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Critics Pick the Best Summer Reading

Audio

Aired 6/18/09

The summer may be for vacations and trips to the beach, but you'll likely want a good book to accompany you. We'll talk with two local experts who spend their working days reading. They'll give us their picks for the best reads of the summer.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

Above: The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): And during this hour, we're going to talk about books and, specifically, some delightful books for summer reading. We have two experts on reading and books and summer, all in the studio today. Welcome to Lucia Silva, who's the manager of The Book Works bookstore in Del Mar.

LUCIA SILVA (Manager, The Book Works, Del Mar): Hi. Thank you.

MYRLAND: Thanks for being here. And Robert Pincus, who is the books editor as well as the visual arts critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Welcome, Bob.

ROBERT PINCUS (Books Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Thanks for inviting me.

MYRLAND: Before we talk about a bunch of specific books, I just want to throw out one general question and that is, what's the current crop of books like? Good? Mediocre? Not as good as last year? What do you think, Lucia?

SILVA: I'll be honest and say this isn't my favorite season of books ever. I thought the year led off really great and the spring season was amazing and – but I think it's allowed some, like all of our picks, Bob's picks too, today, I think these are sort of great books on the margins aside from the bestseller lists or the big sort of literary heavy hitters that have been allowed to emerge from that sort of bigger chunk.

PINCUS: Yeah I think that when, you know, you hit summer, obviously there are a lot of books which are meant to be beach reads. You know, the cliché. But, you know, the fun is to look for other things by emerging writers and whatnot so that you give attention to those kinds of books as opposed to the things which you know will find an audience easily.

SILVA: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: Well, we have ten books to talk about today. And the first one is titled "Nobody Move." It's by Denis Johnson. Lucia, this is the first crime thriller from this writer. Tell us a little bit about the writer.

SILVA: Well, most people now all know Denis Johnson as the – he won the National Book Award a couple of years ago for "Tree of Smoke," which was a big, giant, sprawling novel about Vietnam. And before that, he was best known for a book of short stories, lengthy short stories called "Jesus' Son," which was very different from "Tree of Smoke," sort of a skinny little book about drug addicts. And – but what most people don't know is that he's a quite – he's a fine poet as well, and his styles are pretty far-ranging it's kind of interesting to see this new genre.

MYRLAND: Now you're going to read just a brief part of this book to us but before you do that, I want to point out this was serialized in Playboy, and how does that affect the book itself? Is – Sometimes I think when you read a book that's adapted from a serialization, it enforces some sort of false beginnings and endings. Is that a pitfall of this book?

SILVA: Certainly that can happen. This is divided into, I think it's four parts and it's only – it's not even 200 pages long. But it works for something that kind of the – the form and style that he approaches kind of goes towards – harkens back to like an old school noir crime writing even though it's very much modern. So you kind of – it lends itself to that kind of part one, part two, part three, part four separation and it works pretty well. And there's a lot that is very cinematic about the writing and the plot construction and the characters, so that also sort of works in terms of scene breaks.

MYRLAND: The book has bullet holes in the cover.

SILVA: Yes.

MYRLAND: I think that's…

PINCUS: As it should.

MYRLAND: …that's a pretty good clue. So you want to read that little passage?

SILVA: Yeah, so I'll just – This is – I'll preface by saying that the book follows this character Jimmy Luntz, who's – the whole book is sort of about inept criminals sort of cat-and-mousing over some lost millions of dollars, and they're constantly sort of messing up and being incompetent. But mixed in with all of the bullet holes and violence is Denis Johnson's really muscular, beautiful tight writing, and so this is during a brief respite of action. 'The crescent moon lay directly overhead. And on such a night the river's swollen surface resembled the unquiet belly of a living thing you could step onto and walk across.'

MYRLAND: Hmm.

SILVA: So I think it's rare that you get something like that in the middle of a shoot 'em up.

MYRLAND: Well, it's called "Nobody Move," by Denis Johnson.

PINCUS: Can I pipe in something? Just a funny coincidence on this is that you have him doing a noir novel and then I noticed in August you have Thomas Pynchon with a noir novel, too. So it's – what's this thing with serious writers doing…

SILVA: It's the new thing.

PINCUS: …pulp fiction, you know. I think it's called "Inherent Vice." Yeah, yeah, so, interesting coincidence.

SILVA: Yeah, sounds like fun.

MYRLAND: Well, we'll speculate and say that it may be, for a writer, sort of a palate clearing thing, to be able to just slip into a genre and…

PINCUS: Sure.

SILVA: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: …and work in a form that's familiar to every reader.

SILVA: Yeah, sounds like fun to me.

MYRLAND: Well, the next book is "Love and Obstacles," and it's your recommendation, Bob. It's by Aleksandar Hemon and why did you choose this book?

PINCUS: Well, you know, I chose it because – Well, let me back up here just for a second and say that, you know, I think that it seems like the prevalent thing in publishing, of course, with summer is to tout novels because they figure everybody wants some long, involving book when they're sitting on the beach or on a porch or something, I don't know. But, you know, I'd like to tout the virtues of the short story because you can get the whole story in one sitting, you know, and that's something, of course, that, you know, in one of his famous essays, Edgar Allan Poe said that he thought the short story was superior to the novel for that reason. I'm not going to make that argument but I think short stories do offer a certain kind of pleasure and it can be had in one sitting.

MYRLAND: And I think, also, that if you are particularly fond of a writer, a collection of short stories is a way to get a lot of that writer's ideas rather than one big idea in a novel.

PINCUS: Yeah. And he's a writer who seems to favor the short story, at least at this point in his career. And he's kind of an interesting story in that he was – he's a Bosnian Serb who came here as a tourist in the early nineties and basically got stuck here because of the conflict, the civil war and the chaos in his homeland, and decided to stay. And decided to learn English well enough to write literary fiction which, of course, is a feat that makes you think of Joseph Conrad, who he alludes to sometimes in his writing. And, you know, based on his success with the stories but also just the pure pleasure of reading them, his prose is pretty remarkable English, as good as any short story writer, really, around.

MYRLAND: Would you characterize his stories as semi-autobiographical?

PINCUS: I would definitely say that. I think that he – he tends to write either about, you know, his youth there. He writes about the pains and the pleasures of trying to make the transition to a new country, America. Or in one story, writing about returning, you know, to his homeland. So there – it really does focus on that as a kind of a – almost an obsession.

MYRLAND: I'm curious about the stories in the book because one of the pieces of research that I read had a quote from him and he was talking about his own poetry and he said, I didn't know what my poems were about but I believed in them. I liked their titles. And I thought that was very self-deprecating and modest and I wondered if some of that came out in the book.

PINCUS: Absolutely. The story "Everything" is about a teenager who's given a mission by his family to go buy a freezer. He's given all this money and he has to get on the train by himself. He's probably about – he doesn't say exactly, but I think he's fourteen or fifteen. And, you know, he's basically a poet in love with his words and he's writing in his notebook all the time. But, of course, he gets into these ridiculous adventures because he's so idealistic. He gets drunk, he almost gets kicked out of the hotel where he had to go on this journey. And he – that line, 'love and obstacles' appears – that phrase appears in one of his poems, which he quotes…

MYRLAND: Ah.

PINCUS: …you know. And actually that phrase appears again yet in another story which is self-deprecating where he's trying to meet a more famous writer.

MYRLAND: Lucia, I know this is Bob's recommendation but you have – are familiar with this writer, I think. No?

SILVA: No, but I was envying your reading list because these are all on my to-read pile next to my bed. So I would love to read it but, no, I've not.

PINCUS: Well, as with "Nobody Move," which I haven't read.

SILVA: We'll trade afterward.

PINCUS: But regular – Yeah.

MYRLAND: And that's Aleksandar with a 'k,' Hemon, H-e-m-o-n. It's called "Love and Obstacles." The next book we want to talk about is called "The Photographer," by Emmanuel Guibert—Gilbert?—and Didier Lefevre, and it's your recommendation, Lucia. Why do you want to recommend this book?

SILVA: I was completely blown away by this book. It's a graphic novel memoir with photographs, so it's something I'd never seen before and it follows – It's a true story of a young photojournalist, Didier Lefevre, who is a French photojournalist, very young, in I think it was his first photojournalistic assignment to follow a Doctors Without Borders mission into Afghanistan in 1986 during the height of the Soviet occupation. And ten years later, he partnered with Emmanuel Guibert, who was a graphic novelist, and they worked together to shape his story into this beautiful work of art that combines frames of photographs with frames of sort of graphic comic-style illustrations.

MYRLAND: And one of the things I read about this book is that this graphic artist, graphic novelist, changes his technique from book to book.

SILVA: Umm-hmm, very much so. He has a number of very popular French comic series for young children, like space pirate type of stuff. And then he also has done another memoir called "Alan's War," which he wrote and illustrated for an American soldier and – from World War II.

MYRLAND: Now I've got to ask you this unfair question.

SILVA: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: I'm thinking about a book to read over the summer. I'm not sure that I want to see Doctors Without Borders pictures in wartime in a serious graphic novel and, you know, help me overcome my fear of it being a little depressing.

SILVA: Yeah, it is – it is a scary prospect. And I – It's not something I would've – I would have never picked up a completely all text memoir of someone journeying into Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and – but what happens is that in the way that I think photographs can sometimes be too visually intense when dealing with really difficult subject matter and, similarly, a graphic novel or comic can distance you from a reality, they combine the two to make each one – The impact of it comes out and the emotional resonance is much larger than either one by itself. And what you get is this portrait of a country that we really know very little about on a human level and tells the human stories on the outskirts of war and larger political violence and sort of shows you the real people and real experiences. And also it's a coming of age story. This guy was very young and he had no idea what he was getting into, and it changed his life. He ended up going back nine more times over the years. And so it's a number of things rolled into one. It's certainly not a beach read but it's something you will probably remember more than any other book you read this summer.

MYRLAND: For our listeners who have not read a graphic novel yet, is this a good introduction to the form?

SILVA: I think it's great because, to be honest, I've had trouble reading graphic novels because I read the text too quickly and I miss the visual narrative flow but this one, if you imagine the way like a contact sheet of photographs or a negative looks, there will be frames interspersed. Maybe every fourth or fifth frame is a photograph and the rest are drawn so you have this familiarity with a photograph that helps you jump into the narrative.

PINCUS: Yeah, I agree with your general point, too, that a lot of graphic novels, it's hard to sort of track both the text and the images. Some people do it really well.

SILVA: Umm-hmm.

PINCUS: Daniel Clowes is another one who I think does it well. But it's a tough form.

SILVA: Yeah.

MYRLAND: Well, the name of the novel again is "The Photographer," by Emmanuel Guibert—my French is terrible—and Didier Lefevre. Well, our guests are Lucia Silva, who's the manager of The Book Works bookstore in Del Mar, and Robert Pincus, who's the books editor as well as the visual arts critic for the – So you should've recommended this book. You know, it does both of your hats. And we will be back with a lot more discussion about books right after this quick break.

[break]

MYRLAND: These Days in San Diego. I'm Doug Myrland and we're talking about summer reading and books, and the next book we want to talk about with Robert Pincus, who is the books editor as well as the visual arts critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, is a book called "The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet (sic)." And, Bob, this is a debut novel and it caused quite a stir.

PINCUS: Yeah, you know, it's – Who knows why certain books, you know, have this kind of thing. But, yeah, it was a first novel. He's a 29 year old writer. And for – We can speculate on the reasons but I have some idea but, you know, it had a sort of a bidding war kind of thing where it ended up getting like close to a million dollars for the North American rights of the book, which, you know, doesn't hurt the publicity on a book before it comes out. But at any rate, it's an unusual novel because it has a lot of visual components to it. Probably a little bit of a cousin to the graphic novel in that it has – I have to describe this since we're on radio. It sort of has the text, you know, normally like a novel would but then lots of marginalia, comments from the narrator, who's a 12 year old sort of prodigy named T.S. Spivet. And he loves to draw maps, he love science, and so he – you get all his little pictures and his little comments. It's sort of the same pleasure you get if you know the books like "The Annotated Alice," you know…

SILVA: Umm-hmm.

PINCUS: …where you just get all the little extra facts about the text? Well, he's providing his own extra stuff about his own narrative. And it's his story told in the first person, and I'm kind of sucker for books about, you know, young, you know, coming of age story but not, you know, really child narrators in a way who are on the cusp of adulthood and how they see the world. I mean, Huck Finn's kind of a classic in that regard.

MYRLAND: Well, this author, Reif Larsen, is, you mentioned, 29 years old. And there are also hints of some autobiographical elements with his story and this book as well, which I guess is not all that unusual for a first novel.

PINCUS: No, you know, he – Well, he grew up in a household where both his parents were artists so it's not unusual that he would, you know, have a character who has a visual imagination. And you maybe are alluding to something else but that's what I was thinking of.

MYRLAND: No, that was it.

PINCUS: Yeah.

MYRLAND: And, also, his relationship with his mother. I read a little bit about that, that she – she's an artist but that the character in the book is – has many of her same characteristics.

PINCUS: Yeah. It's a combination of things. I mean, it's his book about, you know, discovering his family. It becomes a road novel through a series of circumstances because he, unbeknownst to him, a colleague of his mother—his mother teaches at the university nearby in Butte, Montana—sends some stuff to the Smithsonian and these scientific diagrams of a beetle are so impressive that they give him an award from the Smithsonian and on his phone call he doesn't tell them that he's 12 years old. They think he's an adult. So he decides I've got to make it to Washington, so he hops a train without telling his parents. You can imagine what this is going to, you know, create in terms of drama.

MYRLAND: So is this book as good as its buzz?

PINCUS: I think it's – the prose is both charming and deep in a certain way and it doesn't do so without being – and it does so without being excessively, you know, symbolic and heavily literary. I could read you a small passage and give you an idea of how he looks at things.

MYRLAND: Sure.

PINCUS: He's talking about his father and his father really runs the ranch where his mother is the scientist and the intellectual. And his father loves all the stuff about the old west, right, he has a whole room, it's like a shrine to western movies, western this, western Americana. And so here's the narrator talking: 'If you ask me, and my father never did, Mr. T.E. Spivet's mausoleum of the old west memorialized a world that has never even existed in the first place. Sure, there were still real cowboys in the last part of the 1900s but by the time Hollywood began sculpting the west of the western, the barbed wire barons have long since cut up the plains into fenced ranchland, and the days of the trail drive have been gone for a long while.'

MYRLAND: Hmm.

SILVA: Hmm.

MYRLAND: Now, I – We need to move on and talk about some other books but I want to ask you one more question…

PINCUS: Yes.

MYRLAND: …about this. Since the narrator is a 12 year old, would this be the kind of book that a teenager could be expected to enjoy? If you had a very bright 13 year old or 12 year old, would this be a book for them? Or is it really an adult book?

PINCUS: I think that a really precocious reader would but it's really more of an adult book about childhood in a way. I would see it that way. I might add just one little factoid about it, he is adamant about the idea that it not be an audio book…

SILVA: Hmm.

PINCUS: …or a Kindle book because you need the book form to see what it's about.

MYRLAND: And a lot of side notes and illustrations.

PINCUS: Absolutely.

MYRLAND: And that's an important part of understanding the character, right?

PINCUS: Yeah. And part of the pleasure of it, too.

MYRLAND: Okay. Again, it's called "The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet (sic)" by Reif Larsen. And congratulations to Mr. Larsen for getting a huge advance and a lot of publicity on his first novel. May it…

PINCUS: More power to him.

MYRLAND: Right. Lucia, your next recommendation is by the late David Foster Wallace, well known writer, and it's "This Is Water." Tell us about the history of this particular work.

SILVA: Well most people will know David Foster Wallace as the author of "Infinite Jest," sort of a giant tome that kind of invented our ideas of post modern marginalia and footnoting. And this is a commencement address he gave to the graduating class of 2005 at Kenyon College and it was the only public speech he ever gave, which quickly took off. It was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal and the London Times and was sent in this massive e-mail chain all over the world and became this sensation, and now it's published as a book.

MYRLAND: The first thing that I thought when I read about this recommendation is, well, if we've all had it on e-mail, why do we need the book?

SILVA: Well, it's interesting but I think a lot of mine and Bob's picks today would be good testaments to the reasons why we still need paper and ink books. They're nice things to have. This is a beautiful little volume that is great to give as a gift and that is really – The way they've done it, because it's a short speech, sometimes there's just like three or four words on each page so it reads differently and it paces you through this kind of meditative – it's like an inspirational book for people who hate inspirational books. You know, David Foster Wallace was not – he did not make his mark by being an inspiring fellow in that sort of graduation gift sense but he manages this beautiful, very real thing that it's not moralistic or preachy or I know this or I know that. It's more about how are you going to live in the real world…

PINCUS: Yeah.

SILVA: …and how are you going to manage day by day, waiting in line at the grocery store, and getting angry behind that lady in the SUV in traffic, and what choices are you going to make with this great mind that you have.

PINCUS: We've heard…

MYRLAND: It's interesting…

PINCUS: Oh, I'm sorry.

MYRLAND: I was just going to say, it's interesting to me that you kind of present this as a summer reading book because summer is kind of a time for reflection and meditation for some people. And yet it's a graduation speech, which is a totally different kind of feeling than your normal meditative work.

SILVA: Umm-hmm. I think it would be for most. But this one, I would've loved to have been in that graduating class, and I hope they…

PINCUS: Well, I think you can read him anytime because he's so anti-platitudeness about his point of…

SILVA: Yeah, exactly.

PINCUS: You know, he's not going to give you platitudes and he's not going to deliver you anything that's like highfalutin'…

SILVA: Yeah.

PINCUS: …philosophy, you know. And, as you said, you know, he loved to qualify everything he said, which is why he was so great at footnotes and why his footnotes were sometimes as good as the essays in which the footnotes appeared.

SILVA: Yeah. And he doesn't take himself seriously. He's constantly saying I know I sound like this guy who's going to tell you how everything is but I don't know. But it's beautiful thoughts about living compassionately and presently for people who wouldn't normally want to read something like Buddhist philosophy.

PINCUS: Yeah, right.

MYRLAND: And this book is plain friendly. It's very small.

SILVA: It's tiny.

MYRLAND: It will not…

PINCUS: Reader friendly.

MYRLAND: It will not add much weight to your…

SILVA: No.

MYRLAND: …carry-on baggage. It's called "This Is Water," by David Foster Wallace. Bob, your next recommendation is called "The Thing Around Your Neck," by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And another collection of short stories.

PINCUS: Yeah. This was part of my, you know, push for the short stories, the two books.

SILVA: Yeah.

PINCUS: And, you know, she's really a wonderful young writer and just, you know, the prose is so wry and seems so wise for someone so young, perhaps because, you know, she's gone through a lot in her life, having come here at 19, adjusted to living in America. You know, comes from a very, very educated family. Her father was a university professor, a professor of statistics in Nigeria. And I noticed one little biographical fact that was kind of interesting. Somehow or other, maybe it's coincidental, I don't know, her parents acquired a home right outside the university, which used to be the home of Achebe, the author of "Things Fall Apart." So when she was a little kid, she was probably soaking up all the literary, you know, vibes in the house, so to speak.

MYRLAND: Well…

PINCUS: But anyway, the title story, really the – which probably tells you a little bit about her, "The Thing Around Your Neck" is a story about someone who feels weighted down by the process of trying to adjust to being in America from Nigeria.

MYRLAND: Now you have read all kinds of books from all kinds of places and it seems to me that Africa's the kind of place that we really – it's still a mysterious place to many readers. A lot of these stories are about people from Africa in America.

PINCUS: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: You know, I read one review of one of the stories about the woman who’s brought over as someone's wife and then the husband goes back to Africa. What do we learn as we move through this book about the relationship between the two continents?

PINCUS: Well, I think – ironically, I think what you learn is that the emotional struggles that she's describing are so similar to your own that it individualizes people, it takes away the – whatever exotic quality or abstracted quality you have about Africa. I mean, I will say that I've never been to Nigeria but you feel like you've been there by the time you've read – You feel like you know these people and you know their – the pain and the pleasure of trying to adjust to a different country even though I've never done that myself, through the title story.

MYRLAND: Tell us a little more about that title story…

PINCUS: Yeah.

MYRLAND: …because I know you're particularly fond of that one.

PINCUS: Yeah, it's – it begins with the girl. The family gathers and they talk about who's going to win the America visa lottery. In other words, not everybody can get the visa, but she gets it. And she goes to live with someone who you think is her uncle. Well, it turns out it really isn't her uncle, it's her—let me see if I get this right—father's sister's husband.

MYRLAND: Hmm.

PINCUS: And so he tried to seduce her. She finds this terribly traumatic, leaves that household. I mean, he's married or they're a married couple but, you know, she doesn't want to live with them any longer. Strikes out on her own, gets a job as a waitress in Connecticut, which kind of parallels the writer's own life. She actually spent some time with her sister in Connecticut. But this woman struggles, you know, just to make ends meet. Meets an American fellow, they kind of fall in love. Her parents somewhat accept her and in that acceptance process she says, and I'll just quote the sentence, 'the thing that wrapped itself around your neck that nearly choked before you fell asleep started to loosen, to let go.' And just that process of being accepted by her parents…

MYRLAND: One of the review…

PINCUS: His parents, excuse me.

MYRLAND: One of the reviews I read said this was unusual for an African writer in that it had – one of the stories had a strong gay character and another couple of the stories were quite strong in the negativity of the male chara – it was strong male characters.

PINCUS: Absolutely.

MYRLAND: And is that sort of a theme throughout the book or is that just a couple of the stories that are…

PINCUS: I think there's definitely a kind of a sub-motif that runs through the book of the importance or the struggle to assert yourself as a woman. I mean, she has a certain kind of I wouldn't go – say it's stridently feminist but definitely, you know, she goes to a writers colony in another story, which is called "Jumping Monkey Hill" and the fellow wants to dictate to her what African stories should be, what's the correct kind of African story, and she basically tells him off by saying this story I just read you is my story.

MYRLAND: Hmm.

PINCUS: It's not made up, you know.

MYRLAND: Maybe in a way the whole book is sort of saying, no, there's another way to do a correct kind of an African story.

PINCUS: And I think she's probably on the new wave of where African literature is going. And actually in Book Forum magazine this month there's a piece about the African literary boom and it mentions her prominently.

MYRLAND: Well, it's called "The Thing Around Your Neck" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and that's Bob's recommendation. And Lucia, we are going to move on to a book called "Oh!: a mystery of 'mono no aware,'" by Todd Shimoda. And what does mono no aware mean?

SILVA: Yeah, I think it – it's a Japanese esthetic concept and – which loosely means the beauty of sad things or the moment – a fleeting moment that makes us cry out, oh. And it's a sort of an ancient Japanese esthetic concept that the main character of the book, this young, kind of emotionally flat guy from L.A. goes back to Japan near a village where his grandfather was born and he becomes obsessed with this concept of 'mono no aware' that this philosophical psychology professor that he's teaching English to has become interested in. And he, because he's so emotionally flat, he realizes this concept as an emotional height maybe unparalleled by any other and so he goes on a quest to uncover 'mono no aware' for himself.

MYRLAND: And that quest includes suicide clubs.

SILVA: Well, part of his other – he becomes fascinated by these suicide clubs that meet in the Aokigahara Forest and which is, I think, second to the Golden Gate Bridge, the most popular place for suicides in the world in real life. And in the novel, these suicide clubs meet online and plan their suicides together and the current mode in the book is to drive into this forest and tape up your windows together and light a little hibachi fire and take sleeping pills and gas yourself out in the forest. And this actually happens, and he can't – he – because his emotions are so deadened and cut off, he can't imagine why anybody would do this. And he, in a quest to understand and working with this psychology professor and his sort of philosophical ideas, he thinks that by understanding that and these motivations, he might be able to understand his own emotional life.

MYRLAND: Do you think this author is saying something about the need for Japanese Americans to really understand themselves, that they need to turn to the Japanese culture? Is that too much of a leap?

SILVA: Hmm.

MYRLAND: Because this character certainly, according to the way he's described, is very emotionally flat until he actually makes the journey to Japan and…

SILVA: Yeah.

MYRLAND: …makes this exploration.

SILVA: It's interesting. I mean, I think his journey is very much sort of discovering. He also goes to discover sort of his grandfather's story which his grandfather never told him, where he was born and why he came to America. So it is very much – he goes back to his, quote, unquote, homeland to discover himself.

MYRLAND: Now it's always an interesting journey when you're reading a book with a character who's kind of messed up. Because, you know, it's an easier read if you start to like the character from the very beginning. And if this character is very emotionally flat and hard to get into, tell us a little bit about your journey with him.

SILVA: Umm.

MYRLAND: Do you begin to feel a little more sympathy for him as time goes through the novel?

SILVA: Yeah, that's a great question because it is – He's instantly engaging. There's something so likeable about him because he's almost like this canvas onto which you can paint any of your preconceptions or hopes for him because he's just sort of – He's a nice guy, he's not, you know – but he just can't access this part of himself, so you afford him all of these qualities that he may not have. Maybe he's not a nice guy. You don't know what his…

PINCUS: You kind of root for him though in a way?

SILVA: Yeah. You want him to just unleash and discover this great, raging emotion. And whether or not he does that and exactly how he does turns into kind of a mystery. And the book is very much paced in a – it becomes a page-turner even though there's nothing like terribly dramatic that's pushing you along. But I couldn't stop reading it because you – it's very simple writing and clean and it paces you really quickly, too.

MYRLAND: Does this one have some illustrations in it as well?

SILVA: It does. And this book itself is a work of art, I think, from the cover and, you know, it has beautiful end papers and an embossed cover and throughout Todd Shimoda…

MYRLAND: You don't want to take this to the beach. You don't want sand in it, right? You want it…

SILVA: Yeah, unless that – it might be part of the whole concept of esthetics, though. I don't know. But it has illustrations that Todd Shimoda's wife, Linda Shimoda, inserts on – in end papers and throughout the book on these calligraphy drawings and stuff that offer clues to Zack Hara's fate and exactly what's going to happen to him. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what they mean but it's really beautiful. It's from a small press in Seattle called Chin Music Press.

PINCUS: Beautiful cover.

SILVA: Yeah. And it's, you know, anyone who doubts the future of pen and ink books or wants to read everything on a Kindle, I don't think you could do that with this book.

MYRLAND: It's great. Well, you've been listening to Lucia Silva, who's the manager of The Book Works bookstore in Del Mar. We're also joined in the studio by Robert Pincus, who's the books editor as well as the visual arts critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune. We're talking about books, and we're going to continue the conversation right after the break.

[break]

MYRLAND: These Days in San Diego. I'm Doug Myrland. We're talking about books and good books for summer reading with Lucia Silva and Robert Pincus. And, Robert, your next recommendation has a long title. It's called "Requiem for a Paper Bag: Celebrities and Civilians Tell Stories of the Best Lost, Tossed and Found Items from Around the World," and it's by Davy Rothbart. Tell us about this one.

PINCUS: Well, basically, you know, some people probably know about Davy Rothbart already but, for those who don't, he was the co-creator of FOUND magazine, which I think has six issues out now, one a year. And the premise of the magazine basically is people send in or people find found documents, letters, strange notes, strange photographs, and they assemble them into a magazine. And a lot of them are funny, some of them are very sad, quirky. This book is a little bit of a departure because he's done two other books which were anthologies of things from FOUND magazine but this one is basically people – he's asked people who he considers sort of his, quote, unquote, heroes to send in a story, write a story about their favorite thing that they've found or something that affected them that they've found.

MYRLAND: Now are all these stories really true? Or is there a certain element of embellishment?

PINCUS: Well, I'm not going to verify all – I haven't verified all of them. And he will – he did admit to me when I read one story, it was clearly a short story because I had interviewed him a little bit about this book. Charles Baxter is a fiction writer and I asked him, this has got to be fiction. He said, oh, yeah. He just wanted to submit a short story about the idea of finding something. So it's some – a little bit of it's fiction but most of it's true stories, you know, based on something they've found or something that affected them. I'll give you one example. Susan Orlean, the well known New Yorker writer, wrote a book called "The Orchid Thief," which was quite a – you know, well received, sold well. Well, she tells about how she…

MYRLAND: Well, they made it into a movie, too, right?

PINCUS: And it became a film, right. And she tells about how the book – the genesis of the book. Basically, she was on an airplane flight and she had finished the book she'd brought with her, brought nothing else and she was bored so she's wandering down the aisle in the airplane and she sees somebody left a section of a newspaper so she grabs it and starts reading all the little tidbits in it and there's some little thing about an orchid thief, a person who steals orchids who's been arrested. And that's the genesis of the book.

SILVA: Ahh…

PINCUS: She took it from there. So that's a pretty good FOUND story.

MYRLAND: Lucia, you read that magazine, right?

SILVA: Yes, I've loved it from the beginning. I mean, and Bob's exactly right, some of it is hilarious and some of it is so sad. These are like, you know, love letters or break-up letters or crazy photographs or, you know…

PINCUS: Absolutely.

SILVA: …lost puppy signs. And did this have the images of the objects that they…

PINCUS: Yes, in some cases.

SILVA: Oh, yeah.

PINCUS: This is a – Sarah Vowell, who loves to write about American history and she's probably one of the funnier writers ever about American history, she has a little piece here which is written by a Justin Gottlieb. It's on crumpled notebook paper, facts about American history. And she starts off her thing – her piece, saying, 'Justin Gottlieb clearly knows his stuff. I mean, nitrous oxide was allowed to be used in muscle cars, show cars and modified racing cars for use in drag racing. Now that was a fine moment in U.S. history and yet for all of Justin's comprehensiveness, let's slip in a few glaring omissions.' And she goes into these odd facts about American history that she enjoys.

MYRLAND: This looks – it's a paperback.

PINCUS: Yes.

MYRLAND: And it looks like it's kind of thick, like there are a lot of stories.

PINCUS: A lot of stories. I didn't count them up but you have a huge range of writers. I mean, I can just name off some names: Tom Robbins, Paolo Coelho, is that how you pronounce it? The – David Simon, who has a great story, the creator of "The Wire." Seth Rogen, the actor.

MYRLAND: So this would be a good book if you had a long flight.

PINCUS: If you had a long flight and you just want to read a lot of people's different stories, and there's a lot of fun stories in here. Some sad but most funny.

MYRLAND: I want to remind our listeners that you can find out about all these books and have the list and then the proper spelling of the authors on our website at kpbs.org. This book, again, is called "Requiem for a Paper Bag: Celebrities, Civilians Tell Stories of the Best Lost, Tossed, and Found Items from Around the World," by Davy Rothbart.

PINCUS: I should mention that he's a bit of a performer, too. He has a FOUND show, which he takes on the road. And actually he's appearing this weekend in San Diego as part of his tour.

MYRLAND: Ah.

PINCUS: Yeah. So promoting the book, of course.

MYRLAND: Well, an opportunity for people to meet the author.

PINCUS: Yeah.

MYRLAND: That's cool. Lucia, you have the next recommendation and it's called "How To Sell," by Clancy Martin. And I've been looking forward to talking to you about this because I was – I was fascinated by the research. And I'll let you talk about the book for a minute and then I want to ask my question.

SILVA: Okay. Yeah, I was fascinated by the fact that I even read this book. And I will say that I would have never read it had I not been sent – I had requested a rather obscure book of poetry that I was supposed to review from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and the publicist sent this book along with it to me. And I was totally confused because she knows me and knows what I read and this is – has this metallic cover with this close-up of this woman with a string of pearls draped across her and it just – it looked like a chintzy airport novel. And I thought why did she send me this? So I thought, well, I better look at it, and I opened the back jacket and I saw that the author was a philosophy professor and had translated works by Nietzsche and Kirkegaard so that didn't necessarily make me any more interested but I just had to read it anyway and I couldn't stop reading it. It's the story of this young sixteen year old kid who leaves Canada to go to Texas to work with his brother who works in this big diamond trade jewelry store, and it's about the crooked side of the jewelry and watch trade.

MYRLAND: Hmm.

SILVA: And Clancy Martin, in addition to being a philosophy professor, worked for many years as a jeweler and a jewelry salesman. And I was – it completely – and it's like a hardboiled thriller kind of – there's not really any crime-crime, although there is but it's completely morally bereft and…

MYRLAND: That's exactly what I wanted to ask you about, about a reader's relationship with an author because not only is he now a philosophy professor but he really did some of these things.

SILVA: Yeah.

MYRLAND: Some of these completely morally bereft things and, in fact, he's quoted as saying that he left some of the worst things out.

SILVA: Oh, wow.

MYRLAND: And I – I can't help but wonder about the relationship of a – knowing that, yes, it's a work of fiction but the author really did do a lot of bad things, does that change the way you approach a novel?

SILVA: Well, for me, I love to have that separation between the person who wrote the book and what they've created. I think it's fascinating to kind of peek into that. It wouldn't – doesn't make it any more real for me because the book felt very real. But it did sort of make me look – you know, I had to get my watch fixed right after I read this book.

PINCUS: You're thinking, should I take it in?

SILVA: And I just was eying everybody in the jewelry store like what are you doing back there? You know, as – it's a fascinating window. And also, I mean, I read it in an afternoon. I could not put it down.

PINCUS: Wow.

SILVA: And…

MYRLAND: The book is also about the character's relationship with his brother.

SILVA: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: So is there another track of ideas in this story there?

SILVA: There is very much like a little – there's more meat to it than simply an airport novel. And it's about his relationship with his brother and his relationship with his father. Their father is kind of this new age guru moneymaker who makes money in a different kind of crooked trade, the way that they look at it or you could look at it. And his brother is – has always sort of been the lucky one. He gets the girls, he's gotten this great job, he doesn't think much, he just acts. And Bobby, the younger brother, the protagonist, is – has a little bit more hesitation and a little bit more reflection and eventually ends up getting out of the jewelry trade. It's not – At the end, you think he's probably going to leave. But it's about him wrestling with which – who he belongs to.

MYRLAND: Is it fair to call this a coming of age novel?

SILVA: I hope a lot of kids are not coming of age like this. Yeah, and also there's these – you know, you can read it and I think a lot of reviewers have tried to pull this out of it, you can read it for sort of ideas about all the kinds of things we buy and sell, you know, friends and love and lovers and fathers and family and how we attribute value to things. You know, how we create the value of a painting or a Rolex by how much we believe it's worth. It has no inherent value all by itself in a vacuum.

MYRLAND: That's a pretty good thing to learn.

SILVA: Yeah.

PINCUS: Yeah.

SILVA: Yeah.

PINCUS: Speaking about the art market, too, yeah.

SILVA: Yeah, so it – it's interesting to have that kind of underneath. But you could totally just read it on a plane and have just a wicked bad time, too.

MYRLAND: So if you're interested in reading a book about some not very nice people who do some pretty interesting things…

SILVA: Yes.

MYRLAND: It's called "How To Sell," by Clancy Martin. We should point out that this is another debut novel.

SILVA: It is.

MYRLAND: That's a little bit of a theme we have going here, is…

SILVA: Yeah.

MYRLAND: …first time works for a few of these.

PINCUS: Nice.

SILVA: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: Bob, you have the next recommendation. It's "The Scarecrow," by Michael Connelly.

PINCUS: Yeah, and that's definitely not a debut novel. And, you know, probably needs no, as you say, no champion in me because, you know, he's obviously a well known quantity. But, you know, I just thought it was – You know, it just sort of affirms that he's just really a master of the crime novel. You know, he knows how to build the narrative. He knows how to create characters and how to interlock them so that it creates this kind of momentum that keeps the pages turning.

MYRLAND: And what an enormous challenge that must be to work in a form that's been done so many times.

PINCUS: Yeah. And even, I think, twenty times by him. So, you know, but yet, you know, I think that it just proves that, you know, genres can always be tweaked to create that new vitality. But it's just a – You know, he has a great main character in Jack McEvoy, who's a – now a beleaguered newspaperman and in the earlier book he was in, "The Poet," of course he was working at a different paper, he was working at the Rocky Mountain News. Now he's at the L.A. Times. And Michael Connelly, being a former newspaper person, knows how to create the atmosphere of a newsroom and what the virtues of that are and how it works and how it's not working necessarily now under more troubled financial times. Toward the beginning of the book, he's laid off at the Times and at the same time he – he's fascinated with the story of this young teenager who's been arrested on a murder charge, and he begins to realize that this is not – he's not the criminal in this case. But little does he realize it's going to take him into a whole world of this serial killer and the crime – you know, the suspense builds and builds and builds. But at the same time, I think it's also an homage to newspapers and what they do offer in the world that's being lost. So he keeps both tracks running very well.

MYRLAND: Well, and I suppose unlucky for the folks at the Rocky Mountain News but lucky for this writer, the Rocky Mountain News now is out of business.

PINCUS: I know.

MYRLAND: It's closed down.

PINCUS: Yeah.

MYRLAND: So that really has an extra resonance in that the…

PINCUS: Exactly.

MYRLAND: …character was working there before.

PINCUS: Yeah. But, you know, what's a list for summer without at least one page-turning crime thriller, right?

SILVA: Or four.

PINCUS: Or four, yeah.

MYRLAND: Well, let's talk about the crime thriller as a form. What is it about this book, Bob, that makes it better than your average old crime thriller?

PINCUS: I think, you know, just the – probably the really good taut prose. I mean, it's so – there's like nothing – you feel like there's no loose ends. Everything connects up in the end. Everything – And yet, it's – there's not much violence in the book.

MYRLAND: Hmm.

PINCUS: I mean, very few scenes in it in which you have real, you know, mayhem like a noir novel.

SILVA: Umm.

PINCUS: And yet you're just on – kind of like on the edge of whatever seat you're in, you know, as you go through it. Plus, you feel like the criminal's believable. Even though it's -- You know, obviously with serial killers there's always this kind of speculation about what this kind of psychology is but you feel like the – and the way he drops clues, which you pick up in the end, is just, you know, really first rate.

MYRLAND: Well, the name of the book is "The Scarecrow," by Michael Connelly. You've been listening to Robert Pincus, who's the books editor as well as the visual arts critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and Lucia Silva, who's the manager of The Book Works bookstore, in Del Mar. Thank you both very much for reading all these books and recommending them to our listeners. And, again, you can find all this information on kpbs.org. Thanks for being here.

PINCUS: Thank you.

SILVA: Thank you. This was fun.

MYRLAND: These Days in San Diego. I'm Doug Myrland.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Jim Tinsky'

Jim Tinsky, KPBS Staff | June 26, 2009 at 11:43 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

It would be nice if we could get a list of those books and perhaps even links to them on Amazon for this or future such shows.

Thanks,

Jim

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