Saturday, July 30, 2011
After almost five years in this house the walls had grown dingy and I was tired of the cluttered look in the living room. Fifteen hours of work over two days, plus a bit of agonizing over color choices, and I'm pleased with the results. Were I to describe the aesthetic inspiration for this room, I'd say: a late 19th-century Victorian psychoanalyst's office, re-done by one of his patients.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Primo Levi was a chemist by trade, and a Jew hiding in the Italian mountains when he was betrayed in 1943 and put on a train for Auschwitz. He remained in the camp until its liberation, becoming sick just before the Germans evacuated, and after his oppressors fled with most remaining prisoners, Levi remained at the camp helping other convalescents to survive until the Russians arrived.
Survival in Auschwitz is a remarkable document of a nightmare place. Levi eschews traditional linear narrative to focus on story/essays about characters encountered, hierarchical systems, the Nazi sense of humor, labor for labor's sake, the Babel-like nature of the camp, sickness and mortality, food, and theft. Reading it was a profoundly moving experience.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
I had trouble recognizing Borders when I was there last, but had little difficulty understanding what happened to destroy it. A vast stationary section and huge displays of soft toys and gizmos? Ghastly bland corporate endcap displays with desperately un-hip posters pushing novels which would sell anyway? I hated all that crap, which started in the late ninetees and was brought to Borders by the morons who'd previously wrecked Waldenbooks.
When I joined Borders as a bookseller in 1994 I was given the Mystery section. I knew nothing about the genre, but didn't care. My goal was to take over the literature section and make it my own, and after a few months of shelving F is for Fucksakes I did so. I was able to order multiple copies of whatever I wanted in order to fill displays with books I thought were worth selling, and sell I did. I used to obsessively track the percentage of store totals my section had, and I loved coming in and finding that The Recognitions had again sold out--no other bookstore in town even carried William Gaddis titles! I became a manager and ran the greatest local interest section ever, with an astonishing six tall bays of fiction and history. Borders really gave its staff freedom to push what they found interesting, and that strategy worked.
And then we started getting pre-set lists of what we had to display: front tables and endcap space were sold to publishers who pushed garbage. Our backlist was slashed and we had more face-outs of whatever Steve King or Harry Potter book was most current. Our video section became a joke, and the music store's classical and jazz sections--the premier sections in the entire region--were devestated. The company hired secret shoppers to ensure our displays were accurate and our staff were wearing name badges. Bibelot and B&N opened superstores nearby, and instead of further strengthening what differentiated Borders from the competition, our regional bosses fully commited to emulating them. Immediately our sales plummeted, and I became store manager of a sadly diminished struggling behemoth. After a couple years I went on to other things but maintained a part-time slot at the store to keep my discount before quitting in 2002 for good. The Towson Borders shut its doors and moved up the street to a much less interesting standard retail location, and I became a loyal Amazon convert.
But I'll always think back fondly to my time at Borders. I made many great friends, who turned me on to amazing books, films, and music. I got to share my tastes with a variety of groovy people, and was even sent to Singapore to help open a superstore there. For a while we ran a true destination spot, a vital community center, and it felt good to work there. I was interviewed by local TV stations and radio routinely simply because whenever anyone in Baltimore thought of books or music, they thought of Borders. Every time a celebrity kicked off or there was some scandal, Fox 45 or WMAR or WJZ would drop by for a sound bite. I even ended up in the Sun and the Baltimore Business Journal!
Monday, July 18, 2011
The Emmigrants is a most peculiar book about the Holocaust, because the Holocaust is almost completely absent from its pages. Sebald understands that the enormous complications arising from that most dread event in a most dread century can be regarded largely as problems of memorialization and remembrance. By portraying a series of lightly fictionalized memoirs of Jews who left Europe in time to escape atrocity, he evades the Holocaust not at all: it permeates the text. It's a book of sublime subtlety, and quietly devestating.
And yes, there is a theme here: I'm reading up for a big Holocaust/WW2 Expedition this fall.
So what can I say about Maus? Like many people, Spiegelman has to handle an aging parent with whom he has little in common, and who is often frankly an intolerable jerk. But Spiegelman's father survived the Holocaust, including a stint during the final stages at Auschwitz, and he did so by actively hustling his way through. Spiegelman admires his father even when it's terribly difficult to do so, and these books are a loving tribute to his memory.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
You no longer need longships, war hammers, and shields to do pillage. A few well-placed connections in the downtown Philly power structure will suffice. A friendly journalist or two at the Inquirer, some Annenberg cash, a couple board members at the Phila. Museum of Art, and a $25 billion private collection can be seized and moved contrary to the wishes of its benefactor to precisely the location deemed least appropriate. But for all that, I was neither shocked nor surprised in the least by this documentary. For once a rich Foundation got rolled by the big players; happens to the little guy all the time!
I read Storm of Swords for a couple days at home, then I read it on planes to Miami and San Jose, Costa Rica. I read it in a hotel, I read it on a bus to Cahuita, and in a hammock at a cabin by the beach I read it. I read it at the beach, and on a terrace looking out on Arenal Volcano. I read it on more buses and planes, and as I lay dying from a devestating tropical stomach ailment I fought through another 200 pages to finish it yesterday.
One thing that makes Martin so compelling, and his fantasy series less formulaic, is his willingness to kill off characters you'd assumed were still going to be around at the end. And yet from the ashes of King Robert's fallen kingdom emerge new heroes to team up with the dwindling survivors from Game of Thrones. The layers of conspiracy and the numerous players will plague and delight you, I promise. But this series is a commitment indeed. Nearly 3000 pages done, and another couple thousand to go before school starts? When will I ever complete research for the units next year? Priorities...
Friday, July 08, 2011
one of many up-close and personal wildlife encounters we had on our hike through Cahuita national park. Others? A coati, a raccoon, several lizards, snakes, and basillisks, a multitude of crabs (fiddlers and hermits especially), and capuchin monkeys.