Monday, May 26, 2008

The Mystery Guest

For those of you who have never worked in a bookstore, which, owing to the rapid decline of a once vigorous industry, must be most of you, there is a process in the book business know as 'returns'. One of the oddities of our trade is that you can actually return much of your merchandise to the publisher if things don't pan out quite as well as you'd hoped. And in fact, this works to the publishers' advantage as well, because a buyer is much more willing to try something unknown on spec than if he or she had to shoulder the whole risk.

But after a certain interval, inventory must be brought under control and some books, a great many in fact, must go back to their places of manufacture. The period they have to make it in the cold, cruel and increasingly indifferent world shrinks steadily--in our store, for instance, this generally means about six months. Mostly we pull blithely and unfeelingly--it's a tedious and not altogether happy job, and we want to get it over with. But every once in a while, you see something that you really haven't had a chance to get to , and you save it out of the pile, and decide you'll read it, and then maybe help promote it in some way. Usually, you don't end up reading it any more at that point than you did when it first came out, but every so often a book will jump to the top of the pile in this way.

Hence, The Mystery Guest: an account by Gregoire Bouillier. It's a very slim volume, so not at all taxing, and put out by Mariner Books with a gold cover and what I think of as a sort of Jazz age font, which, while attractive, doesn't necessarily work to its benefit because it is a little hard to read. It is an account for the most part of a very specific evening in the writer's life, though the build up to and consequences after are a large part of the text. The author receives a call from an old love who had dumped him without giving him a single reason. Now, out of the blue, she invites him to be the mystery guest at an annual party for someone else. She doesn't even refer to the break up. The author writes an extensive, absorbing analysis of his state of mind as he prepares to attend this party, and what happens next.

If you have ever read Thomas Bernhard, and like him, I am pretty sure you will like this. And there is a little bit about changing a light bulb that I expect to stick with me for the rest of my life, although I would like to talk to the author about his theory on this. But he is French and this is a work in translation, so that is probably impossible. Sacre bleu!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Believer

As may be clear by now, I have access to a fair amount of literary magazines, working at a bookstore as I do. And I may love one or several articles, stories or poems in any given issue. But there is currently no magazine or literary journal I love as much as a whole as The Believer. And this has been the case pretty much from its inception. Originating out of that same group of ultra-cool San Francisco writers that brought us McSweeney's, it is in all senses the distaff side. It's emphasis is literary yet non-fictional, and is edited by McSweeney's founder Dave Eggar's wife, Vendela Vida, along with Heidi Julavitz and Ed Park. Yet to my sensibilities, it partakes of little of the McSweeney's flavor.

The way I start to read an issue of The Believer: I'm working at the front cash register, and Joe, our go-to periodical guy (and also a member of an outstanding Cuban music band, Bailongo), hands me a copy hot off the presses--or at least hot out of the shipment. I jump for joy for a few seconds, ring up a few more sales, and then, in the next lull, start in. I always start at the same place--with Nick Hornby's column, Stuff I've Been Reading. I always want to know what he's been reading, and what he's been doing instead of reading as well. If you've missed the magazine so far, you can still catch up on Hornby's columns by looking at his first collection, The PolySyllabic Spree, or his second collection Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt. Hornby is extremely funny, yet serious about the books he's reviewing at the same time, and that's not an easy feat.

After that very necessary beginning, my wending my way through the thing is pretty much up for grabs. The magazine's index is on the outside back cover, which is pretty much a stroke of genius all by itself. This month, I thrilled to see that there was a new poem by Ilya Kaminsky, who I learned of at his thrilling AWP conference reading in New York this January, and an article about a long time deity in my pantheon, Elizabeth Hardwick. But there is always something like that--things you thought you had discovered they are already on to, and the writers you revere but fear are too old guard for them turn out to be in the next issue. This month, I devoured the Julie Hecht interview ahead of much else I am intrigued by. Hecht has been interviewed quite rarely, given her level of success, and it's a tribute to the magazine and to Hecht herself that this took place,thorny as the conversation was.

I sometimes read the magazine at our information desk, and wonder what the people who haven't heard of this rag must think. That despite our liberal surface, a zealous religious spirit reigns within? Certainly the cover of the magazine does not give much in the way of a clue, although given the illustrations, it would have to be a very odd sort of a cult.

I hope people who would respond to it with the same thrill of getting news they didn't even know they needed to hear will find this magazine. By way of aid, the link is here:

You can read quite a lot on line before you even have to hunt it out.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Finding One's Subject

Purely by chance, my next post will be about a submission to the Missouri Review as well. This one is in the current issue, Spring 2008. It's a lovely, poignant essay by Jarald Walker, and it's called "The Mechanics of Being." It's about his blind father, but it's also about finding your material as a writer, as well as the proper use of that material. Good luck to him, and good luck to us all.