Sunday, 30 August 2009

Don't believe the hype

Friends, if the word on the internets were to be believed (well, the narrow corners that I haunt anyway), Javier Marias's A Heart So White is the most super-fantastic novel that's ever been written, ever.

Maybe it is and I'm just a Philistine but I thought it was walking the edge of being really very bad. I admired parts of this book - in particular, the scene in which Juan, the narrator, meets his wife, Luisa. Both are working interpreters and both are present at a meeting between two major international politicians who can't speak one another's language; in this meeting, Juan is the interpreter and Luisa is the "net", the other interpreter who makes sure Juan is accurately conveying what each politician is saying.

He doesn't; he makes things up, things outrageously unconnected to what they actually say, and the politicians, as a result, begin to say truly interesting things to each other. What makes this scene so compelling is Juan's double perspective - he's both totally engaged in the conversation he's manipulating his uni-lingual victims into having and at the same time entirely aware of Luisa's body language, which is enticingly complicated, as she allows this manipulation to proceed.

Unfortunately, I found nothing else in A Heart So White half so compelling. Indeed, this book was, for the most part, just a slog for me as I continually found myself asking what the point of the narrator's experiences and extremely long and repetitive musings were.

Ostensibly about Juan's slow discovery (through the intercessions of others) of what happened to his father's first two wives, this was actually only really addressed at the very beginning and the very end of the novel. What happens in between I found alternately boring and irritating - and also almost entirely unconnected. To make matters worse, the ultimate revelation of Ranz's marriages previous to his marriage to Juan's mother, was entirely anti-climactic. I was neither shocked nor horrified, nor, it must be said, at all interested anymore.

And to answer your unspoken question, I kept reading just because of that one fantastic scene described above; I was hoping for one more flash of brilliance. But this scene was too good in the end; it simply doesn't belong in the wasteland that is A Heart So White. It must be evidence of chaos theory. If this book can't be considered a good reading experience, at least it can be seen as a good example of science at its most interesting. SCIENCE!!!!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

That Coetzee is a tricky one

It's been a number of years since I've read any of J.M. Coetzee's work, in large part because I found Disgrace to be such a traumatizing read (as I was warned it would be, and which warning I ignored). Disgrace was upsetting purely because of the subject matter, which I'm not interested in talking about even now; what made it more difficult to deal with, perhaps ironically, is just how phenomenal the writing was. Coetzee is truly a master of his craft, I can't deny that, even if I've found all his characters in my past reading of his works to be either loathsome or unspeakably pathetic, and neither in ways I could take any real pleasure in.

But pleasure isn't really what I think Coetzee wants his readers to experience even if in spite of all else, we do and must take pleasure in how simultaneously beautiful and coldly concise his language is. So, when Mr. Kevin demanded that I read Coetzee's latest, Diary of a Bad Year, I was hesitant. But as he has a black belt in Cormac McCarthy, I was afraid to say no.

In fact, I was interested to revisit Coetzee now that I'm older. I don't think he's really an author for the young and before Kevin made the suggestion, I'd started to become vaguely interested in discovering whether or not I could engage more with, or at least better respect, what Coetzee does. It seems I could, for I enjoyed Diary of a Bad Year extremely - but it was more than enjoyment, for that's more often a predominantly emotional experience for me. Reading this book was also a deeply satisfying cerebral experience.

The novel's unique structure - three narratives running almost, but not quite, simultaneously from 2 characters' points of view - was absolutely engaging and probably would not have worked in the hands of a less capable writer. The writing was absolutely stunning and to my surprise, it was the main character's essays on various topics (for inclusion in a book called Strong Opinions) that most appealed to me - mostly because they were so lucid and compelling, unlike most essays I've been accustomed to reading. Finally, the story, which while very simple, was likewise engaging.

What's fascinating to me about Diary of a Bad Year is that, Coetzee's characters are no less despicable than usual, but somehow I wasn't bothered by this. In fact, I was actually relieved that he didn't sugar-coat anyone's motives for the reader, even as he allowed them to try to sugar-coat things for themselves. Given that all the narratives were first person, that distinction is quite a feat.

What I also found compelling about this novel, but which I've found irritating about Coetzee's work in the past, is how slippery he is; where he stands in relation to his artistic creation is really quite ambiguous. It's a position that's growing on me. Early in Diary of a Bad Year, the main character, J.C., argues, in one of his essays ("On Al Qaida"), that the incompetent and paranoid prosecutors of many post-9-11 suspected terrorists learned the very basis of their convoluted and logically suspect techniques, the so-called skills that got them hired and promoted, in university humanities courses:
Where did the prosecutors learn to think in such a way? The answer: in literature classes in the United States of the 1980s and 1990s, where they were taught that in criticism suspiciousness is the chief virtue, that the critic must accept nothing whatsoever at face value. From their exposure to literary theory these not-very-bright graduates of the academy of the humanities in its postmodernist phase bore away a set of analytical instruments which they obscurely sensed could be useful outside the classroom, and an intuition that the ability to argue that nothing is as it seems to be might get you places. (p. 33)
Oy vey, it wasn't intuition - as humanities departments have become increasingly squeezed by budget cuts and the need to compete with other disciplines boasting more applied (read, applicable to a so-called pragmatic reality) forms of research, they've actively encouraged students to consider the myriad ways a humanities degree is useful beyond the study itself. I've been on both the receiving and professing ends of such talks because gawd knows, an education can no longer be justified for its own sake. Sigh.

It would seem as though J.C. (or Coetzee) is lamenting Western culture's move away from a more appreciative, less deconstructive (or destructive), approach to the study of literature, etc - and yet, the very structure of this novel, the three characters and their complicated uses and desires for each other, make pure appreciation or something constructive much more difficult approaches to take with this novel than with something like, something like a Dickens or Eliot novel.

It would seem that Coetzee sets up a particular problem with reading that has arguably helped to create deeper cultural problems in how humans relate to one another, and then creates a novel that invites specifically that kind of reading, and THEN implicitly challenges us to see if we can resist the siren song and all our reading training, formal and informal, and approach this novel differently! I love it, but I'm not sure I'm capable of meeting this challenge.

I am really pleased that this book was pointed out to me, for I would not have sought it out. Thanks again to Mr. Kevin.

This is also the last book I'll be reading for J. Kaye's Support Your Local Library Challenge. When I joined the challenge, I recall that participants were to choose how many books they wanted to do; I chose 20, which I later regretted a little - you know how allergic I am to either commitment or planning. I've since revisited the site, and the instructions were to do either 12, 25, or 50. I will certainly continue to borrow library books, I can't help it really, but I'm not going to be counting them anymore as this is #12.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The myriad shifts and disguises of its self-centredness

I'm reminded, for the millionth time I'm sure, that I should never, ever make claims about what book I'm going to read next. I recently stated (and meant, with every fibre of my being!) that the next French work I would read would be Dumas's The Three Musketeers - and I've gone and read something that couldn't be more dissimilar: Benjamin Constant's Adolphe (1816).

Adolphe is a very short novel, but in spite of its diminutive size it's considered to be one of the greatest romances of psychology ever penned. And indeed, psychology is the main topic and event in this book, addressing as it does much more the feelings, impressions, and meditations of the titular character on his affair with the grabby yet intoxicating Ellenore, than it does the events themselves.

Indeed, as the editor and translator of this version of Adolphe argues, "...the most typical of French literature are works which plumb the depths of the human character, its passions, its motives, and expose the myriad shifts and disguises of its self-centredness." Because of this, "the characteristic French economical in form, avoiding all by-products or dawdling by the wayside, all merely picturesque effects, all 'poetic' flights put in for their own sake. A uniquely French expression of this ideal is...uncompromising analysis of character and motive" (p. 7).

I recall reading some time ago that the classic Japanese authors (Soseki, Mishima, Kawabata, Abe) of the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries were heavily influenced by the 19th century French authors and I've finally been confronted with a novel in which I can really clearly see this literary relationship. Adolphe, the narrator, constantly and mercilessly examines all of his feelings and motivations in a way which is imitated (but in the highest, least derivative of ways) in the Japanese masters' works. None of it is either light or easy reading but it's all very satisfying, often almost breath-taking reading.

Constant's Adolphe is apparently quite autobiographical (Constant had a suitably stormy affair with the famous Madame de Stael) and this may account for its depth of insight. Whatever the cause, I found myself stopping often to re-read passages that surprised me with their clarity of perception and execution. Describing his early attempts to woo Ellenore, Adolphe describes his difficulties thus:
...I was checked by an invincible shyness. All my fine speeches died on my lips or ended up quite differently from what I had intended. Within me a battle was raging and I was furious with myself.

Accordingly I looked around for some rationalization which would enable me to emerge from this struggle with my self-esteem intact. I persuaded myself that nothing should be rushed, that Ellenore was all too unprepared for the declaration I was contemplating making, and that it would be wiser to wait a little longer. Nearly always, so as to live at peace with ourselves, we disguise our own impotence and weakness as calculation and policy; it is our way of placating that half of our being which is in a sense a spectator of the other. (p. 49)
I'm reminded of how Kobo Abe makes this kind of self-observation quite literal in The Face of Another, but with no fewer psychological consequences. In Adolphe, the narrator does not shrink from the contemplation of the shameful, humiliating, and cruel internal workings of himself or those around him. But he's not cruel, or at least not always cruel; often, he manifests a generosity and kindness that one wouldn't expect in such a ruthlessly introspective narrative (for example, when Adolphe is in mourning and he observes the other mourners around him):
Kneeling in a corner of the room I was part of the time lost in my own thoughts, and part, impelled by an involuntary curiosity, watching all these people gathered together, studying the terror of some and the inattention of others, and that strange effect of habit which brings indifference into all prescribed formalities and makes us regard even the most august and awe-inspiring ceremonies as matters of routine and pure form. I heard these people mechanically repeating the words of the prayers for the dying as though they themselves were never to be actors some day in a similar scene, as if they themselves were not some day to die too. And yet I was far from scorning such practices, for is there a single one of them which man in his ignorance can dare to call useless? They were bringing [the deceased] some peace of mind and helping [them] to cross that dreadful threshold towards which we are all moving without being able to foresee what our feelings will then be. What surprised me is not that man needs a religion, but rather that he should ever think himself strong enough or sufficiently secure from trouble to dare reject any one of them. I think he ought, in his weakness, to call upon them all. In the dense night that surrounds us is there any gleam of light we can afford to reject? In the torrent bearing us all away is there a single branch we dare to refuse to cling to? (pp. 118-19)
What I love about this passage is how instead of condemning humanity for its weaknesses at such a solemn, critical moment as the death of a fellow, Adolphe/Constant represents what a world of consolation is open to us.

Yes, I enjoyed this novel, very much. And I have absolutely no idea what my next French book will be, so don't ask, not even in the silence of your brain, in a locked room, in your city which may be thousands of miles away from mine - because I'm just that easily spooked off books that I might want to read.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

I say, Roddy, good show!

Can I make a scientific claim based only on a sample of two? I would like to assert, in a very science-y and authoritative way, that Roddy Doyle is entirely reliable.

The Van was exactly what I wanted - an easy read, a good story, cracking dialogue. Its dialogue wasn't as mind-blowingly super-fantastic as The Snapper's dialogue, but it was still really good.

The Van was also significantly shorter on laughs than The Snapper but that's okay; it was a more thoughtful, more profound book, and dare I say (if this can make any sense in relation to Doyle), rather a dark book.

This final installment in the Barrytown trilogy focuses on the Rabbitte family papa par excellence, Jimmy, Sr. and his reckoning with being unemployed in middle age. Jimmy, Sr. bears this cross alone until his friend Bimbo finds himself in the same situation. After the requisite time spent goofing off together, Bimbo buys a chip truck and takes Jimmy, Sr. into partnership with him. Both hi jinx and Aristotelian misunderstandings ensue.

It's in Doyle's portrayal of Jimmy, Sr.'s attempts to hold onto his friendship and his view of himself as a pretty flash fella that the darker stuff comes in. Sharon's pregnancy (and how it came about, my god!) in The Snapper was treated very lightly; Jimmy, Sr.'s mid-life crisis, on the other hand, has him walking the edge of destructive behaviours that would really destroy those closest to him were they either fully realized or known.

This novel is a rather more cynical and, I suppose, realistic look at the consequences of one's drunken, enraged, and other negatively motivated actions by far. That said, Doyle's touch isn't heavy, per se - it just seems more thoughtful and maybe more mature than what he was doing in The Snapper.

So, good times all around, even if this post seems rather lacklustre. This is the thing: it's been hellishly hot with the hellish hot heat here this past week and this has not only sucked away all my energy and personality like I just spent 17 hours in the mall or something, but it's also really slowed down my reading. I ended up reading The Van in dribs and drabs because I had to spend a lot of time either lying down staring off into space and wondering why I live in Toronto and the rest of the time slouching un-ergonomically in my chair thinking life would be better on the ocean somewhere. However, the heat made me too stoopid to think about how I might action these thoughts.

Friday, 14 August 2009

The Reading Lamp: is spoon-feeding your baby similar to teaching first-years how to write?

I think I may have borne witness to part of Tony's Facebook argument about whether or not what Haruki Murakami writes is literature, but well before I knew him. You see, I briefly joined a Facebook group called "Haruki Murakami is almost God", not because I think that bombastic statement is true, but because I wanted someone to tell me what the hell Kafka on the Shore was really about. That didn't happen.

Tony could maybe tell me but he's off the clock now so I won't ask. Enjoy his Reading Lamp interview, which was most certainly not completed while he was at work. - Colleen

Your name: My name is Tony Malone, and I’m an Englishman stranded in Melbourne (long story).

What are you currently reading? My main book is The Brothers Karamazov by the wonderful (and, unfortunately, long departed) Fyodor Dostoevsky, but I’m also reading a novel on Facebook, The Man who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, by a man called Dan Holloway. I’ve been reading it for quite a while now, mainly because he only writes a chapter or two each week….

Where are you reading them? Usually on the train to and from work, the only positive side to the hell that is commuting, and I try to fit in a little in the evening (assuming I have any energy left after a day spent trying to teach college students to write and my daughter to use a spoon). However, Dan’s book can be consumed in bite-size segments during work-time… I mean, in my free time.

What is the one book you love so much that you can’t be objective about other people not loving it as well? Have disagreements ever come to blows? I have had a long-running dispute with someone on Facebook who refuses to accept that Haruki Murakami’s work can be classed as literature; it’s come as close to blows as the medium allows! To be honest though, I’m more likely to get worked up about books I detest than over those I like (more on that later).

How do you choose what to read next?
I stand in front of my bookcase, sway gently from side to side while I think about which of the myriad unread books I should pick up next, and wait for inspiration. It usually takes me a while.

If books are part of your working life, how do you maintain a line between reading for pleasure and reading for pay? I work as a Learning Adviser at a college which bridges the final year of high school and the first year of university, so books are definitely a part of my job, but I rarely feel the urge to blog about any of the business texts which come my way (with one notable exception near the start of the year…): Mishima v Management, 5th edition.

What book have you hated so much you wanted to cause it or its author harm?
The Catcher in the Rye – Holden, you are not misunderstood, you are a whiny teenager, and nobody loves you (and for good reasons).

Who do you talk to about books?
The world, or rather that part of it which uses Facebook and does not wish to discuss Twilight. Sadly, my literary conversations tend to be virtual rather than face-to-face. Recently, I have expanded into reading other people’s blogs as opposed to just expecting them to read mine and be grateful for my words of genius – and look where that’s got me. :)

Does the literature of a particular country or region appeal to you particularly?
I lived in Japan for three years, so Japanese literature always evokes memories of my lost childhood (OK, mid-twenties – doesn’t sound quite so romantic though). I also used to live in Germany after finishing my bachelor’s degree in modern languages, so the least I can do after the government paid for me to study German for four years is to use those skills to sit on my backside and read Heinrich Boll novels. Finally, like just about everyone else in the blogosphere, I’m very partial to a bit of Russian literature – and I believe we’re back to where I came in…

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

No human grace

Kobo Abe makes me feel claustrophobic. One of the masters of the 20th century existentialist novel, Abe tells stories of protagonists whose internal alienation from the rest of the world invariably takes on horrifying correspondence in the material world.

The Face of Another tells the story of an un-named chemical scientist who loses his face in a horrific lab accident, but the story's not about the accident per se, for that occurs before the action of the novel begins. Rather, The Face of Another is about the narrator's realization of the metaphysical implications of this loss - nothing less than the simultaneous loss of his connection with other human beings:
The face, in the final analysis, is the expression. The something like an equation by which we show our relationship with others. It's a roadway between oneself and others. If it's blocked by a landslide, even those who have been at pains to travel it will think you are now some uninhabited, dilapidated house and perhaps pass by. (pp. 27-28)
But in fact, it's more than a simple absence of all external evidence of a soul, this lack of a face. It's revolting and terrifying in the most basic, screw with your lower brain stem kind of way. While reading this book, I kept recalling that scene in Pullman's The Golden Compass when Lyra finds Tony (I think) after he's been cut from Ratter, his daemon - she was overwhelmed with horror at him, as I remember, because looking at a person without a daemon was, to her, like looking at someone without a face. I recall trying to imagine what that would mean on a really visceral level and I don't think I was really able to.

The narrator of Abe's novel has to deal with such pity, revulsion, and confusion constantly but none causes him real pain except when it comes from his wife. She is impersonally kind and patient and gentle with him but their connection goes no deeper. And so, to try to rebuild the roadway between himself and the world, but primarily between himself and his wife, he begins creating himself a mask. And because he is a scientist and has access to all kinds of crazy things, he succeeds in building one that's so effective as to be undetectable.

Problem solved? Oh no, now the existential hell begins and the narrator engages in a long (sometimes too long and somewhat repetitive, but also sometimes entirely engaging) meditation on what it means to try to connect with others while wearing a false face, as well as to identity yourself as both distinct from and tied to such a false face.

Reading this novel I was, by turns, tense, terrified, utterly absorbed, bored, confused, and irritated, not to mention feeling trapped in the brain of just one point of view - much like the narrator. In this regard, The Face of Another was successful - the narrator's prison becomes the reader's prison - but for this reason it wasn't always enjoyable. My ability to suspend disbelief while reading is pretty well honed and so there were times at which I felt almost desperate to get out of this internal labyrinth. (I had a similar experience with the last Abe novel I read as well, The Woman in the Dunes; The Ark Sakura I remember being less stressful and more enjoyable, but I'm not sure others would feel the same.)

Feeling overwhelmed at times by the narrator's long contemplation of what faces mean and what he means in a social world, both without a face and while wearing his mask, I found myself rushing at points. At other points, I would linger over great passages which, to me, really got at something essential about how we interact with one another. His wife, having read his journals as he manipulated her into doing, drops this (to him) quite unexpected bombshell: strips the mask from each of us, and we must endeavor for those we love to put the mask on so that it can be taken off again. For if there is no mask to start with, there is no pleasure in removing it, is there? (p. 223)
For him, the only way the mask could function as a restored corridor between himself and his wife was via deception (which I won't reveal the specifics of in case you read this) while for her, this was a complete misunderstanding of what it means to communicate with others. For her, the mask is useful only if it's known to be a mask, so that it may be stripped away to reveal something else.

All in all, I think this is quite a good book. I don't think it's for everyone; it's certainly not for readers who require Happenings, because this book is decidedly bankrupt in that area. But for the philosophically minded, it's a good 'un, I think.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Not that I could have written this in my 20s - or ever, for that matter

Reading Dickens always, at some point in whatever novel I'm focused on, provokes a visceral response in me, usually a painful one. With A Tale of Two Cities, I thought I might go mad with grief and anxiety as Sydney was being carted off to the gallows. It felt so real as to be almost unbearable, but in that pleasurable way that really good novels can be.


In Nicholas Nickleby, I had some visceral responses as well but they were less enjoyable for me because they were tempered by some un-ignorable critical dis-satisfaction.

First, Smike's decline and death. I know that Smike's death is a necessary step in Ralph Nickleby's downfall; I also know that it's integral to readerly comprehension of just how corrupt and poisoned our usurer is. In the face of discovering that Smike is his son and has died in part because of his treatment of him, Ralph remains unrepentant about his hatred for and persecution of Nicholas - this is the ultimate proof that he can't be saved, an interpretation of Ralph's life which is given ultimate sanction in Dickens' decision to have him take his own life.

But Smike didn't die only to facilitate the downfall of the novel's villain. No, he would have had to die anyway, because his love for Kate was so impossible and not, I think, primarily because he turns out to be her cousin. Rather, it's impossible because he's so broken by his life under the loving tutelage of Wackford Squeers that he can't possibly recover enough humanity to be a proper man, and in this surprisingly Comic (in the Shakespearean sense) novel, there is only room in the end for an even number of young lovers who are equally matched both emotionally and socially.

What I'm trying to get at with how Dickens treated Smike is that his function in the text - to show what good eggs Nicholas and Kate are, especially to the Brothers Cheeryble, and to represent both the extent of Ralph's evil and the retributive justice he must therefore suffer for it - were too clearly defining Smike's role in the narrative.

Dickens' purpose for him was just too obvious and therefore the significance and resonance of Smike's life were, for me, too often reduced to that of literary devices. This is a real shame, because initially, Smike seems to represent something quite beautiful in the face of the horrible situation he experiences at Squeers' Yorkshire school: a real ability to love when love has never been afforded to him.

My critical dissatisfaction with this novel was not, unfortunately, confined to Smike. While reading Nicholas Nickleby I frequently felt the urge to punch Ralph Nickleby in the face. You would think that this would reflect favourably on Dickens for having created a character so convincing that I frequently found myself imagining treating him as though he were real (a real asshole that is). But that's not really it. You see, I also wanted VERY (indeed, much more) frequently to punch Mrs. Nickleby (Nicholas and Kate's mother) dead in the face (to borrow Raych's phrase re: Philip Pullman).

Mrs. Nickleby was, to me, if it's possible, even more annoying than either Austen's Mrs. Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) or Emma herself. She was such a horrible cliche of the idiotic mother reflecting badly on her perfect children that I felt like throttling her; but really, I felt like throttling Dickens for having created such a one-dimensional harpy that annoyed me so much I wanted to stop reading at points.

All this said, you may be surprised to learn that I still really enjoyed this novel. Dickens' writing, for me, is always a joy to immerse myself in; as well, I liked many of the characters and wasn't always irritated by how un-subtly Dickens employed them. It's just that Nicholas Nickleby is so obviously the work of a writer much younger and perhaps less thoughtful than the writer who, 20-25 years later, produced A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend. But it's still brilliant because it's still Dickens. That isn't really a tautology; I'm willing to read something by Dickens and discover I think it's terrible and not feel the need to justify it in any way; it just hasn't happened yet.

I don't think I'm being very articulate here, and I often feel as though when I try to discuss why I like Dickens, language begins to fail me. Instead of worrying about it, I'll just conclude that perhaps it's best that I didn't try to focus on Victorian literature in graduate school as I seriously considered doing; my thesis would have ended up being just one big, lame love-fest, e.g., "Chapter One: Why Dickens is totally awesome," "Chapter Two: More on how Dickens is so kick-ass," and "Chapter Three: Why Dickens would be my boyfriend if he were alive today."

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Sarazens head without New-gate: It's still a retail job

I think I'm well overdue to devote a post to life in bookstoreland, hey? Even though there have been only a few Sarazens head posts, I think it's about time to disabuse you of your notions about the complete serenity of manning a bookstore all day long.

Yes, I sometimes get to read or nap on the job, and yes, I sometimes get to have great conversations with customers about books. But you know that guy in line at Starbucks who smells bad and who's yelling at the cashiers for moving too slowly? He shops in bookstores too.

Someone needs to get some lessons in anger management
Recently, a woman came in and spent about 45 minutes looking at one of these flaky new age books we sell so well to people in Alberta (not sure what that's about). After the 45 minutes, she asked, were she to buy the book, whether or not she could return it after a week or so if she found it wasn't the right thing. I said no, that 24 hours was the best we could do (not a generous policy, I realize, but the previous owners instituted it because so many people were trying to get things refunded after a week or more).

Upon hearing about the 24-hour thing, she immediately started screaming at me that this wasn't fair and what if she spent that $14 for nothing?? I responded quite calmly that I was sorry, but this wasn't a lending library and she could spend the next 4 hours before we closed looking at the book in one of our comfy chairs to decide either way on the book. Her response? "You arrogant fucking bitch! You're going to have a really fucking hard time in life and I'm glad! Fuck you, bitch!" She then threw the book on the floor and stormed out. She didn't fail to hear me laugh at her tirade, however, and slammed the door so hard it sounded like it broke (it didn't). The book has recovered, and is now waiting for that special someone to come take it to its loving, forever home in hippie-land.

Did you really just tell me that I don't know anything about Shakespeare?
Granted, this particular crazy woman didn't know that I have a PhD in the Shakespeare, but she didn't stop talking smack even after I told her. Last week, I was quietly minding my bookish business when a young woman came storming in and asked me, quite angrily, if I knew anything about Shakespeare? I informed that her that I could lay claim to some knowledge in that area, yes.

She then proceeded to inform me that all of Shakespeare's plays were co-written by a woman, namely Virginia Woolf. Apparently, Shakespeare often got tired and lost his writing mojo and she had to finish what he started. She knew for a fact that Woolf was the co-writer because she wrote a book named Orlando and there's a character in Twelfth Night (actually, it's As You Like It, crazy girl!) named - ORLANDO! She also knew that the co-writer was female because, she informed me, Ophelia means "help me". Now that's a thesis statement if ever I heard one, but one designed to earn you not a grade, but rather a punch in the neck.

At first, I tried to speak gently and reasonably with her about this stuff because clearly, she had some kind of mental issue (the clearness of it coming from her manner rather than what she said; I'm sure many people have no idea when either Shakespeare or Woolf lived and that's no biggie in my view if they're not either an English literature student or an insatiable reader - she was really twitchy and bug-eyed is what I'm saying).

But when she wouldn't listen to anything I was saying and just kept screeching about our man Willie as the co-author of our woman Ginnie, I lost my patience a little and asked her rather abruptly, "Have you come in here for anything besides talking mush about Shakespeare? Because if it's just about the mush, I don't have time." She immediately snapped out of it and asked if I had a copy of The Time Traveller's Wife. Which, based on her ideas above, made me think that maybe she believes this is a how-to manual and not a novel (and now a movie).

Can I call the double-A for you?
This is a sad case I can't make fun of. But it does highlight the fact that bookstores are retail environments through and through because yo, this won't happen to my husband at his hyper-securitied up office.

A few weeks ago, a woman came in with a bottle of what appeared to be Diet Coke. She took her time and gathered together a honkin' stack of books and then betook herself to the comfy chairs in the back. Upon her sitting down, I heard her open a can of something, which I found weird, what with the bottle of pop already on the go, so I started walking towards her to see what was up. She immediately spilled the canned pop everywhere as she drunkenly tried to pour it into the bottle, which I now know was not housing pop, or not only pop. She staggered to her feet, slurred at me that she was sorry, and handed me the can.

Whereupon, I informed her she must leave post-haste and not return. Meanwhile, a lovely pair of teenagers took it upon themselves to begin moving the boxes of books that were in the path of the expanding pop river on the floor. God bless 'em!

On her way out, poor drunk lady fell flat on her arse without the help of the many piles of books around; indeed, she managed to do it in the clearest place in the store. Sigh. I hope she'll figure this out before it kills her to death.

The fires of hell
People come in and try to make me a Christian all the time. Sometimes it's benign, e.g., someone comes in regularly and sticks pamphlets about Jesus everywhere (I still don't know who it is; they're crafty I guess; in any case, I think it's kind of funny). Sometimes, people come in to try to talk to me about it and when I say I'm not interested, they look disappointed but take it in stride.

But once, very soon after we took over the bookstore, this guy came in and started giving me his whole brimstone speech. He was loud to begin with but became much louder and more aggressive as I tried to tell him I was fine, thanks, but no. He was going on about the tortures I was going to experience in hell and he had crazy manic eyes on top of the voice. I was starting to get scared so I pulled on my super-aggressive face and told him to leave, which he just ignored and kept going, but even louder and with more violent gestures and the crazy eyes. Just at that moment, the meter reader guy came in and he happened to be 6'5" or so AND he happened to feel like being manly for he sent that guy packing with threats of his tall guy boot ending up in the other guy's hell and damnation ass. Phew. I was getting ready to call the cops.

Apparently, someone else owns this store
There's a crazy talking-to-herself lady that comes in sometimes and who I am now totally terrified of. The first time she came in, she just talked to herself but was pretty well put together. The next time, she was all dirty and her hair was matted. She said to me, I shit you not, "My other personality, who owns this store, tells me you have such and such a book." I was disconcerted but thought maybe she was kidding. I looked up the book. We didn't have it. I told her so. And then I knew she wasn't kidding for she looked at me with so much loathing and malevolence that I started to quake; she then informed her other self that "The lying bitch says she doesn't have it!" and muttered angrily to herself for awhile. Again, I got ready to call the cops but the other self took pity on me, I guess, and took her out of there.

Of course, these are extraordinary events; the everyday form my life here takes is that of quietly selling things like The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter books, and generally remaining in a mutually molestation-free relationship with the people who wander in. But the encounters described above make my bro's advice to run my store like the guy in Black Books quite compelling. Here are some snippets on the YouTube if you're not familiar with Black Books.

Oh, and I have to make change a lot. That's part of having a retail job. A BIG part.