Friday, March 30, 2012

The Legend of Telegraph Avenue, or - why Michael Chabon is more powerful than a locomotive

Booksellers may not have many perks - besides being in an industry with such growth potential - but when perks do come along, they're pretty much outstanding.

Last Sunday, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association hosted their annual Spring Fling.  You got your seminars, you got your authors signing books, you got your free food (never underestimate how powerful the lure of free food is to your local bookseller).

For me - for many - the highlight was hearing Michael Chabon speak.  We're lucky to have this Pulitzer Prize Winner in our midst (and if you haven't read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, please - just go do that, ok?  We'll talk later) because to hear Mr. Chabon talk is to listen as a master storyteller reveals some of his secrets.

We don't give enough attention to Master Storytellers.  When they do receive it, say when a Master Storyteller is lauded on the cover of Time magazine, instead of celebrating Jonathan Franzen's coup - instead of acknowledging that one of their own was actually recognized for being a terrific writer - other scribes carped and caviled.  Their complaints?  Often their complaints came down to - It shoulda been me.

That kind of well-reasoned argument will get you thrown out of most bars.  Folks?  Can we keep our eye on the ball?  We live in a world that doesn't often descry the power of wordsmiths.  So how about a Bravo before you sharpen your knives?

Sorry, I have a tendency to wander afield.  This was supposed to be about Michael Chabon, Master Storyteller.  Supposed to be about last Sunday in the Presidio.

The grass was still wet from an early morning rain, but by late morning?  The sky was a brilliant San Francisco blue, that blue highlighted against the whitewashed buildings of the Presidio's Main Post.

There were more than a hundred of us gathered there.  Undoubtedly, some had been drawn by Mr. Chabon's appearance, to hear about the novel he has coming out in the Fall.  He began his remarks by saying that whenever he has a new book, there are a few questions he'll always be asked.  One of the most popular?

Where oh where did you get the idea for the book?

And he told us that what he wants to say is - I don't know.  What he wants to say is - I just started writing.  But that doesn't satisfy readers.  They need more than that.  They need a Legend.

(I'm beginning to paraphrase Mr. Chabon.  This is akin to me singing Only the Good Die Young some late night at the Mint on Market Street and expecting you to hear Billy Joel.  You ain't never going to hear Billy Joel.  Never ever.  So you aren't going to get Mr. Chabon's nuance, his poetry.  What you have is me.  Apologies all around.)

You'll let me paraphrase, then?  Mr. Chabon says we need the Legend - need to hear how Moses drifts down the Nile in an ark of bulrushes, how Uther Pendragon beds his enemy's wife and sires Arthur, how Superman came from Krypton.  Because of this need, instead of telling us - I don't know where I got the idea - he'd tell those gathered in the Presidio on that Sunday morning how his new book, Telegraph Avenue, started. 

And so the Legend begins.

Mr. Chabon told us about one of his favorite used record stores in the East Bay, Berigan's on Piedmont Avenue - that iteration of the store long gone, but then a going concern.  He described it as being like a bar that didn't serve drinks - with people who'd belly up to the counter and talk music.

Then he told us about the day the verdict for OJ came down, and how he didn't understand the celebrations that the Not Guilty was met with in some communities.  And not that he just didn't understand it - how he couldn't even fathom the thinking behind anyone delighting in an outcome that left so many incredulous.

He said that made him think of growing up in Columbia, Maryland - a planned community that was socially, racially, and economically diverse.  So much so that he remembers thinking during Black History Month that the people being celebrated were his heroes already.  He didn't need to be reminded of the contributions made by - and here I have to admit that I didn't recognize the names he rattled off.  One of the names may have been Dr. Charles Drew, but honestly - I was waiting for Sojourner Truth.  For Harriet Tubman or Jackie Robinson.

My embarrassment in admitting that I recognized none of the luminaries he mentioned dovetails with Mr. Chabon's wonderment, the wonderment he experienced when he realized he couldn't penetrate the point of view of an individual who cheered when OJ Simpson was declared not guilty.

What would his twelve-year-old self think of the thirty-two-year-old Michael Chabon who counted virtually no African Americans among his friends?  He was pretty sure - twenty years on - that the twelve-year-old would be unsparing in his condemnation.  Maybe those friends could have shed light where all - for him - was dark.

And that takes us back to the record store.  A store that usually had a black guy and a white guy behind the counter.  A store that attracted a diverse clientele who were drawn by the music - mainly jazz.  Berigan's customers knew they could go there and talk to whomever came through the door about some obscure track, some treasured piece of vinyl.  And it was this, what, fellowship?  Camaraderie?  Whatever it was, Mr. Chabon thought, would be a great background for - well, something.

And so then that takes us to the TV pilot he penned for TNT.  But before it could even be looked at, TNT had a bomb with one of their first ventures in original programming.  Maybe Crusade?  A Babylon 5 spin off?  Of course a television show about the denizens of Telegraph Avenue wouldn't get a chance to succeed if a show about the Drakh - an alien race intent on killing everyone on earth with some kind of disease that'll conveniently give earthlings five years to figure out how to cure it - bombed.

I mean, right?  I wouldn't green-light a literate show by a celebrated author after that either.  Makes perfect sense.

But if you're still with me - and Lord knows, I've given you ample opportunity to jump from the Excalibur (that would be the ship you see right up there - you know, Humankind's last chance to survive the evil Drakh!) you'll see that this just all goes to the creation of the Legend - the Legend of Telegraph Avenue.

The Legend entails the ghost of that pilot for TNT haunting Mr. Chabon.  The Legend describes giving that ghost new life as a novel - but taking years to do it.

The Legend therefore requires a lot of walking.  Walking through Berkeley and Oakland neighborhoods - walking along Telegraph Avenue.  Those walks will be with the lovely writer Ayelet Waldman - who just happens to be married to Mr. Chabon.  During those Plot Walks, Mr. Chabon will express discouragement, will profess that Telegraph Avenue is dead, maybe felled by the nanovirus set loose by the Drakh.  When Mr. Chabon would awaken from the beat-down administered lovingly by his wife, he'd be at his desk and so would continue doing the only thing he could do - keep working on the Avenue.

And I've completely left out the midwives.  How could I have not mentioned midwifery?  And the knowledge that Ms. Waldman gleaned when she and her husband began their parenting journey?  And since she learned everything about midwives, it would make sense that her education would nourish him, too.  And that he would find a connection between the midwives - her passion - and the record store - his.

And that - most importantly - this all made perfect sense when Mr. Chabon described the Legend to us.  Because, see - that's what storytellers do.  Take disparate threads and weave them into a coherent whole.  If this hasn't been that - coherent - don't hold it against Mr. Chabon.  Remember, I'm not Billy Joel - more's the pity. 

You'll do me a favor, yes?  You'll call your local independent bookstore when the leaves are changing, when Summer fades into Fall?  And you'll ask to be put on the list for the release of Telegraph Avenue?  Because if you'd been lucky enough to hear the Legend, you'd want to learn more.  You'd need to find out what happens on the street where you live.  Because that's what his Avenue is, really.  It's where you live.

So, Telegraph Avenue.  By Michael Chabon.  This September.

Trust me.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The San Francisco Chronicle's Top Shelf - March 18, 2012

I'm unsure when I became a curmudgeon - I only hope I can maintain that status for a while before developing into a crank.  No one loves a crank. 

It's the crank inside me, though, that wants to carp - Listen here, you little whippersnapper.  When I was a boy, the New York Times Book Review boasted more than 80 pages on any given Sunday.  Now what is it?  Twenty-five?  Thirty?  The injustice, I tell you, the injustice!

Still, we in the Bay Area should find solace in the fact that while Book Reviews across the nation have vanished, the San Francisco Chronicle has managed to hold onto its (undeniably thin!) version.  But it exists, and for that we should rejoice.

And - within its Book Review every week, the Chronicle includes a column called Top Shelf.  Top Shelf lists books of note selected by one of the many Bay Area bookstores that still exist.  And that's something else we should delight in - the subsistence of bookstores in this, the Age of the Death of the Book.

This week, the choices in Top Shelf were selected by Books Inc. in Alameda.  Does that mean I selected the books?

In fact - it does.  That's the job of a crank, isn't it?

So really, go there, have I said that yet?  And with any luck, you'll find a book that keeps your inner-crank at bay.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

When booksellers want to get a particular book into the hands of readers, they rely on a few things.  The easiest?  They tell those readers when they walk through the door that they have to read that specific book, or they tell their coworkers they have to read that book - or those coworkers have to at least help a fellow bookseller out and so they tell readers that, yes, they have to read that book.

If the bookseller feels particularly passionate, he can blog and tweet about it.  He can make 8 1/2 x 11 posters with pictures and arrows directing readers to buy the book.

Or - he can create a diorama on his bookshelves so that, even when he is not in the store, people may be forced to take notice.  To ask themselves, why is the Qur'an on the same bookshelf as The Tropic of Cancer?  Why does a pink scarf link those two books - and the third one, the one in the middle?

With any luck, there will be a fascinated few who read the card under the middle book - the card that tells them if they want to know the connection between the books and the scarf, they have to read American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar.

Maybe you'll be intrigued.  Are you, reader?  Do you want to be entertained and enlightened?  If so, I think you know what to do.

Posted by Picasa

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Beware the Ides of Lovecraft!

On this day, 75 years ago, Howard Phillips Lovecraft died.

You should care.

You should care even though H. P. Lovecraft only wrote three novellas and sixty some odd short stories.  Certainly you should care because of the quality of that work, but also because of his reach and influence.

Some of the scope of that influence is easily seen, easily felt.  Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, was a friend and correspondent.  Another Robert - Robert Bloch, of Psycho fame?  One of the many authors Lovecraft would, throughout his short life, go out of his way to encourage.

But other parts of his reach are less easily seen because they extend those 75 years from his contemporaries to us - from Ray Bradbury to Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King.

To Alan Moore and Clive Barker.

To Neil Gaiman.

Then his influence branches out, uncoils - from writing to music.  Black Sabbath?  Iron Maiden?  Metallica?  Of course.

From music to the cinema - to Ridley Scott.  John Carpenter.  Guillermo Del Toro.

From the movie screen tentacles alight on the shoulders of artists - the surrealist H. R. Giger, the incredible sculptor Bryan Moore.  From Moore it writhes, wriggles back to the written word.  To Jorge Luis Borges.  Borges writing a short story in Lovecraft's memory.

From Borges to Michel Houellebecq.  Houellebecq - best known as a literary provocateur - would pen a Lovecraft biography before writing the novels that would bring such acclaim, such derision.  And if you don't think the stretch from Conan the Barbarian to the Elementary Particles is anything short of extraordinary, I'll buy you a drink.

I mean, I'll buy you a drink anyway, but still.

The words, though?  Always go back to the words.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.  --H. P. Lovecraft.

It's cold and rainy where I am tonight.  Perfect Lovecraft weather.  I'm going to pour myself some whiskey (even though the master wouldn't approve) and pick out a story of his I haven't read in forever.   Maybe The Lurking Fear, The Shunned House, or The Shadow Out of Time.

The Whisperer in Darkness.

The Thing on the Doorstep.

At the Mountains of Madness.

Can you feel it, just through the mention of those titles?  A certain creeping - something?  A vague discomfort.  The feeling that you're not alone, you're never alone.  Always there's a presence.  A presence - Just.  Out.  Of.  Reach.

Lovecraft was a fiend when it came to his personal correspondence.  His letters number in the thousands.  In one, he quotes a line from the Life of St. Anthony.  The speaker is Satan, and Satan dared to say, 'I am the power of God and I am Providence, what dost thou wish that I shall give thee?'

You'll find those words on Lovecraft's grave - in Providence, Rhode Island, of course.  He's buried where he lived, where he died.  So here's to Lovecraft.  He gave us words, and he was providence.

H. P. Lovecraft

August 20th, 1890 - March 15th, 1937