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book My Century
by
Gunter Grass

One hundred stories, one for each year, give the narrators tiny spotlights to shine as they will on their particular historic moment. Cumulatively, Gunter Grass's precise and often exquisite stories in My Century develop a portrait of the amazing time span that will have been, for most readers in 1999, our century as well.

The stories come across in almost journalistic fashion, as though the narrator wants to report clearly and in detail what happened. They are, variously, like a letter home or a report to an official or a human interest story written for a newspaper. As in such writing, there is the cover-up: subjects or narrators frame their words carefully, and reporters don't tell all either. But Grass the reporter/historian is the storyteller as well, and the storyteller has the last line, the line that makes the jaw drop and understanding set in. Just about one hundred times.

Central to the book is a series of storiesthey appeared in The New Yorkerconcerning a reunion of war correspondents who are letting their hair down. As they argue, the narrator ponders their differences, and he also recalls examples of human suffering, whether in battle or in a concentration camp, that he did not report, that he could not. The subject of a war correspondent was heroism, period. What you call yourself, in other words, sets out what you can do and becomes what you are. The ''war correspondent'' is caught in the same heroic trap as the soldier, but he is also saved from calling himself a propagandist.

The characters range from historic figures like the Kaiser exiled in Holland where he occupies himself chopping firewood and novelists Remarque and Junger comparing their views of battle tactics in WWI to a woman trying to feed her family in Berlin during the bombing and writers gathered in East Berlin imagining that their readings are important enough to be monitored by the police.

Many stories are political, and each one is tied to an event or a reality of its stated year. Some of the stories are funny, some grave, some satirical, some touching. They are about weakness, shallowness, blindness, remarkable strength. If some references are obscure to a non-German reader, the story is never lost, nor is Grass's affection for the students, housewives, shopkeepers, children, writers and workers of all kinds who are his subjects. The magical rebirth in the last story is so good humored that it overrides the previous objectivity andeven if it is lacking in the readercan create all by itself an optimistic millennial mood.
-
Marilyn - customer (12/99) . . . title list


book Of Love and Other Demons
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A brutal fairy-tale is the first thought that surfaced while reading Of Love and Other Demons. In the South American tropics, there lived a girl with long, untamable red hair; a mother getting her high eating cocoa leaves; a rabid dog running wild, biting people...the list goes on. And like every good fairy-tale, if one of these components didn't exist, it would not be a fairy-tale. Garcia Marquez really can create a situation out of thin airand make it work.

- Leo
- a former bookseller
(6/99) . . . title list


book One Hand on the Wheel
by Dan Bellm

Here's one for you: a new poet who appears to have been most heavily influenced by Elizabeth Bishop and Matthew Arnold (Quite a pairing, eh? Though her take on the darkling plain of Dover would have been quite interesting). Dan Bellm's first collection of poems,
One Hand on the Wheel (which sounds like a bad Alanis Morisette parody"with the other hand I'm writing a poem" ), is also the first in the new California Poetry Series from Roadhouse Press, a division of Berkeley's Heyday Books. Much more important, the book is rich with promise.

Bellm's collection focuses on fathers and sons: Bellm's relationship to his father, whose death is the catalyst for the collection; his father's relationship with his own father; and Bellm's relationship to his son (an interesting and rather mysterious surprise because part of Bellm's estrangement with his father is due to the poet's homosexuality).
All twenty-four of the book's poems are tightly and formally structured. Nine are sestinas with often ingenious variants. (In one, an elided "e" results in a change from "dead" to "dad.") And two of the poems are villanelles, one of which is entitled "Nashvillanelle"and who can't help but smile at that?

The poems are slightly prosaic, but, if I may borrow Randall Jarrell's lightening theory, Bellm strikes and is struck at least twice in the book. The closing poem is extraordinary, partly because of the accumulative effect of all those before it, but an earlier poem, "Discipline," is an even greater achievementboth powerful and haunting.

And those adjectives are just what one wants in an impressive debut. Bellm's second collectionalready an award winnerappears in the fall. But this first work will continue to linger and should mark the beginning of an extraordinary career.
- Michael
- a former bookseller (6/99) . . . title list


book The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman
by
Bruce Robinson
This is the hilariously touching story of an eccentric 1950's British working-class family told through the mind of an extremely odd thirteen-year-old boy. If you have read or seen the film version of
Butcher Boy, you'll have a great feel for this equally bizarre family of Brits. The book takes you through Thomas's first drink, first cigarette, and his sexual obsession with the young Gwendolin, but it's the completely strange collection of family members that fill up this novel. Thomas's Grandpa Walter is a frail figure who is delicately balanced just this side of death for much of the book. Thomas, as a true teenager, is fixated on Grandpa's seemingly imminent death AND his extensive pornography collection. Much of the book is quite dark, as the parents marriage seems to be coming apart, yet, at the same time, the reader has no other viewpoint of the family other than from this rude, crude, and awkward young boy. One very funny scene is when Thomas believes his grandfather has died in the night and he sneaks to his bedside to place coins over the eyes of the still living Grandpa. Walter lives a little while longer, the parents continue to have serious problems, Thomas has constant problems in school and trying to figure out his desires for Gwendolin, but the novel rolls on in its darkly humorous fashion. This may be an acquired taste in fiction, but, if you're ready for it, Peculiar Memories is disturbingly enjoyable.

- John
- bookstore founder/owner (5/01) . . . title list


book Plainsong
by
Kent Haruf
This is one of the leanest and most satisfying pieces of fiction writing that I've read in some time. The book seems simple, yet, at the same time, several story lines wind themselves together as the different characters realize how much they need one another. The central story of the two withdrawn brothers working their isolated farm and taking in a very troubled pregnant teenage girl is beautifully depicted. Nothing is easy, yet these two quiet men who have only shared each other's company for decades soon come to need the girl's companionship as much as she needs them. This is a novel to own because you'll want to reread it. It's a real pleasure!

- John
- bookstore founder/owner (5/01) . . . title list


book Prague
by Arthur Phillips

A first novel, Prague, the story of five American expatriates in Budapest, Hungary spins the Jazz Age novel of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Miller in a brilliant exploration of time, memory, and nostalgia. At once a generational documentary, polemic, and love story, Prague does it all.
-
Jed
- a former bookseller (8/02) . . . title list


book Pure Drivel
by Steve Martin

The man who started us laughing while wearing that white suit of his has returned with another hilarious collection of essays, mostly from the pages of New Yorker magazine. Like his previous collection,
Cruel Shoes, Steve Martin grabs your mind in so many clever and creative ways that you keep laughing. Don't confuse Pure Drivel with the books that other comedians have been tossing out in the past few years; this is different because Martin can write.

- John
- bookstore founder/owner . . . title list


book The Restraint of Beasts
by Magnus Mills

Nineteen ninety-eight was quite a year for Magnus Mills. Not only did the London bus driver see his first novel published, but the work was nominated for the Booker Prize.
The Restraint of Beasts is the droll story of two not-so-bright Scottish fence builders, their reluctant English foreman, and the drudgery of labor. Low key, meandering, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, the novel is about the horrors of work: the repetitive tasks, the god awful weather, the supposed joys of off-hour pubbing, and the occasional accidental death. Short, fast, and told in a wonderfully bemused voice, the book goes down as smoothly as a pint of Guinness after a long day's toil.

- Michael
- a former bookseller
(6/99) . . . title list


book The Rings of Saturn
by
W.G. Sebald
W. G. Sebald must consciously strive to be somewhat of an anachronism. Like Thomas Mann and Herman Broch, he writes prose with a distinctly first-half of the 20th Century European feel--fiction that combines essay, history, and philosophy. The Emigrants, his first novel to appear in English, struck me as often fascinating, but oddly quaint. However, The Rings of Saturn, his second novel, is extraordinarya reverie concerning decay, death, ad what remainsa tone poem contemplating the ephemerality of existence.

Sebald presents his ten chapters as parts of a walking tour of coastal east England, an area in constant flux from erosion, war, economics: history. The narrative voice is that of a benign lecturer, a palimpsest whose recurring images and themes focus on the inevitability of loss and the written artifacts that remain to preserve and, in a sense, eternalize that loss--works, like this novel, that focus an the constant presence of absence.

Using historical and literary figures, discussing imperial and economic concerns, and punctuating the text with photographs and reproductions, Sebald weaves a hypnotic tale that accumulates power as each chapter is placed over, grows from, and echoes back to the preceding ones. As one might consider Wallace Stevens an ironic ironist, here, Sebald can be seen as an elegiac elegist. A lovely moving intelligence suffuses the prose of The Rings of Saturn, and the spell of this novel, surely one of the best of the decade, lingers long after one has reluctantly finished the book.
- Michael
- a former bookseller (11/99) . . . title list


book The River King
by
Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman always writes special books - and she's done it again. She has placed a magical and tragic story into a small New England town. Hoffman writes like a dream, and sometimes that dreamlike quality lifts the reader through some very surreal passages that make her books stand out brilliantly against what seems many times like the drab backdrop of much of contemporary fiction.

Central to this book is the Haddan School, which is viewed by many of the townspeople with a resentful and envious eye. The school's troubled students are all from somewhere else and have very privileged lives when compared to the general blue-collar tone of the area. Abel Grey is a lifelong resident of the area, as well as a simple town cop who is trying to get to the bottom of the drowning death of one of the students. Where the rather odd boy and late student fits into (or didn't fit into) the social sphere of the school seems all-important to the investigation. Teenage themes of acceptance, love and tenderness, extreme school hazing, growth, and trust are all involved when Abel searches for the answers. But, then again, most of these things are central to our cop's life as well. If you were to sum up this special novel, it might fall into the "coming of age" mode. But the question upon reading it would be - Who is it of all the characters, young and old, alive and dead, who most comes of age? Who grows the most? This finely written book has made me a Hoffman fan once again.
- John
- bookstore founder/owner (5/01) . . . title list


book Rose
by
Martin Cruz Smith

Martin Cruz Smith has written something especially fine with
Rose. Those familiar with Smith know that the quality of his writing extends far beyond those bestselling-blockbuster-plot-driven spy novels that share the bestseller lists with him. Martin Cruz Smith believes in characters, those fleshed-out figures that make readers care about the who and the what of a finely tuned novel. Rose takes place in a small coal mining town in 19th century England, amongst the rugged miner's community and the refined high manor home of Bishop Hannay. The story has an African explorer being reluctantly convinced, "drafted", into the role of an investigator. His case involves the disappearance of the poor local minister, who was to have married the wealthy bishop's daughter. Our "draftee" gets deeply involved, in the mines, with the rough miners and scandalous pit girls, the Lord's household, and with Rose herself. My recommendation is strong for this book because it does so much to richly reward the reader. Lastly, it shows well that the heights and depths of true civilization often have nothing to do with whether one is rich or poor, refined or coarse.

- John
- bookstore founder/owner . . . title list


book The Rum Diary
by
Hunter S. Thompson
It's a gentler and kinder Hunter S. Thompson in
The Rum Diary, his previously unreleased first novel. His trademark hallucinations and other drug-induced bizarreness are missing because this 1950's novel seems to be pre-heavy drug use for the young Mr. Thompson. The novel wildly spins around a heavy-drinking newspaper reporter and the small circle of his fellow thrill-seeking, globe-trotting reporters in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thompson's world is still very strange.

- John
- bookstore founder/owner . . . title list


book Salt Water
by Charles Simmons

This is a strong, yet tender story that has one of the most intriguing first lines I've ever read: "In the summer of 1963 I fell in love and my father died." With this one line, I was hooked...I had to read this book. This skillful novel about an inexperienced fifteen-year-old boy's summer vacation centers on his discovery of lust, love, and loss. While reading the book, I was always surprised to see the aged author's photo on the dust jacket because the story feels like...well...youth itself. Using the experiences of one brief summer at the ocean, Charles Simmons has captured the mind, heart, and yearnings of an intelligent boy who is quickly becoming a young man.

- John
- bookstore founder/owner . . . title list


book Siddhartha
by
Herman Hesse
Siddharta is one of those tales that can be applied to any individual's life if he or she ever struggled with the issues of the meaning and moralities of living...so I suppose this book is for everyone. Who hasn't spent hours (not necessarily consecutively) wondering about these things, being as much a part of the everyday world as they are?

Herman Hesse's book is the ultimate in bringing your conscience (or unconscious) into reality and allowing it to walk through life unhindered, and you even get to turn into a fish -- just like Addie Bundren (but don't worry, you're able to return to your natural state). And the best part isyou never have to leave your chair.
- Leo
- a former bookseller (6/99) . . . title list


book Smoke and Mirrors
by
Neil Gaiman
Following up his novel
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman's collection of short stories manage to bend the stories and the world that we know into strange and surprising revelations. It contains most of the stories from his previous book, Angels and Visitations, now difficult to find, as well as many new ones. Among the best of the older stories are "Chivalry," about a timid old lady who finds the Holy Grail in a pawn shop and buys it because it would look nice on her mantle, and "Troll Bridge," a poignant adaptation of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Many of the new stories are also excellent. "The Queen of Knives" revisits one of Grimm's favorite territories, how the world of adults is misconstrued by children, leaving them to patch together their own reality from these unreliable memories. And the collection ends with a wonderfully twisted retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, "Snow, Glass, Apples." It is from the Queen's perspective, with Snow White as a vampire. The range in this collection is impressiveoften funny, often disquieting, sometimes tender, sometimes a combination. This collection shows a master storyteller at his best.

- Brandon
- a former bookseller
(6/99) . . . title list


book The Sounds of Poetry
by
Robert Pinsky
Laying aside the massive burden of his ego, Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky fashions a short primer concerning poetics in
The Sounds of Poetry. He briefly discusses a variety of topicsa kind of prosody lightbut the examples he cites are often quite wonderful and his writing avoids critical jargon and academic dryness. While the information given might be too limited for a valuable introduction, the book is a fast refresher course and a nice anthology of poems and poets. The text even ends with two poems by Pinsky's buddies: the horribly underrated Frank Bidart and the simply horrible James McMichael; the miracle is that Pinsky actually avoids including himself. Now that action truly demonstrates the restraint of beasts.

- Michael
- a former bookseller
(6/99) . . . title list


book South of the Border, West of the Sun
by
Haruki Murakami
In his newest book, South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami has changed styles yet again. He's moved from the wonderful complexity of
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles to telling the story of one man and the woman he has loved since they were both children. This is not to say that this is a simple story ... this is also not to say that this is your regular love story...this is, after all, Haruki Murakami. His fiction is some of the finest around, and, while South of the Border, West of the Sun isn't as outstanding and complex as The Wind-Up Bird (one of my favorite novels), he is a master of the written word, who doesn't seem to ever make a literary misstep. His writing always draws me into another world, one where my mind is most definitely my own, but my thoughts are benignly controlled by the pace and whatever unknown qualities that he has inhabited that writing with. It's always a pleasure to visit the world of Murakami. It's like a river: you never step into the same place twice; but it leaves your mind, instead of your feet, refreshed.

- John
- bookstore founder/owner (4/99) . . . title list

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