Growing up, I remember hearing phrases about books bringing readers to a magical place. And I completely believe it, I have since I was a child. But I have not yet read a book that so vividly brings these phrases to life than Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Clay Jannon walks into the bookstore a little timidly at first. When he read the “Help Wanted” poster in the front window, he approached the opportunity cautiously. On the one hand, he needed a job. His previous employer, a San Francisco-based bagel company called NewBagel, was his “first job out of art-school,” and could have lead to great things had it not slowly gone under with the economic downturn.
On the other hand, “I was pretty sure ’24-hour bookstore’ was a euphemism for something, It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town.” The location itself was a bit questionable: directly next door to an establishment featuring neon legs named Booty’s.
But the need for an income wins out, and he begins working as the night-clerk at the bookstore. For the most part, the job is what you would expect for the graveyard shift at a bookstore–relatively slow. But every so often someone would come in looking for a strange book, and his job shifted from ordinary to confusing.
Is this a book club? How do they join? Do they ever pay?
These are the things I ask myself when I sit here alone, after Tyndall or Lapin or Fedorov has left. Tyndall is probably the weirdest, but they’re all pretty weird: all graying, single-minded, seemingly imported from some other time or place. There are no iPhones. There’s no mention of current events or pop culture or anything really, other than the books. I definitely think of them as a club, though I have no evidence that they know one another. Each comes in alone and never says a word about anything other than the object of his or her current, frantic fascination.
With nothing else to do at night, Clay begins to investigate these unusual people that come to his bookstore. He looks into their actions and the books they check out–books he’s never heard of before. And the more he digs, the more he realizes he’s just scratched the surface of something much larger than he ever expected.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an adventure. Even though I had read the short story first, I was still turning pages and wondering what came next. The books the unusual patrons ask for are what trigger Clay to investigate the bookstore, and its owner, and they’re what keep him moving forward through the story. Books are what drive him forward.
But books aren’t the end-all. Sloan does a good job of bridging the often push-pull discussion of books and technology. Instead of a “one is better than the other” tone many take, he proposes that the best result can be achieved when both are used. Some situations require paper and ink, some are best handled with technology. But, above all, the content is what matters. How the content is delivered is, while important, often a separate conversation.
And it makes sense that he would take this stance: Sloan has spent a lot of time in both technology and writing. He’s worked at Twitter and Current TV, yet he also started a literary journal, Oats, while at Michigan State. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, now available in paperback, spent time on the New York Times bestseller list, was chosen as a “Top Book of 2012″ by the San Francisco Chronicle and was New York Times Editor’s Choice.
I have the privilege this week to feature Robin Sloan and his book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. This is something I’d like to do more regularly on lifebythebooks, and I’m really grateful that Robin agreed to answering a few questions for me to bring to you.
Today’s sneak peak and tomorrow’s review will both involve Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and on Wednesday I will have the Author Q&A posted.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore originated from a short story written in 2009. I read both, and while there are a few spoilers from reading the story first, the novel definitely provides a unique experience from the story.
For my sneak peak, I wanted to offer the description of the bookstore. It’s the central location to the novel, and I’m sure that if it existed, it would be featured in all of the websites dedicated to bookshelf and/or library porn:
I pushed the bookstore’s glass door. It made a bell tinkle brightly up above, and I stepped slowly through. I did not realize at the time what an important threshold I had just crossed.
Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up–three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever.
The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest–not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumors of accidents in the dark.
Yesterday, the Man Booker Prize announced its 2013 winner: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton.
This is one of most prestigious literary prizes out there, and to win it is an incredible honor and push for an author. Past winners include V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State (1971), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K (1983), A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2002), and of course last year’s winner, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.
The award was initially sponsored by Booker-McConnell, and called the Booker-McConnell Prize, or simply “The Booker Prize,” until the Man Group invested in the early 2000s. When the Man Group invested, the named changed to the Man Booker Prize and it became one of the richest literary prizes in the world.
Up until now, the Prize has only been eligible to authors living in the United Kingdom, a commonwealth such as Australia or Canada, Ireland or Zimbabwe. Starting next year, however, the Prize will be available to anywhere in the world. This decision has generated quite a bit of discussion in the literary world. Some people preferred the selective nature of the Prize; it’s developed as a brand for this award. Some are excited, however, that authors from the United States, another previously excluded countries, can now enter.
Eleanor Catton, the New Zealand author of The Luminaries and the winner of this year’s award, is the youngest winner of the Prize, at only 28 years old. In addition, The Luminaries is the longest novel to win, at 832 pages.
In addition to receiving the Prize, Catton also celebrated the U.S. release of her book yesterday.
The Luminaries beat out quite a list of contenders. I’ve got them listed below, and I hope to get the chance to read them all soon:
|A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki|
|Harvest, by Jim Crace|
|The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri|
|The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton|
|The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin|
|We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo|
|A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki|
|Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson|
|Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw|
|Harvest, by Jim Crace|
|The Kills, by Richard House|
|The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri|
|The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton|
|The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, by Eve Harris|
|The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan|
|The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin|
|TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann|
|Unexploded, by Alison MacLeod|
|We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo|
The Affairs of Others, by Amy Grace Loyd. Picador, 288 pp. $24
I read this book last month, but I honestly needed these few weeks to process it. When I began reading, and at least until halfway through the novel, I wasn’t sure about it. Especially coming off of Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In, this isn’t a very fast-paced book, and much of it is quite depressing.
Celia Cassill is still searching for closure from her husband’s death five years ago. She owns a small apartment building that seems to operate symbiotically as a little ecosystem between the tenants. The neighbors are all very tidy, very quiet and unlikely to intrude on the lives of the others living in the building. Celia wanted this, and so every tenant is carefully selected.
When one tenant leaves for a bit, and convinces Celia to let him sublet the apartment to his friend, this well-oiled machine of an environment starts to fall apart. First, this temporary resident doesn’t bother to hide her rather aggressive, and loud, sex life from the other tenants. Soon after, another tenant goes missing.
The further I read, however, the more I appreciated this novel. As much as The Affairs of Others is a look at the lives of the tenants in Celia’s building, it’s a tour through the final stages in her coping with the grief of her husband’s death. This book is told in first person: when we feel depressed reading it is because Celia is experiencing depression in her own life. The Affairs of Others is an incredible book, one that lingered long after I finished reading it. Loyd’s talent for character development is the true charm here, the emotional drive of her characters that push others away and, subsequently, draws them back in.
I’m working to get into a rhythm with this posting, and I’d like to dedicate Mondays to a short snippet of whatever I happen to be reading. Today, my Sneak Peak comes from The Signature of All Things, the latest from the lovely Elizabeth Gilbert. I discovered her with Eat, Pray, Love, and followed her straight through to Committed. While I’m slightly ashamed to say I haven’t read any of her fiction until now, I’m completely enthralled with this book as well. What I’m finding most exciting about this book are her descriptions.
The book opens with a kind of background of Alma Whittaker, the fierce young protagonist of the book. Her father, Henry, has made a name for himself in botany, in a feat of entrepreneurship that would inspire many young startup-hopefuls today. Henry, in my mind, believes firmly in the addage If you can’t work with them, beat them at their own game.
Henry was not handsome. He was certainly not refined. In all truth, there was something of the village blacksmith about his ruddy face, his large hands, and his rough manners. To most eyes, he appeared neither solid nor credible. Henry Whittaker was an impulsive, loud, and bellicose man, who had enemies all over the world. He had also become, in the past years, a bit of a drinker.
Sounds like quite the catch, right? Fortunately for him, he did snare the eye of a youngish Beatrix van Devender:
She was neither plain nor pretty, which seemed just about right for a wife. She was stout and boomless, a perfect little barrel of a woman, and she was already rolling toward spinsterhood when Henry met her. To most suitors’ tastes, Beatrix van Devender would have appeared dauntingly overeducated. She was conversant in five living languages and two dead ones, with an expertise in botany equal to any man’s. Decidedly, this woman was not a coquette. She was no ornament of the drawing room. She dressed in the full spectrum of colors that one associates with common house sparrows. She nursed a hard suspicion of passion, exaggeration, and beauty, putting her confidence only in that which was solid and credible, and always trusting acquired wisdom over impulsive instinct. Henry perceived her as a living slab of ballast, which was precisely what he desired.
I, myself, may be a bit suspicious of a man who not only thought of me as “a living slab of ballast,” but who liked me that way. That being said, the two married and begat Alma, a girl described as “her father’s daughter”:
Ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose. This was a rather unfortunate circumstance for Alma, although it would take her some years to realize it.
There’s a particular scene in Alma’s childhood that I soared while reading, but I won’t give that away; you’ll have to read it for yourselves. The Signature of All Things is my Book of the Week this week, so stay tuned for the review to be posted Friday.
How the Light Gets In [Chief Inspector Armand Gamanche, #9], by Louise Penny. Minotaur: August 27, 2013. 416 pp, $25.99
I’m generally picky when it comes to genre fiction. I’m skeptical when I read book jackets that begin “Another fabulous [insert character name] adventure from #1 New York Times bestselling author [insert author name]!” I’m not necessarily saying this is how every single genre fiction novel begins, but it seems to be the general consensus.
In fact, I think the main reason I picked up Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In is because it earned a Kirkus star.
How the Light Gets In revolves around secrets. They all do, don’t they? A woman was finally ready to open up to her closest friends, but on the eve of her important visit she’s killed. Later it’s revealed she is one of the first surviving naturally-conceived quintuplets in Canada. As young girls they were seen as a symbol of hope amid the Depression.
Though it’s not in his jurisdiction, Inspector Gamanche chooses to investigate because those close to the victim are also close to him. At the same time, something strange is happening within the bureau itself, and he needs to inconspicuously find out what’s going on before all hell breaks loose.
In How the Light Gets In, secrets are what threatens the lives of the victim, Inspector Gamanche and his family and friends. Sometimes more than their content, the secrets themselves are destructive. The murder investigation leads Inspector Gamanche to a small town called Three Pines, a dead zone in the digital age. Cell phones refuse to work in the city limits. Internet is non-existent. Without common methods of communication, you’d think this place brews secrets.
But, while secrets may be destructive, I want to believe Penny sees their value, even in just the writing of this book. Three Pines is–digitally speaking–a wasteland, but it contains the true heroes of the novel. Everyone is kind and welcoming, and they manage to create lives for themselves without the incessant capabilities to tweet each waking thought.
In How The Lights Gets In, the one true secretive place is the one with the fewest secrets. It’s the oasis of the book, the idyllic setting. This, in turn, begs the question: Which is worse–the information kept too close or the information not kept close enough?
This weekend I read a fabulous book by Alice McDermott, called Someone. I remember reading Charming Billy years ago, and I was so struck with her language and writing style. The same thing happened with Someone. I promise this book will be reviewed in the next few weeks, but for the time being I’ll offer you a little taste of this woman’s fabulous-ness:
Pegeen Chehab walked up from the subway in the evening light. Her good spring coat was powder blue; her shoes were black and covered the insteps of her long feet. Her hat was beige with someone dark along the crown, a brown feather or two. There was a certain asymmetry to her shoulders. She had a loping, hunchbacked walk. She had, always, a bit of black hair along her cheek, straggling to her shoulder, her bun coming undone. She carried her purse in the lightest clasp of her fingers, down along the side of her leg, which made her seem listless and weary even as she covered the distance quickly enough, the gray sidewalk from subway to parlor floor and basement of the house next door.
Someone has already made it on the NY Times bestseller list and is on the longlist for the National Book Award.
The Longest Ride, by Nicholas Sparks. Grand Central, 398 pp. $27
Usually, when I write the “Book of the Week” post, I expand on the review I wrote for that week’s Spencer Daily Reporter. The reason is largely spacial: I write a weekly book review and music review for the newspaper, and there’s only so much space I have for both. Most weeks, I try to write a shorter review for the paper that I can work with and draw out here. This week, however, I finished my review for Nicholas Sparks’ The Longest Ride, and I realized I couldn’t shorten it. As a result, I scrapped the music review and ran the book review in its entirety.
With this in mind, I’m going to include the review for the “Book of the Week” as I wrote it for the Daily Reporter. If you’re still on the fence, check out my “Sneak Peak” of the book.
I admit it: Nicholas Sparks is my guilty pleasure.
I read the books and I watch the movies. Every time a preview for a new one comes on TV, my face lights up like a Christmas tree and I feel Nic’s eyes roll from across the room.
In my opinion, Sparks is a Thomas Kinkade-parallel to commercial fiction. His stories are always heartwarming, they tend to reflect a similar pattern, a lot of people find him kitschy, but he’s made a lot (read: a lot) of money doing what he does.
I get it all. I understand that many of his books follow a similar basic plot structure. But, that being said, if I could sell millions of copies and make millions of dollars writing the same thing over and over again, I totally would.
The Longest Ride dips into the world of professional bull-riding. Sophia is a college student at Wake Forest University, deflecting every advance of her still-clingy ex-boyfriend as best she can. At a party one night, however, she is approached again by Brian, this time drunk. She has trouble convincing him that she is, indeed, done with the relationship. Fortunately for her, the mysterious guy she had seen staring across the meadow comes up and forcefully tells him to step down. Luke is a professional bull rider who continues to ride despite his mother’s objections. Their relationship has been cold for months.
Meanwhile, Ira Levinson has run himself off the road during a snowstorm and now fights for his life amidst excruciating physical pain. His late wife, Ruth, appears to him and retells their own love story as a means of keeping him alive as long as possible.
Oddly enough, I found the male character development a little lacking. Usually, the characters of the same gender as the author are more fleshed out because the author can use his or her own experiences in their development. In The Longest Ride, I felt more of an emotional pull from Sophia and Ruth than I did from Luke or Ira.
Like many of Sparks’ books, The Longest Ride has already been greenlighted for a film, coming 2015. I enjoyed the book, but I’m going to venture out a little early and say the movie will probably be better. Some of his books, namely Safe Haven and A Walk to Remember, carried emotional and psychological elements the movies couldn’t. Others, including The Lucky One and The Notebook, were enhanced by the visual interpretation.
So I’m a little late with my “Sneak Peak” this week, but better late than never, right?
I’m really excited to tell you about this book. Like Fangirl, I waited patiently to read this book and then devoured it in a day. And, it just so happens, things lined up well enough that not only is this my featured “Sneak Peak,” but it’s also the Book of the Week this week!
If I could learn Nicholas Spark’s secret, I would save the world, I swear. Bash him if you want, but admit it, you’re jealous. In a way, he’s kind of the Thomas Kinkade of books–he’s managed to produce something people want to buy, and he’s managed to do very well at his work while he’s still alive. Most people this famous are dead.
So, without further ado, I bring to you a small snippet from Sparks’ latest, The Longest Ride, which is out in hardcover today:
Early February 2011–Ira: I sometimes think to myself that I’m the last of my kind. My name is Ira Levinson. I’m a southerner and a Jew, and equally proud to have been called both at one time or another. I’m also an old man. I was born in 1920, the year that alcohol was outlawed and women were given the right to vote, and i often wondered if that was the reason my life turned out the way it did. I’ve never been a drinker, after all, and the woman I married stood in line to cast a ballot for Roosevelt as soon as she reached the appropriate age, so it would be easy to imagine that the year of my birth somehow ordained it all.
Confused yet? Good, you’re intrigued, now go buy the book, and check back Friday for my thoughts in the Book of the Week post.