Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Year of Reading Boswell's Johnson pt 2

originally posted at BoswellandBooks

When we last left John Eklund, he was rather ecstatic that he was finally tackling "The Life of Samuel Johnson." I've continued to put it off to another day. I did recently contemplate Stanley Elkin's first novel, "Boswell," which is about a modern-day version of Johnson's biographer. I wasn't even ready for that. So hats off to Eklund:

Reading James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, part 2

My last post on this project, about 250 pages in, was somewhat giddy with the sense of accomplishment that comes with plunging into a fat book about which you are ambivalent and sticking with it. I also made a few observations that struck me about the way bookselling and publishing was done in Boswell’s time, the similarity between Johnson’s early pamphlets and contemporary blogs, and the strangely familiar obsession with ownership of intellectual property that comes across in the book.

Reporting in from page 560 (of 1235, though over 200 of that is back matter and apparatus), I have to say that the going has gotten a bit tougher. Boswell has been credited with producing the template for our modern idea of biography, but it seems to me more a model for a certain kind of biography: the kitchen sink school. Nothing is too small to go unremarked upon- except perhaps the women and children in these men’s lives who, at least through the first half of the book, remain ghosts. And for Boswell, the smallest biographical detail or anecdote about Johnson still seems to call for a footnote to draw the innocent reader into an even more baroque narrative labyrinth. I shudder to think what Boswell would have made of hypertext. His pages would be nothing but hot links.

But reading Boswell’s Johnson is still more joy than chore. I marvel at the extensive documentation. In my job as a book rep, I’m expected to pass along to my presses all the brilliant comments made by the booksellers during our appointments. I struggle to find a surreptitious method to record these so as to not interrupt our flow like some mad scribe. When I give up and decide to just do it later from memory, the flavor is lost. Boswell, on the other hand, would have made a superb rep. Either he has an encyclopedic memory for dialog (and remember, these 18th century people spoke in full sentences- no “I was like’s”), or he had a fantastic imagination. His sourcing is meticulous.

Another important documentary resource that helps make the book so alive is the trove of letters Boswell has assembled. These two men and their vast circle of brainy acquaintances seemed to do nothing but write to each other. In volume, they remind me sometimes of a sustained, urgent email correspondence, but they must have been vastly more time-consuming. And they are vastly more erudite than most of the messages I get and send. As much as a profound early example of the biography form, this is a great monument to the power of a letter collection to make satisfying reading.

The bond between the two men is fascinating. Boswell (Johnson calls him “Bozzy”) was thirty years younger than Johnson, and though there was a distinct sense of mentorship and power imbalance in the relationship, there was also plain love. It’s expressed in such an unaffected way (i.e. “I love you”) that it’s a little startling. It violates our modern expectation of appropriate affection between heterosexual men.

One recurring unpleasantness I’m facing in the reading: Johnson was a jerk. Apparently he was known as a jerk far and wide. Boswell has assigned himself the task of redeeming Johnson’s nasty reputation, but this is not a whitewash. Some of the most entertaining bits are “he said/he said” arguments between the two. Boswell acknowledges Johnson’s frequently appalling behavior, his retrograde opinions, his slovenly personal life and habits. Yet somehow you come away sort of liking the man. He is what we might today call a right wing public intellectual. But he seems to relish taking contrary opinions for the sake of argument, and it’s sometimes hard to decipher what he actually believes. In this Johnson reminds me a little of H.L. Mencken, another right-wing blowhard who many of us love to read because he was so witty and argued so well.

So will I soldier on to the end? I’m in too deep to stop now. But I’m taking a break. There are just too many great fall books piling up and I can’t stand to look at them anymore without wading in. First up: Lorrie Moore’s new novel A Gate at the Stairs, the wait for which has been of Boswellian proportions.- John Eklund

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rose Alley

originally posted at The Front Table

Rose Alley by Jeremy M. Davies

This is one of those small quirky novels that suffer unjustly when reduced to a linear plot summary. But even with a book that’s up to so much besides storytelling, prospective readers do like to know the storyline, so here goes: a somewhat mad director decides to produce a film based on the life of John Wilmot, the ribald poet who was the second Earl of Rochester. Unfortunately for the film crew, but fortunately for the reader, they’ve chosen to do this in Paris, amidst the events of 1968. The book is essentially a compendium of character sketches, and introduces us, one by one, to everyone associated with the ill-fated project- each one of whom is more eccentric than the last.

Davies’ prose is funny, sexy, and relentlessly brainy, but not at all pretentiously so. He has a gift for spot-on, hit-and-run representation:

"Abelard’s baby-face, twisted to a point like stirred pudding. . .”

"…the smell of take-out slinking from the garbage bin."

"Wexler’s posture was Paleolithic: he looked like he’d been curled in a hot wind.”

The writing is simultaneously light and dense, if that’s possible; each paragraph feels as if it weighs more than the sum of its sentences. The narrative has a sort of clinical, distant, formal flavor. By contrast, this makes the deliciously imagined ingredients all the more comic.

The cast members and hangers-on, with their preposterous names and elaborate backgrounds, are uniformly hilarious. And Davies doesn’t stop with the key characters themselves- family members, friends, and spectators are conjured in exquisite detail. Here’s a typical description, of the parents of Myrna Krause, screenwriter:

Her mother Rose was a typist at an insurance company and her father Michael a retired factory worker (car parts). Neither were readers; both were second-generation German-American Methodists; both had been born with stutters that so disfigured their speech that they had as schoolchildren in the same parish learned to communicate with one another by whistling the choruses of popular tunes whose titles contained phrases practical to everyday life; e.g., “What’s New,” “Betcha Nickel,” “Open the Door, Richard,” “I Want the Waiter (With the Water),” “What’s the Matter with Me?,” “Keep Cool, Fool,” “Undecided,” “Oh, Lady be Good,” and, eventually, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me.”

Life was quiet until an anthropologist named Pantry and a piano-playing sociologist with a strong left hand moved in for thirteen months…They wrote a book that no one in town would read, cataloguing the vocabulary of over one thousand five hundred ideo-melodic phrases used in the Krause household.

“Cataloging” is a key word, because in many ways this is a book about classification. The film set, for instance, is not so much designed as cobbled together. The hapless set designer has no budget, and must resort to “collecting and foraging” props and costumes.

"Worse,’ he muses, ‘it was a period film— another layer of abstraction. He couldn’t get just any potato peeler: it had to be a Restoration potato peeler.’”

The book is filled with layers of abstraction, and weird taxonomies of every sort. A meal that takes seventy-two hours to prepare must be eaten in strict order- “food stratified like Aztec architecture.” A character sleeps with his sex partners sequentially, “in size order.”

In the brilliant, tour-de-force final chapter, the film notes of the director are uncovered. It turns out there are thirteen extant cuts of Rose Alley- some filmed, some manuscripts and notes, one just a catalog entry from UC Berkeley Film School.

"Things establish their own categories in time. They resonate, not in a gross natural array, but gratifying to a more discerning sense of order. I wave my hand over my collection, in my mind, and know what belongs with which. It is a basic assumption of scholarship that certain units of information vibrate in harmony.”

If you are overly obsessed with whether a fiction is “true,” this book will either please or annoy you. If you are put off by interruptions, digressions, literary blind alleys, and ambiguous meanings Rose Alley may ask an uncomfortably high level of reader surrender. But in a very clever way, Davies has made the connection between the improbable ways that stories arise out of both written and cinematic jumble sales, and you’re unlikely to read a more stimulating meditation on truth, literature and movies this year.

"What a strange, you’d have to say avant-garde sort of thing even the dullest film was, being in form- as we all know- a series of incoherent fragments, sorted through and soldered together with dreamy nonlogic, so that no gaze remains aimless, no gesture redundant: exactly the opposite of life.”

Reviewed by John Eklund

Rose Alley by Jeremy M. Davies
Counterpath Press, 2009
Paper, 192 pp., $15.95
ISBN: 9781933996134

Monday, August 24, 2009

Schwartz Bookshop memories

originally posted at Inside Flap Feb 2009

- I was a nerdy bookish fourteen year old and spent hours hanging around the downtown Schwartz Bookshop. One day an older guy cruised me as I looked at some remainders. It was spooky, unnerving, but memorable. I’d never registered the look of desire pointed at me before. Later, I managed that store!

- I was not a great manager. I was only in it for the books, I hated the business aspects. And my staff management philosophy boiled down to Please Love Me. I could never really settle disputes, even the most petty. I thought making a grumpy face would just make people fall into line. But I was mostly good at picking people. They were good booksellers and I liked most of them and loved some of them. Of course, there were some bad decisions. Once I needed a receiver urgently so I just hired the first guy who showed up. An older gentleman, he had a good story about being a veteran and seemed super responsible. But within a couple days it was clear he was an alcoholic, couldn’t open a box, and would disappear for hours. Later I found out that he had “borrowed” money from every bookseller, and booksellers didn’t generally have money to lend. I should have re-imbursed everybody, this was my fault.

- There was one customer who came in every single day and every single day asked the same two questions: 1) what time do you close? 2) is there a tax on magazines? Mainly it was sort of comical but one day I lost it and screamed at him “Six o’clock!!! We closed at six o’clock yesterday, we’re closing at six o’clock today, and we’ll be closing at six o’clock tomorrow!!!” It wasn’t fair, I was taking out frustrations about other customers on him. But I don’t think I hurt him too much, he was in the next day to find out what time we closed and whether there was a tax on magazines.

- I miss the rhythms of those days. Phones ringing like crazy in the morning, the lunch crowd, the quieter afternoons. I miss the regulars. John Norquist, the nerdy bookish mayor! Many others. Some customers knew every bookseller by name and made the rounds greeting them in a ritualized way. Others would come in day after day, week after week, and we’d never exchange a word with them. But a bookseller could mention she’d seen “pop culture guy” on the #15 and we’d all instantly know who she meant.

- Book reps from the publishers would parade through the store on their way to meetings with buyers. It was sort of an upstairs downstairs situation. Some would march right by all the booksellers on the way to these more important things. But others would go out of their way to talk to the staff, invite them out for pizza, find out what they’re reading. As a rep, I’ve tried to model myself on these schmoozers but it hasn’t always worked too well. Social networking of any kind feels unnatural to me.

- Bookselling: it always seemed like the one honorable profession. Maybe the last place in retail where authenticity could be profitable. Maybe that’s not the case any more.

- Most of our books were delivered by Leroy, the UPS man. He was the sweetest, nicest, most consistently upbeat person with a really hard job I’ve ever known. When I get stuck in some road ragey jam, even now, so many years later, I think to myself, “Be Leroy.”

- We had a nerve-wracking, stone-age, 1.0 version computer system that broke down or fucked up constantly. Fixes were always quite elaborate and required late night stays and many floppy disks. Occasionally the genius behind this system would fly out from San Francisco and crawl under the front desk and would take our computer apart. He was sexy, looked a little like Richard Gere, and wore shades while he worked. He made me nervous.

- Once, we had an author signing for a book about local beers and microbrews. The publisher supplied cases of ale. For some reason, not a single person showed up. So the staff got drunk.

- Once, Deeelite was in town at the Riverside and Lady Kier came in to peruse the magazine section. This caused a stir, but not as big a stir as the time Lara Flynn Boyle was spotted in the poetry section.

- Once, some anti-abortionists from Wichita converged on the clinic down the street. For days it was under siege, and for days a bunch of booksellers got up at 4am to join the defenders, who were trying to keep a pathway to the clinic open amid the scary mobs. David Schwartz didn’t allow political expressions in the store - “express yourself with the books you sell,” he’d always say - but half the staff would be bleary-eyed and out of it for the rest of the day. I remember standing in front of that clinic, screaming over and over until we became the words, as if by the force of our collective will we could make it true: THIS CLINIC IS OPEN. THIS CLINIC IS OPEN. THIS CLINIC IS OPEN.
In my dreams there’s a wicked mad defiant crowd like that in front of every great Schwartz-style store in America, screaming THIS BOOKSHOP IS OPEN.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Reading (finally) Boswell's Life of Johnson (part one)

originally posted at Boswell and Books

There are a handful of classics that I've circled for years, intending to read but never quite getting around to them. You probably have a few of your own. For me, one of the most compelling in this genre has been Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. I couldn't even say how many times I've picked it up, considered reading it- I've even bought it a couple times, only to give it away or sell it unread. But still, it calls to me. It was one of David Schwartz's favorite books- hence the bookshop logo, which has now passed down to Daniel Goldin at Boswell Books. "Who is that guy?", people would sometimes ask when I worked at the bookshop, though, thankfully, not as often as you might expect, because I didn't have a very good answer. "Oh, that's James Boswell, who wrote the first modern biography- of the great Samuel Johnson." My boyfriend even dressed up as Boswell (don't tell the Milwaukee Rep we pillaged their prop department for his costume) for the grand opening of the Iron Block store downtown. He knew even less about Boswell than I, but did an excellent impression.

So now that my neighborhood bookstore is called Boswell Books, and now that I'm selling a book on the fall Harvard University press list in honor of the Samuel Johnson tercentenary (sorry, shameless plug: Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson, September 09, $35), the time has come to get serious about Boswell's Johnson. I'm spending a week at our cabin on the Mississippi River with lots of reading time, so I've decided to dedicate myself to Jim and Sam (though of course I brought a shopping bag full of alternative books in case I don't make it. I have looked at it longingly from time to time.)

Have you seen the size of the book? It's one of those great massive Penguin Classics, 1245 pages. It was published in 1791, and at first glance seems impenetrable. Smallish typeface, oddly archaic stylistic flourishes, many long poetic digressions, tons of footnotes (more on that later), and appendix upon appendix. This is not a book for the literary faint of heart. But I've made the plunge, and though a mere 185 pages in, I can file a brief report from the front. (And these notes must be taken as tentative until I actually finish. Daniel chides me for so often raving about a book, demanding that he drop everything and read it when I'm on page 25, only to turn against it by page 200.)

So here are my first three impressions:

1) The structure begins to evolve from your enemy to your friend as the book unfolds. The notes in the back are actually helpful- there's a glossary I discovered (100 pages in, I should have seen it earlier but I was afraid to go back there) which explains each and every personage who is mentioned. There are hundreds, impossible to keep track of them all. And the footnotes, though elaborate and long, can either be ignored, or, once you start paying attention, read with pleasure as well. They remind me very much in places of David Foster Wallace's digressions in Infinite Jest. Boswell can't leave a single thread unpursued. Did I mention that this is a very funny book?

2) Gee whiz facts: booksellers used to be publishers! Much of the work that Johnson published in the mid 18th century was a result of cutting deals directly with booksellers, who paid him a flat advance and then printed and sold the books. If his costs outran his advance, as they often did, too bad. Also no agents. Johnson had a series of publications, issued once or twice a week with names like "The Rambler" and "The Idler," that were shockingly akin to present-day blogs. A reader would subscribe to them, they were published several times a week, and he'd receive them by mail, which was delivered several times a day. The "postings" (that's what they seem like) were about everything and nothing, whatever popped into Johnson's very smart head that day. They were raw and unedited, and he bragged about not even reading them after setting them down. Like most bloggers, he had to push himself to keep feeding the beast. "This year I hope to learn diligence," he noted once in a diary, and another time "I bid farewell to Sloth!." Second that!

3) There's an amazingly contemporary-sounding debate about copyright and intellectual property ethics. (in one of those dense footnotes, good thing I started scanning them). It's 1759, and Johnson is incensed that he's noticed some of his writing from The Rambler in other, unauthorized publications, for which, of course, he isn't compensated. He's outraged, and warns that "those who have been busy with their sickles in the fields of their neighbors are henceforward to take notice, that the time of impunity is at an end." Sounds familiar.

More to come.....

Victor's vs Mad Planet

I go to Victor’s- I call it “Victims”- and the Mad Planet, and all the black bars. I love black people.

People don’t seem so hung up on the existence of God anymore. They’re existential but it’s not about “does God exist”, it’s more about experiencing urban life.

I don’t change clothes when I change bars. Yeah, when I walk into Victor’s the red power ties say “oh, east side,” but it’s all a matter of conversation. These Victor’s people seem moronic to me, but maybe it’s just my prejudice.

I dress contemporary- too contemporary for them. They’re living in Saturday Night Fever. They’re just looking for sex. At Mad Planet they’re looking for bondage. There’s a bondage fashion show tonight. First prize is free body piercing. It’s a meeting of the subculture. You could be in an underground bar in Berlin or Copenhagen. But there’s probably a bar like Victor’s in Berlin too.

There’s no mysticism whatsoever at Victor’s. These people make money legitimately but at the Mad Planet it’s strictly illegitimate. That Victor’s is like a dinosaur- we got limos, we got roses, we got champagne, we got cocaine.

I’m both. My priority is acquiring. I want a good house but I don’t give a damn about a car. I want to accumulate wealth. I’m Victor’s AND Mad Planet.

I feel more like an insider at Mad Planet. I know the lady who owns it.

I go to Boobie’s on Garfield. For $4.50 you get half a barbecued duck with greens. I feel like the inner city is part of Milwaukee. There’s a cultural life. There’s a bar with a stage where they put on plays. What’s it called? I forgot. Over by A.L. Smith. A. O. Smith? There’s a lot going on.

You don’t see many white people at Tap One or Boobie’s. They’re glad to see me. The Q & F Diner on Martin Luther King right before Keefe has the best dessert anywhere. Sweet potato pie for 95 cents. I buy a whole one. Banana pudding for a dollar. And fish!

I like people. Everywhere I go I talk to everybody. They say Walt Whitman was like that. He was so avant garde.

Overheard @ Webster’s cafĂ©
Transcribed 12-7-91

Five Ways to New Haven (with ghosts)


I caught a 4:45am bus to the Milwaukee airport for my flight to LaGuardia. It was packed with sad, tired, first-shift workers heading to Allen-Bradley. In 1970 my friend Rhonda and I often distributed communist newspapers at the gates of this plant. Comrades working inside told us how happy the workers were to get them, despite the glum blankness with which they were usually accepted. Once, a can of green paint was poured on us from the third floor. Rhonda, enraged, said it was “management, obviously.” Eventually, she moved to Maryland and, so I’ve heard, became a fourth-grade teacher.

Harold & Peter

On the plane I recalled my first flight- to a communist youth camp in Pennsylvania. I was sixteen and had run away. We studied Marxism, sang corny folk songs, and played non-competitive sports. I was shy and said almost nothing, so the idea that I might be a police agent arose. One guy- Harold, from Philadelphia, actually confronted me. “Are you an agent?” he demanded during breakfast. But another guy- Peter, from Boston, said “Leave him alone.” They were all red diaper babies and super-confident. I longed to be one too. Harold and Peter, where are you?

Murray & Esther

In the cab to Grand Central (I am important now, with an expense account), I’m flooded with memories of New York party meetings- like the 1972 convention at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn. I stayed with a quiet, older couple in the Bronx. They reminded me of an alternate universe version of my parents. Each night, after an endless subway ride, they quizzed me about what Gus Hall or Henry Winston had to say. They were honored to have a distinguished delegate for a guest. My Allerton Avenue hosts- ghosts! The St George Hotel- a ghost!


The Metro North station names strike primal sitcom chords: New Rochelle- the Petries! Westport- the Ricardos! I remember a 1973 train ride from Berlin to Moscow, and giant Soviet women passing through each car, fussing and tucking and serving hot tea. Rolf, an East German boy I secretly loved, sat beside me, asking so many questions that I later wondered whether he was recruiting me for the Stasi. As he dozed, his head came to rest on my shoulder, and I stayed alert with the electric knowledge of this all the way to Minsk. Rolf- wo bist du denn?


I disembark at New Haven and walk toward Yale. Dizzy with memory, I’m conscious of arriving at a time as much as at a place. I have a sweet job with a prestigious university press, and now I am mature. But I harbor red ghosts. Maybe I am a red ghost. Sometimes they seem more real than real. As I cross the Green and head up Temple street, I’m haunted by lyrics from Kings of Convenience :

Everyday there’s a boy in the mirror
Asking me what are you doing here?
Finding all my previous motives
Growing increasingly unclear.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Walt Whitman, Specimen Days

It will illustrate one phase of humanity anyhow; how few of life's days and hours (and they not by relative value or proportion, but by chance) are ever noted. Probably another point too, how we give long preparations for some object, planning and delving and fashioning, and then, when the actual hour for doing arrives, find ourselves still quite unprepared, and tumble the thing together, letting hurry and crudeness tell the story better than fine work.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


How do you forget someone when his footprints are all over your life?

The opposite of love turns out to be indifference, not hate.

A decade ago, nothing in the world happened until we had a chance to talk about it. Now, we say hello and catch up if we happen to see each other on the street.

A friendship based on occasional, chance encounters after so many years of exchanging so many words. No! I will match his casual desertion with my own more powerful indifference.

It’s surprisingly easy to avoid someone in the city. But my first attempts at this strategy (“do friends require strategies?” I can hear him asking incredulously) collapsed the last time I ran into him. The gaping blankness between us seemed too unnatural, too hard to sustain. So we reverted to the familiar: the reconciliation coffee, the fast-paced, slightly panicky conversation about everything and nothing, the sensation that I’m unreasonable, the parting without a plan, the “see ya.”

Reality itself depended on the sharing of trivial quotidian episodes- a strange item in the Times, gossip about an acquaintance, a lovely boy on the street. To not exchange these things, it’s more than loss. They don’t fully exist until conjured to interestingness by our speaking about them. The raw experience contains within itself the prospect of the upcoming telling. Event and anticipation are one, and now event alone is chronically vacant, unfinished.

Eventually, the friend years will seem like a dream, over-written by the new, indifferent passer-by years. Eventually, every day without a message will stop seeming like a distinct, stand-alone sadness, and weeks and months and years will zip file into a single loss. Eventually, I will stop stumbling upon postcards falling unexpectedly from old books, with messages like:

Minneapolis, August 28, 1997
Have you read J. Updike short story The City? I haven’t either but I think it feels like today.

Eventually, I will not rush to the library to find that story.