Monday, May 30, 2011

How to Sell, by Clancy Martin

This book is a perfect example of the kind of book I was thinking of when I started this blog. It hit the ground running with a cover story in the New York Times Book Review almost exactly two years ago, but when I decided to read it recently, I found that the paperback had been and gone in the bookstore I work in, and I had to order a copy in. This says nothing about the book, little about the store and less about the review, which I'll get to in a minute, but volumes about the state of the here today, gone tomorrow world of  the publishing industry as it stands today.

How to Sell is a first novel and follows the life and actions of a latter day Holden Caulfield (today I suppose we would call him an 'at risk youth') who has both the good and bad fortune at the time of his Caulfieldesque crisis of getting kicked out of school to have an older brother in the jewelry business in Fort Worth, Texas. His father is either crazy or a spiritual adept, or both, depending on your point of view, and he advises his younger son not to make the journey, seeing some bad juju in his future.

Crazy he may be, but he is also right. Bobby may not have been doing so well in Canada, but when he gets into the high end jewelry sales business, it's only a matter of time before he's really going to crash and burn. Doing lines of cocaine with his brother and his girlfriend as they head directly from the airport to the store--because there's every indication in the novel that the job is just as highly addictive a thing as the drugs--it's clear that these high flyers are really going further and further down the circles of hell.

In this kind of book, everything depends on the winningness of the protagonist's voice, and Bobby is very winning. It is partly in the candor with which he tells of the seamy side of selling jewelry--and man, are there a lot of scams!--but it's also that in certain telling moments, he reveals himself to be a moral being. The book is a very enjoyable ride through a certain seamy underworld, one which I suspect many readers will like being able to peer into without having to get their own hands dirty. At least, this was the case for me.

Martin now teaches philosophy at the University of Missouri, and because I was curious about how this informed his story, I did a bit more research than I usually do before putting up my blather. For instance, I took a look at that book review mentioned above. It was written by Tom McCarthy, who made his own debut splash with Remainder a few years ago.  I was more than a little surprised then, to find McCarthy, after giving the book a brief glance, becoming more exercised about the power of the blurbs than about the novel itself. While admitting  to enjoying the book, he took umbrage at the idea that Benjamin Kunkel had said it had the "inevitability of the classic" and that Jonathan Franzen had called it "greatly original". But what does this have to do with reviewing the book at hand. Surely we must leave the classic status of any current work to the future? Besides, I'm not sure that Kunkel was saying that it would inevitably be a classic. He may have been saying that fate befalls our hero on rather classical lines.

Another thing that surprised me was to what extent Martin's novel was autobiographical. He did come to the U.S. to work in the jewel business with his brother, he does or did have a crazy father, and at least the corner of the world of jewelry that he moved in was pretty much as seamy as the  novel portrays. He may be a high falutin' professor now, but by his own admission, in his former life, he was no better than he should have been, and sometimes a whole lot worse. I had been wondering why a professor of philosophy would write this book, but now I understand that he was drawing from experience.

The last thing to surprise me a bit was an interview I found with Martin, which again underscores the autobiographical aspect of the novel, and shows, I think that it was written out of a real sense of urgency and a desire to understand himself and the world, which is the opposite of the slick, opportunistic marketing that has become so much a part of the publishing industry today. In other words, it is not 'how to sell' at all.

Contrary to Kunkel's purported view, this little book does not seem at this moment destined to become a classic. All the more reason to go out and find a copy today, while you still can.

And believe me, whatever amount you may spend will be more than defrayed by the amount you'll be saving on jewelry.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Heresy by S.J. Parris

I'm not really a big reader of historical mysteries, or historical fiction in general, the great Wolf Hall being a recent exception, and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower being an older one. But in my ongoing Finnegans Wake group, we have, as I suppose anyone who's gone into the book very far does, become intrigued by the mysterious character of Giordano Bruno, 16th century Italian monk, who figures in the Wake countless times.

Guess who the crime solving protagonist of Heresy is?

I was quite astonished to discover the recent mystery series using Bruno of Nola as its voice, and so jumped on it.
I must say that this novel did not quite fulfill my original wish of it, as I thought at first it might, because its real preoccupation is the schismatic 16th century of Elizabeth I's England and not the fascinating life of Bruno himself. We get a few hints, but not all that much other than biographical details.

This will not be a strike against it for the vast majority of readers, though, and you can see why Parris, who is in her other life journalist Stephanie Merritt, a contributor to The Guardian and The Observer, chose him as her investigator. A foreigner who would have access to the Oxford scholarly society of the time, in which this story is set, he would also be above the schismatic mindset enough to read the situation without bias.

The story opens with a hint of Bruno's beginnings, and the reason for his long life in exile. It's a terrific beginning, by the way, and should give you a clue as to whether you want to read further. Before long, though, we find him accompanying his friend the poet Sir Philip Sidney while he takes a troublesome visiting prince to Oxford--mainly to get him out of the Queen's hair. Bruno is supposed to be doing a little spying for Sir Francis Walsingham, rooting out the members of the Oxford community who may still be practicing Catholics. But his own agenda is to see if he can track down the lost book of the  ancient Egyptian sage, Hermes Trimegistus, which is rumored to contain a type of knowledge that would greatly appeal to Bruno in his own philosophy.

Soon, though, there is, of course, a murder--or at the very least a troubling death. Bruno is at the scene of the crime--how could he not get involved?

I found this book very good in its depiction of the Oxford of that era, and the mindset of people who had recently been divided by religious schism. If you want a good Oxford tale, this one is for you. The solving of the mystery was slightly over the top for my taste--the villain a bit too bad, when that kind of motive was hardly needed from the groundwork that had already been laid. But this is a minor criticism in a thoroughly competent writer, and to keep the book lively and interesting for 400 pages is an accomplishment in itself.

And I will certainly read the next one, for I'm prepared to follow Bruno of Nola wherever he appears, much as Bruno doggedly follows after Hermes Trimegistus.

Though I am fairly certain that my journey is going to be a lot more enjoyable than his was.           

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Dinner With Arthur

Okay, technically it wasn't my dinner, and it would have made a better title here if his name was Andrew, or even Andre.  But Arthur Phillips was in town last week to read and talk about his new book, The Tragedy of King Arthur, and local publisher and patron of the arts, and, more importantly for me, old friend Steve Lawton decided to take a new approach to the fact. He invited a few friends of the bookish persuasion to join him at a dinner for Mr. Phillips. He also said in advance that he would offer to pay for half of the book for the first thirty people who took advantage of the offer. I'm not sure if anyone actually took him up on the book angle, but the bookish friends took him up on dinner, because that is what bookish friends do.

In the not so olden days, this would probably have been in the purview of the bookstore or the publisher or some combination of the two. With bookstores struggling to survive, that kind of thing is largely of the past, and I never knew it to be a major feature of the business anyway. Publishers probably do their wining and dining of authors somewhere other than small cities off the main  book tour track. But in many ways, this evening was better. Steve took great care to welcome one of his favorite authors, and though the blown life up photos of Mr. Phillips head used as placemats was a risky touch, it seemed to have gone over well. Perhaps more important was the centerpiece of Arthur Phillips works, and Steve's close reading of all of them.

This was the basis of the placemat...

Arthur seemed up to pretty much everything the group could throw at him, and was gracious and appreciative of everything. I don't want to get too much into the details of dinner conversation without everyone's permission, but of course the conversation turned to the decline of books, as it inevitably does among any group of people who has a vested interest in their persistence. Arthur wondered after we had all gloomed it up for awhile about why what seems to be their passing seems so  sad to us, since we at the table will probably always have books, and plenty to read until we ourselves are gone. If the next generation doesn't care about them, what of it? It's a good question, and was met by a musing silence. I think we want to pass them on, one of the guests said.

Anyway, at least some of us--the ones I've checked in with since--had a marvelous time. I'm not usually so namedroppy, but I really appreciated Steve's generosity and cleverness in putting the whole shebang together, and thought I'd mention it partly in thanks, but also because it might inspire a similar idea sometime in, well, YOU.

The reading itself, by the way, was highly entertaining. Some writers know how to do the traveling show aspect of this part of their gig and some don't, and no shame to them if its the latter. But Phillips has his act down, and I expect there is very little that could ruffle him in such a situation. Even a woman wandering into the room because she thought she'd heard him mentioning Brown College was taken into his schtick.

One man was noticeably laughing the whole time. Steve ran into the guy later in the parking lot and it turned out that he and his wife had seen Phillips on Jeopardy. They had come because they wanted to know if he was that funny in person.

Turns out he was.

And yes, I did buy a copy of the book that night. I'll be getting back to you on it before too awfully long.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Scene of the Blog

Cathy Cole of the Kittling Books blog recently asked me if I would care to take part in her once a week Scene of the Blog post. Looking around my living space, all I could think was "The Horror!". But in a more general way, I do really like the idea, so check it out.

If I could just choose a place, this place might be worth a second look...