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The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Alison Bartlett
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

lesismore9o9, May 26, 2010

In the Rare Book Room of Powell's City of Books, sealed behind a glass door and bordered by two faded brown texts, sits an unassuming blue-covered copy of John Keats' complete poetry. While it may seem indistinguishable from volumes you'd find on a garage sale card table, this book is worlds above them for the name scrawled on the inside page: Jack Kerouac. This volume was owned by Kerouac in 1949, the same year he and Neal Cassady drove across country in the journeys that would become “On The Road,” and contains various underlines and marginal comments the great author made. It's a book saturated in history – and kept out of my hands by an $8,000 price tag.

But as much as I eye the book and lovingly run my fingers over the glass border, thoughts of larceny never once cross my mind. Even if all the store's employees were on a smoke break and no legal consequences existed, the thought of stealing this book – or any book – is abhorrent to me no matter how deep my passion runs. It's a moral code that many serious book lovers share, but one that sadly doesn't extend to everyone. Allison Hoover Bartlett's discursive “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” explores how that bibliomania drives the lives of thieves and collectors – and what happens when the two go into conflict over one volume too many.

The titular man who loved books too much is one John Charles Gilkey, a California native who was gripped at an early age by the fever of book collecting. Unable to afford the titles he wanted and furnish the grand library of his dreams, Gilkey moved into the world of fraud, using bad checks and stolen credit card numbers to defraud sellers. Establishing a system – harvesting credit card numbers from his job at Saks, calling ahead to order titles as gifts and picking them “in a hurry” – Gilkey soon became one of the most successful book thieves in operation, filching over $100,000 worth of first additions and rarities from rare book dealers.

Such a string of thefts eventually gained attention in this passionate community, and the growth of “pink sheets” (dealer theft reports) became the pet cause of Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America security chair/Utah rare books dealer Ken Sanders. In the process of modernizing the ABAA's theft system, he brought Gilkey's efforts to the attention of other dealers – an effort not helped by the police's apathy what they saw as petty book thefts, and Gilkey's utter refusal to turn away from his habit after being caught.

Bartlett presents her narrative from a first-person perspective, interviewing both men extensively and casting herself in reactions to their stories. In the case of the fiery Sanders, Bartlett is drawn into the world of book collecting, painting the immersion of antiquarian book fairs and stores with towering shelves. The dealers she meets offer all the right war stories: their start in the field, the joy of a Holy Grail title discovered in a back drawer or brought in by an unknowing seller, the deep betrayal felt when a previously trusted customer liberates titles without paying. It can be a dry subject for the non-bibliomaniac, but Bartlett keeps it relevant by discussing her own reactions, experiences in collecting and volumes that mean something to her. She may not care as deeply as Sanders, but she does care, and her enthusiasm for these stories carries over.

The varied anecdotes on book sales and book thefts keep “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” interesting, but it is the inclusion of Gilkey's stunning amorality with his bibliomania that makes it compelling. Gilkey is a fascinating figure – very knowledgeable about his passion and completely swept up in the image of “his library,” paradoxically wanting to show off a collection that would land him back in jail if the right person saw it. His complete lack of regret for any of his thefts, as well as his often childish conviction that going to jail for stealing books he can't afford is a personal slight against him by the booksellers, will set any librarian's blood boiling but make him a character worth studying. His brazen nature also allows for some particularly memorable scenes during the interviews: in one, Gilkey casually wanders the halls of a bookstore he's robbed before, firing off random details on titles for sale as the owner and Bartlett look on with respective suspicion and horror.

Similar scenes do provide “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” with tension, but it does lack the punch of other true crime stories. Some of this stems from the fact that this story isn't a traditional cat-and-mouse structure of two men purposely trying to outsmart each other (though Sanders spearheaded a sting effort to catch Gilkey the two have never met, and Gilkey can't even remember Sanders' last name when asked), but there is a feeling that Bartlett could have dug deeper. She never seeks a concrete answer from Gilkey on how deeply his father was involved in the thefts despite mentioning her curiosity more than once, nor does she take Sanders' advice and try investigating where Gilkey stashed his ill-gotten library. True, such efforts would have likely destroyed the rapport she built with Gilkey, but the story feels like it would have been improved from more interactions outside the two men.

But that will likely only disappoint readers looking for a taut crime thriller, and “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” has far more to offer than that. Gilkey and Sanders represent two very different sides of the same obsession, and Bartlett as intermediary stirs up not only the deep allure books represent to them but a plethora of stories perfect for anyone who has more than a passing interest in maintaining their bookshelf. If you're like me, it might even make you take a more serious look at how you value your own collecting elements – at time of writing, I've got a mason jar collecting coins so in three years, that Kerouac/Keats might move into my own hands.
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Pacific Agony (Semiotext(e) Native Agents) by Bruce Benderson
Pacific Agony (Semiotext(e) Native Agents)

lesismore9o9, May 23, 2010

At the time of writing this review, I have been a resident of Portland, Oregon for nearly two years. Desperate to get out of the Midwest I chose the city based on random whims and recommendations, and have since fallen completely in love with the Pacific Northwest. Bordered by mountains and forests, containing a hodgepodge of architectural styles and rife with solid beers and bookstores, it comes across as a welcome change from endless farmland. As much as I love my adopted homeland, however, I’m not blind to its varied faults, most of which center around how smugly self-satisfied it seems with itself as forward-thinking despite being overwhelmingly suburban and Caucasian.

I’m certainly not alone in writers pointing this out: Christian Lander of “Stuff White People Like” dubbed Portland “a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario … whereby a homogenous group of people is left in an area with no one to keep them in check,” and local author Katherine Dunn said in one “Slice” column from Willamette Week that she sees the city as “a swamp of cracker bigotry dotted by islands of attempted sanity.” And now, with his novel “Pacific Agony,” Bruce Benderson has presented possibly the most brutal evisceration of the Pacific Northwest’s culture – and presented it so well residents will have a hard time taking too much offense.

Benderson’s voice for this criticism is Reginald Fortiphton, a writer of middling success who is contracted to write a travel book based on his impressions of West Coast hubs such as Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. However, Fortiphton’s penchant for aggravating his hosts, popping morphine tablets and lusting after dangerous young men quickly prove he’s a poor choice to write positively of anything. The novel – presented as Fortiphton’s final manuscript to his editor – presents a caustic and biting assessment of the region, as he blasts its suburban comforts with unrestrained vitriol.

Despite having a name more at home in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, Fortiphton is a character with little in the way of good humor or even likability. He treats his assignment of viewing the region’s landmarks as a license to assault them, dismissing Seattle as “a squeaky-clean dormitory for fledgling dot-com-ers” and Eugene as a “minor city… true to that stunning, almost contemptuous neutrality.” When forced out into the rain to smoke, he takes a morbid view of it, proud of his “lethal weapon” and spitting at the restrictions such a supposedly liberal region implements. It’s unapologetic, and very refreshing.

This might make the book seem like nothing but railing, but “Pacific Agony” is special more for what it says about its characters than the region. As I mentioned in my review of his excellent “Sex and Isolation,” one of the things that distinguishes Benderson as a writer is his unabashed support and sympathy for a lifestyle most people would cross the street to avoid. Fortiphton disregards the touristy locations to seek out anarchists, primitivists and street hustlers, and Benderson affectionately offers up some prime examples – an anarchistic street hustler named Judas, a heroin addict descended from the Quileute tribe, a Finnish centenarian with a Communist past. As in “Sex and Isolation,” there is palpable nostalgia for a more dangerous past, as when Fortiphton bitterly curses the monotony of his whitewashed surroundings:

“Wasn’t anyone aware that the incestuous urges, Oedipal hostility and sepulchral disciplines of family life could only implode if they were kept in such an isolated state? Didn’t anybody but me miss the glory days of public transportation and public space when the city was indeed a spectacle to walk through and provided the flâneur his wonderfully tainted bath?”

And bathing in this environment leads Fortiphton to become even more depressed and delusional, eventually becoming convinced a conspiracy of Interzone proportions is being spearheaded by his editors. The last chapters of “Pacific Agony” take on a more surreal edge, as Fortiphton completely abandons his schedule and takes up residence with the homeless of British Columbia and supplanting his morphine reserves with “other substances that I will not describe in detail.” It does make the book feel somewhat unfocused, but the language also becomes more haunting as he weaves Native American myth and natural beauty into his “great, sweeping gestures of fatality.”

The book’s acerbic tones and harsh themes may be off-putting to some but Benderson cleverly balances them through the use of footnotes, presented as manuscript comments by Fortiphton’s editor Narcissa Whitman Applegate. A proud historian and descendant of Oregon pioneers, Applegate grows more and more outraged as the book progresses, to the point where she almost gloats when his lusts get the better of him. Her defensive remarks clarifying the thriving industries and historical culture in Eugene and Oregon City forms a hilarious contrast to Fortiphton’s rants, and the haughty tone she takes serves to unintentionally prove her author’s point on the region’s collective stick-up-the-ass.

In her closing remarks, Applegate lambastes the book as “A compendium of perversity and viciousness, full of distortions, sarcasm – and even obscenities!” That’s certainly all there in “Pacific Agony,” but what she clearly misses is the fantastic phrasing Benderson displays, and how the cracked lens he holds up to the region also cuts to the core of his narrator’s soul. It’s certainly not a book that will serve as an argument for moving to the Pacific Northwest, but it’s a stirringly well-done character study and a wake-up call our staid culture could use more of.
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Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

lesismore9o9, May 17, 2010

It’d be hard to find a classic monster more annoyingly reinvented in the last few years than the vampire. Thanks to novel series like “Twilight,” “The Vampire Diaries” and “The Southern Vampire Chronicles” (better known by its TV incarnation “True Blood”) the public perception of vampires has shifted away from the shadowy children of the night into gleaming fashion model types with more concern for snark and sexual tension. The quiet power and authority of Dracula has been supplanted with the brooding of Edward Cullen, and the archetype has suffered as a result, inspiring dread for all the wrong reasons.

Despite the genre’s bad reputation, the announcement of “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” remained intriguing to me. First of all, it was written by “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” author Seth Grahame-Smith, who proved that he is capable of smartly meshing a historical time period with fantasy elements beyond a good title. Additionally, it promised to do something new with the fledgling mash-up literary trend, emulating the biographical styles of authors like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin for some potentially deeper fiction. It was a title rife with potential – unfortunately, the result shows only about half of that potential was in reach.

“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is exactly what it promises on the title – a retelling of the life of the sixteenth President of the United States, with the added caveat that the great orator and wartime president was also an accomplished dispatcher of the undead. After losing his mother to a vampire’s power, he cultivates himself into a slayer without peer, hunting vampires with axe and stakes as they move secretly amongst us. As he uncovers proof of their deep influence, Lincoln finds himself carried to the highest office in the land, forced to enter a war to keep the fledgling United States from turning into an exsanguinatory buffet.

The Quirk Classics series (“PPZ” and its spiritual successors) proved that there is an important balance that needs to be struck between the established setting and the mythological construction, and Grahame-Smith once again finds that niche. Vampires hide in plain sight – their dark glasses and parasols the only indicator of their true nature – and have found a ready-for-purchase source of food in the slave markets. They pull the strings of the politics between North and South to keep the institution legal, serving as undead lobbyists who support Southern politicians to the point that vampires are whispered about in the halls of Congress as a political concern. It’s an argument that extends its premise logically, and serves to further justify Lincoln’s political decisions.

But while the book does competently weave vampiric mythology into American history, the method in which it tells its story disappoints. While branding itself as a biography, “ALVH” comes across more frequently as a pulp fiction dime novel, given to some overwrought sentences for suspense’s sake (“Too frightened to warn his father that it was coming. Right above him. Right now”) and moving rather quickly over the political climate Lincoln had to navigate. It’s also willing to indulge in some historical crossover fan fiction, making Edgar Allen Poe an occasional friend of Lincoln and a friend of vampires, who are impressed by his skill in capturing death on the page.

None of these additions is a deal-breaker by itself, but “ALVH’s” meshing of history with fantasy make it seem continually uncertain about what kind of book it wants to be. At times it seems to be going for solid biography as sections of Lincoln’s journal or letters from his vampire-hunting allies are reprinted to give hints as to his motives and mindset, and footnotes allude to political figures or Shakespeare references. To his credit Grahame-Smith does manage to establish Lincoln’s voice in these entries, and the language feels appropriate for the time and the author.

Almost immediately after these sections though, this capital is squandered as “ALVH” segues into traditional suspense, with lines like “These are the last seconds of my life” and “Judge us not equally” cropping up in constant fight scenes. Conversations between Lincoln, his vampire-hunting allies and his political rivals are presented as straight dialogue a biographer would have no way of knowing, and there’s an annoying over-reliance on presenting Lincoln’s dreams, showing plantation manors as houses of torture or a demon staked through the heart in his son’s crib.

(Particular admonishment goes to the book’s prologue, where a fictionalized version of Grahame-Smith is given the diaries of Lincoln by a vampire who wants the story told, and he emphasizes how the quest to write this book nearly destroyed his sanity. It derails the historian’s voice a book should have possessed before it even gets started, and adds nothing to the core narrative.)

These complaints don’t make “ALVH” necessarily a bad book – the fight scenes are competently done and Lincoln’s journals do have their tense moments – but it fails to make the lightning strike in the same way “PPZ” did. It restores some subtlety to vampires but completely removes that subtlety in the rest of its presentation, choosing to indulge itself in purple prose rather than paying serious homage to the books that inspired it. The upcoming film version is likely to be entertaining (despite Tim Burton’s track record on literary adaptations) but one can’t shake the feeling that if done right this idea would have inspired its own miniseries.
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The Abyss of Human Illusion by Gilbert Sorrentino
The Abyss of Human Illusion

lesismore9o9, April 25, 2010

Having spent more than a few years in the world of book criticism and surrounded by literary friends, it's been my observation that anyone who's more than a casual reader not only has their favorite author but their favorite lesser-known author. Spend enough time amongst the Hemingways and Kerouacs and Vonneguts who stand astride the realm of what is considered popular literary culture, and you eventually uncover the writers who fall through the cracks, influencing the titans or doing what they do better minus the accolades. They might only have one title to their name, or they might be known only for works published postmortem, but the bond they form with their fans is a devotion frequently stronger than any author with more awards or higher sales figures.

For me, that niche author is Gilbert Sorrentino. I was swayed into reading him back in 2006 by catching the New Yorker's review of his “A Strange Commonplace,” a novel they defined as “fifty-two discrete parts—a dazzlingly original deck of cards” (the first review I ever read where one line served as the hook for purchase). The praise proved more than deserved, and since then I've been an unrestrained admirer of his books despite the occasionally trying effort of actually finishing one. With a career spanning four decades, Sorrentino was a titan of experimental fiction, effortlessly picking at the genre's conventions with humor and a mastery for dialogue both internal and external.

Given Sorrentino's death of lung cancer in May of 2006, I assumed that we'd regard “Commonplace” – published that same month – as the coda to his career, but it turns out he wasn't quite finished. Early that year he presented his son Christopher with a heavily corrected sheath of typings and a composition notebook, a bundle he referred to as “my last book” and that has now come to life as “The Abyss of Human Illusion.” And while it usurps the place of honor “Commonplace” held, it is every bit as worthy to wear the mantle, a book at turns funny and lonely and one that speaks to the remarkable skill at Sorrentino's disposal.

“Abyss” follows the same template of Sorrentino's later works “Commonplace” and “Little Casino,” in that it falls into the shadow between novel and short story collection. The book is made up of fifty vignettes, taken from low points and turning points in the lives of their unnamed characters: a man thinks in disgust of his friend's new poetry book, a New Year's Eve party turns into an adulterous brawl, a man seduces his neighbor's wife and takes her to his pious Oklahoma family to sleep in the bathtub. There's no stated connection between any of them, though several of the stories do seem to have unsettling overlaps ranging from marital circumstances to salad dressing.

“There are more serious insanities to ponder, surely, but we are, for the moment, caught in the toils of this one,” is how Sorrentino opens one of these vignettes, and this serves as a fitting descriptor for the book's theme. What we have here are not grand questions and scenes, but moments where characters are facing personal failures, their own mortality and closure not to their liking – the little things that get to them, revealing the pettiness and the loneliness behind their lives. One old man can sit alone in their apartments with his only purpose remembering past slights, and another old man fondly recalls a one-night stand decades ago to an old friend only to have her laugh dismissively (“You've been thinking of that all these years?”).

As the saying goes, when you stare into the abyss it stares back into you, and “Abyss” is no different – it's a bleak book in many ways and one that takes an effort despite being made up of so many parts. The characters may not seem likeable, but that's most likely because the lack of names makes it easier for readers to be drawn uncomfortably in, seeing themselves in broken marriages or listening to the radio in an empty apartment. This is a book about the complexities of being human, a “tideless deep” as Henry James put it in the line the title comes from, and one that demands the reader be willing to put their head under. Sorrentino doesn't even seem to consider himself exempt from the experience, as one story visits an old writer whose “each gluey additional phrase made made more awkward and unwieldy, and worse, egregiously literary and important,” feeling foolish but almost amused at himself for continuing.

But the perceptions of that character translate in no way to the quality of writing in “Abyss,” which has a precision with words on par with Raymond Carver. While Sorrentino's earlier work was distinguished for its English explosions (his magnum opus “Mulligan Stew” was full to bursting with lists and asides, and “Crystal Vision” sparked with back-and-forth drugstore banter) later books had a greater economy, filled with scenes and images that could be taken in part or as a whole. “Abyss” keeps the trend with no vignette longer than five pages, but each feels so full and vivid as the narrator's thoughts play out.

Sorrentino was obviously careful with his word choice, but he was even more meticulous with the details. To make up for the loss of his father as final editor, Christopher Sorrentino included his father's loose thoughts from the notebook rough draft, which expand the stories' depth in the spirit of the excellent afterthoughts to “Little Casino's” vignettes. Commentaries show that he considered every detail and phrase closely, from the trivial details cut in editing (the exact brand of green paint or English muffin) to the significant social context behind the scene (the predilections of the Devil and the decline of the Lower East Side). The reader is warned that “some of these commentaries may not be wholly reliable,” but even so they force one to go back and reconsider each of the chapters' minutae.

And reconsideration is something that “Abyss” invites in droves – not just reconsideration of the brief scenes, but reconsideration of the reader's own life and reconsideration of Sorrentino's books that have come before. This is a stunningly potent book, one that not only shows the culmination of its author's career but also creates what could be his most accessible work, distilling his language and plot points to the core exploration of how strange it is to be human. Sorrentino closed his career in perfect fashion with “The Abyss of Human Illusion,” and once again secured his place as my favorite niche author.
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The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

lesismore9o9, July 21, 2009

While the concept of gonzo journalism is most regularly associated with excessive drug use and acts of mayhem while reporting, the founding ideas are a bit more serious. Hunter S. Thompson defined his creation as the pinnacle of engagement, comparable to “a film director who writes his own script, does his own camera work and somehow manages to film himself in action.” The driving principal is that in this deep level of engagement, the author cannot remove himself from the story and as such greater depth can be attained than through straight reporting.

From this technical perspective, it’s easy to consider A.J. Jacobs as some form of gonzo practitioner. Jacobs’ writing career regularly involves chronicling a series of social experiments he subjects himself to, ranging from outsourcing his daily life to India to striving for honesty in all cases to studying every last piece of information in an encyclopedia. Not content with these lengths though, he moved from the collected knowledge of man to the collected knowledge of God in his book “The Year of Living Biblically” – and the journey proves to be entertaining and surprisingly poignant.

The book’s title summarizes its intent perfectly: for one year, Jacobs strove to follow the Bible to the letter, ranging from its most basic commandments to the most obscure proverbs. Visibly, this meant donning all-white single-fiber garments and growing a beard resembling the brush outside a haunted house; and behaviorally it meant regular prayer, never lying and giving away 10 percent of his salary. He presents his findings in a journal format, tackling a new issue each day and recording his results.

Of course, the issue with following these rules is that many of them aren’t truly applicable in modern life, and therein lies the real humor of “Living Biblically.” Not eating fruit unless the tree is five years old, not wearing any garments that have more than one fiber, not touching any woman for a week after her period (his wife Julie is not amused) – Jacobs tries to keep to all of these and more, often going to great lengths and annoying those around him. He never betrays any frustration at the limitations, only an increasing curiosity at their origins and how he can work them into his daily life.

The real problem – from his perspective at least – comes up in the variety of instances where the Bible seems to contradict itself, especially when moving from Old to New Testament. A key instance comes in what should be one of the simplest rules, the Sabbath: “A friend of mine once told me that even observing the Sabbath might be breaking the Sabbath, since my job is to follow the Bible. That gave me a two-hour headache.” Jacobs come across as neurotic and yet likable, determined to find an answer no matter what crazy direction it takes him.

Jacobs doesn’t try to work these issues out alone, consulting with a wide variety of scholars and professors to seek interpretations of the Bible and interpretations of those interpretations. He runs the gamut from a sect of snake handlers to openly gay Christian fundamentalists, and even makes a pilgrimage to Israel where he herds sheep and speaks with his “spiritual omnivore” guru Uncle Gil. As with the proverbs he judges none of them beforehand, but simply admires and comments on the strength of their faith.

His neutrality is helped by his own lack of religious background – raised in a secular family and a self-defined agnostic – but as the year goes on he finds that immersion in faith is starting to rub off on him, creating an alter ego dubbed Jacob. Jacob scolds him for paying attention to Rosario Dawson’s sex life, puts olive oil in his hair and pays attention to every little moral choice made during the day. With every prayer or simple “God willing” he inserts into conversation, it’s clear as the book goes on that his journey has changed him, not dramatically but in very subtle ways of thought and appreciation.

At one point in the book, as Jacobs begins to show some frustration at why the Bible can be so contradictory or hard to understand, one of his spiritual advisers offers him a key piece of wisdom: “Life is a jigsaw puzzle. The joy and challenge of life – and the Bible – is figuring things out.” In many ways, “Living Biblically” is defined by this wisdom – a book that confronts hundreds of challenges, and winds up being a joy for the sheer fact that the journey is being undertaken.
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