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by Nikki Tranter

25 Nov 2007


How do you arrange your books?

Kate Holden’s piece in this Saturday’s Age asks the question: Can you fall in love with a man through the contents of his bookshelves? Following a visit to the Alexandre Yersin Museum in Vietnam and perusing the French-Swiss doctor’s stacks, she answers positively, and sets about dissecting her own shelves, and what they might say about her.

I want visitors to think I am smart. Or indeed, to prove that I am smart. Tasteful. Erudite and eclectic. All this manifested in the concrete evidence of the books I’ve read: the range of subjects; the impressive editions, the glorious colourful bindings. I had a moment of enthusiasm a few months ago when I was procrastinating from writing a, well, a newspaper column, and collected all my orange Penguins into a beautiful if ochreous slab of mid-20th century cleverness. It was not unknown, I went on to mutter, that I had deliberately placed certain books in more visible cases — or even on eye-level shelves — in order to best array the quality of my collection.

So, of course, this had me thinking – am I a conscientious shelver like Kate? Are my books arranged deliberately? What does it say about me that I, like Kate, hide my trade-size pop-thrillers in the darkest part of the shelf, while Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine takes pride of place in the living room alongside a large range of similarly-themed works?

The more I pondered, the more I realized that while there’s an element of the show-off in my arrangements, such conceit is really just for me. The smart books are at eye-level in the center of the living room to remind me what I’ve read, and what I’ve learned. Does it make me look smart to visitors? Possibly, but, to be honest, I find most visitors are more into my partner’s DVD collection than my books. He’s the coolest guy in the world because of his Fly special edition and his Star Wars prints; I’m hardly Mrs Awesome because I’ve dog-earned the works of David M. Rorvik.

More from Kate:

There had been times, I confessed sheepishly, when I’d had second thoughts and jumped up from the couch to adjust the display to even more advantageous effect. Some people gather their collections by subject; size of volume; author; Dewey decimal system; haphazardry; or have no books at all. I group mine by affection: most beautiful editions together, then the most beloved novels ...

I can’t say I’ve ever jumped off the couch to better arrange my books for prying eyes, but I get what Kate means. It’s as though we organize out books in such a way that makes the book the star, that makes the titles stand out. I wonder if I’m not subconsciously offering David M. Rorvik a comeback through his placement on my shelves. “Who’s that guy?” you want your visitor to ask. “Well,” you’ll say, “sit back, and let me tell you about the human robot…”

Or then there’s the chance your visitor might say, “Oh! David M. Rorvik – I love that crazy old guy!” and you have a coffee, a sleepover, and a friend for life. It hasn’t happened yet, but I don’t get that many visitors.

I might not be as calculated as Kate in my shelf-arranging, but I admit to desiring a similar amount of crazed control. I can tell when a volume is out of place in a single glance. I can stare at my shelves for hours wondering if this should go in travel lit, or if that should be over in anthropology, or even if I should finally put together a separate shelf for my collection of non-fic Pulitzer Prize winners. Is Sophie’s World correctly placed over there? Should The L-Shaped Room go back over here? Do I really need that Leonard Maltin movie guide from 1994? But, it’s an ever-evolving thing, the bookshelf. Never complete, never perfect.

So, as Kate suggests, it’s bookshelf as symbol of self. Our best airs go in front, no matter where we are, no matter who we interact with. Our dark sides hide in the shadows next to the James Patterson trade paperbacks, while the worldly, wonderful, and weird parts grab the spotlight, next to Rorvik on my shelf and Thucydides on Kate’s.

So, what was hiding in Yersin’s dark corners? Now there’s a question.

 

 

 

by Erik Hinton

22 Nov 2007


MisshapesAuthor: Geordon NicolPublisher: MTV PressSeptember 2007, 288 pages, $16.50

Misshapes
Author: Geordon Nicol
Publisher: MTV Press
September 2007, 288 pages, $16.50

A brief point of information before the review: the Misshapes, after which this book is named, are a band-cum-party throwing collective which hosts weekly parties in New York. These parties feature a constellation of sarcastic facial hair and tube socks (trendy 20-somethings and celebrities of a similar ilk often watching indie artists and DJs perform). Ubiquitous at these gatherings is a photographer who documents the glam antics and dress of these hipsterati, keeping the Misshapes finger on the throbbing pulse of esoteric music and booze lovers. This book is a collection of said photographs.

Misshapes is a book which will inevitably offend the sensibilities of almost anyone. Hipsters feel slighted because it portrays the tragically cool as actually tragic, having nothing better to do than dress up in outrageous, self-parodic fashion and attend the same party every weekend. Non-hipsters are offended simply that such people exist, annoyed by the requisite pretention, irony, and vapidity of the people displayed. Celebrities bump shoulders with your average white-bread American Apparel-onesie-wearing-uberchic reminding the reader not only of their less than superhuman realities but their similar sad weekly pilgrimage, clad in their lamé worship garb, to the Misshapes’ hipster mecca.

Does all of this amount to me not liking the book? Absolutely not. In fact Misshapes has earned a permanent place on my coffee table (and in my heart). The photography is gorgeous and the layout is one the cleanest and most aesthetically pleasing I have ever seen. Furthermore, hating hipster culture has become so inculcated popular belief that such sentiments are just as trendy as the sequin bandeaus adorning the Misshapes’ crown. Furthermore, just as haute couture fashion is relevant to the everyman in that its tenants eventually trickle down to your local Kohl’s, the hipster elite’s exaggerated dress will be seen in Forever 21 and Sears in just a few years. With that in mind, Misshapes serves as an exciting catalogue of a flourishing demographic as deserving of attention as much as any other subculture. What do I say to the hipsters themselves who feel the book misrepresents them? It doesn’t. As much as you like to think of yourself as more refined than Pete Wentz (who gracefully makes an appearance), you still wake up, from time to time, in a pile of Pabst cans with your slip-on shoes missing and a girl dressed head to toe in jersey next to you.

 

 

by Elizabeth Fox

18 Nov 2007


The End of the Alphabet

The End of the Alphabet
by C.S. Richardson
Doubleday ($16.95)

By Elizabeth Fox

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

From the moment you pick up C.S. Richardson’s The End of the Alphabet, there is little doubt that, at only 119 pages, it aspires to join Of Mice and Men on the list of short classic novels bursting with brilliant, heart-wrenching emotion.

To its credit, it does try pretty hard to get there. Its very concept sounds like “instant classic” material. Ambrose Zephyr, a 50-ish man leading a boring, contented life, discovers at his annual medical exam that he has an unspecified illness with no cure, and only 30 days, give or take, to live.

The news comes as a blow both to Ambrose and to his loving wife, Zipper. Attempting to come to terms with this loss of life and love, they try to satisfy Ambrose’s previously unfulfilled desire to travel by racing from one place to the next, each geographical location corresponding with successive letters of the alphabet. The names of characters, the printing career of Ambrose’s father, and the recurring appearances of books, typesetting blocks, and writing in general all highlight this alphabetical motif again and again.

Richardson’s inability to do anything with this symbolism, however, is representative of the book’s major flaw. Throughout, Richardson scatters many of the patterns, symbols, and motifs adored by literature buffs (I am one, so I can say it). In addition to the alphabet, he throws in Ambrose’s obsession with travel, the connection of the couple to Paris, Ambrose’s ability to see and smell through his imagination, and a smattering of other oft-repeated references. Yet intriguing as they are, Richardson is unable to tie these many quirky patterns into any kind of meaning. This is especially disappointing as his major topics—death, love, loss—are ripe for metaphor, symbolism, and literary analysis.

He also faces serious problems in his characterization of Ambrose and Zipper. The reader never gets much of a sense of them as people. By way of introduction, Richardson describes in detail what each of them likes and does not like, and then heads straight into the territory of vague action and generalized grief. The like/don’t like way of introducing characters worked in the French film “Amelie” because it was followed by action, reaction, confrontation and discourse—all things that informed further character development and produced complex personalities. Here, a few details do not a character make. The incomplete haziness of Ambrose and Zipper’s description means that, while their situation is infinitely pitiable, it’s hard to sympathize with them as the people experiencing it.

That said, though, there is a certain sweetness to Richardson’s novel. Perhaps it’s the many references it makes to an idyllic Paris, perhaps it’s the recollection it inspires of Mark Dunn’s wonderful Ella Minnow Pea, or perhaps it’s merely the book’s small size (an hour or two’s reading at most, and, ironically, nicely travel-size), but it does have an offbeat charm.

Richardson also infuses Ambrose and Zipper with certain endearing characteristics—he cannot stand Wuthering Heights, while it’s her favorite book; they disagree about where they first met—to provide a sketch, if not a full portrait, of an adorably eccentric couple. And while Ambrose’s death could not elicit tears from this cold-hearted reader, his last gift to Zipper brought on a sniffle or two.

So in the end, The End of the Alphabet is not a classic. Instead, it’s a flawed but sweet novel, more ordinary than extraordinary. But considering its premise—ordinary, flawed but sweet people in extraordinary circumstances—maybe that makes sense.

by Chris Barsanti

16 Nov 2007


So, the National Book Awards for 2007 have finally been decided on, giving us now very little time to scour through reviews of the winners in order to pretend as though we’ve read them (one has to have some conversational gambit, besides the price of Manhattan real estate and whether to donate to Clinton or Obama, to fall back on at all those fabulous cocktail soirees cluttering up the evening calendar, doesn’t one?). There are four winners—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and kids’ stuff—and I can only honestly speak to two of them.

The winner for fiction was Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which I considered recently in a review elsewhere in the PopMatters voluminous book reviews section. According to myself, “This is a novel drunk on the power of language, which is a critic’s way of saying that it’s self-indulgent, madly so.” It’s also a critic’s way of having it both ways. For a real laceration of the book’s sloppy pretensions, read B.R. Myers’ contrarian review in the new Atlantic; he’s not entirely right but when he says about Johnson that “He is often called “a writer’s writer,” with the customary implication that this is far better than being a reader’s writer”, he’s far from wrong.

As for non-fiction, Tim Weiner’s massive, horrific CIA history Legacy of Ashes took home the gold, and it damn sure deserves it. I spent far too many words arguing just that in a PopMatters feature here. There were winners for poetry and books for kids, as well, but honestly, who has time for such things?

All of this is a way of skirting the biggest issue which seemed to arise from the festivities the other night, as reported by New York‘s Boris Kachka—in other words, why was that editor supposedly feeling up Christopher Hitchens?

by Nikki Tranter

13 Nov 2007


Just in from the New York Times:

Ira Levin, a mild-mannered playwright and novelist who liked nothing better than to give people the creeps — and who did so repeatedly, with best-selling novels like Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys From Brazil—died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 78.

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