Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Few Notes on the Circulatory System of Books

I had mentioned earlier today on Twitter that my bookstore was becoming inundated with books. We always have a healthy influx of tomes (we are a large used bookstore), but in the past two weeks we have suffered an unrelenting avalanche of titles coming into us, 90% of which come from random people off the street. Some people bring one book, some bring one box, and others bring trunks and bins full of books. This spring we have received more books than I have seen in five years at the store.

There are several effects of this deluge: first, it means that our inventory swells mightily. As an ancillary effect of that increase in volume, the quality of books usually rises as we can pull and price down books that are in worse condition or stack a large backstock of a title on one of our sales tables and mark them down for quicker sale. We date all of our books and when a title has been on the shelf for too long we do something to get it sold, to make room for what will sell more quickly, which is the goal. We price all of our books competitively (and often lower) for our market and have no problem selling them for less after awhile if it gets them into someone's hands. This includes sometimes circulating books out to the Dollar Carts, several large wheeled bookcarts that we cram with all manner of books looking for a new home for what amounts to a small service charge for them.

Another effect of this surge of books is that we can be pickier and pickier about what we select and can price to buy with more discretion. So we can not only improve the general condition of our stock but vary it, and find both more popular and more obscure titles that we know sell. A side effect of this is that books that in lean times we would buy regardless of condition we pass on, because we either have it in better condition or can afford to wait for a better quality book to come in, and with many titles that is not a risky choice. When you work in a used bookstore and use your eyes you quickly get to know what people are looking for and a sense of what is moving and what is not. You buy more of what is moving and take fewer chances on what is not, unless the slow movers are something valuable or that you know someone is looking for.

An additional effect of this is that we often do not buy a portion of the boxes and bins and bags of books that come our way. Usually people take them back and keep them, or donate them to the Friends of the Library Book Sale's massive warehouse (where twice yearly they are sold in a bibliomaniacal bacchanal) or to Goodwill or to the Books Through Bars program (books for prisoners), whose base of operations is on the top floor of our building. Sometimes, the sellers do not want the books back, and if they so choose they can leave them with us to dispense of, which means that often the titles go out on our Dollar Carts. Also, one of the benefits of working at the bookstore is that we often get first crack (after the boss, of course) at what is left behind.

Today we received (not just bought) somewhere around 700 books, and about half of those were just left by the sellers. This amount of abandoned books is pretty rare, but it happens. This time of year the FotL are not accepting books because of their sale, students are moving, adjuncts are moving, and in the current economic climate regular folks are moving as well, and many do not want to haul the crates and tubs and satchels of books we could not buy with them, except maybe for the one that they realize was inscribed to them by their sister or Tomie de Paola or that tattered pocket of Dhalgren they scribbled all over in high school (all true stories, by the way). So they leave them. Sometimes we'll buy a few items personally (I bought a few titles from a friend who brought in five boxes of books today), but the rest need to be dealt with, and generally we try to not let them pile up.

This means that we have to decide what to do with the books quickly. In slower periods, unless they are seriously damaged, the books go right out to the Dollar Carts. But today, there were just too many, and despite the fact that we were selling $1 books quickly, it was not quick enough to keep from having a massive pileup of books. Also, the side effect of buying applies to the Dollar cart as well; the quality of condition and titles is pretty good on the carts. Packing them with old textbooks or tattered children's books makes no sense. Thus, a a decision has to be made to recycle some of them.

Usually one of my colleagues handles that task because I am the primary pricer and the specialty buyer, and I try to get in a lot of time at the register while pricing so that I see what is going out and get an idea of what's selling, what people are saying about prices, etc. This meant that I watched my co-worker going through stack after stack of books and creating boxes of books to recycle. But today, seeing some of what she was getting rid of (some of which she consulted with me about, to see if it should be saved, particularly fantastika, social science, and lit crit) I just couldn't take it anymore, and I undertook a book rescue. I salvaged 24 (EDIT: 32) books from the death pile (well, 22 books, 1 DVD, and a small blank book for my daughter) that I thought I could use and that I felt would either get recycled or get lost on the carts with the piles of similar titles.

The pictures above show you what I rescued, and it is quite a selection. Some were rejected because they had writing in them (we almost never buy any book that has more than an old price and someone's name in the book); others because they were determined to not be good enough for the shelf (my boss is quite biased against lit crit, for example, while I have little discernment for music books)or because we already had better copies, or because it might sell slowly, and in this business, books that stay on the shelf are pretty,but otherwise just taking the space of a title that might get scooped up quickly.

This is part of the circulatory system of books in a capitalist system. People buy books, read them, cherish them, display them, loan them, forget them on park benches, drop them in a puddle. . . books go through a cycle of consumption and ownership, and generally end up passing to another owner. Sometimes they get put in an old suitcase at a yard sale with a bright yellow "$1" sticker on them; other times they get passed to a friend. Often they get boxed up and brought to another part of the system - a library, a used bookstore, a charity - to be recirculated. This can happen many times in a book's life. I have seen books with as many as five different owner's names in them, held books nearly as old as the first printing press, and found everything from money to nude pictures to pages of handwritten poetry in books. The book as object is commodity, it is a transference and holder of symbolic capital, it is a culturally-constituted nexus of ideas and identity, pleasure and enlightenment(well, some are).

And our system produces a lot of them, so many that some of those characteristics get erased, or reconfigured. Yet some people still look stricken when they leave us books; others walk away or dismiss them with a ritualized "Well, I didn't like it that much anyway." But almost all of them ask if the books will still see some use, even the ones warped into curls by water damage, dotted with mold, or that have part of a honeycomb from a wild beehive attached to them. Few people want to hear that the books they brought in are going to be sent off with old newspapers and disposable coffee cups. Even the folks who bring in bulging plastic grocery bags of cheap mysteries want to know that the book will go to someone else, even if they hated reading it. The book is still a significant part of our economic circulatory system and our cultural system, even in the age of the Internet and e-books. That may be changing (and this rise in books coming to us may be a symptom of that), but these bound codices of glue and ink and rough flattened wood have some meaning to many people, especially me, and it is both sad and humbling to see this part of the circulatory system at work.

EDIT: This morning (5/22/11), being unraptured and all, I was cleaning out my courier bag and found that I had not taken books out of it last night. So I found 8 more rescued books:

The small soiled hardcover at the bottom is a copy of Bigsby's Dada and Surrealism (Critical Idiom). Not sure if I will read the Stross, or a few of the others (although I am already reading the Best European Fiction 2011). I have set aside a bag in the corner by my desk to start tossing in books that I can bring to Readercon this summer to distribute. Now trying to find room for them; it looks like winter sweaters will be put away and their shelf used to house books!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Some Writing, and Some Writing-To-Be

Several writings have recently come out on different sites. Over at Functional Nerds I have a review of Sam Sykes vigorous, engaging Black Halo. At Aidan Moher's A Dribble of Ink I talk about "mind-blowing" fantastika. And in my regular column at SF Signal I talk about ecstasy and vision in the genre. A new column will be out tomorrow and I have a review in process, and books for two more in queue.

There's a lot going on behind the scenes. I have two assignments in the works that if successful will result in publication. I am very excited about this, although it is odd that my first "real" publication will likely be a non-fiction piece. Part of that is a result of my writing online, but another part is my own reluctance to put my fiction out there. I've written two stories that I have set aside, and the current one is at the "this sucks. . . PANIC!" stage. The novel is a different creature, because while the end of the initial draft is in sight there is more comfort in the sheer deluge of words and ideas.

Caitlin Kittredge issued a challenge on her blog a few days ago, and I took her up on it. To that end, I made the following to-do list that I vow to fulfill by 1 September:

1) finish the first draft of A CROWN OF CRUSTED BLOOD (am at 77K, looks to be about 110K for some sense of drafty completeness)

2) Finish current short story, then go back and finish the two I bumped because I had an attack of the “I sucks.”

3) non-fiction book proposal.

4) finish up some assorted legal documents and obligations.

5) do all this while writing a weekly column, a monthly column, and two reviews a month, while also reading a book a week.

6) oh yeah, not get fired at Day Jobbe.

And I have to add a 7) take care of my daughter and give her the proper love and attention. It was implicit but I think it needs to be said.

I've been looking at the calendar and re-figuring my commitments, and as always it comes down to sticking to a schedule, putting my ass in a chair and writing. Although with my hip getting worse, sitting is increasingly painful. I should probably add an 8) continue to improve my health, eh?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Why You Should Read Ekaterina Sedia's House of Discarded Dreams

I had started writing something else for the Blog Carnival, but then there was a mighty Blogger Fail, and I lost the post, and could not get on until earlier today. That'll learn me. But I did want to close this week by saying a bit more about why this novel is not just a good book, but an encounter that is well worth a reader's time.

It's a portal fantasy where the protagonist not only says "YES!" to her entry, but has actually created the world in which she journeys. It is a quest fantasy where the goal is something more profound than getting a magical artifact back or even some sort of kingdom-recovering or world-saving. It is epic in the more classical sense of the world, a sometimes poetic rendering of a person's life story; it is an odyssey of the mind and imagination. And all of these elements culminate in one tale, about a woman discovering her life by dealing with the fragments of her past, both "real" and oneirocritical.

What makes the book so engaging is its combination of excess and subtlety, mythological and prosaic concerns, animated by characters that are surprising and human in an exaggerated milieu. It is a book of unexpected moments that refuses to brutalize its protagonists, that does not go to cliched extremes, and whose focal personalities do not fall prey to the reactions that often constrain and marginalize women in fantasy literature. The two main characters are both strong young women still finding their way but increasingly open to taking this bizarre path that has opened before them, this endless queendom of dreams and stories. They do not always make the right decisions, they are not always certain of their actions, but they do not respond like stereotypes, and they accept and actively interact with the world that is constantly expanding and changing around them.

In fact, there is a gentleness and a permissiveness in this novel that is a welcome counter to gritty, campy, ironic, and/or over-the-top fantasy. Early on I felt that not much was happening in this novel, and I soon realized that I had some particular expectations for what such a fantasy novel should do. It was a bit embarrassing as the novel unfolded and I realized that something very different was going on in this book. And yet, it is not "literary fantasy" (a horrible category), it is not a modernized fairytale, and it is not some Campbellian archetypal apologia. It is, on a profound level, simple, nestled in the psyche but not psychological, a story but not a saga, a tale in which you can experience all of the different tastes of words but that refuses to repulse or scourge you. Instead, it invites you into the characters' strange new lives and encourages reflection: what dreams have affected your life? What stories from the past still unfold in quiet or hidden places in your head? If you could let them all out, walk around in them, retell them, what would be different? What can all the dreams and memories you contain tell you about what is possible for you?

Deftly written, thoughtful, and evocative, House of Discarded Dreams can be approached in many ways; it asks you to bring something of yourself to the tale, to be as open as Vimbai and Maya to chance and contemplation, and to not be afraid of the stuff in your head, or to ignore it, but to understand how it contributes to who you are and what it has left to teach you.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What House of Discarded Dreams Has Taught Me About Writing

When I started reading House of Discarded Dreams, I did not know what to expect. I had not read any reviews and all I knew was that I liked Sedia's previous novel Alchemy of Stone and that it had gotten a nice blurb from The Guardian about "pushing the boundaries of fantasy writing." What I discovered was in a number of ways unexpected, and while considering the novel's effect on me as a reader I began to see that it has something to tell me about writing as well. The thoughts are still rather tentative, but let me try to articulate them.

First, this novel demonstrated to me that confidence in the story trumps consistency. This is not to say that the novel is chaotic, but there are many strange and fantastical elements that are not rationalized or that make complete sense, and much of that is intentional. I know intellectually, and have enjoyed as a reader, many stores that refuse to submit to rationality and that challenge linearity in many ways. Sedia's book reiterates that the power of a story is not in clockwork progression, but in the ability to create a symbolic terrain that impacts the perceptions of the reader. While one can argue that the plot is neither intricate nor speculative in this novel, the plot is not really the point. What makes this story work is a combination of curiosity, confusion, and a desire to follow this parade of strangeness to see where it leads.

Second, I gained a new appreciation for the protagonist as not just a participant in the narrative, but as a shaper of its texture and aesthetic. Vimbai is not just the focus of the novel, she is its perpetrator. Initially (as noted previously) I felt that Vimbai was too passive and accepting of what was going on around her, until I realized that without her presence, imagination, and particular history, there would be no novel. Vimbai essentially conjures much of the stuff of the novel, and it is her journey of self-understanding amplified and brought to life by the house. She is not an action hero, not a genius or an ace or some other type of (generally implicitly masculine) hero. She is not an archetype, and only gently a mirror. The story is generated by the life she comes from and the one she is moving towards. When she becomes explicitly engaged later in the novel much of this becomes obvious, and I found myself flipping back in the book to see how Sedia builds the world and infuses Vimbai with humanity and brings her fully into the novel, revealing that she is the story.

Third, while I always appreciate great writing, I found myself picking up ways to set a scene, describe something weird, and link elements of the novel throughout the book. I tried to apply some of what I learned in yesterday's post, and while I don't think that I succeeded terribly well, I felt a deeper appreciation for Sedia' creation by trying to make something like it. Again, this is not mechanistic assembly, but a combination of impressionism, psychological tweaks, and cultivated dissonance in imagery and placement of elements. The relationship of images and discoveries in the novel are sometimes direct, sometimes subtle, and often open to debate. But they are woven together into the central theme of the book, and the character of Vimbai serves as the center of the strands. This anchorage is common, certainly, but there is something rare being fashioned here as well that I cannot yet put my finger on. But this is a book to return to again and again, to see what more you can discover. All of these ruminations thus far are just suggestive reflections of that.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Adrift in a Sea of Digested Souls: A Fantasy Review of Ekaterina Sedia'sHouse of Discarded Dreams

I read this book in the shadow of a pots-and-pans mountain surrounded by crumbling keeps, where propped-up skeletons kept an unmoving watch on the frequent clanging avalanches caused by a grogoch trying to make a little cave for himself in the clefts cleared out by the rivers of spoons that used to erupt from the top. Despite the ghostly farms to the "south" there is little cream to give them, for of course they have few cows and many horses, and the grogochs will dump the jug on your head if it is not delicious spirit-cream from the insubstantial udder of a dream-cow.

I read this book in two long afternoons, under an umbrella tree, just to be safe. The mountain has not erupted in some time but spoons hurt when propelled through the air. Unlike the farm animals they are quite real and there is now an economy of sorts surrounding them here in the valley. The bigfoots and cartoon characters make uneasy exchanges with them, and the faeries keep stealing them to give to the chrome-wheeled dragon that lives within The Cave, that flickering video mirage between the Green Mountain and the slowly eroding duplicate of Croagh Patrick, where the spirits of my dead Irish relatives slowly wear away at it as they walk endlessly up and down it in their bare feet. You wouldn't think that ghosts could do that, but I see the constant spits of dust and the gathering detritus at the base of the gradually-shrinking mount. For there is no rain here; when one looks over the edge of the world, you see the great turtle it rides upon, swimming on the surface of a sea much like the one in House of Discarded Dreams, full of mingled souls and supporting the capacity to see everything you have tried to keep hidden, or taken for granted, or hoped was an illusion. But there is no rain here, only sudden bursts of candy from the sky, some of it doped. The only source of water is a single well, guarded by all the frogs I saved from spearing as a child, drawn from that sea. It is bitter, not salty, and contains little crackles and memories that are sometimes sour, sometimes spicy, on the tongue.

Now, nestled in my hovel for the night, the thatched cottage that is my nest for now, I can talk about this book. Tapping away at my little steampunk typing computer, hoping to send this out to whatever world is on the other end of the Outernet, which seem to mostly be patronized by sentient cats posting pictures of fish and mice, and some shadowy commenters who say they "know where to find" me and that if I "talk" I'm dead. I am hopeful that someone else is reading. Thankfully, as best I can tell they are even less real than everything else here, although, as I learned from reading this book, there is a reality here, built on fears, wishes, and everything that I tried to discard from my "real life." Terrors unconfronted, stories left behind despite their lessons and solace, and even those things merely forgotten in the rush to embrace something else.

Vimbai's story disappointed me at first; I thought that she was too passive, to willing to just go along with things. My experience is different; I was dragged here, unwilling, made to confront and examine legends, missteps, enigmas. It was not until I realized that Vimbai is actively creating this new reality that I saw her as the protagonist, not only responsible for her direct actions, but for everything within her. The weaving of one's life is not just in the doors opened or paths taken, but in all of the locked doors, all of the dead ends and forks in the road. The neighboring provinces of the mind exist in a sort of detente, because they are not resolved, only abandoned, set aside, or shoved down into a blackness that always remains at the edge of vision.

As her world unfolds, as her journey unwinds, I see reflections that illuminate the corners of my own psyche: Irish folklore and stories, a deep rooting in an ancient place, disrupted and mutated by growing up amongst monsters clad in the hanging skin of humans. Taking refuge in the realms of pop culture and my own imagination, I never experienced the coming-of-age that Vimbai undergoes, not the clarity she is able to create. Awash in childhood traumas, social dysfunction, and too much intelligence for my own good, I struggled not to make sense of things, but to escape them, to fill that darkness with them, even though flashes of movement and the din of caged furies and griefs were clearly echoing in my mind.

And now here I am, finally trying to make a new direction, a new life, repairing body and mind, releasing my prisoners from their forced obscurity. Fleeing to the big city did not assuage them, a college education could only partly reveal and reintegrate them. More college education in a new place only made them retreat. I had to abandon many dreams, and find a few new ones, but you cannot turn your back on the ones left behind. Some sort of resolution is needed.

So now I sit in flickering candlelight, listening the wind, which is the sound of crying, and hearing sitcom theme songs in the drums far away. This is a unquiet place. Brownies and plastic toy soldiers brawl in the street outside at all hours, spilling out from every pub I have ever visited, but which in the daylight are closed and at night are dangerous to me. I have surrounded this flimsy cottage with sandbags full of books, thick encyclopedias as a base, limited-edition hardcovers on the ends, and cheap, tattered paperbacks atop, held together by the bindings of poetry chapbooks and infinite staples from fanzines and coffeehouse digests. That keeps the fights out, but also the sudden deluges of horse tack and dog collars, bursting forth from a gully between a mountain of rotting fast food and the Mountain of Stables, a terraced peak with more of those ghost-farms and shadow-ranches, where my rural pasts and futures all reside. The fortifications also keep out my dead American relatives, zombies who hunger for the only human in this confabulated world., who want to drag me back to the life I should have lived.

Like Vimbai's world, there are wonders here, and seemingly random elements too. But as time goes by, as the story unfolds, it all makes more sense. This is the truth that Vimbai taught me: that trying to ignore the pasts, all of them, is to fail to see life fully, and thus see where you can go in it. We should no more cling to the past than fear it, no more dismiss the stories and happenings than we should wear them around our necks and let me wear our throats raw and slowly bleed us out. In some way, everything matters, and we cannot proceed until we know how much. We each live in a fantasy world, often carefully chosen, but everything that we try to abandon or excise is still with us. The trick is to realize how it all fits together, why rockstar dreams and fairy-stories may distract, but also teach something about your mind. The trick is to see, accept, learn, and move forward. Even when adrift on a sea of souls.

Aetheric Ephemera: Praise to all Journeys Edition

1) Today is an auspicious day for fantastika: two major book releases have occurred: Cat Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making,and John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation. Cat's is a printed version of her online serial, and Scalzi's is a reboot of the beloved H. Beam Piper saga. Both sound like titles well worth reading. Only one has its own power ballad, however. Perhaps that will be remedied anon!

It is also Mr. Scalzi's birthday. Go wish him well!

EDIT: As my guest below points out, one can find a most wondrous song on the Fairyland trailer:

I can also attest that it make toddlers squeal and ask to see it multiple times. I really should have known that Cat and S. J. Tucker were on it.

2) This looks like a useful collection of EPub tools.

3) The problem with artificial light (free registration required). I guess when we become cyborgs, fungi hybrids, or the Singularity occurs this will be less of a problem.

4) Speaking of fungi hybrids, here is your WTF moment for the day.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The World Is Abiding and Ever-Strange: The Carnival of Dreams in Ekaterina Sedia's House of Discarded Dreams

"The carnival offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things" - Mikhail Bakhtin

And so it begins, the House of Discarded Dreams Blog Carnival! Over the course of this week there will be celebrations and reflections on this book and what it has to offer,which you can find at the Blog Carnival link. It is a work that deserves attention for its strong writing, its challenge of boundaries, and its ability to stimulate the imagination. During this week I will write about this book in different ways to give readers a taste of what it has to offer, not just as a novel, but as a vivid text that inspires all sorts of thinking and dreaming.

When Paul Jessup proposed a "carnival," two images came to mind immediately: a festive midway of games and delights, and Mikhail Bakhtin. An odd juxtaposition, I suppose, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the former idea is merely the lead-in to the latter. To fete House of Discarded Dreams is not properly done as some sort of distracting array of flashing lights and hucksters; we have to go back to older ideas, to older stories, not just to the folklore that saturates the narrative of the book, but to the power of dreams and imagining.

The carnivalesque tales and practices that Bakhtin wrote about are not the same as Sedia's novel, but her book deftly exemplifies Bakhtin's idea that the novel is a sort of cultural heir to the carnival . Dialogism; the upending of certainties; the production, reproduction, and deconstruction of hierarchies and relationships; all of these things are present in her work. The sublime and the grotesque work hand-in-hand; images and ideas tumble forth and make the reader dizzy, sometimes confused, sometimes ecstatic. It lacks the vulgarity of Bakhtin's classic subject (and is, in fact, rather well-mannered), but anchors itself in the messy rapids of life by finding purchase in dialogism, the rocky shoals of hybridities, and in the mind of the readers themselves.

Before expanding these impressions, however, a quick review is in order. House of Discarded Dreams is a fantasy, a sort of feverish bildungsroman lodged firmly in dreams, longings, and mythlife. Vimbai is a college student living with her exiled parents in New Jersey who dreams of moving out. When a local beach-house is advertised she visits and meets Maya and Felix, and also meets the house. Intrigued, she moves in, and soon bizarre things begin to happen. As the novel progresses two things happen: Vimbai's world becomes more surreal, and she takes a journey from being a passive element of her own life to embracing responsibility for herself and others around her. The house itself becomes a world of dreams and regrets and sorrows, but also becomes a place that tests the lessons and burdens of history, that forces the characters and the readers to think about the story of their life.

It is an unsettling novel, but not because of the weirdness. It unmoors your perspective with the reactions of the characters, which defy the convention responses we often see in fantasy novels. The imagery is relentless, seemingly random, yet the novel ends up building a new world that forces the characters to examine themselves and their preconceptions, and challenges the reader to do the same. It seems to wander, yet is very direct in its effects on the readers as the weight of symbols and associations accumulate in the mind.

There's a lot to talk about in this work; I and other readers will suggest some ways to think about it over the course of this week. Enjoy the carnival!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fete du Mirage: Ekaterina Sedia's House of Discarded Dreams

In-between catching up on my 30 Days of Genre posts, there will be what Paul Jessup has described as a "blog carnival" next Monday for Ekaterina Sedia's latest book House of Discarded Dreams. It has gotten reviews that are not just glowing, but that are themselves colonized by the spirit of the novel itself. We're encouraging other bloggers to join in with reviews, appreciations, perhaps even fanfic if you're brave enough! If you have read the book, write about it in whatever way moves you. If you haven't read it, come enjoy our little show and see why you should read it. Leave comments, link stuff, chat about it; let's have a big old celebration about this fantastic book!