inside.  Perhaps, he or she, would begin that fantastic journey of the mind I am still traveling, would know as well, the relief I felt at hearing that familiar voice.

Au revoir, L’Etranger
Until we meet again.

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Down with “guilty pleasures”! Hooray for guilty pleasures!

I’m on a crusade. “Crusade” might be over-selling it. Let’s just say it falls somewhere on the spectrum between “pet peeve” and “life’s calling”.

I don’t like guilty pleasures. Actually, I don’t like the idea of “guilty pleasures.” Precisely, I don’t like labeling things as “a guilty pleasure.”

At the store, I frequently have customers preemptively dismiss their soon-to-be purchase with a half-shrug, an apologetic grin and the explanation that their book selection is a “guilty pleasure.”  OK?

This interaction speaks to possible two dynamics. One:  the person genuinely feels guilty about reading whatever his or her “guilty pleasure” is. If you enjoy it—if it brings you pleasure—(required caveat: and it’s not breaking laws or hurting others) why feel guilty?

Do you feel like you should be reading the classics or something else? I’d certainly recommend trying new things in literature and non-fiction. Variety and possibility are the calling cards of books—there’s no limit to what you can learn about and how many fictional worlds on which you can vacation your brain.  There’s no race and no one is keeping score. Read what you’re in the mood for. You can get to the other stuff later.

The second possible dynamic in the need to proclaim something as a “guilty pleasure” is that you feel that someone–a friend, a fellow customer or bookseller–is judging you for your selection. I know with certainty that we Booksellers don’t want you to feel guilty about anything you’ve selected. We’re not a staff of literary snobs. Not by far. There are scores of really good books—sci-fi, romance, horror, western—that are of zero interest to me. They’re not my thing. That’s fine. We’ve all got our things.

I’m loathe to speak for others, but as Booksellers we’re not here to shame you into taking your medicine or judging you for eating that third cupcake. We love cupcakes. We really just want to help you get what you want and help you find what you’ll love when you don’t know what you want.

So come into Booksellers and pick out your pleasure. Leave the guilt at home.

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The best day of the week

Yesterday was my favorite day of the week. It was a Monday, though its Mondayness had no bearing on its lofty appellation. It was no holiday. It held no special personal significance. It is a day of the week that is beholden to no accepted calendar. In fact, its frequency varies—it comes around every 3, 5, 8, 14 days…I’m never really sure.

Yesterday I finished a book. It was a fine little allegorical literary mystery set against the backdrop of Hollywood’s Golden Age and WWII, Out There in the Dark, by Wesley Strick. Finishing the book wasn’t what made the day enjoyable. I liked the book.

No. Yesterday, the best day of my week, was the day I spent thinking about what I was going to read next.

It’s my brain’s Christmas Eve. It’s working my finger under the wrapping paper fold of my birthday present. It’s the house lights dimming and the projector throwing that first flicker of light onto the screen of my imagination.  What would I choose to spend the next 3, 5, 8, 14 days immersed in?

Would it be The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders’ deep-dive history into the Victorian Era’s fascination with death and the birth of forensic investigative techniques? Would it be Acceptance, the third and final volume of Jeff Vandermeer’s eerie, unsettling, strangely affecting and wholly unique Southern Reach Trilogy? Maybe J.G. Ballard’s Running Wild, a cult classic I’ve been meaning to read for years and finally ordered for myself? Or perhaps I would stumble upon some completely unknown (to me) and unexpected used book during my shift at Booksellers? That’s how I came into possession of Out There in the Dark. Working here is hazardous and wonderful in that way. Or maybe a colleague would push something into my hands, something I just had to read.

As a lover of books, I have an always-growing to-read pile. All the books there are ones I really, truly want to read. I have more want than I have time. And while I enjoy, to one degree or another, almost every book I read, sometimes…sometimes. Wow!

Sometimes a book shakes me, moves me, spins me around and re-orients me to the world. While I’m often hopeful the next book will be one of those books, they rarely are. It’s what makes them so special. They mostly educate, edify and/or entertain. Not bad consolation.

But never quite knowing what the next book holds. Call it possibility. Call it expectancy. Call it hope. Call it antici-page-tion.

 

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Edification through escapism

In the midst of another bout of peripatetic online roaming, I came across an interesting, but intuitively true, write-up of a new study. It seems that scientists have found that reading the Harry Potter series “significantly improved young peoples’ perception of stigmatized groups like immigrants, homosexuals or refugees.”

It’s no surprise, really. “Mudbloods”, scorned by the more rigid and provincial wizards of more “pure” family lineage, serve as a fairly obvious analog to any group discriminated against based solely on their genetics. But here’s the interesting thing about the study: they took groups of students from similar background and the ones who read the Harry Potter books had their perceptions of real-life marginalized groups improved in relation to not only their previously held opinions about those groups, but also to those of their peers who did not read the Potter books.

Again, the reason is somewhat intuitive but fairly important: “…researchers credited the books with improving the readers’ ability to assume the perspective of marginalized groups.”

This suggests that reading fiction requires one to assume the perspective of the characters within. Doing so—ostensibly depending on the author’s relative facility in creating identifiable and compelling characters—can change the reader’s orientation to his or her world.

Even as the Harry Potter books moved from being a mere literary success to cultural phenomenon and blockbuster movie franchise, they were widely viewed—dismissively—as kids’ stuff. While about and primarily for children, kids’ stuff has the power to foster empathy. And empathy has no age limit.

This is in keeping with academic and cultural studies that suggest fairy tales and children’s scary stories (e.g., Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm, etc.) can be beneficial for kids, teaching them, within a fantastical context, safely removed from reality, how to process fear and uncertainty.

Another form regularly dismissed and derided, the comic book, can have hidden educational value. I can attest that history, myth and classic literature were regularly Trojan Horsed into the comics I read as a youth. Some comics, like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, are quite literate, reimagining historical events and classic works of art as actions and/or results of battles between eternal beings.

It’s important to note that the examples used here—Harry Potter, Grimm Bros. and Sandman—are wildly popular, time-tested and/or critically viewed as the apotheosis of their form. The Potter phenomenon spawned a billion sub par knockoffs and there are scores of ponderous, violent, even vile comic books. in any form there is junk. There is also art…art that educates, that moves, that changes how a reader can see her world.

As we escape within the pages of a book, we can do so knowing we may reemerge changed, even slightly, more able to understand and care for our fellow man. I should escape more often.

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Your bookseller and the perfect fit

Yesterday, while recharging my brain through an online walkabout, I stumbled upon a tumblr that kept me rapt in a state of scrolling and “next” clicking. The site, Things Fitting Perfectly Into Other Things, features nothing more than pictures (and a few gifs) of unrelated objects fitting, well, perfectly into each other: a pickle jar lid fit snuggly into a kitchen sink drain; a Ritz cracker perfectly filling the recessed bottom of a paper cup; a venti-sized Starbucks cup sliding slowly down a cylindrical public garbage bin, etc.

I found these images hypnotic and strangely satisfying. I suppose they feed that part that finds synchronic order to be soothing amid a chaotic world. But I also think these images activate the same pleasure centers that my love of books and being a bookseller do.

Like all booksellers (at least all the ones I know), I am a lover-of-books. Outside of people and some abstract ideals, there’s nothing I’m more passionate about. I read for many reasons—stimulation, entertainment, education, comfort, curiosity, connection, etc. In talking with a co-worker last week, I articulated the unifying theme of all the books (all entertainment, really) I’m most passionate about: they all, in some way or another, surprise and delight. This is not just whiplash plot twist *SURPRISE!*, though those can be fun, too. Books that make me see the world (or part of it) in a new way. Books that make me think about things I’ve never considered. Books that make me feel with unexpected acuity or depth. There are many different ways books can surprise and delight. I think—I hope—any book lover can relate.

The greatest satisfaction of a bookseller resides here as well. We truly want share with you the passion we feel for “our” books. If you’ve ever asked, you know what I’m referring to. You feel it when her voice intensifies, eye-widen and cadence accelerates. You see it when he takes off to grab a book, returning to present it to you—two-handed—like a holy text. We’re passionate about books. It’s why we’re here, working at Booksellers.

We’re here to get you the books you want. Sometimes you’ll know what you want. Sometimes you won’t. If you want something—something new, something unexpected, some really good—but don’t know what that something is, ask a bookseller. We’ll be thrilled to help.

We’ve got something that can’t be reduced to a formula nor coded as an algorithm. We’ve got a passion for books and a desire to share it. We want to put the book in your hands that will surprise and delight you.

We want to match the right book with the right person. We want to find the Thing that Fits Perfectly Into the Other Thing, like a Ritz cracker in the bottom of a paper cup.

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