What’s On My Night Table

Hello. As part of the Institute For Things to do With Books’ mandate to participate in things that have to do with books, here is my annual list of books that have piled up on my bedside table. Some of these books have been read through, some (the short story anthologies, certain poetry books) have been dipped into, others have got lost in the shuffle and are as of yet unread. As always, come spring, I’ll reshelve, and start the process all over again. Feel free to contribute your own night table geographies in the comments section.

Books are listed from the top of the pile to the bottom

Pile A:

Happy New Year! And Other Stories by Sholom Aleichem (Translated by Curt Leviant)
The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood (Poetry)
So Much to Say: Dave Matthews Band 20 Years on the Road by Nikki Van Noy (perhaps the worst book I have ever read)
The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (thank you BMV!)
50 Short Science Fiction Tales, Edited by Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin
An Oak Hunch by Phil Hall (Poetry)
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (BMV again!)
February by Lisa Moore
Not the Israel my Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar and JT Waldman (Graphic Novel)

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A Patient and His Doctor Learn About Empathy

Dr. K is a large, hairy man, and this is my second time seeing him as my GP. The examining room where I wait for him is a mess of folders and needles and pamphlets, the floors scuffed, the walls in need of a coat of paint; it’s as if the doctor and his office staff pursue the aesthetic of the apocryphal teenage boy. As in most any situation where I will be waiting or sitting for any amount of time, I have a book with me. For the occasion of my first physical with Dr. K, I happen to be reading After the Falls, a memoir by Catherine Gildner about her teenage years in America during the rebellious sixties and seventies (which happens to be a very well-written, very engaging book; I highly recommend it). I came across the book when I found it on the kitchen table at my parents’ house; my aunt had lent it to my mother and as soon as I picked it up I was immersed in Gildner’s world.

When Dr. K finally trundles in he notices the book immediately. “What are you reading?” he asks, picking up the book with hands that I must assume have been involved in saving countless lives. He holds the book in front of his face like it is a plate of unknown food in some foreign country and I do my best to give an elevator summary of the memoir (probably something very similar to the one above). Dr K acts with what, to me, is unwarranted surprise. “It’s about a girl growing up in the sixties?” he asks, laughing. “What can you relate to about that?” His response to the book catches me off-guard. “I mean, how can you relate to a girl in the sixties?” he asks again, flipping through the pages as if the answer will float up to him. “What’s there to relate to? What’s there to relate to?” he barks, laughing as if he’s caught me out.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination – well, that’s not exactly true. Certain names, characters, places, and incidents might be from that mysterious place, the author’s imagination, but most are not. Where are they from, you ask? Well, like any work of fiction, these things come from the author’s own life, her memories, stories of friends and family members, stories overheard on the bus, what she’s read, movies, things she’s misremembered, things she’s fantasized about, things she half-researched, half-made-up, all stirred until light and fluffy with the mix-master of craft, thickened with the flour of wordchoice, raised with the baking soda of time, and baked in the writing-process oven, eventually becoming the novel you are holding in your hands. So yes, there will be resemblances to actual events, locales, and persons, living and dead, and no, they most likely will not be entirely coincidental; but try and keep in mind that in almost every instant, it is done without malice, it is done with only the best intentions: to create something fresh and alive, something that has that most elusive of qualities, truth. All of which to say: Please (please) don’t sue.

Blurb’s Blurb

A Blurb For All Seasons

After a perhaps-longer-than-intended hiatus, the Institute is back! And to celebrate our return, we’re thrilled to announce the much-anticipated release of Blurbs, our book-length collection of some of the most famous, most controversial, and most down-right brilliant blurbs throughout English literature! Apropos of the theme, here is, in all its blurby splendour, the blurb for Blurbs:

As long as there’s been books, there’s been blurbs,* and now, for the first time, in this incredibly awe-tastic collection, these blurbs are available at your fingertips. Included in this raunchy, so-good-it’s-shocking-it’s-not-illegal-or-at-least-frowned-upon book are all the blurbs you’ve loved and cherished. Blurbs from your childhood, blurbs over which you’ve had your first love, blurbs that have grabbed you by the lapels and not let go. All your favourite blurb writers are represented: Stew Mac, Julie Plantain, the husband and wife duo of Lester and Tracy Groovy, and, of course, on the eve of his five thousandth blurb, the one and only, the inimitable Brew-ha-ha Barry. Blurbs is arranged into easy to use categories, such as: Poorly Written; Factually Inaccurate; So Hyperbolic it Hurts; and Downright Silly, with the subsection How Did This Ever Get Past the Publisher’s Desk?. So what are you waiting for? Buy this book and read it, all of it, right now! Who knows? These blurbs might just save your sad, boring lives!

Advanced praise for Blurbs:

“This is definitely a book of blurbs.”
– Author’s sister

“I never realized blurbs had such importance in how a book is read and remembered.”
– Tony Bendale, critic-at-large

“I read the first four blurbs and then fell asleep. For like, ten days.”
– Author’s other sister

*This is not technically true, but makes for a very strong opening, in this humble blurb-writer’s opinion.

(Blurbs, Institute Press, 1,437 pages. September 21st 2012)

Bookstores (On the Hunt)

Dispatch From The Institute For Things To Do With Books’ Field Agent

For some months now I have been on the search. Not for buried treasure, not for the elixir of life, not for untapped reserves of energy, no, but for something that at times is all three: a book. It has been a slow journey.

The book is The Rape of Europa, by Lynn H. Nicholas, and it is the comprehensive story of what happened to Europe’s art during the Second World War. I became aware of The Rape of Europa when I came across mention of it in an article I was reading: the book was cited for its description of the evacuation of the Louvre moments before the invasion of Paris by the Nazis. Imagine it: trucks loaded down with the treasures of France, convoying west out of the city in the pitch black, their headlights off to avoid detection, “The Raft of the Medusa,” that gigantic painting of people dying at sea, catching in the power lines. My attention was snagged, my cognitive faculties on fireworks mode: I needed this book.

So I did what I always do: I went to my neighbourhood’s used and independent bookstores and began the search. Those of us, like myself, who are used to the neat and orderly stacks of fiction at used book stores (or, if not neat and orderly, at least alphabetical) would be shocked to know what goes on in the history sections: aside from broad topics – American, the world wars, ancient, military – there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to how the books are shelved. I have so far spent many an afternoon standing in front of the WW II section, scanning the shelves over and over, always to no avail.

My initial forays yielding no results I soldiered on, widening my search radius, memories of past hunts fortifying my resolve. In particular, my greatest success story: my seasons-long quest for Denis Johnson’s short story collection Jesus’ Son. Having scoured the city I was about ready to give up, to cave in and order it from Abe Books, or – if even that failed – Amazon, when, walking with friends one Saturday afternoon we stopped to lock up a bike and I found myself in front of a bookstore I had never seen before. ‘Hold on a second,’ I said, and slipped inside, heading for fiction, heading for J. And there it was. I actually let out a squeal of joy. If I hadn’t found the book in this way, would I have loved it as much as I do? Would I have read it two and a half times, would it be a constant fixture in the towers on my nighttable, when not lent out ecstatically to friends? It’s an impossible question to answer, but I’d like to think not.

What can I say: I enjoy the hunt almost as much as the kill, that final moment where I glimpse the half of the title, three shelves above my head, hidden behind a stack of brightly coloured remainders, waiting all this time for me. Searching for a book gets the blood flowing, forces you to commune with your city, opens up the opportunity for countless conversations and discoveries; I am hooked. So far, I have yet to find The Rape of Europa. As always, other books have come my way, other excursions into the world of letters and bindings. But I remain vigilant. Though it may take a long while, though it may be far in my future, I am confident – confident as only a true bookstore rat could be – that I will eventually find out how they got the painting of that raft out of those power lines.

Field Agent K