Low-brow high dudgeon, or looking to David Lynch for perspective

At times I feel like the the scrivener equivalent of the swallows of Capistrano. But within my mental landscape, there are very few fallows patches that I’m unwilling to revisit for additional treading. So come along/bear with me.

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This week, the actor Simon Pegg gave an interview where he questioned what the current prevalence and popularity of genre cinema is doing to our collective emotional maturity.

“… Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.

It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever.

Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

A character actor pontificating rarely inspires me to weigh in, but I found the amount and nature of the coverage of his comments interesting. Most interestingly, to me at least, is that much of the reporting reached back to February to dredge up Jonathan Franzen’s much-fulminated upon interview with the literary magazine Booth. The quote that, at the time, spurred a hundred Hot Takes in the literary blogosphere, and was exhumed from the ever-shallower grave of internet kerfuffles for the Pegg imbroglio was:

“Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity. Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day. The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes.”

The Defenders of Genre Fiction emptied their quivers to take down Franzen for his intellectual dressage. Their lines of attack, just as those going after Pegg this week, were multiple: genre fiction is worthy for the simplicity with which it deals with morality; genre fiction is, in fact, morally complex; genre fiction is more morally complex than literally fiction; Jonathan Franzen is a high-brow snob who is jealous that he doesn’t make blockbuster money; etc.

eye rolIt’s all so familiar and all so predictable.

So, as I warned from the start, I must return to my well-trod patch on the subject: I’ve got no truck with book snobs. Yet, I absolutely agree with what Franzen was saying in the above quote. To be clear, I’m not saying that “YA”, by definition, equates with “moral simplicity”. But, most YA and most popular fiction is certainly not morally complex. The most popular commercial fiction, by-and-large, is built from a palette of primary colors. Good guys are good and bad guys are bad. Motives are clear and desired outcomes are well-defined.

pitchforkWhat the saber-rattling about the Franzen and Pegg’s quotes is all about is the inferred (or, perhaps, implied) judgment that there is only value in the complex or high-brow. This may be absolutely how they view the matter, though Franzen makes a point of expressing an understanding for why readers may not want moral complexity.

I make a habit of avoiding trying to peer into the hearts of my fellow man to divine their true motives. I try to take what they say at face value and will certainly extend that benefit of the doubt to Franzen and Pegg.

What I do take exception to, however, is the world of hair-trigger outrage and the cultural zero-sum game we seem to be living in.

Why do you read? Seriously think about that.

Guess what? Your answer is 100% correct.

There is no wrong answer to that question. There is also no one, correct answer. I read for my reasons. You read for your reasons and all our reasons are fine.

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I believe that I would miss out on something potentially life-changing if I didn’t challenge myself in my reading. That my quality of life is enhanced by the more points of view and complexity and experiences I get in my reading. But I also believe that this is not the case for everyone. Some want edification. Some want fun. Some want comfort. Some want escape.

I stumbled upon a quote from Franz Kafka that really captured why I read what I read:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

I find the quote beautiful and prescriptive for me. I don’t believe, as Kafka does, that “we” should only read these types books. I’ll read what I want. You read what you want. As a bookseller, it’s my job—my pleasure—to get you the book you want, even (or especially) when you don’t know what that book is. There’s plenty of book goodness to go around.

When is comes to books–really most things in life–I take a page from David Lynch (no, not that one)

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Books are heaven.

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A bookseller beside himself, or “Hey booksellers, eat your heart out”

I’m completely in the bag for Lyndsay Faye.

She grabbed me in 2012 with her Edgar Award-nominated The Gods of Gotham. I went back and read her first book, the witty and propulsive Sherlock Holmes mystery, Dust and Shadow, and found it a worthy homage to and, frankly, more enjoyable than anything by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Gods of Gotham sequel, 2013’s Seven for a Secret was every bit as good as its predecessor.

When I was given my own bookcase endcap in the store where I can show off my favorite reads, The Gods of Gotham was the first one I picked. Its follow-up also earned its shelf space there.

The third installment of her trilogy, The Fatal Flame, came out yesterday and, having read it months ago, I can tell you it’s Faye’s best yet.

Lyndsay Faye, author of some of my absolute favorite books is coming to Booksellers this Sunday, May 17. If you’re looking for me between now and then, find the guy who looks like me and then look a pace-and-a-half to the left.

There I’ll be.

Beside myself.

Her novels put me under a spell of transportation, immersing me into her deeply-researched but fictional world of 1840’s New York City populated with complex, fully-formed, fully-human characters.

When I tell you Lyndsay Faye is terrific, you should believe me. But if you knew the whole story you’d have reason to question my objectivity.

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Here’s the whole story.

Last December, I picked up a shift on a Friday, my usual day off. I’d noticed a woman and a man with arms full of books mulling about the mystery section of the store. As I was heading past, the woman , arms-laden with more than a dozen books, began walking towards me, flashing me that “I’m about to ask you a weird question” look as we made eye contact. As we slowed to a stop, she tentatively asked, “Are you Matt?”

My brain meat facial-recognition firmware furiously clicked through possible matches and landed on a highly improbable option that stupidly spilled out of my mouth before I could stop it.

Are you…Lyndsay Faye?”

Pop! Her face brightened as she confirmed my impossible thought: Lyndsay Faye was in my bookstore.

I’ll confess that at this point, my higher brain functions shut down and I lost access to most of my memory. The details are hazy, but I think it’s something like this: she was in town to give a talk at a local school. The professor who invited her had been in the store looking for a copy of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. He happened to find it in my picks endcap, set right along The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret. After Faye’s talk, the professor suggested they come by the local independent bookstore because one of its employees was a big fan of hers.

So they did.

Lyndsay Faye came into Booksellers.

To. See. Me.

After enduring my dumb grinning and incoherent babbling, Faye couldn’t haven’t been more generous. She spent 20 minutes just chatting with me about her work, about books, about other things I don’t remember. She was charming, gracious and most of all, genuinely appreciative of my support and love of her work.

Really, it was the kind of interaction a bookseller dreams of, meeting their favorite author and finding him or her as interesting and funny and personable and appreciative as you’d hope. I couldn’t have possible asked for more.

But there’s more.tumblr_n4o3erkg3K1qewacoo2_500

During our conversation, I’d told Lyndsay how I’d already told her how I’ve been pestering my publisher representative for an advanced readers copy of her new book. She told me that the first ARCs were coming in the next couple of weeks and that she’d make sure I get a copy. She also mentioned how much she liked our store. I don’t remember if I suggested it or she did, but the idea of her coming to the store for a signing after The Fatal Flame‘s publication was discussed. She said she’d love to but she normally only tours the big mystery bookstores around the country (New York, Portland, Seattle, etc.) so she’d have to talk to her publicist.

Several weeks later, I arrived at work to find a bulky envelop in my mailbox. It was an ARC of The Fatal Flame. It was sent personally by Lynsday Faye, complete with a nice personalized inscription. A day later, Faye’s publicist contacted the store’s events coordinator saying that Lyndsay really wanted to come to the store for a signing. Were we interested?

Were we interested?

This was above-and-beyond. She stopped by the store and absolutely made my bookseller day (year? career?). She follow-up with an autographed advanced copy of her book. She took a detour from her book tour to come to my workplace for a signing.

Where Lyndsay Faye the author captured me in a spell of transportation, Lyndsay Faye the person brought me to heel with a charm potion.

I’m in the bag for Lyndsay Faye.

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So here we are and now you know the whole story.

So I could go on and on telling you how Lyndsay Faye is a master of elegantly weaving rich historical detail and context into the story. Show she paints such an evocative picture of 1840’s New York City that we’re able to understand and feel the human-scale consequences of the culture and institutions that comprise the era. That we, for example, get to understand what it means to be a woman at that time, where life options are essentially binary: marry or struggle not to starve to death. How instead of having characters that play out and/or stand in as archetypes and symbols of a conflict of the period, Faye creates fully-fleshed characters that act within and outside the culture’s framework. These characters are humans, not symbols. This allows for complexity and results, in Faye’s hands, in true emotional payoffs.

I could go on. But after sharing with you my experience, it would be reasonable for you to question my objectivity.

If you’re a fan of literary mysteries, historical fiction or just well-written hero stories that immerse you in another world, you should come to Booksellers this Sunday at 3:00.

I’ll be here…beside myself. I hope to see you next to me (next to me).

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Since you may think me hopelessly not objective on the merits of Lyndsay Faye’s work, I’ve enlisted two of my colleagues who love her books to weigh in”

Kat Leache:  Within the first chapter or two of The Gods of Gotham, Faye will introduce you to at least three complex and unforgettable characters who you will only charm and fascinate you more as the trilogy progresses. Its well-crafted historical mystery plot will make you want to turn the pages quickly, but the unique and endearing perspective of first-person narrator Timothy Wilde will keep your pace steady, as you won’t want to miss a single turn of phrase. A fascinating portrayal of 1840s Manhattan to boot, I would recommend Gods of Gotham to almost anyone.

Karen Tallant: Lyndsay Faye’s Gods Of Gotham has it’s feet firmly planted in history, while it’s head and heart are filled with beautifully drawn characters.  It’s as complex, brutal and richly drawn as the period of New York History it depicts. This book is bold and unflinching; vividly portraying good and evil breathtaking measure.

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You don’t love your job as much as I love mine, or Ode on Independents

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Corporate Human Resources (HR) departments across the U.S. are (by in large) staffed with well-meaning professionals trying to make sure their workplaces are fair and rewarding. They are also producers of an ever-changing and never-ending stream of lies.

I know this first-hand. For more than a decade, I was the one crafting these distortions, evasions and deflections for a number of companies.

Last Saturday, was National Independent Bookstore Day across the country. At Booksellers, we had events and exclusive giveaways for our customers throughout the day. One such event, was a new “book thing”–Grawl!x, a book talk, a discussion, a presentation, a convocation–I’d conceived to provide book lovers a sneak peek and the low-down on a hand-picked selection of upcoming and recent off-beat literary fiction.  Despite Mother Nature being overly-compliant, offering up the kind of Memphis May day that Keats would have written odes on, many of our customers came out during the day to show their support, with two handfuls coming specifically for the “book thing”.

The feedback I’ve gotten from those who came to Grawl!x has been terrific. The group was not a large one, but they were engaged, open for discussion and interested in extending the group to start a monthly book club. We decided on the premise of the “In Case You Missed It” Book Club*, where we’ll read and meet to discuss books we’ve long been told we should read, but haven’t yet. I’ve never been in a book club. I’ve never found one that read the types of things I was interested in. I’m looking forward to this.

*Find ICYMI Book Club details at the bottom

Grawl!x was everything I hoped it would be: a coming together of passionate readers looking for and wanting to talk about the kinds of books I love.

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It’s perhaps harsh to name “untruths” as HR departments’ chief export. Having worked closely with a variety of HR departments and advised them on the best way (i.e., most effective for producing desired outcomes) to communicate various policies, initiatives, changes, etc., I’d contend that my assertion, while bracing, is true. I never worked or consulted for a company that cared more about its employees (or customers, or workplace, or reputation, or products, etc.) than its profit. All every message related to employees-”we care about our employees”, “we value teamwork”, “we encourage ingenuity and entrepreneurship”, etc.–was freighted with the silent addendum “to the extent it aids in the maximization of profit.”

This is neither an indictment nor a complaint. It’s like the frog and the scorpion. You can’t sensibly blame the scorpion for being a scorpion.

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While National Independent Bookstore Day was designed to celebrate and draw attention to the value an independent bookstore brings to a community, for me, it drove home the joy and fulfillment that working for an independent bookstore provides.

I love being a bookseller. I find it more rewarding in every possible way (except financially…our wages are equal parts legal U.S. tender and magic beans) than any other job I’ve had. My time working for an independent bookstore has brought into sharp relief the great pains and expense large companies go to to mollify their employees with comforting and inspiring verbal palliatives.

Most companies tell their employees that they value teamwork and creativity. That they encourage the entrepreneurial spirit. That customers come first. In my experience, these are not strictly untrue. They are ideals (usually unrealized ideals, as employees at these companies would often voice).

Working for an independent bookstore, however, I’m experiencing these ideals in practice. The composition and content for the Grawl!x “book thing” and the ICYMI book club were 100% me. I wanted to try it because, from my conversations with many Booksellers customers, I thought that it would be something a certain subset would enjoy and appreciate. The store not only allowed it, they gave me the full support of the marketing team and the time to do it. Anything I needed to make this happen, they (and the terrific publisher representatives, like Kate McCune from HarperCollins, Melissa Weisberg at Macmillan and Johanna Hynes at Perseus Books Group who keep me well-stocked in terrific books) provided. Some of my fellow booksellers came in on their day off to be part of it. Bookseller patrons who attended seemed to enjoy it. I’m fairly sure I enjoyed it more.

After more than a decade of helping numerous organizations tell their employees how much they’re valued and appreciated for their initiative, creativity and teamwork, it’s an entirely different experience to work somewhere where those ideals are day-to-day reality.

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Sure, the stakes are lower than the world of international business (though we are talking about books; what’s more important than books?). In some ways, perhaps, I’m being unfair to the corporate world and their HR professionals. They’re only doing what they feel needs to be done to serve their business interests. I’m not here to castigate or be a fly on the corporate elephant’s hind hide.

This is a celebration on the joys of independence that come with working for an independent bookstore. It’s a joy I carry most days, a joy I hope to pass along to you.

And that, my book-loving friends, is the truth.

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About the “In Case You Missed It” Book Club

I read like a shark: constant movement forward. Even those of you who are less rapacious readers than I am, certainly have your own never-shrinking “to-read” pile. With all the good books constantly coming out each month, it’s impossible to keep up with every book you want to read, much less go back and get to the ones you really wanted to read last month, or last year or ten years ago.

The “In Case You Missed It” Book Club was conceived as a forced pause in the constant forward reading momentum. We’re looking to read those classics (cult or otherwise) people have been telling you that you just must read but can never seem to find the time. The first selection chosen by the group was THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, the long-banned/censored Mikhail Bulgakov classic of Stalin-era Russia.

If you’re interested, come by the store and pick up a copy (be sure to let the bookseller conducting your transaction know it’s for the ICYMI Book Club, so you’ll receive 20% off). Future book club selections will be solicited from the group. We’re still working on the details (days/times/locations/etc.) for the first meeting where we’ll discuss THE MASTER AND MARGARITA and pick the next selection. Stay tuned here, the store’s Facebook page and website for information. We hope you’ll join us.

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A handy bookseller translation guide

Last night, 8:50 p.m.: While returning the phone handset to its casing, the 10-minutes-to-close intercom announcement complete, a woman bounds into the store. She immediately locks eyes and strides with purpose towards the register, her slightly open-mouthed smile leading the way, the drum major for her wide-eyed, expectant face. It’s the face of someone about to reunite with a long-lost friend.

Clearly Eager Woman: Do you have the new Greg Iles book?

Me: You bet!

I walk around the register and pick up a copy from the nearby pedestal point-of-purchase display. She takes the book in a two-handed grip, stares at it for a moment like a new graduate eyeing her diploma, simultaneously covetous and content. She then casually brings the book to her chest in a near-embrace.

Clearly Eager Woman: I’ve been waiting for today [The Bone Tree’s publication] since I finished Natchez Burning? Did you read it!?

Me: No. I didn’t read that one, but people really loved it.

Clearly Eager Woman: Ohhhhhh. It was so good. I love Greg Iles. Have you ever read him?

Me: I’ve only read one of his b–

Clearly Eager Woman: Which one?!

Me: Turning Angel. It—

Clearly Eager Woman: Oh! That was a good one! You should really read Natchez Burning.

Me: I don’t really read much in the mystery/thriller genre…

Clearly Eager Woman: Oh, but his books are so good. If you like to read, you should really read him.

While conducting her purchase, the woman continued extolling the virtues of Iles’ works—the mystery, the sense of history in the setting, etc. Transaction complete, she flashed a “see-ya-later” grin and made for the exit with geometric efficiency, off to share a wondrous evening reuniting with her friends.

* * *

To the uninitiated, this conversation is straightforward, requiring no further thought, certainly no deep analysis. Practitioners of the bookselling arts, however, recognize that things are being said between the lines.

This unremarkable, utterly everyday conversation spurred my thoughts that you, dear readers, might benefit from a handy bookseller translation guide. I bring you this at risk of my suspension—or possible excommunication—from the Secret Order of the Bookseller (what? it’s a thing). But in service to you, I will take that risk.

* * *

Before we get into this, I’m compelled to provide an operational framework for understanding the arcane knowledge that follows. First, a bookseller is only trying to make sure you get the right book for you. We’re in no way incentivized to get you something you don’t want. If you know what you want—whatever that is—we’re thrilled and most happy to get it for you.

Second, while there are perhaps things left unsaid, what is said is in no way untrue. We read. Most of us read a lot. We don’t like everything and we all have different tastes. Something that enraptures you may hold no interest for me. And that certainly holds true the going the other way. None of us want to treat your beloved book or author like the neighborhood opossum, unwelcome in even our trash can. So we deflect or choose to not expound. We’re no book snobs. We want you to love the books you read. Whatever they are.

With that framework established, what follows is an incomplete key to deciphering typical bookseller responses to a couple of common questions.

Question: “Have you read this book?”

Answer: “Yes” or “I did”

Translation: [with no additional context or qualifiers] “I didn’t like it”. (Note: If the book is one we liked, we’ll volunteer more information. If it’s one we really liked, we’ll likely begin effusing or issuing declarations like “you want that book” or offering unequivocal praise like “oh, you picked a good one!” Booksellers love to talk about books they loved. If they liked a book you’re considering, you’ll know it.)

Answer: “I did. It was good, but not for everyone.”

Translation: “I liked it, but I’m warning you: it’s weird/disturbing/violent/difficult/impolitic/etc.”

Answer: “Yeaaaaaaa-uh. It was…interesting…not for everyone…”

Translation: “It was definitely not for me or for anyone I call a friend.”

Answer: “No, I haven’t”

Translation: “No. And I have absolutely no plans to.”

Answer: “It’s been in my ‘to-read’ pile and I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

Translation: “I want to read it and I think I would recommend it, but I haven’t actually read it. Read it and tell me if it needs to move to the top of the pile or if it should be banished from this exalted spot.”

Question: “Do you know anything about this book?”

Answer: “No. I really don’t…”

Translation: “Never seen it before.” or “I’ve seen it, but never seen anyone buy it.”

Answer: “It’s been popular, but I haven’t really heard anything about it.”

Translation: “It’s a book many have bought, but no one has liked enough to ever mention it again.”

Answer: “People seem to love it…”

Translation: “Lots of people are buying it. They seem excited about it.” or “Those who’ve read it seem to really love it.”

Answer: “It’s been popular. You’ll likely enjoy it if you like that kind of thing.”

Translation: “I don’t read ‘that kind of thing’. Those who do are buying it.”

Answer: “I’ve read it.”

Translation: [if unaccompanied by additional qualifiers or explanation] “I’ve read it. Don’t.”

Answer: “Yes. I actually read that.”

Translation: “I didn’t hate it.”

Answer: “Yes. It’s a good one.”

Translation: “Yes. It’s a good one.”

Answer: “Yes. It was really terrific, if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s not for everyone.”

Translation: “It was terrific, but I’m warning you, you may not be into ‘that kind of thing’ and ‘that kind of thing’ may be disturbing or confusing or nonsensical to you. I’m warning you.”

* * *

I hope you find this brief translation primer helpful in getting the most out of your bookseller. One very important note: we need you to be as direct and forthcoming as you want when giving us your feedback on a book. Our recommendations to you are only as good as the information we have on what you liked and didn’t like. Please, if you hated something, tell us you hated it. This helps us better triangulate our recommendations for you.

And, please, please let us know when you loved something, especially if its something we recommended. That’s the best part of the job.

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Read this book: H is for Hawk

I’ve found that in the right author’s hands, any subject can be fascinating. Helen Macdonald is such a writer: H is for Hawk is simply outstanding, perhaps the richest, most vibrant memoir I’ve read.
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It’s basic story appears straightforward, arcane and, at best solipsistic or, at worst, self-indulgent: Macdonald recounts how she coped with her father’s unexpected death by immersing herself in the training of a goshawk. Widely held to be one of the most capricious and difficult birds of prey, the goshawk has special allure to Macdonald due to a seminal book from her bird-obsessed youth: The Goshawk by T.H. White. Best known as the author of The Once and Future King, White’s life and his hawking memoir serve as points of convergence and departure for Macdonald’s experiences with Mabel, her goshawk.

If this setup sounds in the least bit interesting, go directly to Booksellers (or your local independent bookstore) and get your hands on H is for Hawk. If, like me, you have no interest in falconry, birds, T.H. White or coping-with-grief memoirs, you will likely still want to get your hands on this book ASAP.

H is for Hawk is remarkably expansive and nothing short of profound. Macdonald displays a fiercely agile mind, a courageous sense of self-exploration and self-disclosure and a flawed, searching, compassionate heart. Macdonald’s prose is crystalline, unadorned, precise. She effortlessly and evocatively conjures the emotions from the moment of her experience: the tension, surprise, melancholy, self-doubt, despair.

Most rewardingly, though, H is for Hawk is dense with fresh, nuanced insights into weighty philosophical topics: humankind’s relationship with the land, nature and animals; our (mis)construction of and (mis)uses of history; our need for belonging, to a place and to others. I’ve never read a more honestly searching, unsentimental and even-handed dissection of these thorny philosophical questions. Macdonald’s quest for meaning is personal, genuine, without agenda and, at times, thrilling.

I really don’t do justice to the substance and scope of H is for Hawk. If you think there’s a chance you’d find this interesting, read this book. H is for Hawk is dazzling. It soars.

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Feeling foolish, or the nagging feeling you read it wrong

Late last summer, I caught a podcast with Dave Iztkoff, the author of Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. The book sounded awesome: well-researched, smart, dishy and right in my wheelhouse. Showing uncharacteristic discipline, I waited until it came out in paperback last month and ordered it immediately.

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I finished it last night and, well, it was…good. It was well-researched. It was smart. And dishy. But it also was kind of just OK. Reflecting on it, I can’t really point to any reason why the book didn’t meet my expectations. In substance, it was exactly what I thought it would be, but in experience it was not the book I wanted. Were my expectations too high? Was I the book I was looking for not the book Iztkoff wrote? Did I read it wrong?

This led me to thinking about the other ways that I’ve left a book feeling let down or left out. I’d consider myself an above average reader; it’s rare that I don’t “get” what it seems an author is trying to do or say. But, I admit, I’ve finished (or, on rare occasions, quit) books feeling like I absolutely missed something.

In my experience, there are four indications that I possibly read a book incorrectly:

  1. “What’s the big deal?” – A common iteration of a fairly uncommon, to me, phenomenon. This is when something has been critically acclaimed and/or heavily buzzed about, but leaves me feeling indifferent. When I would classify a book as “fine” or “ok” when everyone else seems to love it, I’m happy to chalk it up to my possibly reading it wrong. Wrong mood, wrong time, wrong reader. Whatever.
  2. “What is going on?” – In my earlier reading days, I found this happening more often. And not for the reasons you’d likely assume. I once thought I’d really enjoy sci-fi or fantasy genre books. I loved Star Wars and comic books. My friends loved Tolkien and such. Many titles I picked up in these genres were impenetrable or operated on some internal logic that I couldn’t grasp. I’ve since improved my book selection process to largely avoid these genres and, as such, have largely improved my reading experiences. While I probably have gotten better as a reader, I’ve certainly gotten better at selecting books for my tastes. Not every good book is for every good reader.
  3. “I know I’m missing something…” – This is the most common way my feelings that I’ve read something wrong are manifested. It is not infrequent that I’ll read some dense or challenging literary fiction and just know I’m missing something, some vital allusions or call-backs to a classic work that would enrich my reading of the story, but which isn’t required for me to understand the text. This results in something like the following conversation

    THEM: “I loved how the main character’s journey mirrored the Odyssey”

    ME: “Uh. It did?”

I know I have a ton of classic literature blind spots. This kind of thing at one time would make me feel foolish (hence my giving up the ghost on ever being a book snob). Now, I just take the stance that there are JUST. SO. MANY. books I’ll never read. I do my best then move on to the next one.

  1. “This is not the book I thought I was going to get.” – This is what apparently happened with Mad as Hell. I went into reading it with a set of expectations for not only what would be contained within the book, but also for how those contents would make me feel. When expectations are high, this can be unfair to the book…actually, unfair to me. The book is the book. It’s up to me to read it for what it is. If I do, I’ll appreciate it for what it is.

Life’s too short and there are too many terrific books out there for me to worry too long about reading a book incorrectly. Challenging myself and being adventurous in my reading will lead me to picking up the wrong books for me from time to time. To limit myself to only those that I know I’ll get completely would cut off entire continents from the world of books. Why dream of doing that?

I’d be a fool.

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A Sweet 16: a list of several (sixteen, to be exact) winning non-fiction picks

The NCAA basketball tournament, the annual 64-team*, billion dollar cultural force known as “March Madness”, fundamentally owes its commercial success to an underlying promise: the unpredictability of truly unscripted drama.

*I know, I know. It’s officially 68 teams, but…c’mon.

The first weekend of the tournament primarily revolves around one narrative: David vs. Goliath.  As the tournament progresses, narratives are updated to most effectively keep people invested in the competition so that cars, carbonated beverages and corn chips can be sold. They use basketball games to tell stories of perseverance, falls from grace, comebacks, redemption, vindication and triumph through creativity or innovation.

As the annual tournament moves into its second weekend, I’m sharing with you my Sweet 16 of unscripted stories of perseverance, falls from grace, comebacks, redemption, vindication and triumph through creativity or innovation, aka non-fiction. These are all non-fiction titles I’ve recently (or somewhat recently) read and, like the 16 teams remaining in the NCAA tournament, they are all very good and have earned their way onto this list. In the spirit of tournament**, I’ve divided these 16 books into four categories, or regionals if you will: Memoir, Media, Music and Miscellaneous. For each, I pick my favorite to advance to a (fictional) Final Four.

** …or selling a contrived premise. You make the call! If you’re looking for a good non-fiction read, here’s the tip…

Memoir Regional H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald – I was having this conversation just yesterday about how in an exceptional writer’s hands, any subject can be riveting. Macdonald is such a writer. The story of how she dealt with the grief of her father’s sudden death through immersing herself into the training of a goshawk, H is for Hawk is a revelation. Part exploration of loss, part treatise on man’s relationship with animals and part deconstruction of a centuries-old tradition, H is for Hawk soars beautifully.

The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison and Unspeakable, by Meghan Dahm – A bit of a cheat here, trying to squeeze two different books into one slot here***. They’re both exceptionally smart and probing essay collections that mine the author’s personal experiences to explore thorny, under-examined aspects of human emotions.

***…or a tribute to a 64-team tournament that has 68 teams

Lit, by Mary Karr – Oh Mary Karr, you delight and shatter me in equal measure. Every three or four pages in Karr’s memoir of alcoholism and recovery has a passage or phrase so exquisitely and originally written it that it stops me in my reading tracks and makes me want to never write again. I will never write anything as good as the 64th (or 68th) best thing passage in Lit.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? , by Roz Chast – New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s hilarious, poignant and unsparingly honest graphic novel about her experience caring for her elderly parents keeps you laughing and squirming with deep recognition.

Memoir Regional winner: H is for Hawk tops Lit in somewhat convincing fashion h is for hawk Music Regional

Autobiography, by Morrissey – Stories are told. Drama unfolds. Slights are recorded. Grievances are aired and re-aired. Scores are settled. All is breathlessly recounted in the unmistakable, petty, poetic, dramatic, Bronte-esque, self-lacerating, self-aggrandizing, trenchant and singular voice of Morrissey. An absolute must-read for any Smiths or Morrissey fan.

Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson – Where does an individual’s tastes in music come from? Is there neurological hardwiring that determines what we enjoy, or are our tastes completely a social construct? In this slim volume, part of the terrific 33 1/3 series from Bloomsbury, Wilson provides a wide-ranging philosophical survey of the various schools of thought for where and how a person obtains his/her musical preferences. A little on the academic side, but very readable and so, so fascinating.

Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove , by Ahmir Questlove Thompson – Roots co-founder and Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon bandleader, Questlove set down an intimate, honest, insightful, sly and immensely smart meditation on the way music can impact and shape a life. Mo’ Meta Blues effortlessly earns the highest compliment I can give a memoir: I didn’t want to leave Questlove’s company. I would read Questlove’s writing about medieval laundry techniques.

Rip It Up and Start Again, by Simon Reynolds and Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, by Will Hermes – Another two-for-one. I tethered these together because they both vividly tell the stories of a particular music scene: the rise, fall and aftermath of the UK punk scene in Rip it Up and Start Again and the mid-70’s New York music scene in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. I found them both riveting with a concrete and aural their sense of time and place. Both bring their respective scenes to life, making icons like Johnny Rotten and Bruce Springsteen human-sized, actual people who interacted with other nobodys who became somebodys. Each also illuminates the ways that the creation of music is not merely a matter of plucking divine fruits from the creative ether three, but rather a conversation with and reaction to the music happening around the artists and the music that came before.

Music Regional winner: Let’s Talk About Love in a buzzer-beater over Rip it Up and Start Again letstalkaboutlove

Media Regional

My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, by Peter Biskind – If you have any interest in classic Hollywood, this is the smartest, most erudite gossip rag ever assembled. Orson Welles was a Hollywood legend (and legendarily difficult person) whose career spanned from pre-WW II Era radio (his infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, for example) through his death in 1985. He knew and had an opinion on everyone and everything. Welles was a literal genius, a polymath who could hold forth on a wide-range of topics. But his experiences with and opinions on Hollywood royalty – Hepburn, Bogart, Olivier, etc. – and not are alone worth the price of admission. Any Hollywood buff will lap this up.

The Big Screen: The Story of Movies and What They Have Done to Us, by David Thomson – If you’re looking for a deep and comprehensive history of the movies, this is your book. Legendary New York Times film critic and author of more than 20 books on movies David Thomson offers an at times loving, at times mordant, always illuminating history of moving pictures. He covers not only the people who created, shaped, popularized and changed the visual language of viewing entertainment, but also the technological, cultural and historical influences that shaped the medium and that the medium shaped.

Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery and a Masquerade, by Walter Kirn – Journalist and novelist Walter Kirn lays himself bare for public humiliation in this memoir about his years-long friendship with Clark Rockefeller, aka Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, the German imposter, criminal and (later) convicted murderer. The story is almost unbelievable. The fact that Kirn would, himself, share the story of how he was duped takes courage or desperation beyond my grasp.

All The Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai – For the last 30 year, Gary Hart has been a punch line, a cautionary tale and a signifier for received political wisdom. In All the Truth is Out, journalist Matt Bai revisits the Gary Hart story (i.e., his “monkey business” with the now-notorious Donna Rice) and separates myth from fact. Bai’s central argument is that, for a variety of cultural and technological reasons, this scandal is the inflection point at which the U.S. media pivoted from their previous coverage standards and became the purveyors of “gotcha” tabloid tripe that obscures the issues affecting governance and keeps many of our best minds from entering the political area. Bai’s premise relies heavily on one of my all-time must-read books, Neal Postman’s eerily prescient Amusing Ourselves to Death (a bonus, standing must-read recommendation there).

Media Regional Winner: In the end, My Lunches With Orson’s speed and versatility overcame The Big Screen’s muscular post-up game orson

Miscellaneous Regional

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore – Wonder Woman is a super hero icon, a feminist symbol and the product of the bizarre theories and sexual psychodrama of William Moulton Marston. Lepore, a Harvard historian and author, traces Woman Woman’s creation to early suffragist’s movement. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is as much a riveting history of the movement, its leader and public face, Margaret Sanger, and Marston, the inveterate, indefatigable professional failure, than about Wonder Woman. Lepore’s research is exhaustive and she tells a compelling and unique human story while also capturing the scope of a great social upheaval.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach – Just read Mary Roach. Trust me. If you want to learn about science history and its magnificent oddities, and laugh…out loud…a lot…read Mary Roach. Stiff is my personal favorite. All of her books are informative and hilarious.

The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, by Jill Lepore – The Mansion of Happiness is a collection of loosely-connected essays exploring The Meaning of Life (capital “T”, capital “M”, capital “L”). It turns out that the answer to this grand, existential question frequently turns on the unexpected and, often, the seemingly prosaic. For example, Lepore documents and builds a compelling case that photography and political gamesmanship did far, far more to create the “right to life” movement—before Roe v. Wade—than organized religions did. Researched, even-handed, counterintuitive and endlessly surprising, The Mansion of Happiness is guaranteed to make you see things in a whole new way.

Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980’s, by Jeff Pearlman – It’s only fitting to end with a basketball book. Pearlman digs deep in his research and interviews countless people to bring to life the Showtime Lakers era. From the personalities of the only-one-name-required legends in the title, to the Studio 54-like atmosphere at the stadium’s Forum Club, to the peculiar characters of the team’s secondary players, management and owners, Showtime is the dishy, informative, and immensely entertaining definitive biography of one of sports’ legendary dynasties.

Miscellaneous Regional Winner: In an upset, The Mansion of Happiness shocks Showtime. mansion_of_happiness_cover

It’s impossible to prolong this basketball bracket conceit through to crown a champion. The final four are all terrific. Besides, any picks would, as they have been so far, compromised by recency bias. All the books on this list are very good. Pick any of them. You’ll win.

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