Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Married To The Sea

If our store had a uniform, it would be this. Click above to buy the shirt; it always gets me compliments.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Avatar Creator

We here at Shakespeare & Co. are all big fans of Bryan Lee O'Malley's epic comic series Scott Pilgrim, and are looking forward to seeing the film adaptation by Edgar Wright and starring the inimitable Michael Cera, which comes out August 13. Which ... seems very far away right now. In the mean time, the movie's web site has an application with which you can make yourself into a Scott Pilgrim character. Pretty neat.


José Saramago, 87

José Saramago is dead at 87. I'd only read a few of his books, and I honestly can't say I was crazy about any of them, but I can't deny they had an undeniable power beneath the surface. If you've never read him before I guess the best way to describe them is magical realism (the literati's favorite code for the more declasse "fantasy") crossed with a kind of apocalyptic weirdness. More often than not his books are about hopeless loners struggling against the oppressions of power--which normally I find boring, but from a guy who lived through the Salazar dictatorship, I'll give him a pass. Saramago was the first Portuguese-language winner of the Nobel Prize, but in his later years was remembered more for anti-Israel activism and slightly anti-semitic claptrap.

For a fuller account of his life and works, you should, of course, check out Wikipedia.

EDIT: Alicia just came downstairs to yell at me. "David you are not allowed to write anything about me after I die. 'I didn't really like his books and he was kind of an anti-semite?' You are the worst obituary writer."
Sometimes I feel like I woke up in a body snatchers story in which every human being on the planet is reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo except me.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Blood Secrets, by Rod Englert

Blood Secrets: A Forensic Expert Reveals How Blood Spatter Tells the Crime Scene's Story, by Rod Englert with Kathy Passero. Thomas Dunne Books / Macmillan. $25.99.

Sometimes we get a bunch of publisher galleys and it's hard to work up any interest in any of them. Sometimes one just calls out to me. This book falls into the latter category. I'm a guy who's had James's Principles of Bloodstain Pattern Analysis on my bookshelves for years, so I'm clearly dead center in this book's target demographic. I blew through it in two days of page-turning.

Most of the first half of the book is given over to Englert's autobiography, in an attempt to illustrate how exactly one comes to this line of work. Aside from him being a farm boy and me being from Brooklyn, we have a little bit in common. Like me, he applied to a "big city" police department with high aspirations (he the LAPD, me the NYPD), and like me he was ultimately rejected. Unlike me he continued on applying to podunk rural departments away from the big city to try to make his career in a small pond first. He wound up making bloodstains his life's work and basically made his small, provincial department famous because of his expertise.

There's no special drama or narrative drive here, just a quietly interesting window on the kinds of people who used to make up law enforcement, particularly on the (semi-rural) west coast. Englert's life reads like the back story of a Joseph Wambaugh character from his Choirboys era, circa 1975. But it isn't until page 113, when the book's almost halfway over, that the writers get around to saying "here are some ... bloodstain fundamentals, along with the basics on bullet trajectories and wound patterns." Wait, what? Chapter one! Chapter one! This is what we came for!

Well, sort of. It turns out the real meat of the book is not in dry scientific tables and formulas, but in in the many, many case studies Englert provides from his files, with names like "The Pizza Boy's Missing Body" and "Sledgehammers and Finger-Pointing". He emphasizes how textbook knowledge can only take you so far, and how a rounded education on the subject is only possible with direct, first-hand experience with real life crime scenes. In case after case, he describes crime scenes he found that deviated sharply from textbook scenarios, and flummoxed him and other detectives at first, but which were solved as any scientific problems are solved, with the application of method and reason. And maybe his more interesting anecdotes involve disproving a theory or sussing out the significance of something that turns out to not be that significant after all. It's not like television where everything ends with "Case closed!"--sometimes you are led down a blind alley and things don't pan out. Scientific method, look it up. Like when Englert arrives on the scene to find bizarre and inexplicable semi-circular blood marks on the wall near a bloody corpse. Is it a clue from the killer? No, turns out that's just the kind of mark left when the victim's dog licks most of the blood evidence off the wall before the police arrive.

I could have done without the chapter on celebrity cases. These things must, by definition, already be overfamiliar to virtually all readers via the evening news, and do we really need another re-heating of the OJ Simpson case from yet another angle? I appreciate that Englert wants to play up what a renowned authority he is by going over all the famous cases he's been called in to consult on, but it doesn't exactly make gripping reading. Thankfully that somewhat stale chapter is pretty short.

Other than that? It's a pretty great read if, like me, you have a yen for true crime in your veins.
Books spied on the train today: Dark Summer, by Iris Johansen. The Sublime, by ? Couldn't see. Unfamiliar jacket.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Reading like a billionaire

Last week the Wall Street Journal published this year's iteration of the summer reading list that mammoth financial services company JPMorgan Chase distributes to its clients every summer. It's a little like Oprah's book club. Which is to say, it's for people who have as much money as Oprah. In the words of JPMorgan Chase, the list is designed to "capture the essence of our clients’ personal and professional lives.” Apparently the list has become so popular among JPMorgan Chase Private clients that for the first time they're going to do a winter reading list this year as well.

The summer list: (bitchy commentary is purely a S&Co. added bonus)

On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System, by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. I actually like Paulson when I've heard him speak; too bad this book wasn't on the list five years ago.

The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World by David Kirkpatrick. Facebook is big, right? There like a bazillion dollars to be made there, right? At this point I think FarmVille is worth more than all the actual farms in the United States.

BlackBerry: The Inside Story of Research in Motion by Rod McQueen. Blackberries too, right? The president has one, doesn't he?

Life is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment by Peter Buffett, son of mega-investor Warren Buffett. Apparently for the next gen of millionaires/billionaires a big buzz concern is one's children and heirs and how they make it in life? Perhaps a better title would have been "Life is What You Make it When Your Dad is Worth $47 Billion Dollars".

Written in Water: Messages of Hope for Earth’s Most Precious Resource by Irena Salina. Sez JPMorgan Chase's Darin Oduyoye: “This book was for client’s interest in the environment.” Also known as "How the World is Running Out of Water and How You Can Make Money Off It".

Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden. Oduyoye again: “Many of our clients are reflecting on legacy. On the centennial anniversary of Mark Twain’s death this was a great book to include. It’s about the last five years of his life and what he wanted to be known for. It’s about Mark Twain writing his own history.” Yep. Nothing the super rich like more than the legacy of, uh, men in white.

The Principles of Thai Cookery
by Chef McDang. Rich people buying cookbooks at all, let alone one by a "Chef Mc-anything" is kind of hilarious. If these people can't afford their own chefs, maybe they don't deserve to be on JPMorgan Chase Private's special list.

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
by Terry Teachout. I want to read this. I guess I kind of do culturally sympathize with the ultra-wealthy after all!

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century
by Peter Galassi. I ... I actually like Cartier-Bresson a lot. Okay, rich dudes. That's two.

Fine Wines: The Best Vintages Since 1900
by Michel Dovaz. Since I like obscure reference material, I also think this one would be pretty interesting, if absurdly pretentious. Like Dovaz's hundred-dollar Encyclopedia of the Great Wines of Bordeaux. Come on. That thing's got to be amazing, right?

[Image by User:BrokenSegue taken from Wikimedia Commons.]

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dante's Divine Comedy, Seymour Chwast

It would be interesting to have this be your introduction to Dante, your own left-handed road map. It's an excellent primer. From here, you could level up to the Dante's Inferno video game, replete with Death's Scythe for combination attacks and finishing moves or perhaps, the Holy Cross for projectile attacks. And then, you could graduate to the poem itself. Baby steps!

In my mind, Virgil is leading Guido Anselmi on a tour through the nine circles of Hell. This picture book is all trenchcoats and fedoras, wavy-lined women and staring beasts. Kings, devils, guns, flappers, serpents. In other words, very good. I wonder if any professors will pick it up in time for the fall semester. I can only imagine this would help a lot of people with the cantos.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

It Sucks To Be An Arctic Explorer, And Other Observations

I didn't know much about Dan Simmons going into this one -- his Locus and Hugo award winning piles of genre fiction were sort of on my radar but I hadn't touched any of them. The takeaway from The Terror is that this dude isn't messing around. The Terror is almost absurd in its scale and attention to detail, and pretty bold in its unrelenting bleakness.

Here's the deal: Terror and Erebus are the two vessels of the doomed Franklin Expedition, an 1800s attempt to force the Northwest Passage famous for disappearing with all hands presumed dead. In the real world, Sir John Franklin led all of the men under his command on a futile trip into the Arctic until their ships got stuck in the ice for over a year and they all starved to death.

The Terror is historical fiction that remains faithful to its depressing premise -- plus they're under attack by a yeti. The elements of the fantastic take a backseat to follow the agonizingly slow, inevitable elimination of the crew by hunger, scurvy, and one another. Simmons makes a protagonist out of the expedition's second-in-command, the crass, hyper-competent Francis Crozier (falling in with the historical view that Franklin, traditionally lionized, was an arrogant, overweight waste of time). The monster is, in the grand scheme of things, a sub-plot; which doesn't prevent it from being an evocative, terrifying presence in the novel. The monster is the motive force of the plot, and its ability to introduce crippling tension to the already unrelenting bleakness of the novel is amplified by the sparsity of its appearances.

The real power of The Terror is Simmons's hand at expanding the vaguest historical sketches of the ill-fated crew of the Franklin Expedition -- a cast of dozens -- into full-figured characters, all of whom are absolutely doomed. The Terror is, if anything, an wonderful ordeal to read. The Terror is worth a read on the audacity of its premise alone; it's a thousand pages in which the reader knows every last character has an expiration date, and in which pretty much everything goes from bad to worse to yet worse still, recalling Melville in its scale and Cormac McCarthy in its complete dedication to darkness. So -- yeah. Pretty great.

Monday, June 7, 2010

20 Under 40

Today in their double-fiction issue the New Yorker released a list of "20 Writers Under 40", writers who bear keeping an eye on and who weren't born before 1970 (although the New York Times with hilarious bitchiness released the list before the New Yorker even hit the stands). Reaction around the interwebs, even from book trade people, has mostly been "Erm, who?" The analysis of one commenter on HTML giant has been kinda typical, putting bluntly what most of the other bloggers only hint at:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32 (never heard of)
Chris Adrian, 39; (never heard of)
Daniel Alarcón, 33; (never heard of)
David Bezmozgis, 37; (Natasha was pretty good)
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38; (never heard of)
Joshua Ferris, 35; (tried reading but got interrupted)
Jonathan Safran Foer, 33; (what a surprise!)
Nell Freudenberger, 35; (never heard of)
Rivka Galchen, 34; (never heard of)
Nicole Krauss, 35; (boring)
Yiyun Li, 37; (never heard of)
Dinaw Mengestu, 31; (never heard of)
Philipp Meyer, 36; (never heard of)
C. E. Morgan, 33; (never heard of)
Téa Obreht, 24; (never heard of)
Z Z Packer, 37; (Drinking Coffee Elsewhere or something?)
Karen Russell, 28; (never heard of)
Salvatore Scibona, 35; (never heard of)
Gary Shteyngart, 37; (I’ve heard of and I like this guy)
Wells Tower, 37. (I liked the Leopard story a lot. Plus, he’s the first writer I’ve read to start off a line of dialogue with, “Fuckin’, what about the…” I start many of my spoken sentences with this and he nailed it.)
Other comments range from "too short, too Ivy League" (well duh, it's the New Yorker) to saying the list was an "anti-intellectual (i.e., stupid) concept" (well duh, it's the New Yorker).

Lots of people have complained about the obscurity of most of the list, and the fact that the youngest writer, 24-year-old Téa Obreht, hasn't even published a book yet (although she does have one coming out next year?), while at the same time calling the New Yorker's last stab at such a list ten years ago "eerily prescient". Now, I love to hate on the New Yorker and its fiction section as much as the next guy, possibly even more, but isn't the obscurity the point of this list? If everyone already knew these people, there wouldn't be much point in the list, except to enable a lot of self-congratulation? Don't get me wrong, my conflict in taste with most of the New Yorker fiction crowd almost certainly means I'm not going to seek any of these guys out, except maybe Adichie--I'm constantly hunting for interesting African writers. But I'm going to bet that as tastemakers for this sort of thing, they're probably not far wrong, and ten years from now bitchy literary types will sit around tables in Park Slope bars loudly complaining about the mega-success of wunderkind Téa Obreht and her newest opus, while Jonathan Safran Foer will be considered a dean of American letters. It's the circle of life.

Oh, and speaking of betting! The Griffin Prize winners were announced. The Canadian poet who walked away with a barrel of cash is Karen Solie. And the winner of the international prize ... Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin! Who was my longshot pick. Now I'm wishing I really had put money on it.