Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Used Bookstore

I love used-bookstores, because I'm a cheap bastard, and supporting authors directly makes me feel all queasy and capitalistic inside; but moreso because they often only carry the 'good stuff' (particularly if in a densely populated area).

It's a bit humbling, of course, when one can't find a single book on their 'to-read' list, it's either the books you want are so sought after that nobody ever sells them; or when they do, they are snatched up; OR, a big OR here, your literary tastes sucks. Which, well, granted, I can't disagree with.

There's that great atmosphere of intellectual expansion in a used bookstore. They got your over-degreed Liberal Arts staff, and over the murmur of some progressive punk band from the 80's you can hear terms like 'Proustian', 'proto-liberal idealization of free-will' and other such heady thoughts that I've never gotten my brain around. But being awash in a limbo of grad students and intellectuals (both pseudo and real) one can figure out where one might stand in the continuum of 'thinkers'. Apparently I fall somewhere between 'guy who has really deep thoughts while getting high in the 7-11 parking lot' and 'Uncle Fred getting kinda poetic and deep about 'Nam right before he gets outrageously racist'.

I know this. I don't want other people to know this, though.

So what if I don't have skinny jeans or know the difference between Hemingway and e.e. cummings (one was a doctor, one was macho as hell, I think) or refer to headphones as 'cans' or have a list of preferences, that, if you were to have any of them, would signal an immediate and irrevocable shunning. I don't wear a blazer with a hoodie and I still suspect Modest Mouse to be a lesser known hero in early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics.

I mean, I'm not that person. But I also have no desire for the general used bookstore population to think it, or, barring that, for them to write me off as some sort of staid, ramrod straight Tom Clancy-idolizing Military Budget-supporting far-right kinda person.

It was with some trepidation that I went to the front counter to get some help. I have, as my previous post can attest, gotten into Patrick O'Brian. So I asked the beardy, ironical t-shirt wearing assistant manager-esque fellow behind the cash register if they might have some. There was a slight pause, as he realized he might be dealing with One of Those Readers (this being a sub-race of readers who read things Slightly Untoward or Crassly Commercial), then he said, 'Oh, you mean those, naval books?'. He waved vaguely around the corner. Naval as in 'military', as in crufty, as in. Well.

I tried to maintain my composure, although the idea to blurt out, "I don't know art, but I know what I like, and that ain't it" while motioning towards his rack of Sandman, did cross my mind. I quietly collected a few O'Brians; then remembered I had some books I wanted to sell. Without thinking I emptied the 10 or so books I no longer wanted. Another staff member, a shorter youngish lady with 'simmering post-doc' written all over her face quickly went through them. In what can only be calculated to lessen the pain of intellectual ostracization, she said, 'These are still yours", pushing 9 books back.

Which is a shame, because I was kinda thinking I'd about keeping the Eggers book.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dude, Brad's Back In Town and He's Getting the Guys Together! Some Things You Might Need

  • an ostrich feather, a small gibbon with a subdued gag reflex, fifty-two dollars in quarters.
  • Portuguese bleach, fishing tackle, Moose.
  • an Esperanto handbook , cinnamon, all outstanding warrants cleared.
  • a recently cleaned gasoline tank, left-handed brass knuckles, an unusually large avocado.
  • gift card for Big N' Tall, two blenders (one hand, one standing), an empty stomach.
  • a zip cord from a WWII era paratrooper, a sony walkman (cassette) with a cheetah print velour cover, two bucks.
  • a strong magnet, a switchblade comb, Diana (who used to be Kent).
  • the libretto to Euridice, an incontinent Macy's clerk, a new car battery.
  • Vaseline, the soundtrack to Quicksilver, a passable grasp of market Hungarian

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Book Review : Patrick O'Brian

If you are red-blooded male of a certain stripe, the sort that likes Band of Brothers and Braveheart in which violence is visited upon bad guys and good guys form the sort of blood-brother connection that we office drones perpetually attempt to re-enact with company wilderness survival courses, whitewater rafting, or an open bar at the Christmas Party; where men of unusual heart and charisma lead other men to their peril, maiming, or worse; if you are, in short, 99% of all men, then I'm sure you've seen Master and Commander : The Far Side Of The World.

It's the story of a small British man-of-war around the early 1800's that has to pursue a much larger brig around South America, guns blazing, storms a-wrecking, men a-maiming. Terror and danger from the enemy, from nature, the tight lashing together of men who must or die. It, like so many of its ilk, hits some raw, primordial nerves, at least in me. Mastodons and hunters and all that.

So that movie, is actually an amalgamation of two books (of twenty) about Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin and their many adventures during the Nelsonic era of naval warfare. They are by Patrick O'Brian, an Englishman who lived in France and who had a predilection for reading source material from the National Maritime Museum for his inspiration. He was also a former intelligence agent and the biographer of Picasso. One of those writers of an entirely different age.

Much has been written about O'Brian, hailed as one of the greatest novelists, let alone historical novelists, of all time. I won't waste pixels going on about that, but about how something so utterly foreign, English 19th century naval dominance can hold any interest to me. I've never been terribly interested in history, or sailing (beyond a puttering a small Lazer around a lake), or the densely archaic language of medicine and biology during the Leeches are A Good Idea WHAT and So What's All This About Evolution Then era.

And yet I am drawn in. But O'Brian doesn't make it easy. He writes very much in that period, one gets the feeling you are reading a Jane Austen book without all the women and marriage business. It's the bit of Austen's novels that chronicles the dashing Lieutenant before he settles down and is pursued by, or pursues sharp-minded ladies buffeted by social pressures, mores, and their own individuality. The bit with the guns and the swords.

Everyone speaks as I imagine they would, not much is explained, not in the way of terms or very strange grammar. It's a bit like a good science fiction book where terms are thrown about, and either you figure it out from context or flounder in the effort. I get the feeling the O'Brian was so well versed that he just mentions things in passing. Thankfully when sea-going technicalities are of the most importance to the plot, O'Brian will expound.

There are quite a few phrases that are endearing in their candour, although through perpetual usage they likely mean no more than a 'sure' and 'whatever' in that time. But to the ears of any modern reader, they have their charm, phrases such as 'never in life', 'with all my heart', 'above all things', 'upon my honour' have pleasant, bare sense to them. Welcome in a modern time of sarcasm and indirection and faux-hip-wink-and-a-nod-kitschy-but-cool, sorta.

It also helps that Dr. Maturin, while also being the ship's surgeon and a naturalist, is also a spy for the British government. He's an idealist and cunning and vastly intelligent. There's ruses and counter-ruses, planting false information and discovering double agents.

Aubrey is jolly and a genius of a sea-men, if a bit dull in other respects. A man of action, of appetite and brimming with all those qualities that sum up a leader. He struggles to climb the ranks of the Navy, and meets fortune, both good and outrageous.

They are tremendous friends, who are so unlike they almost define each other in contrast. Their bound is music, another topic about which O'Brian shows a well-educated mind.

In both the intelligence work and in the direct action of whatever brig Aubrey happens to be in, there is a certain understability to it. That is, if you were to talk of ships today, there'd be AWACs and tomahawk missiles and it would very soon degrade into an appreciation of technology. In the Aubrey-Maturin book, things are so primitive that it's relatively simple to understand things straight away. When Maturin is found out to be a spy in one place, of course he will not be found out in another place because news takes a fair bit of time to travel. A ship that fires guns by being propelled by gunpowder is not far removed from bows and arrows. The differences and the contours that make the battles and intelligence intrigues engaging are human differences that can be grasped instantly.

So many things depend on the better qualities and baser in people. Greed and avarice, shame and pride.

It's a thumping good time, and I've been completely pulled into it. They are all good, but you can't go wrong with starting from the beginning, Master and Commander. I give the series ten broadsides out of ten.