Book Club: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

I’ve been trying to fall in love for awhile now. There have been a lot of false starts (sorry, Marcel Proust)  and unfulfilled promises (I’m coming for you, too, Fun House) and disingenuous-but-attractive stand-ins for the real thing (Swamplandia!). I just haven’t read anything that I love in awhile. I thought it was different with Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but I was wrong.

It started, as it so often does, in a bar.
It started, as it so often does, in a bar.

The premise of the book is strong and sounds just like something I’d love: a modern fable, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore features an out-of-work Silicon Valley designer, Clay, who takes a job at a mysterious bookstore to make ends meet. There’s more to it than he initially suspects, and he starts to delve into the mysteries contained within. A Googler, the titular shopkeeper, and a start-up success story join up with our hero Clay on his quest to find answers. We get a little bit of typographical history, half of a love story, and a geeky backlog of affection for the sci-fi novels of the 80s. I don’t want to give a lot away, so I’m going to stop here on plot summary. Suffice to say, the setup is clever: you get some self-conscious winks toward Never-Ending Story structure,and a couple biting asides about start-up culture, and then you’re off.

My litany of woe begins thus: there’s a tech solution to every problem our hero faces. In a book that was sold to me as a love letter to the written word, I feel like it leaned on the god from the machine, if you will. Reading it produced the same sensation you get when you watch CSI:Miami. “That’s not how computers work,” you say. “Scanners don’t do that. You can’t make pixels.” This was like that. A lot like that. For a long time. In contemporary literature, technology is sort of like its own character, but you have to shape it carefully or it becomes a golem, no longer willing to do your bidding. Robin Sloane did a good job talking about cell phones and laptops in a way that won’t feel immediately dated (hello, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but he let them do too much, and soon they were running around, terrorizing me.

As much as technology was a developed character, most of the others were not. Clay’s maybe-girlfriend, Kat, feels like a plot device more than a person, a handy doorkeeper to Google. Oliver, another employee at Mr. Penumbra’s eponymous shop, has a small cast of satellite characters that attend to his grad student universe; I never even caught their names. Roommates are given unnecessary subplots that are never revisited, and I didn’t care if they were or not. Clay and Neel, his childhood best friend, were likeable enough that I wanted them to succeed, I guess, but I didn’t feel that strongly about it one way or the other. The person I cared the most about was Aldus Mantius, a long-dead Italian typographer of yore: his designs look like a tattoo I’d love to have, and the accompanying message, festina lente, is something that I tacked up on my board at work. Mantius, though, is a specter, and doesn’t have any dialogue, for obvious reasons. Sloane gets so deep into his role as fabulist that he forgets himself; everyone feels like a symbol or a stock character, and no one ends up being that compelling.

I’m done maligning now. I wanted to love this too much, and that was probably my own undoing. The first hundred pages were so fresh, so clever, that I didn’t do the necessary background check. It was just too good to be true, and the undergirding structures couldn’t hold the weight of the narrative.

Next week, I’ll be reading this. Let me know if you want to join!

Have you read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore? What did you think? Am I completely off base? Not even in the ballpark? Let me have it.

Lazy Sunday: 24 November 2013

I wanted to go get a sticky bun but it’s so cold I can’t bear to get out of bed and consider braving the walk to my pants (to say nothing of outside), so I made you this list of things to read instead.

You Should Know How to Do This: Wear a Hat

There’s no reason to be modest about this: I look spectacular in a hat.

I mean, COME. ON.
This is a 7 a.m. car selfie, even. This is the power of the right hat.

Hats occupy the uncanny valley of clothes: they have all the aspects of things one might put on one’s body (softish, cover something up, come in sizes), but a vast segment of the population feels somewhere between uneasy about and repulsed by the idea of actually integrating them into their lives.  Whenever I venture out of the house wearing a hat, someone says, “I love your outfit! I wish I could pull that off!”

I bought this last week when I had a bad day.
I bought this last week when I had a bad day.

Can I tell you a secret? There’s no such thing as “pulling it off.” You don’t have to have amazing bone structure or a certain haircut or be between 18-22 or anything at all. The reason you think I look good in a hat is that it’s novel (if you don’t know me) or you’re used to seeing me in one (if you do).

When I was 15, I was at Dot Fox, talking to my style mentor Sally Bird (I know we’ve talked about Sally), and admiring this big, black felt hat. Since I was 15, I said something like, “I love this but I couldn’t ever wear it! I’d feel so silly about how weird I’d look because I am a teenager and think everyone is looking at me all the time and actually no one cares but I think they do.”

Sally said this: “You know what the trick to pulling it off is? You put that sucker on and don’t take it off until everyone is telling you how goddamn stunning you are.”

Continue reading “You Should Know How to Do This: Wear a Hat”

Tea Party Tuesday: Vietnamese Wild Black

I feel like one of those horrible guys you knew in college who was really into anime and greeted Korean girls with a “konichiwa” when I describe anything Asian as “elegant” or “delicate”, but I’ve always enjoyed Vietnamese teas because I find them elegant and delicate.  They aren’t as up front with what they’re working with, and the flavor combos will knock your socks off if you’re paying attention. Since most of Vietnam’s tea exports go to Russia (something like 7:1, Russia:Rest of the World), it’s something most people haven’t tasted before, but it’s available enough to not be a major splurge.

Today, I’ve brought you a nam lanh varietal that I think you’ll dig. They’re just called that because Nam Lanh is the estate from which it comes, not because it’s something entirely different than what you’ve had. It’s the same drying/twisting/aging process we’ve gone over in the past.

I also like this because it looks like burned up twigs.
I also like this because it looks like burned up twigs.

You’re in the same general palate area as an assam, but this doesn’t knock you over the head like that does with the MALT MALT MALT stuff. It’s a little coppery, and has this not-subtle hint of molasses that I love (I feel like I’m on the record about molasses, right? Love that stuff.). If the copper is kind of a quiet, sly grin, the molasses part is like when your mom kicks you under the table really hard and you’re like, “OW WHY DID…no one kick me.”

You’ll want to do about two big pinches of this (equal to a teaspoon, but the twiggy structure makes it hard to measure out like you would something leafy) and to steep it for about three minutes the first time through, and more like five on the second. It’s high on the caffeination scale for tea, so if you’re like me, proceed with caution or make this a breakfast drink. I also love to make a diluted version of this tea to brine poultry and marinate tofu or mushrooms. Just a thought. I’m not going to tell you what to do.

This comes in pretty cheap, too, at $3.75 for 2 ounces. It’s from a Southern Season (expect to see a lot of this– they’re the best tea purveyors in Charleston), and it makes a good holiday beverage for teetotalers at your parties.

What are you drinking this lovely Tuesday morning?

Book Club: Shah of Shahs

I forgot to take a picture of Shah of Shahs before I took it back to the ‘brary, so here’s one I borrowed from the interconnecting tubes.

What a compelling profile!
What a compelling profile for such a brutal man. 

It’s tiny, but I think you get the point. Ryszard Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist, and his work is the second-most-widely-translated of any of his countrymen. He wrote extensively about Africa, the final hours of the Soviet Union, and, of course, Iran, but he was also a poet of some renown and a somewhat famous photographer in his day. He was also an amateur boxer of note, so that’s something to file away in your RK dossier. I recommend his Wikipedia page, which I linked to up there; a lot of the criticisms and posthumous observations about his work and person fall neatly in line with many of the questions I had about Shah of Shahs.

The basic premise of the book is that it’s an overview of the the last days of the Shah of Iran and the subsequent revolution through the eyes of an outsider. The literary treatments of this time period (House of Sand and Fog, Persepolis) are varied and interesting; in my opinion, the body of work available in English is one of the richest of any foreign conflict. Kapuscinski’s take is no less striking: he uses material artifacts, like photos, cassettes, and newspaper articles and works backward to try and make sense of the trauma and immense cultural shift that occurred very quickly. Sometimes this is striking and interesting, but other times, it makes it hard to know whether you’re reading a non-fiction novel or a longform piece of journalism or something even less fact-based entirely. Is he extrapolating from what he sees and hears? Is he taking his cues from anonymous interviews? Is this all in a book or a newspaper somewhere that he hasn’t cited? I’m not sure.

The strength of this narrative structure, though, is that it’s unsettling and confusing, which mirrors what I must imagine is the sensation of social structure collapsing. It’s disorienting, but if such a thing is possible, it’s disorienting in a good way. It keeps you on your toes, it makes you unsure. There’s a fascinating passage that discusses the secret police coming to the apartment of someone who has just moved back to Iran after studying in medicine France for several years. The world has changed a lot since this man has been away, and he doesn’t seem to fully grasp the new political climate. They go back and forth about whether or not he should join the party of the shah, and ultimately, the police seem to tell him this isn’t really an invitation, but a mandate. At this point, the young doctor has created an impossible situation for himself: if he says he isn’t against the shah, they’ll just say that he wanted to be. The way Kapuscinski writes communicates this bind perfectly; there is no way to win when blind brutality is the way of your world, and you’re constantly mired in confusion as you blindly grope your way through.

After I’d digested what I’d read and started taking a tour of the aforementioned (and completely infallible) Wikipedia page of our author, I found that a lot of people had the same questions I did about his methods and the truthiness of his work. Kapuscinski refused to update future editions of his books when new information came to light, and a significant number of prominent journalists have called into question his adherence to standards and ethics. There was a lot of talk of him both exoticizing and homogenizing his subjects (Africa, Iran, the Soviet Union) for personal gain, and damning statements like this one about his work: “[The Africa he creates] is a fascinating place. Whether it ever existed as he tells it is another matter altogether.” That’s what I came away with from this book about Iran. Did this happen? I’m not sure. The revolution was brutal and terrible, and this book depicts brutal and terrible things (many of which line up with a lot of the non-fiction I’ve read about this time period), but are the people he’s talking about even real? I felt like he never let us get close enough to anyone to even make an educated guess.

Overall, I think he had a novel idea in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. This reads like fiction, and the form is interesting, but I don’t know that this is non-fiction, or that you should read this as your introduction to the Iranian Revolution. I felt like I learned more from Persepolis, which is a graphic novel, than I did here.

Next week, I’m reading this. I’d love to read it with you. If you’ve read Shah of Shahs, let’s talk about it below. If you’ve read other great works about Iran that I didn’t mention, I’d like to hear more.

Lazy Sunday: 17 November 2013

It’s been an up-and-down couple weeks, huh? Glad Mercury is no longer in retrograde or whatever. Enjoy! Let’s hang out here tomorrow, okay?

  • First things first: I talked to my friend Larry, who is an aid worker in the Philippines, about what might be the best tack to take to help the typhoon victims. He said these guys are the real deal, and are doing permanent, important good. If everyone who read my blog gave PHP500 (about the cost of a fancy cocktail at a nice bar), we’d be able to give meaningful help to people who really need it.
  • Another charitable thing to consider as the season of plenty is upon us: What’s it like to feed your family from a food bank?
  • There is no scenario in which I want to hear anyone say “make love” so this Woody Allen supercut is the worst thing ever. I made it through about 30 seconds before I had to make it stop.
  • I was pretty irritated about the new BuzzFeed Books policy of “only nice reviews” and I guess the New Yorker was, too.
  • Charleston City Paper is pushing back against the homogenized “aw-shucks pansouthernism” that is creeping in.
  • Do you know this about me? I’m casually obsessed with televangelism and performative religious cultures (SURPRISE.).
  • This is just a weird Wikipedia page.
  • Usually, I don’t go in for fondant icing, but I could make an exception for this beaut.
  • Edgar Allan Poe was a true freak, and that’s a fact.
  • As an inveterate, unrepentant, unreconstructed set list stealer, this speaks to my heart.