Evil-free internet shopping (or how to read books on an iphone without patronizing Amazon)

My many devoted readers will know about my obsession with Lorrie Moore.

This has been such a busy year that I completely missed the fact that she has a new short story collection until I sat down one Sunday in November to review the PW Best Books of 2014 list and saw it there: a new short story collection, Bark.

My first instinct was to go straight to Amazon and get it immediately–and then I thought, well, okay, this is a book I can by at any bookstore in America. Every book on this list is going to be available at any bookstore in America. Shouldn’t I maybe do that instead?

We all know why Amazon is evil, but just for a little refresher, here are some highlights in order of terribleness in my personal opinion:

8. Disappearing Kindle content.

In what everyone has already acknowledge was an ironic turn of events, 1984 and Animal Farm disappeared from Kindles everywhere Friday July 17 2009. The discount ebooks had been posted in violation of U.S. copyright law; Amazon, informed of the issue, made the illegal books disappear and distributed refunds to customers. Everyone was furious, not so much about the loss of their purchases as the overwhelming creep factor involved in the experience. (You’d think this incident would have given Apple some clue that the magically appearing U2 album of September 2014 would be unwelcome.)

7. Marketplace sellers

One of my least-favorite features as an Amazon customer is the difficulty in telling when you’re buying from Amazon, or from some guy in Minnesota who will take two weeks to mail a package and has a totally different return policy. But there’s an actual reason, other than mild-inconvenience, why the trend toward marketplace sellers is problematic. Basically, Amazon has successfully created an environment in which the only way these sellers feel they can survive is by selling through the Amazon platform; the company has found an ingenious way to earn a fee through sales by its direct competitors, further homogenizing everything.

6. Price fixing

Between the anti-Amazon author coalition, the Apple/DOJ settlement, and the rash of Amazon agency-model deals squeezing in before year end, this one can be a bit hard to frame. Is it the big six who have the problem, or Apple, or Amazon–or is it all some massive conspiracy? The general consensus seems to be this: in initial rounds of ebook negotiations back in the early oughts, publishers failed to appreciate the impact and importance of what would become the Kindle. When the deals were done and $9.99 or lower became the standard Amazon price, publishers felt threatened by low (and falling) ebook prices conceived the agency model, which put pricing at publisher’s discretion, rather than retailers’. Amazon argued that a lower price point would lead to bigger sales; the publishers argued that a higher price point reflects value.

5. Censorship.

In 2009, the company was shamed for excluding feminist, gay, and liberal texts from sales rankings. Because those kinds of books don’t count, obviously. Amazon has been known to employ such tactics as removing the ‘buy’ button from all Macmillian titles (2010), or more recently jacking up prices and delaying shipments of Hachette titles (2014) as part of a contract negotiation tussle, infuriating basically every author whose name you know.

4. Taxes

Or lack thereof. Amazon doesn’t pay state and local sales tax, and it passes those savings on to you. And your roads. And your public schools. And your emergency services. The company also avoids taxation internationally, sparking anger in the UKJapanGermany, among others. It’s not that they’re actually breaking laws (except maybe in Japan)…more taking advantage of outdated laws written with normal-sized businesses in mind and some extremely adept lobbying.

3. Differential pricing

That is, charging different customers different amounts based on previous internet traffic and buying patterns.

2. Undercutting indie booksellers

(And even corporate booksellers. Remember back in the day when Barnes and Noble was the bad guy?) Amazon’s business plan has always included strategic low-pricing: in the early days, selling print books below cost and eating shipping fees was designed to increase market share and eliminate brick and mortar competition. The same strategy has persevered in the ebook market, where Amazon beats out the competition by roughly $2.00. Of course, avoiding state and local sales tax probably makes this a lot easier.

1. Labor practices

Amazon fulfillment centers have been described as Industrial Revolution style assembly lines monitored by overseers in charge of of maintaining quotas, who doll out reprimands to workers for things like talking to one another and pausing to catch their breath. The list goes on: per hour quotas that rise in step with length of employment, culminating in eventual firing. Failure to meet expectations, or a clever way to get rid of people who are now entitled to benefits? Searches on entering and leaving the warehouse. Lack of climate control; workers collapsing from heatstroke or working in subzero conditions. Hiring temps, again, in order to skimp on benefits. Union busting.

So: no Amazon. I started to look into alternatives.

The status quo:

Amazon Kindle version is $9.99. I can order it and have it open on my phone in under a minute from anywhere. The same book is also available on my kindle and my home computer, all three of which sync against each other, so I never loose my place. My book is stored in the Amazon cloud, so I can download it again anytime I get a new device and I’m not responsible for maintaining the files myself; it’s also in Amazon’s own proprietary file format, which means its tied to an Amazon device or app. Its not clear what would happen for example, Amazon failed, or started charging a monthly service fee or any one of a dozen other business models. Plus, as previously discussed, there’s the evil.

The alternatives:

Disclaimer: I’m going to ignore the many awesome sites that offer out-of-copyright books (Project Guttenberg) or those that are specially for self-published authors (Smashwords, Lulu); I’m interested in buying a best seller.

iTunes

For those more concerned with issues of format and ownership than buying into a massive corporate machine, there’s always this old standby. Books from the iTunes bookstore are delivered in ePub format, an open ebook standard which you can use across virtually any device except the Kindle. Just like your music, iTunes ebooks are available across a limited number of devices. You, the user, own your file, and you are responsible for backing it up.

Google

Everything I just said about iTunes can be said with equal truth about Google Play ebooks. If you care about the supporting the indies or screwing the man, this is obviously not recommended. To their credit, Google did actually try an indie-driven model, but it didn’t work out. The devious thing about Google is that they know your search history, and, if you’re a Chrome user, they know your Amazon browsing history as well, so your first visit to the Google bookstore will include pretty much exactly what you might expect.

Google books come in a few formats: for those out of copyright, pdf scans or ePubs are the norm. Those for sale from a mainstream press will still be in ePub format, but will have the .ACSM file extension. This is an Adobe software used to keep you from steeling. The price for Bark is an identical $9.99 and like all things Google,  your books live in the cloud, and you don’t have to worry about keeping track of the files.

Barnes & Noble

Everyone knows that B&N’s online bookstore and Kindle-like device, the Nook, aren’t doing so hot, so we can more or less skip this one. For the sake of argument, though, you can get Bark for $11.99 at barnesandnoble.com in ePub format, which you can then read on your Nook. Nook will also read ePub files from other stores, for example, you can transfer books from your Sony reader to your Nook, but it doesn’t go the other way, ie you can’t read Nook books on another reader. Be warned: the end is nigh.

Kobo.

Since it was acquired by the rapidly growing Japanese e-commerce beast Rakuten in 2011, shopping at Kobo really isn’t all that different from shopping at Amazon. Your buying from a company that sells 100 million different items and promises to deliver them all overnight (this is not an exaggeration; its from their Wired profile two years ago). (Incidentally, they also own a big old share of Pintrest–I still haven’t worked out how Pintrest makes money, but all that crap made out of mason jars is looking pretty corporate about now.) Anyway, direct from the Kobo site, Bark in ePub format will cost you $11.99. You can actually get the paperback from the Rakuten website and have it shipped for another fifty cents.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Kobo partners with brick-and-mortar indie bookstores (a full list is available on indiebound.org), allowing them to sell ebooks on their own store sites. I can get that same $11.99 ePub copy from the website of San Francisco’s own Green Apple books–or at first glance, it seems like I can.

A little background on book sales here. Typically, only stores big enough to take advantage of graduated bulk discounting buy direct from publishers, everyone else goes through a book distributor (Ingram or Publishers Group West are big out here in California) who can buy books in enough volume to take advantage of publisher discounts, save small presses the expense of in-house indie sales staff, and sell the books to independent booksellers at a better price than they’d get on their own. The publishing industry also has a bizarre depression-era returns policy which allows booksellers to return unsold books to the publisher for credit. There are some exceptions (magazines and certain mass market paperbacks are not eligible) but generally, if the public doesn’t buy it, it goes back and probably ends up getting pulped. This is why those of us in the publishing industry love it when authors go to bookstores and sign every copy–they can’t be returned!

You might assume your neighborhood books store has the same arrangement with Kobo as with their normal distributor, with a discounted business-to-business price and a similar profit margin, but this is not, in fact, the case. The language is vague here, but you’re not really buying the ebook from the bookstore. They don’t own it, even on a credit returns basis, and they aren’t making normal profits from its sale. Instead, they receive a kickback more akin to the Amazon ‘Smile’ program, or what your grocery store might do to support the local schools: a ‘portion’ of each sale goes to the store you’ve selected, but you’re still buying the book from Kobo, who bought the right to sell it from the publisher.

So, not great. But getting better.

Initial set up is a little worky. You’ll need to add the Kobo Indie App on your ereading device(s) and specify which participating Indie seller you want to receive a little boost from your purchases. Kobo, like Amazon, has a cloud where your activity is stored. You can download your books again; if you loose your files, its going to be okay.

The Public Library

Yes, your friendly neighborhood library has ebooks. If you go there once a decade, you probably already know this.

There are a couple of different ways this can work on the business end of things, depending on the service. In some models, libraries essentially have a subscription to a publisher or distributor’s titles. Often, this arrangement includes a cap on how many ‘copies’ the library can use; alternatively, the library may pay incrementally for whatever their patrons check out over a certain threshold. Many libraries have formed consortiums specifically to take advantage of programs like this, sharing e-resources across several institutions.

For example, Berkeley Public Library subscribes to OverDrive, an ebook distributor who’s subscription-based model allows libraries to create their own digital collections with their own specific numbers of e-copies available. In effect, if one patron has ‘checked out’ the library’s e-Bark, it’s not going to be there for me to check out until they ‘return it’.

In another model, which I’m sure is publisher preferred, the library buys and owns the title, but its only good for a certain number of reads. In imitation of a print book, the ebook version gets artificially worn out over time and must be replaced. This seems to be on its way out, as the restrictions make everyone angry.

Obviously, like all libraries, you have to give your ebook back. Conveniently (if you’ve finished the book; if not, perhaps less so) it will magically vanish from your account when your lending period ends.

Feedbooks

In common with Amazon, Feedbooks is a distribution platform for mainstream titles as well as a publishing platform for indie authored titles. Unlike Amazon, it supports the Creative Commons licensing, and is very much focused on establishing format standards and protocols that will allow for cross platform use.

The search functionality and browsing aren’t nearly on par with what you’d see on a Google Play or an Amazon, but if you know what you’re looking for, getting it is easy.

Compatibility wise, Feedbooks titles are better than most, though still complicated and imperfect. Anything out of copyright can be read on multiple platforms, including Kindle. Copyrighted DRM material (anything you paid for in the store, basically) will not run on Kindle, but will work on devices that read Adobe Digital Editions, and of course there are apps for every device (again, other than Kindle). Bark is available at $11.99. Again, interface is a little rough…there’s no ‘send to’ function, but you can download from more than one device, apparently with no specific limits.

So here it is: my very own digital edition of Lorrie Moore’s Bark, on my very own power guzzling iphone, ready for action.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Cover illustration for The Goldfinch by Donna Tart Back in August I finished a book. My Amazon history (yes, I know, at some point down the line I’ll find a way to be a better person) tells me I actually bought it the previous November, and I know I started it right away because I was super excited about the whole thing. I loved The Secret History so much I’d buy anything Donna Tartt wrote. Of course, since she writes on average one highly decorated book per decade, so far that’s been real easy.

So why did this book (which I honestly really enjoyed) take me nine months to read and another three to review? Two reasons: primarily, graduate school and a full time job have made me into a vacuous crazy person who only reads historical romances (preferably in a bathtub, with wine) when the day has been too much to ever think about again, and secondly, though I can legitimately claim to have loved this book, I didn’t exactly love the middle 300 or so pages—but more on that later.

The first chapter left me totally amazed, engrossed, enamored. I felt sure sure it must have been excerpted The New Yorker or something and I’d missed it, because that initial chapter could stand alone. I learned later that the extract in fact appeared in the Daily Telegraph, The New Yorker having declared itself too good for this book.

We know from the first line that the narrator’s mother is dead, that she died traumatically. 13-year old Theo, is in trouble at school—for smoking maybe, or some other misdemeanor-—he’ll never know which one exactly. Summoned to the office one rainy day, and, unable to get a cab, Theo and his mother duck into the Met where she shows him a favorite painting, the titular Goldfinch.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius 1654

Theo distractedly observes another pair of patrons, a red headed girl his own age, and an old man, her grandfather or uncle. Minutes later he and his mother separate: he, surreptitiously in pursuit of the red headed girl, she to take one last look in the gallery. A museum guard runs past. A bomb explodes.

Theo awakes in the aftermath of the April 10 terror attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a fictitious but entirely plausible event. In the ruble, he finds one other living person: Welty, the old man accompanying the girl. Deaf and disoriented from the blast, the old man gives Theo his ring and the name of his business, and gestures at a painting on the wall—the same painting his mother had taken him to see—the Goldfinch. Then he dies. Panicked and confused, Theo takes the painting and leaves the premises.

The events of this day color the rest of his life. He becomes permanently entangled with Welty, falling desperately and hopelessly in love with his great niece, Pippa, the red headed girl he first admired; finding a mentor and friend in the dead man’s former business partner, Hobie. Most of all, Theo finds himself burdened and oppressed by the possession of a priceless work of art which he can neither safely display, nor sell, nor bear to part with.

In the weeks and months that follow the attack, a grief-stricken, tortured Theo finds a temporary home with the family of a wealthy classmate and friend, Andy Barbour, and begins to pick up the threads of Welty’s life—only to be swept away when his absentee father abruptly swoops down on him and bears him off to Las Vegas.

In the slow, painful period after the death of Theo’s mother, its easy to drift off as a reader. In Las Vegas, its two pages max before sleep takes over. This section is interminable. Theo is marooned in a subprime Las Vegas housing development with his father, a professional but evidently unsuccessful gambler, and his girlfriend, a drug dealing waitress. He has just one friend in the deserted subdivision: Boris, the son of a Russian diplomat. The boys drink, drug and shoplift endlessly. And, that’s more or less it for a good 150 pages. Any abridger can safely skip these chapters. I’m pretty sure they won’t make up a major portion of the movie (Yes, that’s right. It’s been optioned. By the producers of the Hunger Games.) Los Vegas this novel’s Lowood School.

That this part of the book is boring is appropriate enough for a bildungsroman. Junior high and high school are boring. But considering that Tartt will shortly skip over eight years in Theo’s life, I’d argue that we probably didn’t need to stick with him through this bit.

After the sudden death of his father, Theo decides its time to return to New York. So, with a wad of cash, a pocket full of pills, and a lap dog, all stolen from his father’s girlfriend, and with The Goldfinch carefully wrapped in pillowcases and tape, he says goodbye to Boris and boards the bus for New York, arriving on Hobie’s doorstep.

Eight years later, the novel is, once again, its unputdownable. We find Theo living and working with Hobie, now a partner in the business, and using it to systematically cheat the nouveau riche into purchasing faked antiques. The painting remains carefully wrapped in those same old pillowcases in a storage unit. The FBI have been searching for it since the attack, and one questionable individual on the outskirts of the New York antiques market seems to know that Theo has it.

Then one night in the village, Theo stumbles into a bar and unexpectedly encounters his old friend Boris, now a small time criminal whose exact business interests remain unclear. Boris guiltily confesses that he stole the painting back in high school. The thing Theo has so carefully guarded all these years, the thing that has anchored him, that has inspired so much fear and anxiety, is an old text book. Boris sold the work to some minor Eastern European gangsters but, he promises Theo, he will help to recover it. So begins a harrowing, over-the-top, at times farcical effort to recover the painting, culminating in Yuletide violence in Amsterdam and Theo’s unlikely and rather abrupt extrication from all difficulties.

In the aftermath, a reunited Hobie and Theo discuss the painting with something approaching frankness, and Theo learns that the day of the bombing, Welty was in the building because of the Goldfinch; that he had come to the museum specially because he wanted Pippa to see it. It was that one masterwork, its eloquence, the passion it engendered in each disparate individual, that drove them all. Tartt concludes her ironic, over-the-top novel, with somewhat unexpectedly earnest reflections on the nature and value of art and beauty and the reality of fate.

This novel has been called Dickensian (and by the book review of book reviews no less…then by everybody else). In structure and theme, the similarity is undeniable. The Goldfinch is a long book spanning a long period of time; the plot relies on coincidence almost to the point of magic; its told from the perspective of a man looking back on his youth; there are a lot of non-essential, eccentric characters, especially old people with funny names; there’s gambling and a sick girl (two of Dickens’ favorite things); financial striving and class anxiety are major themes; about 30% of it actually seems to take place inside The Old Curiosity Shop. (Okay, so I’m not a Dickens fan—I side with Henry James (an actual good novelist) on this one.) The author herself seems to concur that the work is Dickensian, though maybe not deliberately so.

Theme and structure, though, are only frameworks in this context; vehicles for genre play; a nod and a wink to a convention the author embraces only selectively. The work is modern in its expression of heroism, post-modern in its referential style. It lacks the moral center and dialog of Dickens and exhibits a profoundly different sense of humor. The melodrama is self-conscious rather than earnest. The characters are as far from life as any Dickensian characters ever were, but they are not satiric caricatures as the population of London seems to have been; they are merely deeply flawed, drastically selfish, mostly shallow, and a little strange.

Its is a Faberge egg of a book: delicate, fantastic, esoteric, entirely artificial, a testament to craftsmanship without being exactly beautiful–but by no means light, and impossible to dismiss. That confuses all of us, a confusion further exacerbated by the accolades the work has garnered on one hand, and the extreme criticism it has received on the other hand.

Kombucha Klub

I celebrated by return to California today by doing the most California thing possible: brewing Kombucha. I got my scooby two weeks ago as part of my office scooby exchange (yes, really), carrying it home on Bart in a mason jar with a paper towel over the top. I’m sure the smell endeared me to the rest of the crowded car fully of rush hour commuters.

I then proceeded to shove the thing in my pantry for two weeks while I went out of town. Surprisingly, this seems not to have mattered.

      

Upon my return I did exactly what you’re not supposed to do when moving between time zones: took two Advil, drank a pint of water, and collapsed into bed at 6:00 P.M., where I remained for roughly 14 hours.

I woke up in the morning feeling just rehabilitated enough to make my house habitable again. I bought groceries, mopped the floor, vacuumed (incidentally, I bought an informercial vacuum on impulse right before leaving on my trip), did laundry, paid bills, and generally behaved the way I imagine a responsible adult who has to be at work by 8:00 on Monday probably should behave. One of the to-dos on my list, in between buying toothpaste and writing an angry letter to United airlines (postponed to tomorrow), was to rescue my poor scooby.

I chose the first recipe in the Google results. I have yet to read it to the end.

I had no black tea in the house due to my level of caffeine consumption as I tried to prepare my graduate project before leaving. I drank all my coffee, all my tea, and even these little packets of Starbucks instant coffee my mom gave me two Christmases ago. Ugh. So, I decided to use Spicely hibiscus.

I like the idea of herbal tea more than I actually like drinking herbal tea. I tend to buy it in batches of four or five boxes at beginning of a health kick, usually in an effort to fool myself into drinking more water. I’m especially guilty of buying and saving boxes of Spicely teas, because I really enjoy going to the store. Its maybe a mile from my office, just down from Montgomery Bart, and it sells only three things: spices, tea, and chocolate. Two of these things are available for sampling. They even pair the teas and chocolates, a conceit which I’m pretty sure is absolute nonsense, but which I really enjoy. They have these little adorable shopping baskets, and the women working there will tell you which teas are good for which ailments, and in general going there is a great relief from being in downtown San Francisco.

The hibiscus tea instead of black was my first departure from the recipe.

Of course, I’d forgotten that I bought a box of PG Tips for my office, so in fact I had plenty of black tea all along…oh well.

After I reminded myself how many cups are in 3 1/2 quarts, I boiled the water, stirred in two heaping tablespoons of tea, and a cup of white sugar. The tea steeps in the pot until cool enough to be transferred to some kind of glass or plastic receptacle. The main thing is not to put anything as close to vinegar as Kombucha in something made of metal. I used to giant mason jar, because even though the Kombucha has to stay in the dark while it brews, for some reason I like making it pretty. Fine.

Once the tea is really room temperature, you add two cups of tea from a previous batch (this is your starter), followed by the scooby itself.

Here, I wandered from the recipe again. My jar was not large enough to hold all the tea, so I dumped all my rice into a tupperware, washed out that jar, and started a second batch. I’d already dumped all the starter into the first jar, so I just poured some of that, along with the extra sugary tea, into the second jar. Then I started to worry that the tea was still too hot, so I waited a while longer before sliding the scooby in.

Sometime during the two weeks I’d been away, my scooby developed a friend, so I put one in each jar, covering one with cheese cloth, the other with paper towel, and placed both in the pantry, where they will remain for the next 7 – 10 days. Here’s hoping this doesn’t end up giving me a weird infection or making me blind or something.

 

Kombucha Klub

I celebrated by return to California today by doing the most California thing possible: brewing Kombucha. I got my scooby two weeks ago as part of my office scooby exchange (yes, really), carrying it home on Bart in a mason jar with a paper towel over the top. I’m sure the smell endeared me to the rest of the crowded car fully of rush hour commuters.

I then proceeded to shove the thing in my pantry for two weeks while I went out of town. Surprisingly, this seems not to have mattered.


Kombucha

Kombucha

Upon my return I did exactly what you’re not supposed to do when moving between time zones: took two Advil, drank a pint of water, and collapsed into bed at 6:00 P.M., where I remained for roughly 14 hours.

I woke up in the morning feeling just rehabilitated enough to make my house habitable again. I bought groceries, mopped the floor, vacuumed (incidentally, I bought an informercial vacuum on impulse right before leaving on my trip), did laundry, paid bills, and generally behaved the way I imagine a responsible adult who has to be at work by 8:00 on Monday probably should behave. One of the to-dos on my list, in between buying toothpaste and writing an angry letter to United airlines (postponed to tomorrow), was to rescue my poor scooby.

I chose the first recipe in the Google results. I have yet to read it to the end.

I had no black tea in the house due to my level of caffeine consumption as I tried to prepare my graduate project before leaving. I drank all my coffee, all my tea, and even these little packets of Starbucks instant coffee my mom gave me two Christmases ago. Ugh. So, I decided to use Spicely hibiscus.

I like the idea of herbal tea more than I actually like drinking herbal tea. I tend to buy it in batches of four or five boxes at beginning of a health kick, usually in an effort to fool myself into drinking more water. I’m especially guilty of buying and saving boxes of Spicely teas, because I really enjoy going to the store. Its maybe a mile from my office, just down from Montgomery Bart, and it sells only three things: spices, tea, and chocolate. Two of these things are available for sampling. They even pair the teas and chocolates, a conceit which I’m pretty sure is absolute nonsense, but which I really enjoy. They have these little adorable shopping baskets, and the women working there will tell you which teas are good for which ailments, and in general going there is a great relief from being in downtown San Francisco.

Hibiscus tea

Hibiscus tea

The hibiscus tea instead of black was my first departure from the recipe.

Of course, I’d forgotten that I bought a box of PG Tips for my office, so in fact I had plenty of black tea all along…oh well.

Kombucha Tea

After I reminded myself how many cups are in 3 1/2 quarts, I boiled the water, stirred in two heaping tablespoons of tea, and a cup of white sugar. The tea steeps in the pot until cool enough to be transferred to some kind of glass or plastic receptacle. The main thing is not to put anything as close to vinegar as Kombucha in something made of metal. I used to giant mason jar, because even though the Kombucha has to stay in the dark while it brews, for some reason I like making it pretty. Fine.

Once the tea is really room temperature, you add two cups of tea from a previous batch (this is your starter), followed by the scooby itself.

Here, I wandered from the recipe again. My jar was not large enough to hold all the tea, so I dumped all my rice into a tupperware, washed out that jar, and started a second batch. I’d already dumped all the starter into the first jar, so I just poured some of that, along with the extra sugary tea, into the second jar. Then I started to worry that the tea was still too hot, so I waited a while longer before sliding the scooby in.

Sometime during the two weeks I’d been away, my scooby developed a friend, so I put one in each jar, covering one with cheese cloth, the other with paper towel, and placed both in the pantry, where they will remain for the next 7 – 10 days. Here’s hoping this doesn’t end up giving me a weird infection or making me blind or something.

Kombucha

Kombucha

Tangents inspired by “The Liars’ Club” and “Lit” by Mary Karr

Cover illustration for Liars' Club by Mary KarrI’ve been slowly making my way though Mary Karr’s stunning memoir the Liar’s Club in my spare time for something like a month now, but it wasn’t until a recent 15 hour plane flight that I had a chance to sit down and and finish it.

I love everything about Liar’s Club, its sequel Lit (which I actually read first for some reason) and Karr herself. Her talent, her dry humor, her uncompromising cynicism, her wit, her gift for quick incisive characterization, and her ability to starkly expose and examine her own behavior all make me respect her enormously. Plus, I really enjoy it whenever someone interviews her (prime examples here and here).

Karr’s memoirs are full of unlikely events, often fueled by manic instability and substance abuse. Its consistently surprising, often shocking. But the thing that strikes me most about Karr’s work, especially having given it a couple of weeks to settle, is probably the way she makes God not-quite-so-unpalatable.

I haven’t been much of a God person lately. Like the last 15 years or so. Much of a God person is how I described it to a coworker once, thereby inserting my foot into my mouth. I’ve hung onto the phrase since. Its a handy way to articulate my exact position–beyond agnostic, but not quite all the way up to the rabid atheism that makes you want to actually argue with people. It also seems to suggest to the super-religious that I’m too lazy and ignorant to make big conversion points, which is handy.

What I generally keep to myself is that I really used to believe in a big way, and that there are times I really wish I still could. I remember the comfort there is in faith, the mystery, the sense of purpose, the incredible scope inherent in the idea of God–its something no other atheist I’ve known personally has really been able to appreciate.

These days, I’m sometimes too apt (like the other liberal democrat city-dwellers) to think of religious practice as a kind of mass delusion embraced by the weak, the shallow, the victimized, the under-educated, and the controlling, hateful charlatans who hope to take advantage of them. In fits of politically correct tolerance, I even occasionally fall back on the anthropological approach, which basically boils down to ‘why would anyone think this shit.’ (NB: Nothing makes you look like an asshole quite like speculating on the possible motivations of people you have never met. Political figures are exempt from this rule.)

But when smart, snarky feminist Mary Karr talks about her conversion–to Catholicism of all things–it reminds me of everything I admire and respect in true religious devotion. Rigor, discipline, scholarship, accountability, and most of all living in a conscious and conscientious way, investing small acts with mindfulness, engaging in a level of reflection otherwise almost unheard of in day-to-day existence. A religious expression that is personal and genuine–not just a string of catch phrases repeated by rote, but an evolving experience, the hard work of being an honest and decent human being.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. There’s a lot more in these works then religion–God doesn’t occupy more than about three chapters across the both books–but that’s what I keep returning to in retrospect.

Hot Pink, Adam Levin

Cover illustration for Hot Pink by Adam LevinThis is one of those books I picked up because of the cover. Can I just say I love the faded hipster t-shirt quality of this book design? You could pick this out as McSweeney’s at 200 yards. Cloth bound and embossed, with the weird muted 70s color pallet and Wes Anderson-esque imagery, the total absence of dust jacket (no insight, no explanations), and the thoughtful addition colored front papers (a pricy touch you almost never see any more). You can’t tell from the photo, but the grey background is actually textured with a pattern of raised diamonds. I’m not addicted to print (I’ve been known to read George Elliot on my iphone, for example) but this is the kind of book that just feels great to hold.

So, I was favorably predisposed. Then I flipped it open, read a few lines, and was sold.

I stumbled into this book thinking it was going to be a novel with an eccentric architecture–I guess because I know Adam Levin is also a novelist. It took me, embarrassingly, until well into the second story to recognize it for what it actually is: a straight-up short story collection.

The stories are distinguished by a pervading air of irony, plots filled with unexpected left turns, intensely present characters, clever prose and especially clever dialog. But most of all by their quirkiness–that gently humorous, pardonably over the top, self-conscious eccentricity that is, like the cover, such a part of the McSweeny’s aesthetic. They are for the most part gregarious, engrossing, a pleasure to read. Though violent and occasionally tragic, the stories contain a surprising underlying positivity that I found striking.

Of the 10 stories, I adored three (“Frankenwittgenstein,” “Jane Tell” and “Scientific American”), experienced a strong disinclination for two (“Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls” and “The Extra Mile”), and completely forgot one (“Finch”), only remembering it when skimming the table of contents before writing up this post.

The qualities I find so compelling in these stories are same elements that, in too great a concentration make some of the work unpalatable. In nearly every story, there’s a moment when some side character goes on a page-long rant in what is clearly a go-to voice. Dramatic occurrences send the story skittering off in new directions, leading to conclusions my old writing professor would describe as “not earned.” I loved “Susan Falls” right up until (spoiler alert) the  moment she accepts a cigarette from her cousin and promptly has a seizure and dies–something we all saw coming, but hoped the author wouldn’t actually go through with. Susan’s imaginative lies about the loss of her legs, her analytical consideration of Carla’s ass, the outlandish chapter numbers and titles like some kind of textual synesthesia–I was with him for all that. But the single cigarette death is so after-school-movie-of-the-week, like the girl who smokes but doesn’t inhale one joint and ends up pregnant and addicted to crack living in a car. I get that its deliberate; I just don’t like it. Its too much. Lots of people (Carolyn Kellogg) disagree with me on this point.

The piece that will stay with me longest is undoubtedly “Scientific American,” the story of a nameless young couple plagued by a mysterious oozing crack in their bedroom wall (make all the vaginal allusions you want here…its in the text). Its established early on that they are a little superstitious, a little nervous. The couple suffered a miscarriage in the past; now the wife is pregnant again, and they are both careful how they speak about their expectations.

The oozing crack appears one day without explanation and consistently reappears, Gogel like, despite repainting, and even tearing down and rebuilding the wall. The man descends into a good old fashioned existential madness, until, inexplicably, he decides to mop up a bit of the ooze on a piece of raw bacon and feed it to his much-loved pet dog. The man feels remorseful and guilty about feeding the dog the ooze, but attempts to justify his own behavior as he goes about his day, dog in tow. The dog, apparently poisoned, begins vomiting in the car shortly thereafter, causing an accident.

The man wakes up months later (see what I mean about unexpected left turns?). He and his now very pregnant wife return home, where he ritualistically cleans the oozing crack. Thereafter, the man cleans the crack religiously for the rest of his life–not unlike the natives appeasing the volcano. Its a good life, happy, successful, prosperous. After his death, his wife maintains the crack, and later, their grandchildren.

In the final scene of the story, we go back in time to the christening of the couple’s first child. After the ceremony, the man speaks with their house painter who explains that the crack was caused by shoddy Indonesian paint, purchased by the contractor when their home was nearly complete, so that it was only used on one wall. Other houses in the subdivision had cracks throughout. The builder had intended to use new, quality paint when the wall was rebuilt, but the man had gone ahead and painted himself, using a leftover can of paint from the basement, and no one had wanted to explain the error to him. The man apparently discards this logical explanation, preferring a version of the story in which he did not poison his dog, in which the crack has been successfully placated, in which consistent rules apply.

Tragic misconstruction has always been one of my favorite plot models, and this application with its strong overtones of religious allegory and denial fits closely with what troubles me about Christianity as practiced by certain of my family members. Which is to say, I really appreciated it.

Hot Pink offers such a spectrum of work that it doesn’t entirely make sense as a collection. I was alternately thrilled and disappointed as I read, but my overall sense is that I now need a copy of The Instructions. I’d have got there sooner if people hadn’t kept comparing it to Infinite Jest.

Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue

Cover illustration for Kissing the Witch by Emma DonoghueI know from reading Slammerkin and Room that Emma Donoghue possesses great range, a gift for applying research in fiction with a light insistent touch, and an almost incredible capacity for tailoring her narrative style to her characters’ reality–so much so that it can be difficult to recognize her voice from novel to novel. In the short story collection Kissing the Witch, Donoghue waxes lyrical, redressing a series of thirteen well known fairy tales. Though Donoghue dispenses with Once Upon a Time, and relates each tale through the medium of a first person narrator, the stories retain the timeless archetypal unreality appropriate to their genre. The tales are beautifully written, each line specific and evocative.

The stories themselves are cleverly nested, with the secondary character of each story (often but not always the villain or lover) becoming the heroine of the next. The female beast from “The Tale of the Rose” (Beauty and the Beast) was, in her youth, the heroine of “The Tale of the Apple” (Snow White). The step mother from “The Tale of the Apple” was formerly the maid from “The Tale of the Handkerchief” (The Goose Girl), in this telling, the  protagonist of the story. The book ends (or if viewed in chronological terms, begins) with an original story, “The Tale of the Kiss,” concerning the history of Sea Witch from “The Tale of the Voice” (The Little Mermaid).

Strong feminist themes of self reliance and self determinism run throughout the collection, and there is an implicit understanding that stories do not end with successful romantic love. Prince Charming is notably absent. Indeed, with the exception of the affection between the siblings in “The Tale of the Cottage” (Hansel and Gretel), there are no positive relationships with any male characters, including fathers and brothers.

In these fairy tales, women become disillusioned and extricate themselves from troubling situations, occasionally finding salvation, or at least comfort, in relationships with other women. The narrator from “The Tale of the Apple” eventually abandons the dwarfs of her own volition and returns to the castle to confront the queen. The narrator from “The Tale of the Shoe” (Cinderella) loves her fairy godmother, which, if you think about it, really does make more sense. The heroine of “The Tale of the Cottage” saves her brother from the witch and, in a neat reversal of roles, sends him to safety while she remains behind. Because these adaptions tend to eliminate the conclusion of the traditional tale–because the tiny shoe is never tried on, the beast was always beautiful under her mask, the witch does not end up in the oven, the prick of the distaff does not send the princess to sleep, and the girl never truly lost her voice–the stories can fall a little flat, but in general their brevity, stylishness, and the repartee between the tale as written and tale in the reader’s mind is enough to keep the forward momentum.

In these tales as in most of her other work, Donoghue focuses on strong but victimized women, many of them disturbed, perhaps beyond the possibility for recovery. She explores the effects of trauma on the human psyche with compassion, but also a fearless willingness to expose the ugliest sides of her characters, and she offers no happy endings, only, occasionally, peace.

Super tiny boarding house style studio apartment, furnished

Ta da! Turns out you can cram a lot of crap into a studio apartment. I had been waiting to share pics until the new place could be fully and perfectly decorated, and completely clean. But, it’ll be a few months before I can afford my sofa and rug, I may never hang the mirror, and as for clean, well…you get the idea. So here it is, without further ado, seven rooms in one and a half.

The Kitchen

Studio apartment kitchen
Entering from the main room.
Studio apartment kitchen
Looking to the left…
studio apartment built in cabinets
…and back toward the entrance.
Studio apartment tea
The tea station.
Studio apartment kitcchen
The sink, doubling as both kitchen and bath room sink. (I’m especially proud of the utensil hooks.)
Hooks, shelves, and more hooks
Studio apartment furniture
One of the few pieces of furniture I purchased especially for this space, a kitchen cart from Ikea which fits perfectly in the strange hole under my counter and includes: tupperware and plastic baggies, a tooth brushing station, and a box of pharmacy stuff.

The entry way

Closets

My God, closets.

Studio apartment closets

Studio apartment closet and dressing station

Main room

Studio apartment dining area
Dining area

Studio apartment decoration

Studio apartment bedroom area

Studio apartment bedroom area

Home office

Studio apartment home office

Studio apartment home office