Wednesday, February 16, 2011

This bookstore, and everyone in it, is disposable

By now, it's all over the Internet, all over the evening news, all over everywhere: Borders has filed for Chapter 11. Stores will close and people will be out of work. As a book-lover, I should have 'feelings' about this. I guess I do have some. I used to frequent Borders when I was younger. They have a terrific classical music section, or they did back then. The coffee bar in the store was a novelty back then, and sometimes I'd stop in just for a drink. Honestly, I always found their book section sort of lackluster and diffuse, good if you wanted something off the NYT Best-Seller list but not so hot if you're looking for something more off-beat or localized.

If the entire chain goes under, as it seems to be in danger of doing, that would be A Bad Thing for sure. Between them and Barnes and Noble, they virtually killed off indie bookstores in the country. Buying books will be reduced to the click of a mouse for many people. They'll miss the serendipity of the remainder table, of the interestingly-titled book that wound up on the shelf next to what they were going for, or the tantalizing history book they happened across when they accidentally wandered into that aisle. They'll miss the communal experience of having a place to go and feel less alone, the surge of validation when they ask at the counter for an author they were sure NO ONE ELSE had ever heard of, only to be told they were all sold out. If the bookstore was really good, the bookseller might even add, by the way, the store has a book discussion group on that genre, if you want to come.

Many commentors on stories about the fall of Borders have sunk to schadenfreude. It's certainly tempting: you opened your mega-store across from my favorite indie bookstore, they were out of business in a year, how's it feel, motherfuckers, how's it feel? The problem is that the people that stand to be hurt the most by this, as always, aren't corporate suits. They're little guys. Like Manny, Roz, Nicolette and Jackie from Last Night at the Lobster. Kids putting themselves through college, single moms, retirees forced back into the workforce, veterans who came home and couldn't get better jobs. And, increasingly, people who played by life's rules, attended college, and wound up with little more to show for it than a job at a failing bookstore.

The first round of closings will affect an estimated 19,500 people. I wish all of them a soft landing.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Attack of the Clones

Just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro's Never let Me Go last night, and I guess I'm still forming an opinion, but it's definitely a novel that stays with you and makes you think.

I'd shied away from the novel because of the sappy title. I thought it was a cheesy love story, and imagined it was set against the backdrop of war or an oppressive culture. I got more interested when I found it out it was about clones.

For all of that, the book is very subtle. It's so subtle that it's actually hard to follow at first. Like any subculture, the clones have their own lingo, and when our narrator, Kathy, speaks of being a 'carer' and watching over people after 'donations', and how many of her donors have 'completed', it's a bit hard to follow at first. The book is a trip backwards into Kathy's childhood memories, and someone ultimately spells it out for her and her classmates: they are human clones, brought into the world to donate their organs. They'll be 'carers' at first for other clones, and then they themselves will give their organs until they no longer can. Most clones go through four surgeries, some 'complete' early if the surgery goes poorly, and they hint darkly at the fact that occasionally, a clone will go on for more surgeries as a sort of vegetable.

Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy were raised in an idyllic boarding-school atmosphere. They attended classes, they made tons and tons of artwork, they played sports like any other kids. Throughout the course of the book, she traces their relationship growing up, the instances where they first became dimly aware of their fate, and their attempts to fight it.

What I had trouble understanding throughout the book is why no one just ran. I came to think that it was simply because it was what they were raised to do. They may not like it, just as many American adults don't really like working a 9 to 5 job, but they do it because it's what they're supposed to do.

It's a very thought-provoking book. Some of the thoughts that come may be sort of uncomfortable. During the passages describing what they learned in school, I wondered what the point of it all was, when they were just going to die before 35 anyway. But then again, how many people is that true of in real life, anyway? I have several classmates from high school that are dead now. Think of all the people every day that die in stupid, senseless ways, and all the effort that was expended to educate them, train them and mold them into decent people. Never Let Me Go fulfills the promise of literature in a very literal way, then: to explain what it means to be human.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Stench of Death II:another library visit

Well, the purge continue at my library. There has been a well-publicized
scandal involving thousands of books that have been discarded. Officials say that all that was thrown out were books that were badly damaged, hadn't circulated in years, or were outdated. Online comments on several of those articles from people who claim to work at the libraries say otherwise.

When you're there, you can feel it. 67,000 books recycled in the past year makes an impact. And the reorganization continues. When I walked in, I went straight to the fiction section and almost had a heart attack. They'd removed several rows of shelves to make way for a new kids' section. But there already is a kids' section. It has its own room off the main floor. I can't figure out what they intend to put in that room. And yet, the large cafe with the limited hours remains untouched.

All this made me even angrier as I looked around the library. A lot of the people there were poster children for why the place needed to exist. The most poignant to me was a couple who appeared to be in their fifties. They were clean, but looked sort of on the poorer side. They also sort of looked like they didn't normally patronize libraries. They sat together at a table with a backpack between them, full of water bottles and cheap snacks. She was reading a true crime book. He was staring straight ahead. I was there towards the end of the day, and they had the stupefied look about them that people get in waiting rooms everywhere. My theory, after passing them a few times, was that their heat was shut off at home and they came to the library to be warm for a few hours.

So, my trip was very depressing, and most of the materials I selected matched my mood:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I picked it because I imagined it'd be as bleak and apocalyptic and moving as the Hunger Games trilogy. So far, it's sort of diffuse. They're getting at something big here, and from the movie reviews, I have a vague memory of what.
American Pastoral by Phillip Roth. Living in Buffalo and recently watching "Cars" several times, urban decay intrigues me.
Ava's Man by Rick Bragg. Part of a trilogy on his family and growing up poor in the South.
Postcards by E. Annie Proulx. I haven't read this one yet. And I love her.
Novelties and souvenirs: collected short fiction by John Crowley. Haven't read any in a while, and I liked the title.
Paradise, New York by Eileen Pollack. Because there's rural decay, too.
The Last Talk with Lola Faye by Thomas Cook. I need to get on this one, it's a 7-day about a son's meeting with his father's mistress.
Too Rich: The Family Secrets of Doris Duke by Pony Duke. I went to her house and know that she led a sad life. More of a guilty pleasure I guess.
Buffalo Bill's America by Louis Warren. A work-influenced book. I recently did a story on a high school that was doing "Annie Get Your Gun" and wanted to know more of the real story.
Bean Blossom Dreams by Sallyann Murphey. About life on a farm or something. I guess a cheerful selection never hurt anyone.
Egypt: a short history by Robert Tignor. Influenced not by current events, but by World of Warcraft, and the fact that several of their new dungeons borrow heavily from Egyptian mythology.

So there you have it. I am trying to enjoy this library while I can. Each time I go feels like the end, though I know logically they'd close every other branch before they closed this one. But it's a shadow of its former self already, and the page I talked with has no idea when they're finishing.