Tuesday, August 13, 2019

On Bookstores and Websites

[Dusting off this old blog, because my rant got way too big for Facebook]

Yesterday, this article found its way into my inbox.

To which the (extremely good) writer Maggie Stiefvater posted this reply.

And I agree with the premise of both articles. Yes, Independent Bookstore websites should be better. Yes, let's think outside the box when we redesign the websites and not play Amazon's game because Indies will always lose a game played with Amazon's rules.

But I have questions:

Who will pay for this?

Booksellers mostly get paid minimum wage, yes even the ones who do the perceived "extras" like organizing events, managing the shop floor or buying the books.

Computer programmers (even code monkeys) get paid roughly 4 times what we make. I know this because I live with one (a programmer, not a monkey).

Are there computer programmers who work in bookstores? Probably a few, but enough to make every store's website different? I doubt it. We simply don't have the staff skills to make these huge changes specific to our individual stores. And if we did, we'd pay for them poorly. If you pay peanuts, you get code monkeys.

Couldn't the ABA just..?

Ima stop you there. I love this idea that the American Bookseller Association is a knight in shining armor who can ride in and solve our every problem. But it's important to remember they are a *Trade Association* in *America*, which means 90% of their time and resources goes into lobbying the corrupt government. They're up to their necks in health care and tariffs and daft local laws which are well meant but ill-thought out.

Co-ordinating massive changes to their off-the-shelf website system which basically works, is the last thing on their minds.

And even if they could find the time, who would pay for the updates to be made? Maybe *some* bookstores who are forward thinking and can afford to pay into the pot for the update get the update? But what happens to everyone else? If the ABA did this, they'd be accused of favoritism.

Meanwhile the trade association represent the store owners, not the staff. Any solution they come up with will mean more work for those earning minimum wage. It will be presented as a fun challenge, but it will still be work for me, not the store owner. What we need is a union, but that's a different rant.

Isn't Amazon already working on this?

Oh yes.

You know when you go to a website to buy something and a little chat box pops up in the corner with Joann in Missouri saying "How can I help you today?" Well, here's an ugly truth. That's no longer just an AI, or someone with a limited grasp of English. It's probably a person and they're probably called Joann and they're probably in Missouri. Incredibly, this is what my programmer husband does. He creates the software which makes it possible for customer questions to be answered partly by AI and partly by "experts". These experts are real people, who are experts in their field making a few bucks on the side in this gig economy by answering questions about garden sheds, or X-box installation or books.

No-one is doing this with books yet, but they will. And the first company to buy it will almost certainly be Amazon or possibly Barnes & Noble, because that's the real competition for Indies now that they're run by the Waterstones CEO.

The software is still in development, it doesn't always work, but it's just a matter of time.

But couldn't the ABA..? I refer you to my previous question. Plus, who would pay the experts? Publishing companies? That would make the experts biased. Bookstores? If they could pay their staff a living wage, they would.

So, it's all doom and gloom then?

Ha! You've met me.

Technically, yes. Fighting Amazon, B&N, the oligarchy or indeed progress is always a losing battle.

However, Independent Bookstores are already *so much more* than places you can buy a book.

Bookstores exist, despite the twisted capitalism that works against them because people like me see how important they are to the community. They are meeting places for young parents at story time. Safe spaces for the lonely. A haven of culture in the barren wastes of the suburbs. Tourist destinations (I'm looking at you City Lights). Education facilities. Teacher resources. Cafes. Newsagents. Event planners. So. Many. Things.

My personal belief is that Bookstores, should all be non-profits. Yes, every single one. Then perhaps some tech company in SF could run a charity hackathon and code our websites for us.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Book 11 of 100 in the Great American Read list.

The Giver was a hugely influential novel at the forefront of a cultural shift and it set the scene for the dystopian genre to explode in volume and popularity. Outside of that context, there's not much else to recommend it.

What’s it about? Jonas lives in an idyllic but uninspiring community, where he is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memory. He will train with the old Receiver, who will now be known as The Giver. The Giver physically transfers ancient memories to Jonas. Memories of war, starvation and grief, but also sunshine, joy and love, none of which exist anymore. Then he discovers that when a person is “released” from the community, they are actually put to death with a lethal injection and Jonas has to escape from the shallow feeling community. He hopes that his escape will force people to shoulder the burden of the memories themselves.

The Giver is an allegorical tale intended to challenge young minds to think critically about the world around them and ask whether all is as it seems. And that’s why it’s on the list. The book has been taught in middle and high schools for a long time. For many Americans it’s the most complex book they’ve ever read and certainly the most complex one they’ve ever studied.

And maybe the book is really deep, if you’re twelve years old. It’s certainly shocking to some people, these parent reviews from Common Sense Media show some parents who believe the book to be promoting child murder. Which displays a depressing lack of critical thinking skills from the grown-ups.

Is it any good? Well, no. The world building has issues, there are inconsistencies, mysteries and the necessity to portray the community as dull, makes for some uninspiring and dreary chapters.

The book is sparse on detail, there is no explanation of how the community came to exist, or how the science works that suppresses their feelings to the point that they cannot see color. How do they control the weather around the town? Where are the animals? How do you transfer memories to someone with a touch? Why doesn’t it work on everyone? How does a Receiver just shed memories with distance? And how do the memories “go back” to the people of the community, who never had them in the first place?

A similar annoyance for me was the concept of “Precision of Language”. If the community is invested in using precise language and they have no books or memories of any community other than their own, then why do they even have words like “love” and “starving”? It doesn’t seem very precise.

Nor does it seem so bad in this dystopia. Everyone is safe, content, well fed and industrious. Very few people want to escape this emotional lock-down because they don’t perceive it. This isn’t The Hunger Games or 1984, no-one is oppressed. Yes, some rule breakers, non-thriving babies and the old at the end of their lives are “released”. But in the real world babies and elderly people die of neglect every day and there are thousands of people in American jails awaiting execution. Don’t get me wrong, the father who kills the newborn baby is horrifically psychotic. But the elderly all seem happy to have a celebration of life party and be released.

I think I am too old for The Giver. I have too much experience of real life, of how this genre of stories work and of human weakness. Plus, there are just better built dystopias these days.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Book 10 of 100 in the Great American Read list.

Bless Me, Ultima is Magical Realism in its purest sense. Magic, animal spirits, dreams, folk legends, gritty circumstances and wonder. But Magical Realism is a distinctly Native American and Latin American genre, I was nervous about reading this book, I thought it would be alien to me, so far outside of my own experience that I wouldn't understand it.

So, I worked hard to understand context and imagery, and it was worth it. Stopping to look up translations of phrases in Spanish was an education in itself. I also read a children's book of folk tales from New Mexico, which helped me learn more about the imagery, but also about the route of Fairy Tales from the old world witches to the new world brujas.

I was talking to a colleague about Bless Me, Ultima and had cause to say the word Chicano out loud for the first time. Before I read this book, I didn't realize that Chicano was any more than a racial slur. Because that's the only way I'd heard it used. My colleague (who considered herself Chicana when she was growing up on a farm outside Sacramento) explained to me about how that identity became synonymous with the Chavez labor movement. All this was American history I didn't know before. But I do now.

Antonio is the young son of a poor Chicano family in New Mexico during the second World War. His mother brings a local wise woman and healer (or curandera) into their household and trouble follows her. That trouble is particularly hard on Antonio who forms a strong, but wary connection with Ultima because his intelligence and empathy leave him open to her magic. The book shows us Antonio's coming of age as a part of the constant struggle between ancient and modern religions as well as the struggle between the two parts of his personality, the wild and free vaqueros like his father and the gentle domesticated Lunas like his mother.

There are some surprising parallels between The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Bless Me, Ultima.
Superstition and tales of ghosts and witches are key elements in both stories. There's a real sense of physicality of children, as both Antonio and Tom experience things by doing them. Both Injun Joe and Jason's Injun are ominous portents. Both the protagonists witness a murder while they are young.
And the presence of the river is an important backdrop, in some instances, even a character.

But the differences between these two books are massive and perhaps more telling. For Antonio, the superstitions are true. Ultima really is pulling a curse out of his uncle Luca, the owl really is her familiar. The murder affects Antonio enormously and he's much more empathetic than Tom.

Why is it on the list? Most likely because it's the earliest example of a successful novel about the Chicano experience. This makes Bless Me, Ultima much in demand for multicultural studies and world literature classes. But it's important to remember that the book originally sold by word of mouth within Chicano communities.

Ishmael Reed wrote in his preface to Conversations with Rudolfo Anaya that:

"It was published by Tonatiuh International Inc., in Berkeley, California. It has sold 80,000 copies without a review in the major media."

If ever there was an argument for "own voices" publishing. Bless Me, Ultima is it.

There's a section in the middle of the book where Antonio and a few other boys are snowed into the school and with the help of a sympathetic teacher create a chaotic nativity play. It's a strangely comic interlude, which most likely serves to remind the reader that Antonio is still a child. The "chaotic nativity play" could well be described as a genre of English comedy. From Joyce Grenfell to Nativity! there's plenty of comic mileage in the English tradition of every public elementary school's annual production of the story of the birth of Jesus.

Bless Me, Ultima could easily have been too alien for me to comprehend, instead it both taught me something new about America and reminded me that within the vast experience of America there is some commonality with my own experiences. And that makes it a very good book indeed.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Book 9 of 100 in the Great American Read list

When I first came to America I thought there were probably a few books I could read that would catch me up on American Culture 101. I started with Leaves of Grass but found it pompous and self-important. Then I wandered around novels set in Five Points in the late 1800s, because sooner or later PT Barnum made an appearance and he seemed more American than Walt Whitman. Then I discovered Tall Tales, the folklore of America and I was deeply satisfied. Here was a whole genre of simple stories that proved my theory that all Americans are con-artists and tricksters who want to steal your time and take your money.

Needless to say, ten years later I've tempered that opinion somewhat. The more Americans I meet and the more states I visit I get a wider understanding of the American character and the diverse nature of the population. Now I would say that only most Americans are con-artists and tricksters who want to steal your time and take your money.

Which brings me (eventually) to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer a book about an idealized childhood that feels more like a series of Tall Tales plucked from the clean Missouri air. When Tom sells his classmates the privilege of whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence, it reads like a morality tale, a fable or at least a story you’ve heard before.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the story of a boy and his friends spending the summer getting into trouble and tricking the unwary. But there's also a darker story here. Tom witnesses a brutal murder, fears for his life, identifies a murderer at a trial, gets lost in a natural cave system with the killer for three days and finally sees him brought to natural justice by being sealed into the cave to starve to death. I read this book as a child and I didn't remember that it was a psychological thriller. I just remembered the funny bits.

And yes, it is funny. There were countless times I smiled while reading and when Twain breaks the fourth wall in order to draw a curtain over the consequences of Tom's failure to know any scripture I actually laughed out loud. Twain builds up the tension and then pops that balloon with a careless style. It's also a dashing adventure story, a sappy romance and a morality tale. Only in a Mark Twain book would a vagrant child turn down a fortune in gold because he doesn't want to wear shoes.

Why is it on the list? Other than the moral of the tale being that the wily and immoral will always prosper. There's also plenty here that venerates childhood and idealizes nature. Tom Sawyer is a soft focus version of the pick-pocket urchins of Charles Dickens. More beautifully atmospheric and less premeditated.

Another thing that stood out for me is the theme of superstition, some which Tom invents and some which he actually believes. He or his friends are scared of ghosts, witches, ha'nted houses, howling stray dogs and starting an enterprise on a Friday. There's a whole chapter about how a dead cat can cure warts if you say the right words over it. Of course, Twain's point here is not to venerate superstition, but to hold it up to ridicule, but he certainly has plenty of material to work with. I was reminded of the difference between Halloween in America, where it is a huge and excitable candy sprinkled festival of fear and Britain, where it is a gloomy night.

Mark Twain is a legend himself. A giant mustachioed epigram generator. A satirist for all time. A true American iconoclast. It's a wonder to me that this pillar of satire hasn't crumbled. After all, the book continues to be banned or challenged for it's racist language. And the presentation of Native Americans as desperate barbaric murderers is pretty uncomfortable reading. Perhaps there really is an American tendency to venerate the confidence trick. After all, there's a con-artist in the White House right now and he isn't the first.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Book 8 of 100 from the Great American Read list.

In my early teens I read as many novels by Agatha Christie as I could get my hands on. I had spent my childhood reading Enid Blyton books from the 1930s and 40s, so the old fashioned language and archaic social attitudes were comfortably familiar to me. The public library had a seemingly endless supply of Agatha Christie books and although I never managed to read all of them, I think I’ve certainly read more than 20. Every one of these polite murder mysteries surprised me with the big reveal. Each time I thought I knew whodunnit, but then my choice of villain would end up as the third corpse. Over the years I’ve always believed that thirteen-year-old me must have been the perfect Agatha Christie reader.

Fast forward to today and I just reread And Then There Were None. Once again I happily devoured the book and once again my best guess at the murderer was still the third victim. Yes, even though I'd read it before.

In the interest of not spoiling an exceptional story, I will tell you only this. Ten strangers arrive on a remote island and are picked off one by one in the manner described by a morbid nursery rhyme. There’s a Colonel, a governess, an undercover cop, a few servants, a retired judge, a surgeon, a colonial sort, a religiously fanatical older woman and a playboy. The murderer could be any one of them.

And Then There Were None is widely believed to be Agatha Christie’s best book and she was justifiably proud of it. This is from her autobiography which was reprinted in the edition I read:

“It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been.”

I think it’s a wonderful book, maybe not a work of genius, but certainly a pleasure to read. The plotting is done on a knife edge where every second counts and every flourish of the murderer is exactly meaningful. The language is straightforward, which adds to the readability but underneath that simplicity are characters who are much more complex than the cliches they first appear to be. Meanwhile, the structure makes my head spin. Ten characters, each under equal suspicion must be satisfactorily introduced, suspected and killed. It’s quite an achievement.

Why is it on the list? Well it turns up on lots of lists of the best mystery books of all time and it usually ranks quite high. There’s this NPR poll from 2010, or you could trust the Mystery Writers of America. But the popularity of And Then There Were None is far from just an American phenomenon, the UK Crime Writers Association also rate it highly. According to Wikipedia it has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. And it’s been made into countless tv shows, movies and plays. This is a very popular book all over the world.

Have we found the perfect book to bridge the Atlantic? Well, there is a notable difference between the early UK and US editions, which bears some examination. When I first read this book as a teenager, it was called Ten Little Indians, the island was called Indian Island and the nursery rhyme was Ten Little Indians. But the earliest edition was even worse, in 1939 in the UK, the book was called Ten Little Niggers and the name of the island and the rhyme matched the title. The following comes from Wikipedia.

“Both of the original US publications changed the title from that originally used in the UK, due to the offensiveness of the word in American culture, where it was more widely perceived as a racially loaded ethnic slur or insult compared to contemporary UK culture, and because of the pejorative connotations of the original blackface rhyme.”

I often say that American racism is different to British racism and this is a perfect example. The term is simply more pejorative in America where it was widely used as an aggressive slur for so long that it's now a forbidden word. In the UK, it wasn't widely used that way until we learned about the usage from Americans. I'm not saying there isn't racism in the UK. For example blackface performances were popular on television until 1978.

And one last thing. Christie uses Americans as a shorthand for eccentric decadence. The previous owner of Soldier Island is an American millionaire whose parties are so extraordinary that the locals think nothing of cutting off shipments to the island as “an experiment in survival”. Americans are apparently wealthy, carefree and unpredictable. A national characterization which is still easily found in British literature to this day, even though it’s decades out of date and was never entirely true to begin with.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Book 7 of 100 from the Great American Read list.

"Oh, my God!"

This is the first of the books on the Great American Read list that I couldn't wait to get through. It was such a slog. Normally, when I read a book that I dislike this much, I stop reading and I don't review it. So this might get controversial.

A Confederacy of Dunces does not have a plot. Instead it meanders around New Orleans gathering descriptions of insanity, frustration and general uncomfortableness. Every sentence is as monstrous as the protagonist's stomach. The style is a deliberate choice, of course. If a sane reader is to have any empathy for Ignatius J Reilly we need to suffer through his torturous language and "world view" so that we can feel his impotence. But it’s hard going for me.

The awkward humor of watching a character go through a mental breakdown always makes me cringe. Unfortunately, the Brits are brilliant at this kind of humor. Alan Partridge, The Office and (worst of all) The Royle Family make me look away while everyone else is laughing. When Ignatius is attempting to get support for his "Campaign for Moorish Dignity" on the factory floor, he gets embarrassed and starts dancing. At least I know where David Brent came from now.

And yet, people apparently love this book. One of my colleagues told me that her boyfriend always has a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces with him. His copy is so well read that it's fallen in two halves. My American roommate from London who introduced me to my husband gave me her copy of this book when she left the UK. Thank god she has better taste in men than in books.

So why is it on the list? Well, rants are fun to read and even though I don’t think it’s funny, I know other people who would find it hilarious. But there are other more complex factors at play.

Ignatius has many ideas and most of them seem insane. His political ideologies are all over the road. I think if I had to pin down his “world view” I’d liken it to Kanye West in “Free Thinker” mode or Steve Bannon's "burn it down" philosophy. The fact that I can find parallels with Ignatius J Reilly in America today may seem remarkable, but I think it’s part of the appeal of the book. We all know an Ignatius J Reilly, I think one might currently be president.

Having said that, I don’t think any of us is totally free of extreme ideas. I think we can all find something in Ignatius’ ramblings, which we might be persuaded to believe, given the right encouragement.

I have noticed that belief is often confused with truth, as I saw in a Facebook comment a few weeks ago “don’t argue with a liberal, they just ask you to prove it”. And Americans love to believe, especially in themselves. But not everyone’s beliefs can be true. Just as not all of Ignatius’ legion of beliefs can be true. So like any good satirist the author turns up the volume on our ideas and shows us how absurd they are.

I’d like to finish up with a few thoughts about the women in this book. There are no sympathetic female character here. There are some male characters that we warm to, Burma Jones was a favorite of mine and the long-suffering but fair-minded Gus Levy seemed to be the most sensible character in the book. But the women are just charicatures.

Almost all the disasters that befall Ignatius in A Confederacy of Dunces could easily be attributed to the women in his life. His mother spoils him, his girlfriend provokes him, the woman he believes will be the love of his life is not what he expects and even the women of the choir at the factory undermine his authority. Ignatius believes that he has no agency, he is tossed from one misadventure to another by the capricious turns of Fortuna’s wheel. But all these women, including Fortuna, are not responsible for Ignatius’ mistakes. He is. I walked away with the uncomfortable feeling that Ignatius might now be described as an incel.

But uncomfortableness is the point of satire and it’s definitely the point of A Confederacy of Dunces. Maybe I should have written a one word review.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Book 6 of 100 on the Great American Read list.

I read The Color Purple at University in the UK for a feminist literature class. And I am ashamed to report that I didn’t remember much about it. Rather like Squeak I did smoke a lot of reefer at the time, so maybe that’s why. It’s more likely that I just lacked the context to be able to read it deeply.

After ten years in America, I have a slightly better idea of the context for The Color Purple. I've read more black authors, learned more black history, listened to black activists and I’m trying to see a big picture. The picture is huge. As big as the world. I doubt I’ll ever see all of it because I'm not black and I’m not American. So bearing in mind that my understanding of the context is still imperfect, here’s what I thought this time I read The Color Purple.

Never in the history of anything has a book that begins with the sexual abuse of a child contained so much joy and life.

The Color Purple is told through the prayers and letters of Celie and her sister Nettie. The two girls grow up together in the South in the 1930s, Celie stays in Georgia, while Nettie becomes a missionary in Africa. Mostly, the plot rests with Celie, we only hear from Nettie when Celie gets access to her letters. And Celie's life is hard. Raped by her supposed father, her children are taken from her and then she's worked relentlessly by an abusive husband who's name she doesn't even know. It's a disturbing story. But then her husband brings home an old flame, the jazz singer Shug Avery and Celie's relationship with this dazzling woman restores her humanity and her faith in god. Eventually, Celie turns on the abusive husband, becomes a successful business woman and is reunited with her sister and children. And when she does, it is incredibly cathartic.

Why is it on the list? Because reading it is an affirmation of being alive. Because there should always be stories about black lesbian feminists on school reading lists. And because it’s an incredible work of historical fiction.

Alice Walker crams a lot of African American history into The Color Purple. It's sometimes hard to remember that it was written as late as the 1980s. In the West African letters Nettie is amazed to discover the history of the African Kingdoms. She also sees white colonization with her own eyes when the rubber road arrives to destroy the Olinka village. Meanwhile in Celie's letters, her friend Sofia experiences something similar to being a house slave, even though the book is set post-slavery. There’s also the history of the influence of black culture on America in the juke joint, Shug Avery’s rise to fame and fortune and black female entrepreneurship. Religion, hair, sexuality, lynching, language, toxic masculinity, colorism, incarceration, mental health and communal child rearing are also here, along with probably much more that I’m missing because I’m still learning.

The Color Purple feeds and enriches American culture. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 and was made into a movie in 1985. The movie was nominated for 11 Oscars (although it didn't win any of them). The film launched the career of Whoopi Goldberg and truly established Oprah Winfrey as a force to be reckoned with. I see references to The Color Purple in Beyonce's Lemonade. On the flip side The Color Purple ranks high on the ALA list of 100 most banned or challenged books.

I can’t think of a better book to help me understand America.

(A small note, I thought long and hard about capitalizing Black here, but after some research I landed on the side of those who wish to acknowledge the diversity of blackness and not reduce it to a monolithic culture. Although, the arguments here also make sense to me.)