A Novel Bookstore

I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been developing a bit of a thing for “bibliomysteries.” I first became aware of the genre during a Rare Book class that I took during my first semester at library school, when I read and really enjoyed the first in John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway series, Booked to Die. I recently reviewed Amanda Flower’s Maid of Murder and enjoyed High Lonesome Road by Betsy Thornton (about the murder of a bookmobile driver in Arizona). And there are several biblio-themed selections on my ever-growing to-read list: the Danish novel The Library of Shadows and Real Murders by Charlaine Harris (who, I somewhat belatedly found out writes the Southern Vampire series with Sookie Stackhouse) among others.

It’s only natural then that when I found out about the upcoming translation of A Novel Bookstore by French author Laurence Cossé, that I would jump on it. A book about a bookstore of discriminating taste in France whose super-secret selection committee starts getting violently targeted for asserting their literary taste? Sounds awesome, right?

Well, it is in a lot of ways, although it’s not really a crime novel in the traditional sense–Cossé does not place so much importance on the development of the investigation, for instance. I genuinely loved about 3/4 of the book–even when I disagreed with particular declarations of certain novels’ literary greatness–but toward the end, it became a bit murkier for me. Rather than hash all that out here, however, I’ll just let the review speak for itself. You can read the original on the Three Percent website, or the full text is below.

You may also want to check out the website that Cossé set up for the book–nicely immersive and set up as if it is the website of the bookstore in the novel.

***

“Who should we see at the police to denounce attacks against literature?” Such is the question that two bookstore owners—one an elegant heiress, the other a self-educated, solitary, bohemian bookseller—solemnly pose at the opening of French author Laurence Cossé’s satirical biblio-thriller, A Novel Bookstore. Both avid and opinionated readers, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli and Ivan (Van) Georg embarked on an entirely idealistic enterprise—to open The Good Novel, “a perfect bookstore, the kind where you’d sell nothing but good novels.” Their inventory selection process was complex and clandestine: a panel of eight unidentified novelists—each with their own code name, such as “Quinoa” and “Strait-laced,” or “The Red” and “Green Pea”—would generate lists of titles to be stocked. Books on hand would be old and new, from countries worldwide. However, The Good Novel would not fall prey to current publishing trends, and would not depend on forthcoming novels or best sellers—“books not worth bothering with”—to make a profit.

The Good Novel had a fabulous debut, but its unfettered success was not to last. Shortly after its opening, the store faced a sudden onslaught of attacks. Vitriolic opinion pieces declaring the store’s mission to sell only good books as “totalitarian” were published in newspapers. Malicious customers arrived in hordes, ordering Danielle Steele books they never planned to pay for. Most shocking, three of the members of the secret selection committee were not only identified, but violently attacked by mysterious strangers who pointedly taunted them: “It’s like being in a bad crime novel, huh. . . . ? With vulgar characters and a stupid plot . . . So this isn’t a good novel, huh?”

While the novel flirts with the mystery genre, it ultimately defies such classification. Starting much like a thriller, A Novel Bookstore quickly steps back, exploring—in great detail—Francesca and Van’s first meeting, their histories, and their debates on everything from Pierre Michon to whether the store’s inventory should be organized alphabetically, chronologically, or geographically (they opt for combination of the three). Cossé also playfully manipulates the narration, starting the story in third person, and then revealing an unnamed first person narrator who is actually a character in the story as well.

Each character is precisely articulated, with personalized quirks and gestures and even wardrobes. Cossé observes the smallest details—such as a hole in the elbow of a favorite sweater—and imbues them with meaning. These characterizations, combined with such explicit details about preparations to open the bookstore, immerse one in a world that feels entirely real. The thriller aspect of the novel falls to the wayside, with its eventual explanation feeling almost irrelevant to the real meat of the book. Reveling in minutia, occasionally overwrought declarations of literary superiority (Cormac McCarthy is consistently touted the greatest living writer), and piquant asides on the state of literary criticism in France, Cossé seems to have created an ideal shaggy dog story: it’s not really a matter of what “happens” or doesn’t, as the case may be, but simply immersing oneself among these characters.

As the novel progresses, however, this verisimilitude gives way to a much more fictional fiction—a plot-driven, theatrical dénouement that feels strangely out of step with the rest of the novel. Suspicions that The Good Novel is the victim of a greater “conspiracy”—wrought by members of the greater (very cynical) literary community—are actually well founded. And as the trials and tribulations faced by the bookstore and its denizens become more and more dramatic and outlandish, so do the characters’ responses. “With all due allowance, something happened here that is comparable to what happened with Al Qaeda and its consequences,” the policeman investigating The Good Novel attacks remarks.

It seems clear that the dramatic shift in tone at the end of the novel is intended to symbolically illustrate Cossé’s pet moral: that mainstream society only has a literary appetite for banal bestsellers, and that “lazy and frivolous” critics and journalists are in great part to blame for this mediocre taste.“They heap praise on books that are nothing but fluff, and in the rush they overlook real jewels,” we’re told. But maybe there is a bit of a wink in the self-righteous exclamations of the downtrodden booksellers. Cossé is, after all, a journalist herself. In the end, perhaps the greatest strength of A Novel Bookstore is to simply compel readers to consider their own literary preferences more consciously. For as Van says, “one of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking.”

Bragi Ólafsson Reading at Scandinavia House: Thursday, September 30th

Icelandic author Bragi Ólafsson (yes, a former Sugarcube) will be reading from The Ambassador, which has just been translated into English and published by Open Letter Books. One of Bragi’s previous novels, The Pets, was published in 2008, and is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. I’ve started reading The Ambassador and already love it–Bragi has a gift for writing characters who are deeply, irrevocably immersed in their own minds and circumstances, but don’t realize it at all. And he’s extremely funny.

Unfortunately, I have class on Thursday nights and won’t be able to make this reading, but I do hope it’s not the last time we see Bragi reading in New York for this book. I can say from past years that he’s a great reader and will definitely pick an entertaining passage to share, so if you can make it, definitely go! Information about the reading is available on Three Percent, here.

Academia Discovers Stieg Larsson, Needs Better Title for Witty Essay Collection



Pop Culture Studies being a burgeoning field which many otherwise “serious” academics drift into at least occasionally, it was really only a matter of time before someone decided to put together a collection of scholarly essays on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. And so, I give you: Stieg Larsson and Philosophy: The Girl with the Aristotle Tattoo.

This Call for Papers has been circulating rather widely, but this is the only posting I’ve seen with a list of possible themes and titles. Some of the more amusing suggestions include:

  • Deadbeat Dads: Zala, Vanger, and The Brothers Karamazov
  • Stieg Larsson and Our Dead Author Fetish
  • Why Riot Grrrls Love Lisbeth (and Don’t Like You)
  • Judith Butler and Dragon Tattoos
  • Is Palmgren a Libertarian?

The Netherlands Win at Libraries. Again.

I recently posted about the Centrale Bibliotheek in Amsterdam, a truly innovative library which functions as a public space, cafe, theater, research center, (etc. etc.) and also has these awesome little study pods which I’d happily nestle down in for the winter. As it turns out, the Dutch have all sorts of creative (and well funded) ideas about reaching patrons, wherever they are. Such as the 5th largest airport in Europe: Schiphol, in The Netherlands.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, The Schiphol Airport Library “has 1,200 books in more than two dozen languages, all by Dutch authors or on subjects relating to the country’s history and culture.”

The library plans to offer e-books and music by Dutch artists and composers that can be downloaded, free, to a laptop or cellphone. The library also is equipped with nine Apple iPads loaded with multimedia content, including photos and videos, that is likewise devoted to the theme of Dutch culture. A digital guest book invites visitors to jot down their musings or leave messages for wayward companions.

It bears mentioning that the library is entirely staffed by volunteers and has no special security on the books in the collection, but since its opening this summer, only about a dozen books have been stolen. And apparently, there is talk of opening a similar library in the central train station in Haarlem. Perhaps they’ll need a full time librarian?

Spontaneous Reads: Sun and Shadow

I always have a stack of books that I am about to read, but being a somewhat spontaneous reader, I frequently set aside books that I’ve been planning to read for months in favor of a new title that caught my attention out of nowhere. Since this is such a frequent occurrence for me, I thought it might be interesting/useful (at least for me) to keep a more active record of the books I pick up and read on a whim.

My first installment in the Spontaneous Reads ‘feature’ is Sun and Shadow, an Erik Winter novel by Åke Edwardson. And I’ll be honest, although this was an unplanned choice, it’s not totally out of the blue: I’ll be reviewing a new Winter installment by Edwardson very soon and wanted to do some background reading beforehand. I really enjoyed the book, but it was a bit of a perplexing reading experience for me because there were a lot of aspects that normally, wouldn’t be my cup of tea. My (rather long) attempt to clarify my mixed reactions to the book is below.

***

Although Edwardson has been on my list of Scandinavian-crime-authors-to-read for some time, I had previously put off reading any of his novels because they had been described as rather stringent procedurals, and as a rule, I am not a huge fan of this genre. I understand that meticulous investigations–with their red herrings and dead-end leads and countless interviews with doddering old women who may have seen something relevant to a crime but really just want to serve the dashing inspector biscuits and coffee and have a little company–are some readers’ cups of tea. For myself, however, I’m not so invested in the process. I generally like the varied dynamics of a police force that you get in a procedural, but that enjoyment doesn’t really outweigh the sense of stagnation that sometimes comes over me in the midst of one of these novels.

I’ll admit it: I like plot. And while this is an element that may be somewhat out of vogue in contemporary ‘literary’ fiction, it is (generally) still highly valued in crime novels. So while I appreciate the pleasure that one might take out of reading the intricate (but often dull or frustrating) quotidian burdens of a police investigation, I usually prefer that the crime novels I read eschew that sort of realism in favor of some broader character development, more back story, and/or steadily escalating tension.

All this preamble is to say that I have just finished, and very much enjoyed, Sun and Shadow, the first of Edwardson’s Erik Winter novels to be translated into English (although it wasn’t the first in the series). What is somewhat perplexing to me–and apologies, because this probably won’t end up being the best of sells for this book–is that Edwardson utilizes a number of tricks which I would normally really dislike in a novel. But somehow, even when all of these strategies–and dare I say, cheats–are combined (and I’ll get to this more momentarily), the end product is still a really enjoyable, well-paced, strongly characterized novel which I gobbled up in a few short days.

To start with the good:

Winter is a great character. He’s reasonably quirky–loves jazz and gourmet cooking (there’s several whole pages where he describes, in recipe-level detail, the meal he makes on New Year’s) –and we’re told early on that he’s Sweden’s youngest chief detective inspector. As the book opens (days before the new millennium), however, he is about to turn 40 and is starting to feel a bit introspective about his life. This is emphasized by the ample family subplot that Edwardson builds around Winter: when the book opens, his father is dying and his longtime girlfriend–who is six months pregnant with his first child–is moving in with him.

Edwardson really takes his time with this domestic development. In fact, although the reader knows right from the start of the book that there has been a double murder, the police don’t discover it until just over 100 pages into the book. The fact that such an elongated reveal works in a crime novel really speaks to how engaging Winter and the other detectives and characters are. You want to spend time with them and become immersed in their lives, rather than just jumping into the investigation.

Anther especially good element is the pacing. I’ve rarely gotten to the very end of a procedural and actually felt a great deal of anticipation to see the case resolved. That feeling that the police are so close! to cracking the case doesn’t usually catch with me. But here, Edwardson develops suspense and build tension based on the fact that the reader has spent 200 pages or so suspecting that they know who the murderer is. (I didn’t guess the right person, but I was pretty close.) So while the police investigation continues to narrow its suspects and get closer and closer to determining who the killer is, their tangential investigations and incorrect suppositions are all the more nail-biting for the reader.

Now for the elements that shouldn’t have worked, but somehow, really did.

1. Edwardson has a tendency to avoid grim/disturbing/or otherwise particularly visual detail. In some cases, this is almost Hitchcockian–we’re chilled by what we can’t see, what we don’t really know. In others, it’s a little disorienting and maybe suggests a tad bit of squeamishness/avoidance on Edwardson’s part. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me say this: the police discover the first murders around page 100. We know something terrible happened to the victims, and they (the corpses) are described, a little. But Edwardson holds the real punch–the actual ‘what’ of the murders–for about 60 more pages. And when you find out what was done, it is an unexpected jolt. And given the circumstances, I was glad to not have had the scene f the crime described in all of its sordid detail–that would have been a little much. But it still feels a little off–like you’re looking at only half of a photograph.

This withholding of details and descriptions happens in a few other notable instances, some to lesser effect. It also extends to the way in which Edwardson deals with more difficult psychological aspects that crop up at the end of the novel. Namely, a major character is kidnapped–for almost a week. The whole chronology suddenly compresses, Winter figures out where she is, and the whole book is wrapped up neat ‘n tidy within about five pages.

We’re told that the woman “wasn’t hurt physically,” which, great, but because the book ends so quickly, Edwardson also dodges the difficulty of writing the psychological fall-out that the kidnapping victim would most definitely experience after such an abduction. We’re simply told that “…one of these days it would all come back to her, but not now…Perhaps never.” Which just seems way too easy. It’s possible–given that the Winter series seems to carry over plot lines and character history from book to book–that this character’s recovery will be dealt with in a later novel. But that doesn’t mean that you can just ignore the entire experience in this installment. If that was your plan, why bother staging the event in the first place? It seems a little tacked on.

2. The novel really depends on a serious red herring/bait-and-switch. About a quarter of the way into the book, I had made a guess of who the murderer was. About half way through the book, Edwardson begins really telegraphing this character as the killer. A few other characters also seem like they might have some potential as the killer, but there’s really one who Edwardson focuses on. And while this may seem too obvious, it also plays into the general sense of tension. You start to think that you’re supposed to have guessed who the killer is, and stop minding that it seems obvious.

The problem is that when the character you suspect turns out to be innocent, there’s not a whole lot done to explain the actual killer’s motivations or background or particular psychosis. There’s a lot of groundwork done early on to explain the killer’s possible frame of mind and why he might choose to commit the murders in the way that he does. This makes sense when you think it’s character A who is the killer, but when character B is revealed, it really doesn’t. Neither does the manner in which he selected his victims, or the messages that he left the cops at the crime scene, or the supposed clues that were to be found in the music that was playing at the scene of the first crime.

3. Edwardson allows an all-too-convenient endangerment of a major character and collision of plots and subplots. The character who is the almost-last victim is far too obvious, and far too relevant to Winter’s life. It’s too convenient. Somehow, though, Edwardson even makes this work. He develops the character as a possible person of interest to the murderer and does offer something of an explanation of why she was targeted. Now, she has nothing in common with the other victims and her kidnapping really just serves to ramp the novel’s climax up to a more dramatic level, but I pretty much bought it at the end. Because again, I was really invested in seeing this case resolved.

In closing, I suppose I would say that Edwardson’s ample gifts of characterization, steady pacing, and satisfyingly determined plot are what make Sun and Shadow a satisfying read. I suppose it’s something like reading an Agatha Christie novel. You know that she’s not playing by the ‘rules’–you know you don’t have all the clues that the detective does, and you know that things are going to resolve themselves rather easily, and you know that all of the clues and plot points might not add up. But the execution (no pun intended) is so fluid and meticulous that you don’t really mind so much in the end.

What Does MARC Mean to You?

September: another academic year has started. Walking around the campus where I work I’ve been noting a number of students wearing t-shirts with the image of a fist with M-A [anarchy sign]-R-C written on the knuckles. Take a look:

Now, being in my last semester of library school and having–apparently–really drunk the Kool-Aid, I was pretty psyched to see all these young hip student-types walking around with shirts advertising the fist-pumping awesomeness of MARC: Machine Readable Cataloging. A digital cataloging standard designed to promote uniform and consistent classification? Encouraging controlled vocabularies and subject headings? What’s not to be excited about, right? I wasn’t sure what was so very rebellious or anarchistic about MARC, but I wasn’t going to discourage such enthusiasm. (I mean, it isn’t a perfect standard, but still…)

As it turns out, though, I am just woefully behind in matters of fashion. As the more sartorially-aware among you no doubt knew, the MARC fist shirt is actually one for the designer, Marc Jacobs. This comes as something of a disappointment to me, but I’m pretty sure my mix-up means that I am well on my way to becoming a bona fide librarian.