by Morgan on April 6, 2012
Amelia Gray is the business. Do you know this? Her new novel, THREATS, is picking up good reviews all over the place, but you don’t need to read the reviews. Just read the novel. It’s fucking fantastic. Gray’s sensibility scares me in the way that I like; if you like being scared in a way that you like, you’ll like being scared by Amelia Gray.
THREATS is Gray’s first novel, preceded by two collections of shorts, both of which are also perversely good. To prove my point, I shall transcribe, in its entirety, a piece from AM/PM.
The truck, advertising FISH and MEAT and GOURMET BRANDS, got stuck on the hump between the parking lot and the road in front of the deli next door to our apartment. We went outside because we wanted to count the wheels still touching the ground but the driver waved us away. So we went back inside, where we could only see the back of the truck from the window, and just barely the cars in the street, swerving to avoid it. Somebody said, What would happen if the back end disconnected from the front end and rolled in through the window and into our home? Killing us all? And causing thousands of dollars of structural damage for our landlord? And somebody else said, I think you have sufficiently answered your own question.
There are about one million reasons why Amelia Gray is the business. Here are a few, in no particular order:
- she is insanely prolific, and consistently good
- she writes stories like this one - basically the story I would write if I were my own fantasy version of myself (if I were, then, Amelia Gray) – that contain sentences like this one: “Here, the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, and that road is paved with handjobs.”
- she is a BOMBASS reader
- she manages to rise to the surface of other writers of her generation and milieu, who often make “careers” for themselves by writing suffocatingly self-indulgent and needlessly diffuse “stories” that are cute and funny on the internet for about five seconds, and then die. Gray’s prose may be short (even in the novel, she writes in gasps) but it sticks. It has weight and depth and resonance; it consists of much more than a chronic, ephemeral navel-gazing. She has STORIES to tell. I think that’s the difference between her, and, say, ______ _________ (insert whoever you want here, but it shouldn’t be hard to think of someone).
- incidentally, she’s also letting me live in her living room.
Go buy THREATS from your local bookseller, and if you happen to live in any of these cities, go out and see her read. It’s quite the show.
by Morgan on April 3, 2012
I’m alive, that is. I haven’t been blogging because things are moving full speed ahead with the bookstore.
That’s right. It’s happening. Expect an update by next week, and BE EXCITED. I’m so excited, I think my heart-rate has tripled in the last month.
In the meantime:
- For some reason, someone, somewhere, thought it would be a good idea to have me moderate a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books this year. So I’m doing it! I’ve never done this before, but I assume I just get the three authors drunk on scotch right before the panel, and then just let ‘er rip. Right? Please advise.
Sike. It’s going to be great. I hope you’ll join us on Saturday, April 21st, at the Annenberg Auditorium, at 3pm. The panel is called Fiction:Alienated Voices, with Anne-Marie Kinney, Diana Wagman, and Irvin Yalom. You can grab a panel ticket on the Festival website. I’ve been doing my pre-reading this past week, and it looks like it’s going to be a pretty interesting discussion. Or, if all goes awry, I’ll just spend the whole time talking about aliens; so either way, we be cool.
- But before the festival, on Thursday, April 19th, I’m going to be introducing Michael Kun at the release party for his new novel, Everybody Says Hello.
I love Michael Kun. I’ve said this before: I think he’s one of the funniest writers in America. I can say with certainty that the hardest I’ve ever laughed at a book was while reading Corrections To My Memoirs.
Everybody Says Hello is a sequel, of sorts, to The Locklear Letters, an absurd, fantastically funny novel comprised almost entirely of the narrator’s letters to Heather Locklear, whom he’s never met. You don’t have to read TLL to enjoy Everybody Says Hello, but I highly recommend that you do, because the in-jokes are brilliant. If you have read it, just the title Everybody Says Hello is probably enough to make you explode with laugher (it was for me, anyway).
Please come out and support a local author that I adore. The details are here. I’d love to see you. We can go for drinks afterward. Or like, shopping, on the promenade. Or whatever. Just come.
by Morgan on February 25, 2012
If you didn’t see Ann Patchett on The Colbert Report this week, go watch it now. I’ve been following Patchett’s trajectory from author to author/gangster bookstore owner for a few years now, and it looks like she’s now starting to take on another role: a public voice for physical bookstores. She and her new bookstore been featured in the New York Times, etc. but being on The Colbert Report tells me that she (and her efforts) are registering on a larger, more important scale.
Colbert seems to be an Amazon supporter. He asks her why she would open a bookstore to begin with, and she tells him that both of the bookstores in Nashville (one indie and one chain) closed down, and suddenly she found herself living in a town with no bookstores.
Colbert: “Why open a bookstore then when the market had spoken? There was no market in your town for a bookstore. You can go to Amazon. You can go to Amazon, you can get whatever you want.”
Patchett: “No, there was. Both of those stores were profitable every month they were open. They closed at corporate levels, so they had larger issues, but Nashvillians, we’re a good, book-buying, smart town.”
She goes on to explain the cycle that happened in bookselling over the past 30 years (something that Andrew Laties describes in detail in Rebel Bookseller): a local bookstore opens, they do well, they get bigger, they get shut down or taken over by the big corporate chains (BN and Borders) who rip off their ideas and offer discounts, then those chains in turn get crushed by Amazon, and suddenly, Patchett: “people are waking up and going ‘but, I want to have some place to take my kids for story hour on Saturday, I want to have some place to go to book club, and see an author read,’ so the bookstore is gone but they miss it. This is a tale of redemption.”
Colbert is still pretty unconvinced. He asks: “What are the things that I can get from a local bookstore that I’m not getting by shopping online?”
Patchett: “Smart people.”
Colbert: “But you understand, I have a couple books coming out this year, and I can’t agree with you…”
A minute later, he tries to prove his point (that Jeff Bezos is the be all and end all of bookselling) by “bumping” Patchett’s novel. He holds up a copy of State of Wonder, and says, “Here is it. I want this to register on Amazon tomorrow.”
Patchett: “No. No. I want it to register…”
Colbert: “No. I just won.”
Patchett: “No. I want it to register at parnassusbooks.net, where if you buy State of Wonder, you can get it signed.”
Now, here’s the throwdown, and the piece that I’ve been neglecting to consider in this whole debate: bookstores are better for authors, not just readers. Here’s where Ann Patchett becomes my hero.
Patchett: “Yes. Now listen, this is what I want from you. Your book comes out, I want you to come to Nashville. You can see your friends – Jack White, Al Gore – we’ll have a party for you, we’ll have a signing, we’ll have Edgar Myer, we’ll get the Goat Rodeo guys to come over and play at the store as your warm-up, you’ll sign, you’ll have such a great time. Then the next week, you’ll take your Sharpie, you’ll go to the warehouse at Amazon, they’ll cut the boxes open for you, you can sign all day. You see which one you like better.”
Colbert: “Thank you for coming.”
I’m happy to report that Patchett and Parnassus Books have indeed been feeling the Colbert bump . Look at this! Look at these people, gathered in a bookstore, watching their local bookseller shut down Stephen Colbert on late-night television, talking to each other, discussing the issue, supporting their community. GAH. It almost makes me cry (I cried a little when I saw this).
I wrote an article for Book Riot a few weeks ago, about my desire and plan to open a bookstore. In it, I talked about how I wanted to be an alternative to Amazon, not anti-Amazon. I still feel like it’s important to be “for” something, rather than against something else, but the more research I do on Amazon’s business practices, the queasier I feel about that stance. And now that Amazon is branching out into publishing, and by that I mean trying to take over publishing and consolidate the entire publishing industry into their business model, not to mention opening physical stores to, “determine if a physical retail presence can accelerate sales of Kindle devices and follow-on consumption of digital content at an attractive return on invested capital,”…shit. Ima have to get political.
Here’s what I propose:
I think that Patchett’s challenge to Colbert – to compare his experience at her store to his experience with Amazon – is one that indie bookstores should start issuing to all authors with new books coming out. I think that they should do it vocally, and that authors should respond publicly. I’m starting to think (right this very second) about how I can help initiate this.
In the meantime, I will continue to do my research. I will attempt to stay open and fair-minded, with an understanding that things are changing, and that digital culture is ubiquitous and valuable, online shopping a convenience, etc. etc. But as it stands, until something changes, I’m officially coming out as anti-Amazon.
Damn it feels good to be out.
Addendum: a third of the way through writing this post, I had my laptop stolen. Like, I got jumped, and the guy ran off with my laptop. I mention this only because I want you, my dearest, cherished readers, to know that when I came back inside, distraught, computerless, the first thing I thought was, “Oh no. I hope my blog draft saved!”
by Morgan on February 13, 2012
After three months in New York, I’m home. People are asking me how I liked NY, and I keep responding, “it’s not LA.”
I don’t mean to sound catty in the least, and in fact, I hadn’t anticipated feeling this way at all. I’ve always loved New York, and secretly, I thought there was a chance that it would kidnap me forever this time. But I’ve found my home in LA, and once you find your home, well, nothing compares.
It was fun to be in the heart of what I love (books) and I enjoyed meeting all the literary people who were kind enough to take me for a drink, or invite me to an event. There’s a really inspiring community in Brooklyn (including the insanely cool and very good new magazine The Coffin Factory) and it was great to get a taste of that. And of course, working at Crawford Doyle Booksellers was an invaluable experience; they really are doing for their community what I hope my future bookstore will be able to do for mine.
But what the trip really gave me is a newfound belief in my ability to do exactly what I want to do in the place that I most want to live. Before I went to New York, I often said that I believed that this was possible, but I don’t think I truly felt that way, at least not 100%. I think I always suspected (feared) that eventually, the devil on my shoulder would convince me that if I was serious about books, I should be in New York. It’s old-fashioned, I know, but I felt that way.
I don’t anymore. I’m not sure exactly how that realization finally impacted for me, but I know that it wouldn’t have, had I not taken this trip. I now wholly believe that I can live a fully literary life here in the city that I love, and that I don’t have to sacrifice anything in order to do that.
The literary community here might not be as big as New York’s, but it’s our own, and it’s pretty great. There may not be many bookstores that I love here, but we do value our independent bookstores, and I believe there’ll be plenty of support for me when I open my own. I don’t think the book coverage in the LA Times is as good as it is in the NY Times, but we do have book coverage, and we have some great critics. We also have Bookworm, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. We have Slake, who may be struggling to support themselves, but are fighting with everything they’ve got to give this city the literary magazine it deserves. And we have some great writers here.
I’ll go to New York for BEA, for the New Yorker Festival, for other fun things. I’ll always go to New York. But now I know: I’ll always come back. I’m profoundly happy (and relieved) to say that I intend to stay here. And I intend to read.
by Morgan on January 30, 2012
You’ll be happy to know that Amanda Briggs is out there! I got a very nice email from her this weekend. I’m waiting to hear back from her to find out what I’m allowed to disclose, but I think it’s safe to say that she is busily and happily creating, which makes me giddy. In the meantime, if you didn’t heed the advice in my last post, go read Amanda’s story, like, yesterday.
For those who missed my INTERNET BOMBING of self-promotion regarding my pieces on Book Riot, I give you…my pieces on Book Riot –
by Morgan on January 25, 2012
In the 2010 Fiction issue of The Atlantic, there was a story called The Landscape of Pleasure, by Amanda Briggs, and I loved it. I read it and loved it, and then I lost it.
I’d bought the magazine right before moving, and somewhere between my old apartment and my new one, I lost it. I didn’t think about it at the time, because it’s a magazine, but I also wasn’t aware yet of how deeply this story had affected me.
Weeks and months passed, and then one day I was flipping through The Best American Short Stories 2010, and I thought, none of these are what I want right now. I had this craving for the perfect short story, the one that would bore down into a very specific part of me, and satisfy something I couldn’t name. While I enjoyed them, none of the stories in the collection were hitting the spot. I asked myself, what am I looking for, exactly?
And then I realized that I’d already read the story I was looking for. I could remember the endoskeletal details of it: a teenage girl, a country club, an affair with her father’s friend, wet suburban lawns, a hot summer, her last one before college. I wanted to read THAT story again, but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen it.
I tend to keep magazines around. In my living room at the time I had about 50 issues of The New Yorker, ditto New York Magazine, and about 5o other miscellaneous magazines. I went through them all, and didn’t find it. Went online, couldn’t find it. Went on goodreads.com and posted in a forum dedicated specifically to literary mysteries of this variety. People write things like, “Book that has the word dog in the title, something about a kid?” and other readers come to the rescue. No luck there, either.
And actually, I can’t even remember how I did find it. But I found it, and reread it, and loved it even more. I’ve read it about ten times now, and I still love it. It’s so sensuous. It captures — traps, distills, and holds up to the light — so beautifully that white-hot, slightly dangerous moment when the teenage girl crosses over the threshold of womanhood without really knowing it; when she learns that she is in possession of deadly serious sexual power, and that others can see it, can feel it, can smell it coming off her like a mating call. And then: all of the things (and friends) that she has to shed like an old skin, because you can’t go back.
You must read this story. Don’t skip ahead, but do finish it, because the last line killed me. Kills me every time.
And now my question is: where the hell is Amanda Briggs? The author blurb attached to the story says, “Amanda Briggs is at work on a collection of short stories.”
Okay. Good. Excellent.
How far along are you, Amanda? Do you have a publisher? Any other pieces coming out soon? Why can’t I find you on the internet? Do you exist? Will you be my friend? If you’re out there, Ms. Briggs, announce yourself. I’m your biggest fan.
by Morgan on January 9, 2012
I’ve been slacking. I’ve been so excited to be working in a bookstore that I’ve been neglecting the blog (and just about every other thing, besides reading). My position at Crawford Doyle is coming to an end, along with the holiday season, and I’m in a slump.
I need a job. I go on bookjobs.com and dead-eye the postings, ditto mediabistro. I query friends who say they know this or that person for me to meet, who works at such and such a place, and suddenly it’s like I can’t hear anything they’re saying. Literally, I can’t hear them.
My heart is in the bookstore.
I’m writing a novel, that’s true. And I’m reading. My god, I’m reading. But there is nothing - nothing - like putting a book in someone’s hand.
I swear, when a customer comes into the store and says, “show me something good,” I can feel the blood in my veins. When I pull something off the shelf and hand it to them, I can feel, physically, my connection to that person.
Truth: sometimes I feel like the only people I can connect to are fictional characters and the authors who create them. Sometimes I fail to comprehend (or at least internalize) that anything else is real. I unabashedly admit to feeling like my reading life is realer than my lived life.
But when I’m working in the store, selling books, I feel real. I feel like a person, in the world, talking to people. Really talking to them. I can think of no bigger contribution that I can make to someone else’s life, that would be authentic, than recommending a book. That exchange feels honest, and energetic, and beneficial.
This is all sounding a little too Louise Hay for my taste, but there you have it.
So: I’m looking for another bookstore job. I’m also starting my preliminary search for a business partner with the goal of opening a new bookstore in Los Angeles.
by Morgan on December 12, 2011
The thing is, I vehemently support the publication of seriously critical (now usually dubbed simply “negative,”) book reviews. I think a revival of the intelligent, well-written, hard-hitting review –the one that sparks a lively give-and-take between writer and readers, the one that makes you want to run out and buy the book simply to debate or engage with the reviewer, think Trilling, Updike, Fiedler, Macdonald et al — can save print journalism and reinvigorate literary (not to mention cultural) discourse in this country. That is my political belief.
But then there’s just wasting your time. See, I promised I’d review Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family here, but I’m reneging. The book is really very poorly written; while my assertions about the real-life characters in the book stand inasmuch as I think they’re interesting and compelling as literary characters, the writing is so wincingly bad that it was hard for me to remember why I was reading the book.
You know that thing in biographies where the writer goes, “Franklin Roosevelt gazed out the picture window on that cold, frosty first morning in January , spindly fingers gripping a cup of tea, and sighed to himself,” and you think: how the hell would the writer know that?! Well, I often forgive this kind of filling-in of detail in the service of good writing. Capote, etc. But Sandell’s book effectively barfs all over that tradition by writing prose reminiscent of romance novels. Here’s the very first passage, Chapter One:
“Catherine moved through the living room , trying to find her shoes. They were black patent-leather lace-up Gucci booties, and she planned to wear them to her fiancée, Andrew’s office Christmas party that night, but everything she owned was hidden in boxes.”
And I kept reading! I read the whole thing! And the problem is that the freedoms that Sandell takes — the inevitable filling-in of detail to flesh out the narrative — are usually vapid and rely on name dropping of couture brands and NYC hot spots. Even when emotions are addressed, they’re of the near-meaningless cliché variety: her heart sank, blood rushed to her head, she felt her world crashing down around her ad nauseam you get it.
Sigh. Do I sound snarky? Inevitably, I’ll get emails saying so. Maybe that’s why I’m not going ahead with a full review here: because I haven’t yet figured out how to pull off that feat that I so fervently wish to see recalled into the national dialogue. I don’t know how to not be a bitch. Or, how not to care when people ultimately decide that I am. I’m sure Laurie Sandell is a lovely woman, but I think she wrote a pretty bad book.
No: I’m sure Laurie Sandell is a lovely woman AND I think she wrote a pretty bad book. There’s a difference.
by Morgan on November 27, 2011
I’ve been editing, lately. Some reviews, some fiction (some lengthy, some short). And I’ve realized something.
First, ask yourself: why does a piece need editing? A piece that needs editing needs editing because, in some sense, it is sick. It may be “complete” in the sense that the author has tried everything they can to make it whole, but there’s still something about it that’s “not right.”
Editors, therefore, are the doctors. They’re there to “fix” the problem. And it occurs to me that perhaps the reason why so many editors aren’t all that great — and that books get published that still have things “wrong with them” — is that they’re acting like the wrong kind of doctor. They’re acting like MDs.
I wish to present another approach: Alternative Editing.
In Alternative medicine — and I realize that’s a mighty big umbrella, but I think all that falls under it shares a common focus on a holistic approach to healing — there is an understanding that modern Western medicine often doesn’t work because it focuses on masking or alleviating symptoms, instead of healing the causes behind the symptoms.
Here, in a ludicrously simplistic rundown, are two major differences between modern Western medicine and Alternative approaches (I make crude distinctions here for the sake of clarity and proving my point):
1. Modern medicine treats the disease, Alternative medicine treats the patient: the Alternative medical practitioner understands, first and foremost, that a disease, whatever it may be, is always acting within a distinct, unique individual, and therefore no precedent exists, except very broadly.
2. Modern medicine treats the symptoms, Alternative medicine treats the underlying illness: After the individual is considered, and an illness identified, Alternative practitioners focus on the underlying cause of the symptoms, on healing the illness, rather than on symptom abatement or pain relief.
Here’s how I’d translate this into Alternative Editing:
1. Each piece of writing is distinct and needs to be considered as such, instead of as part of a larger framework: It’s not “A Novel,” it’s this novel. No other novel is this novel, and no “problem” that’s been solved using a particular approach in another piece of writing can be solved using quite the same approach in this piece of writing.
2. Address the fundamental problem with the text, not the symptoms of the problem: Don’t attempt to “fix” the dialogue before you understand why the dialogue isn’t working. It doesn’t make sense to say “everything’s good except the dialogue.” That can’t be true. There is a reason the dialogue isn’t working, and it’s deeper than the words on the page. Heal the whole story, instead of trying to make the symptom of poor dialogue go away, or make it become more palatable or readable. When you find the cause and treat it, the symptom goes away.
I’m not saying that I have this kind of intuition or skill, but I am saying that I’m going to approach editing (and always have, actually) as if I do. I’m going to take the Alternative approach. I think more editors should join me.
by Morgan on November 20, 2011
Well, I’m in New York! Somewhat abrupt, but that’s the way I do things. The impetus for this temporary move is to gain some bookstore experience. I realize that I could do this in Los Angeles, but there’s something about the immersion aspect of being in New York that really appeals to me, something about being in the heart of the beast, so to speak.
I’m working full-time for the holiday season at Crawford Doyle Booksellers, an absolute dreamboat of a store on the Upper East Side (my favorite bookstore in the city, actually). I think CD is the first place I’ve ever been employed where the inner workings are as impressive as the presentation. You know that “don’t look in the kitchen” thing? It doesn’t exist there. They run a tight ship.
The manager, Thomas, does the buying, and based on the selection in the store, he’s got the best taste on planet Earth. I swear, there is nothing superfluous there. Every section is finely edited, hand-chosen, and meticulously managed. And because the store is so small, and therefore the staff is, too, everyone who works there has a solid grasp on the inventory and can speak about it at length with customers. My co-worker Lauren is a hand-selling superstar; she’s got this very nuanced approach to book selling that combines intuition, product knowledge and efficiency. I’ll learn a lot from her, I think.
The store is beautiful, all dark wood and sliding ladders, first editions and appealing displays that change and evolve every day. Which is good, because there are a lot of regular customers. They come in several times a week, and as the week progresses, so too does the presentation. For these loyal locals, CD must be like a living thing; comfortable and familiar, but ever shifting, breathing, growing.
This is the type of bookstore I want to have in Los Angeles. CD is a true community bookstore. Their bestsellers are bestsellers (and to me, this is a miracle) due to word of mouth. Yes! This is the best part about the store: the customers talk to each other. They stop in the door and show each other their finds, they stand among the shelves and rave about what they’re reading, and rail against other, larger corporate booksellers that shall remain nameless here. They buy their favorites for each other and leave them behind the cash register, or have us drop them off for a friend. They share this place, this warm little nook on Madison Avenue, because they truly understand that they are a part of it, that they are it. One customer and I spoke about how shopping at local bookstores is a form of political activism, and it seems all of CD’s regulars understand this. They rarely lament the price of the books: they rejoice that they’re still able to buy them in their neighborhood. And often, they come into the store just to talk. About books. I’M IN HEAVEN.
Of course, there are aspects of CD’s appeal that are intrinsically New York – the common touchstone of the Times review, the customers who want Roth because he lives in the neighborhood – but this kind of bookstore could work anywhere because it’s real power comes from knowing its customers. Knowing them and responding to them and intuiting what they want before they know that they want it. And then listening to them, engaging in a real exchange of ideas that affects the shape and tone of the store.
I feel very fortunate to have found this place. If you’re in New York, come visit me. And if you’re in LA, just wait. I’m coming back, and I’m doing this thing.