Friday, December 4, 2009

Educated Upper Crust

"I love books. I just, like love education, you know, I don't know, it is just so, like cool and interesting. My mom is like, super political, she went to Bard College, she knows like a million authors. I like this book, it is sooooo subversive, I mean think about it, like this stuff is soooo true, i haven't read all of it, but I love cupcakes, yummy."

Eats half the cupcake (all of the frosting), goes to the gym and reads an issue of People magazine cover to cover.

This person loves books. This person loves education. Both are, like, so cool. They are both really interesting. So are politics.

Illustration by Thyra Heder

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Five of My Favorite Bookstores (in no particular order)

One of my favorite activities is going to used or independent bookstores. It is a different experience than going to a library or a chain, like Barnes and Noble. Although I love the library, I usually go there with a set agenda; to do some reading, writing, and research. So I mostly spend a lot of time looking up books on their computers and reading through them in a library carrel. Unfortunately, I don't roam the stacks that often (mostly of the way the books are organized). When I go to a big chain, like Barnes and Noble, it is usually to find a new release or a last-minute present. But going to a used or independent bookstore is very different.

I like going to used and independent bookstores because of all of the possibilities they bring. You never know what you are going to find, who you might end up talking to, or what books will catch your attention (because books are not organized like they are in the library). At used and independent bookstores you can spend hours combing through the stacks and finding books that you have always wanted and never purchased. Or you can find books that you never thought of buying but because they are affordable (mostly in used) you have decided to buy one or two. Also, despite being crammed full of books, most used and independent bookstores look and feel different (while most Barnes and Noble look the same and carry the same books). Some bookstores take on the personality of the community (like the Raven, which has a large communist/socialist section), while others feel like the bookstore owner's home. Below is a list of my favorite bookstores. Some of the stores carry a lot of books, while others are rather small. I think I like them so much because of the different experiences I have had with each of them.

The Book Barn
Location: Niantic, CT
Type: Used

I lived in Connecticut for two years (while I attended school at the University of Connecticut) and I can honestly say that I do not like the state of Connecticut. If you like to live in a place that does not have a lot of sidewalks, specializes in shopping plazas and corporate universities, and raises some of the snobbiest people that I have ever encountered – then you will love Connecticut. I am still baffled how Connecticut can be the richest state in the union and have a crappy capital and some of the worst schools I have ever seen. Nevertheless, there are a few good “things” in Connecticut: Pepe’s Pizzeria in New Haven (the Manchester one is not as good), the New Britain Rock Cats, and the Book Barn in Niantic.

The first time I went to the Book Barn was with my mentor from the University of Connecticut. I was feeling pretty depressed about my life. (I remember feeling particularly low about being in the History program at UConn and really rethinking the relationship I was in. I think I was considering making a major change in my life.) My mentor had thrown out the idea of going to the Book Barn. Although I love bookstores, I wasn't too keen on the idea. It was a long drive and a rainy day. I think that I thought I would rather mope around my apartment all day, watch bad television, get drunk, and make a bad decision. (I didn't necessarily want to be in a good mood.) Thankfully, he talked me into going. The drive ended up being pretty and the Book Barn was incredible. The Book Barn is actually what it sounds like. It has six barns or buildings filled with over 350,000 books. I spent hours looking through the fiction and Russian History section. My mentor and I had to make a trip to his car halfway through because I was carrying too many books. I remember that I had purchased the Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, Vera Figner's Memoirs of a Revoluntionist, and Barbara Clements' Bolshevik Women. I returned to my apartment, in Willington, refreshed and ready to write about Louise Bryant.

Although one of the most attractive features of the Book Barn is the amount of books a bibliophile can find there; this place also has a great atmosphere -- there are kids roaming around with their parents, free coffee, kittens lounging around, and a staff who will chat with you about the books you are thinking about purchasing. I highly recommend taking the drive and spending an afternoon out there. It's even nice when you are not sad!

Strand Bookstore
Location: Multiple, NYC
Type: Independent (Used, Rare, and New)

While I attended Pace University in downtown New York, I lived on John Street. In order to get to my classes or the subway, I would walk by the Strand. I never walked in, though. In fact, even though I loved to read, I wasn’t into buying books at this time. I spent most of my Pace days drinking, sleeping, and occasionally working (and not on schoolwork but various part-time jobs). It wasn’t until after I dropped out of school that I wandered into the store looking for a new book to read on the subway. My first time in there I spent about three hours in the store and left with three Jane Austen books. I loved the store so much that I bought a tote, which eventually fell apart from wear and tear. Buying cheap books from the Strand made me realize that I did want to pursue a degree. So even though I have received a lot of flack for liking this family-owned chain store, I can’t help but love the Strand. It has been in business for 80 years for a reason!

Raven Used Books
Location: Northampton, MA
Type: Used

Although this bookstore is smaller than the Book Barn or Strand, it has one of the best book selections I have seen. It is located in Northampton and benefits from the five college community system in Western Massachusetts, therefore it is not a “scavenger hunt” or a “lucky find” to purchase academic and scholarly works. I have found works by Orlando Figes, Stephen Kotkin, and other prominent historians. I am always lingering in their communist/socialist literature section. They also have a great selection of poetry and other pieces of fiction. I cannot remember the first time I went into this store, I just know I always want to go there when I am in Northampton.

Another attractive part of going to the Raven is that it is not in a desolate location; you are surrounded by other bookstores, a variety of yummy foods, used CD stores, and lots of coffee houses.

St. Mark’s Bookshop
Location: New York, NY
Type: Independent

I have already written a little about St. Mark’s Bookshop. There are many reasons I have included it on this list: a great selection of books (including a section of authors whose works are repeatedly stolen), it is a nice space (it is not crammed with books, has high ceilings, good lighting, etc.), they are open until midnight, and it is located in one of my favorite places in New York. I still have to find the courage to go to one of their poetry readings!

Paul’s Bookstore
Location: Madison, WI
Type: Used
This place does not have a website.
I have no pictures of it either.

A couple of summers ago I spent five to six weeks in Madison, Wisconsin. I was living off my fellowship money, doing some research, and visiting a friend. It was the first summer (before now) that I did not work. I did, however, get up early everyday, take lots of walks, read at least one hundred pages, write for at least one hour, and hang out in Madison. It was one of my best summers. While walking around Madison I wondered into Paul’s Bookstore. This is a classic used bookstore; it smells like a used bookstore. I found some great selections of Margaret Atwood and a rare Agatha Christie that I had been searching for (hardcover!). The people working there are very friendly and love to talk to you about their store. If you are ever in the great city of Madison (and I am not kidding, Madison is one of my favorite cities and I would love to live there) then you should stop in.

Honorable Mention:

Troubadour Books in North Hatfield, MA
(no website)
This is an out-of-the-way place that looks like an abandoned gas station. I think I passed it twice the first time I was looking for it. The place is a mess; books are everywhere (crammed in every imaginable place on the shelves, piled on the floor, and some are left permanently packed in open boxes) so it is kind of a scavenger hunt. However, they really do have a great selection of books and the owner is really cool (and from what I can tell only listens to NPR). The owner will knock down the prices on your books once you are at the register. You don't have to haggle; it is just how he does business there.

These are the bookstores that I always return to and recommend. Each time I have gone, I have ended up leaving with books I never thought I would find. I have also had interesting conversations with either the owners, workers, or customers about books. As more and more bookstores close, I fear that we are loosing something that I cannot quite articulate but I know is valuable.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Large Amount of Books

I am a self-proclaimed book collector. I research and travel to used bookstores (and some independent book stores) and buy whatever interests me and whatever I can afford. Don’t be impressed (yes, I know that I am assuming that there might be a small group of people who would think this is cool). AND don’t think that I am bragging – I am not buying rare books or first editions, nor am I trying to create some kind of public identity – I just love to buy books. My book collecting often reflects my research endeavors or current mood. One summer I purchased every used Agatha Christie book I could find in the Pioneer Valley, because I thought I would write my own mystery.1 Another summer I purchased every piece of American literature I could find that had Russian characters – I wanted to do a project about how American’s wrote about Russians before and after the Cold War. If I am feeling depressed or like I need some recharging, I buy poetry books. Sometimes I am orderly and try to buy every book by an author I like. I also will purchase books that I think I should own or should have read.2 This means that I have amassed a rather large book collection. Unfortunately, this book collection is largely unread and reminds me of all the things I say I want to do and never do.

I have often wondered why I need to buy so many books when I can borrow them from friends or the library. I am not sure I have the best justifications for my consumerism, but below is a list that explains why I think I need to physically own books and what I feel the ownership of a book provides me:

  1. Books are my favorite possessions. They adorn my shelves and I talk about them, to my closest friends who humor me, the way they talk about their pets.

  2. Owning a large amount of books is a luxury. I can wake up, look at my shelf at anytime, and read a new book or reread one of my favorite books. I also want to be able to write in the book, dog-ear certain pages, and shove personal notes into the pages of the books.

  3. If I am going through a personal crisis, I often turn to my favorite author, story, or character.3 I do not want to go to a store or library while I am lying in my pajamas and questioning all my life decisions that have led me to lie around in my pajamas!

  4. I like all the possibilities they present. Perhaps one day I will read them all or finish a project or two. Or maybe one day someone will be visiting and I can say, “I have the perfect book for you.”

Whatever the reason I know I won’t stop. Sadly, I recently decided to go on a book-buying freeze.


  1. I wanted to give myself a reading project – read most (not all, I seriously cannot commit to all) of the books on my bookshelf. (This really should be listed last since I came to this conclusion after reason 2 and 3, but I would like to pretend that this was the first reason.)

  2. I just moved into a studio and had to store most of my in my mother’s basement.

  3. I simply cannot afford to buy or shelve any more books right now.

I have found this self-imposed book-buying freeze both rewarding and frustrating,

The most rewarding part of my book-buying freeze is that I have decided to force myself to read some of the books I own, have always wanted to read, and have pushed aside. Two weeks ago I reread The Maltese Falcon and read The Thin Man (for the first time). While reading these books, I noticed how similar Dashiell Hammett’s writing style was to that of another of my favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway. Most recently I finished The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I cannot believe that I let this book sit on my shelf for so long. I am still trying to process everything I read and I am currently rereading my favorite passages. I don’t even want to move on to my next book. Reading these works made me realize that I was happy reading my long-ignored books. I realize now that I am drawn to certain writers, themes, and time periods. I think the books that I own actually speak to my personality. These authors have also made me read and write more than any of the trendy/new release books that I have picked up on I whim. This self-imposed book-buying freeze has also made me happy that I own so many books, that I can talk about them, and that I can pass them on.

However, I have also found this freeze incredibly annoying. I am denying myself the pleasure of reading Paul Auster. I could never find him in used bookstores, so I have never been able to pick up his work. A few days ago, I was in St. Mark’s Bookshop and I found most of his work.4 5 It was hard to look at it, hold it, read a few pages, and than walk away. I realized that I will never read all the books I want to. This made me sad.

So I thought I would write about my experiences (on LEL) about reading – what I am reading, what I want to read, and what I will never read. Warning: If you do not want someone to criticize some of your favorite books, like Harry Potter, you will not like this.


1.For those people who don’t understand the appeal of Western Massachusetts, you should really read this article on the Pioneer Valley.

2.This is the main reason I purchased Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, I know deep down that I will never read it. I have read a lot about it. Doesn’t that mean I get the gist of it?

3.A good example of this would be Dan Kennedy's Loser Goes First.

4.This makes my top five list of bookstores. If you live in New York and haven’t been – drop everything and go now:

5.Also, if you do happen to go to St. Mark’s Bookshop, you won’t find Paul Auster in their literature section. You will find him in their “authors most stolen” section!

Thursday, August 6, 2009


As a teenager growing up in Montana in the 1990s there wasn't much exposure to alternative or underground arts and culture. There wasn't even much exposure to mainstream U.S. culture. There was MTV, but they didn't show music videos any more, even though at that time it was still astute to comment on that fact. Local music involved aging cover bands, either hippie or redneck rocker. Local art meant mostly ceramics by hippies, half of whom had become moneyed professionals. The radio seemed, to me and my friends, like the best possible recourse (though still not good), because there was a classic rock radio station, and in the grim years between grunge and indie we turned to the music of earlier generations.

The music of my parents' generation, in fact. Once, after my dad spied a CD I had left on the dining room table, he mentioned a music festival he'd attended in Amsterdam circa 1970 featuring canonical rock groups like Pink Floyd and Santana. A sixteen-year-old enamored with the stuff, I could scarcely believe his nonchalance about the memory and his subsequent indifference to the music.

What could I expect, though? He was a born-and-bred Montanan, like me. My mom, on the other hand, was a Bay Area native, born in San Francisco and schooled in San Jose. Yet for her taste for parties, dancing, and social interaction—tastes that were, in my family, unique to her—she didn't have much interest in discussions of bygone music. The only clear recollection I have is her telling me the swell of pride her and her friends would feel when they heard the Beach Boys' "California Girls," as though Brian Wilson was writing specifically of them.

Making the story more peculiar was that these baby boomers (b. 1947 and b. 1948) met in San Francisco, epicenter of the counterculture, having each succumbed to the post-college gravity of large cities. My dad's relocation was the less probable and the less remunerative. He had a friend there, he got odd jobs, he ended up going back to school to get a professional degree. My mom was working her way up the ladder at a bank since engulfed by a larger bank many mergers ago. Her father helped her get the initial job.

As I get older it's easier to understand who my parents were in the 1970s in San Francisco. Somewhat detached, prone to irony and staying at home, not quite qualified to do the things they had recently decided they wanted to do, and not quite prepared to make the sacrifices to do those things, especially since no payoff was assured. Sympathetic to the grand social and political currents of the times, but not full-blown adherents of the hippie movement. Perhaps they arrived a little late, and had too much dignity to embark on a personal transformation so as to join the tail end of a vibrant culture. Or maybe they weren't these things at all, but it helps me to see them this way. It makes them like me, and it means they might understand the choices I face and make.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Violence in the Senate

In 1856 Preston Brooks, a U.S. representative from South Carolina, attacked Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, beating him with a cane until Sumner collapsed, unconscious. Brooks continued beating him until his cane broke.

Less than a month later, Brooks delivered a speech entitled "In Defense of His Attack on Sumner" in the House of Representatives. The speech is an indignant collection of justifications for violence that casts Brooks in the role of victim and, as such, is exemplary of U.S. patriotism.

It begins with an emotional argument about the relationship between a person and the state, positing that the person of Preston Brooks is coextensive with the state of South Carolina: "Whatever insults my State insults me." The state then becomes sacred, something that "commanded [Brooks's] pious veneration." Lastly, a familial relation: to defend the state is "to perform the duty of a son." The state deserves and gets obedience, and hasty and unquestioning vengeance.

Brooks moves from there onto technical ground. The attack happened on the floor of the Senate, not the House; if he is accountable, it is "there and not here." The Senate has no jurisdiction over members of the House, and the House has no jurisdiction over acts committed in the Senate. In juridical terms, Brooks is nowhere, and has impunity.

From there he turns to a counterfactual: "If I desired to kill the senator why did I not do it?" Foresight and mercy led Brooks to choose "an ordinary cane" to attack Sumner. The weapon is proof of Brooks desire not to kill his adversary.

What a common set of arguments. Patriotism is unthinking and unblinking obedience to the state. Acts of violence occur in a state of exception that fall outside of normal legal rules. The tools of violence, counterintuitively, demonstrate the merciful and measured nature of the aggression. The ability to find a multitude of analogies to the war on terror does not indicate a sinister undercurrent of U.S. thought; it shows the mundanity of such arguments and that they lie in easy reach of anyone scrambling to defend the indefensible. The arguments function in their simplicity. Any challenge is met by repeating the original argument.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Grammar Lesson


Tenet vs. Tenant

Tenant /´te-nәnt/, n., is sometimes confused with tenet /´te-nәt/, n., though the difference in meaning between the two words is substantial and clear. Tenet is derived from the last name of the former director of the CIA, George Tenet, who famously and mistakenly said that finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would be a "slam dunk"; the word now refers to any similar gaffe involving inaccurate advice or unjustified confidence. A tenant is a renter of an apartment or house, not the mice or roaches that occupy the domicile, though the renter's furtive movements and preference for the dark may mimic the behaviors of his or her rodential and insectile cohabitants.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Weird Pretty Music

In 2006 a friend burned me a copy of John Vanderslice's Pixel Revolt. He wrote the above note to go with it: "God hugs your ear mouth with this CD." I've tried to come up with a clearer way to describe the effect of listening to Vanderslice, but I don't know how else to capture his music's strange, synesthetic, and heart-rending characteristics. The gibberish note was right.

Vanderslice has been criticized as being a producer first and foremost, and his songs do deploy the producer's full armament of instruments and effects. Yet the implied criticism of his songcraft is unwarranted, especially when leveled at the highly visual lyrics that produce the synesthesia my friend noted. In “Heated Pool and Bar,” Vanderslice tells three linked stories of a U.S. military figures in Colombia, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, each story washed in colors that proceed, as I hear them, from green speckled with white, to yellow with a smear of red, to cold slate (though most of those words aren’t used, and cold slate is itself a synesthetic metaphor), with bright flashes and loud noises that emanate solely from the lyrics, as in these verses regarding Colombia:

My cousin is in Colombia
Hunting down the rebels
Over fields of bright and shiny coca

Over the jungle floor
One-handing a 32
He says: “Bring her down low now, I’m ready to go.”

“I hunt kids in camouflage
Rain down bullets in flight, white light,
Barefoot boys run for your lives.”

Throughout the song the guitar that hits every other beat foregrounds the sharpness of the images and the described and implied sounds, evoking the chaos and sensory overload that accompanies decision-making in combat.

His expressive voice is central to the songs and the lyrics focus on narrative and description, giving the songs a cinematic quality. (He's even written songs based on movies: "Promising Actress" retells Mulholland Drive and "When it Hits My Blood" takes up the plot of Requiem for a Dream.) Story-driven songs lead Vanderslice into some esoteric subject areas. Briefly, a list of topics on which Vanderslice has written the best song:

  • Amphetamine production ("Speed Lab")
  • Internet pornography ("Bill Gates Must Die")
  • Four-track recorders ("Me and My 424")
  • Standing in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square ("Do You Remember?")
  • Carnivorous kingfisher birds ("Kookaburra")
  • Witnessing a fatal car crash ("Everything Changed")
  • Time travel ("Time Travel is Lonely")
  • Escaped pet bunnies ("Angela")
  • Military invasion of a town ("The Minaret")
  • Surveillance, esp. with dental mirrors ("Dear Sarah Shu")

His songs are filled with oddities and marginalia, but always made concrete. There's a literary-cum-scholarly bent toward examples and specificity, and it's a tribute to his mind that there's a sustained interest in the shadowlands of contemporary politics and economics. You could say that the old home you shared with an ex-wife had been taken over by someone else and made bland and homogenous; in “My Old Flame” John Vanderslice will tell you that it’s been IKEAed (“bleached out and aired / IKEAed and swept bare”). You could talk about the difficulties of long-distance relationships, or you could name the government agency that’s putting bureaucratic obstacles in the way of your French girlfriend’s efforts to get a visa (it’s the DIA, in “Central Booking”). My only explanation for why other people don't like his music as much as I do—it's lushly produced (in his own all-analog studio), melodic, and unafraid of harmonized vocals—is that his songs' topics and concomitant lyrics produce discomfort. They tend toward despair and suspicion, yet it's the stories he tells in his songs that display the range and ambition of his imagination. Do listeners wish for more conventional paeans to love, heartbreak, and fast living, songs of cobbled-together slogans and faux-deep vagaries?

The answer appears to be yes. Pitchfork's review of Emerald City called it a "carbon copy of its predecessor [Pixel Revolt]," since each was "an album waist-deep in post-9/11 dread and despair." Enough with the political songs, the review said—though "Vanderslice's observations and commentary sounded fresh and fierce two years ago, the same essential message run through similarly sounding songs this time around rings hollow." Yet in 2007, who else was there to write songs reminding us of how little had changed in US politics since 2003, how little we still knew about US actions domestically and internationally, and how political opposition was dismissed as out of touch—a facet of contemporary politics that the Pitchfork review unwittingly reinforced?

Yet the greatness of John Vanderslice resides precisely in his ability to make such troubling topics into something so pretty. It's not an effect that works through juxtaposition—the tone of the music matches the tone of the lyrics. The songs are coherent, enough so that they capture the attraction/repulsion dyad that is not paradoxical so much as mutually constitutive, similar to the Freudian death drive. We are not attracted and repulsed; we are attracted because we are repulsed. His ability to capture that dynamic makes him perfectly suited to address the armed politics of our time, the twenty-first-century continuation of a twentieth-century phenomenon in which fanatical devotion to an idea unleashes violence and destruction. The songs confront what Mark Danner called our "national id," the part of our nation and our politics that we prefer to leave to experts behind closed doors.

Romanian Names, Vanderslice's latest album, steers away from many of these things. Not much politics, fewer strange characters. Less narrative, more interpersonal relationships. According to Vanderslice, on this album "a lot of songs are about the difficulty of being in love, and the difficulty of being in a relationship. . . . When you're in a very, very close relationship, there's a mirror in front of you all the time. So a lot of the songs, for me, are about that mirrored self and that almost suffocating thing that happens." Musically, Romanian Names is more spare, shimmery, and pretty than any of his previous albums. He stays between the poles of raw and haunting that mark earlier work. This album, more than others, appears a perfect realization of his vision.

But what of that vision? Reviewers—whether they considered this album a detour, a welcome return, or a glorious culmination—agree that it represents a departure from politically-minded music. No one has considered the possibility that it continues, extends, or revises those politics. For Joe Tangari of Pitchfork, the album "moved well beyond the post-9/11 dread that dominated Pixel Revolt and Emerald City" and is all the better for it. Yet we still inhabit that world of war, state secrets, emergency powers, and marginalization of dissent. Is Vanderslice's latest album another symptom of a polity bored with politics, content to let the powerful exercise power while we get on with our own lives?

That's not a conclusion we should turn to easily. If there's a thematic line running through previous albums, it's a sympathy with the socially and politically marginalized, an insistence on seeing the world from the perspective of those beset upon by the institutions and structures of power. This applied even to those who end up working within those same structures (e.g., the guard at Guantanamo in "Heated Pool and Bar," a song whose refrain is "you can't be good"). The consistency of this theme can be read in the disapproving reviews who wish he'd just get on with the snappy music. So while Romanian Names shifts to the terrain of private, personal relationships, it still encourages questioning more than hope, and we needn't even understand or do justice to feminism to grant that the personal can be political. Perhaps the institutions that play villains in earlier songs are flawed because they're built by and composed of people like us. And we are flawed people capable of unsavory things. The relevant question becomes not "who is victimizing us?" but "how complicit are we?" If we turn to private life to try to forget the violence done by governments, nations, and corporations, Romanian Names will offer an equally bleak picture, but one that puts responsibility more squarely on our shoulders.

While an escape from drear and gloom eludes us when we examine the content of his lyrics, the sounds that hug our ears provide a clear counterpoint. The beauty of his music, the pleasure to be garnered from it, makes me hope that if we are all complicit then perhaps we can also all take credit for such creation. It's a conclusion that can't be reached by casting aside the political despair, the discomfort, the dismal reminders, only by working through it. As David Foster Wallace said relative to writing a story that loves the reader, "It would take an architect who could hate enough to feel enough to love enough to perpetrate the kind of special cruelty only real lovers can inflict." It can't just be pretty; such pretty music has to be weird, too.