The Perfect Bookstore

Recently I was looking for some books and as usual, I first tried to shop at bookstores in my community.  Did it work out? No. I scored only one for seven and bought the rest online.

I admit I am a “long tail” customer. I don’t buy the latest New York Times bestsellers. I buy the books I select, not what the NYTimes selects.

So what was I looking to buy?

  • Theodore Sturgeon: More than Human, A classic sci-fi title, still in print.
  • Philip K. Dick: Ubik. Classic Sci-fi, still in print.
  • Alain Badiou: Deleuze: The Clamor of Being. Philosophy.
  • Trevor Noah: Born a Crime. Biography.
  • David Wootton: The Invention of Science. History.
  • Donald Johanson & Blake Edgar: From Lucy to Language. Science.
  • Tim O’Brien: Going After Cacciato. Literary.

At considerable cost of time, I called and visited bookstores in my city with this list, to little avail. I did score the Trevor Noah biography at Barnes & Noble (hardly a mom & pop), and even though it was available only in hardback for the full $30 list price, I bought it because I had a $25 gift card that somebody gave me and which I’d been holding for over a year, unable to find anything to spend it on.

The other books were not easy to find even online.  The Badiou volume especially, was listed at over $70 most places. Amazon had it for $25. I found a “like new” copy at Half-Price books for $10.

Going to a bookstore is generally a bad experience for me. As soon as I open the door, the books prominently featured-in-my-face are an assault on my sensibilities and interests, and the books I want are not there in the store at all. It didn’t used to be that way.

Only a few bookstores I know of still capture that “good ol’ bookstore experience” of yesteryear: Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, and the Strand in Manhattan are two.  Elliott Bay Books in Seattle used to be on the list but recently their inventory has narrowed significantly. Even Powell’s, on my last visit, seemed much thinner than I remember. Inventory is expensive, I know.

I fear that physical bookstores are already anachronistic. But they don’t have to be.  What would be the perfect bookstore?

  1. It has the books I want at prices I am willing to pay.
  2. It has so much inventory that new titles suggest themselves to me.

Impractical? No.  Such stores used to exist.  I think a perfect bookstore could still be built and operated and make money. Here’s how.

What the Perfect Bookstore Has:

  1. It uses the customer-facing floor space for people, not to run a warehouse. What an incredible waste of floor space and everybody’s effort, from the shelf-stockers to the customers, to have acres of inert books lined up row after row in alphabetical order by author. I am not going to browse books alphabetically by author. The probability of finding anything interesting that way is very close to zero.
  2. It has the store’s complete inventory online (as do Powell’s and Amazon) along with large, full-color computer kiosks every ten feet so I can search each category as I approach each small section of books on display.
  3. It includes with each book listed, bibliographic information, formats, prices, and reviews from the publisher, from critics, and from the public. Includes also intelligent links to related books. By intelligent, I mean to associated topics and authors, not merely a list of every other book by that author (though that is helpful). What I need is what the publishing industry calls “comparables,” books similar in theme, tone, genre and diction. Those links could be put in by reviewers or intelligent staff members.
  4. It has a staff of well-read clerks to find and recommend. Clerks are expensive, of course, so as an alternative, have good signage and very intelligent info-kiosks.
  5. It has attractive collections of well-reviewed current releases and classics displayed for browsing and purchase. It does not have publisher-purchased placements which have nothing to do with quality. It does not have piles of used books, which are unbrowsable. It does not have racks and racks of backlist and classics that are also unbrowsable. The Strand usually has some interesting sales tables with labels like “Books You Say You’ve Read But Haven’t.”
  6. Optional: Current magazines. There is a magazine for every conceivable human interest, no matter how obscure. Browsing those can be fun but not necessary. I’d like to see only the two or three-dozen magazines that airports usually have, on current events, literary, and science/technical topics, and the like. Discounts off cover would be necessary, as most magazines are overpriced.
  7. Book reviews, like the New York Times book review, Paris Review, LARB, New York Review of Books, etc.
  8. Optional: Audio books and even DVD videos (although the latter are quickly going the way of the dinosaur).
  9. Optional: Textbooks. I love textbooks. Not the 1000-page statistics or accounting book, but the many fascinating paperbacks usually sold as “supplementary reading” especially for introductory courses. I try to visit my local university bookstore just before classes begin to browse these and I usually come away with something, but it’s difficult to time it right. The students scour those shelves like locusts, and anyway, I don’t want to deprive some student of his or her required book. Wouldn’t it be nice if such books were available elsewhere and all year? The same goes for books used in adult education courses that run all year ‘round.
  10. Optional: Buybacks. Many stores, like Powell’s sell a mix of new and used books. The local Bookman’s in my town offers you about five cents on the dollar cash for your books or about fifty cents per dollar of cover price in store trade. Keeps you coming back. They recycle a lot of books that way. However, since they sell 95% used books, not new, their inventory ends up being mostly discards: the worst of the best and the best of the worst. So I hardly go there anymore. But a mix of new and used is a good idea.
  11. Meeting Space. Get rid of all that book warehouse space and turn it into community meeting space, which is sorely lacking in most towns and cities. The space can be used for traditional book release events and signings but also for readings by local and other authors, kids’ book events, and so on. This should be a large community space, not a cramped aisle between shelves with a few chairs crammed in. Big and open (though surrounded by books) with comfortable (padded) folding chairs. The space should be configured so it can be redeployed, perhaps with sales tables on wheels when not in use. Prairie Lights in Iowa City does a good job of this.
  12. Even More Meeting Space. Have meeting rooms that can be used by community groups such as book clubs and writers groups. Simple, airy with chairs and a few tables.  If the inevitable coffee shop is nearby, require a minimum purchase to pay the rent. This makes the bookstore a genuine community center that people feel is an important part of their lives, not merely a warehouse of overpriced books.
  13. Programs for readers. Book reviewers and staff give presentations of the latest “beach read” or thriller, for example. Book clubs are organized around a selected volume announced in advance and discussed in open forum. Local authors tout their works. There should be at least two such events every day of the week for all levels and categories of readers, including a few in alternate languages such as Spanish, or whatever is appropriate for the surrounding community.
  14. Programs for writers. Experts (who usually have a book to sell) talk about the craft of writing and provide instruction and maybe even writing time, maybe even critique, focusing on all levels of craft for all levels of writers. Writing contests are announced and judged and winners are honored and interviewed. At least two writing  events every day of the week for all ages, all genres.
  15. Programs for literacy. Experts and local activists promote literacy outreach in the community by staging organizing events and instruction for volunteers to bring books, readings and storytelling to schools, prisons, nursing homes, hospitals, neighborhoods. At least one event like this every week.
  16. Movie tie-in programs. Movies can be a gateway to books. A screening, or at least a review with clips, can be a draw that sells books on correlated topics. Works the same for theater. Especially good with documentaries.

The goal of the “Programs” above is to integrate the bookstore into the lives of its community members. (People have actually gotten married in the Strand Bookstore). The main goal is NOT to sell books at those events because that will result in “events” featuring mainly kittens, sunsets, trains and planes, self-help and sentimental fiction. It might be easier to sell books on those topics but that does not accomplish the goal of integrating the bookstore into the community, where long-term loyalty lies. Okay maybe that’s elitist. One “kitten” topic a quarter could be allowed.

What The Perfect Bookstore Does NOT Have:

  1. Sofas and upholstered chairs to read in. I don’t go to a bookstore to read. I go to acquire books and get out as quickly as I can. Those sofas and upholstered chairs usually look like health hazards anyway.
  2. Games, puzzles, CD’s, candy, luggage, t-shirts, bobble-head dolls and musical instruments. If I wanted to go to a gift shop, I would (actually I wouldn’t). However, genuinely germane non-book merchandise can be interesting and useful: booklights, book covers, tablets and their covers, book bags, lapboards, pens, notebooks, and so on.
  3. A coffee shop. That takes up a lot of space and is not necessary, and the quality of the coffee is usually quite bad, the prices high, the waits long, the tables filthy, the area crowded. However, it’s generally true that after having coffee I will buy more books, too many books. So maybe it’s okay to have a coffee shop if it’s well-staffed and can serve quickly. Why not try the Trader Joe’s model: Free 2 ounce coffee in a paper cup, for the crass purpose of making you buy more books?
  4. Rare books locked in glass cases. That’s a different business.
  5. Performing arts. Some performances might be related to a particular book, that’s okay but don’t drift into a concert venue. It’s a bookstore.
  6. Cats. It’s a bookstore.

The Delivery Problem

Supposedly, buyers at a physical store want the immediate satisfaction of taking the book home now.  Maybe that’s true for some or most buyers, but it’s not feasible to satisfy that urge completely. By trying to do so, traditional bookstores have fallen into the self- defeating traps of

  1. Making the store into a vast warehouse to satisfy anyone. In fact that does not work. There are too many books, no matter how large the warehouse.
  2. Coercing customers into believing that what they want is what is for sale. But that’s the specialty of publisher’s marketing. The bookstore should try to serve, not exploit its customers.

What are some alternatives to the delivery problem?

  1. Have an enormous warehouse in the basement or upstairs, or next door, run by robots. Once I select my book from one of the big-screen kiosks, it is dispatched to the sales desk where my “shopping cart” will be rung up, bundled and bagged for me when I get there.
  2. Have several massive Print-on-demand machines in the back room where my selection is printed and bound in 15 minutes and ready for me to take home.
  3. Have a massive regional warehouse (as Amazon) and my selections will be available in the store for pickup (free delivery!) the next day. Even two-day delivery is okay. I don’t need it sent to my doorstep. Notify me by text or phone (as Walgreens does for prescriptions) and I’ll come back for it, especially if you offer me a free cup of coffee when I get there, which will probably make me buy more books.
  4. Optional: Have my choices available for immediate gratification as ebooks. I don’t like ebooks, but they are logically an option. Give the customer what they want. Why not ebooks? Because they’re too hard to make notes in, and they’re not stackable so I can’t see them waiting for me, calling out to me, nagging me. They’re too hard to skim, too hard track where I am in the reading process. Reading an ebook is like reading through a soda straw. It’s a last choice when price offers little alternative.

Can the Perfect Bookstore Make Money?

Physical bookstores are getting whipped on price, mainly by Amazon. They have taxes and building maintenance and retail staffing to pay. How can they compete?  One simple answer: By becoming integral to the community they live in so that people see the bookstore not merely as “a place to buy a book,” but as a gathering place and a cultural institution. Selling books is almost a sideline, an incidental. Oh, by the way, we have a wonderful book on today’s topic.

Still: Can it make money?  Truth is, I don’t know. If I was sure, I would do it. But I do know that:

  1. I would visit my local bookstores much more often if I had at least a 75% chance of being satisfied.
  2. I would pay a “subscription fee” to (e.g.) a lecture series if I felt I had at least a 75% chance of being satisfied.
  3. I would sign up for a well-crafted “monthly minimum advance purchase” scheme, such as “Five books for $100,” if it were tailored to me and I had a good chance of getting what I wanted.
  4. I would happily pay a reasonable rental fee to use the store’s meeting space for my book club, my writing club, and other literacy-related needs, if I had a good chance of being satisfied. I would happily pay a low fee for admission to movie reviews and serious book lectures (like on CSPAN’s “Book TV”).
  5. I would donate books, time, and money to literacy projects, if I believed in them.
  6. I would donate online reviews of books if I felt connected.
  7. And of course I would pay for the hundreds of books I would buy. I confess I balk at a $30 hardcover. That seems like gouging. It’s only words on paper, for heaven’s sake. Gutenberg got it done for a lot less than $30. Some people prefer the hardcover but I don’t collect books, I read them. I’ll pay a slight premium for a nice “trade” paperback, otherwise a mass market paperback, new or like-new.

Conclusion: I don’t spend much of my book-buying budget at physical bookstores because generally they’re a bad experience. It doesn’t have to be that way. I think there could be a future for bookstores if they get their heads out of the past.

Questions the Internet Can’t Answer #1

www.sciencefriday.com/educational-resources/

Questions the Internet Can’t Answer: Binary Code

People, especially students, seem to think that any question has an answer on the internet.  This is not so.

Quite often I’ve had what seems like a simple question that had no suitable answer on the internet. I don’t mean I disagreed with answers I found. Rather, the question itself could not be understood and therefore the answers given were all entirely beside the point. Bad question statement?  Maybe so. I didn’t think so.

I’ll document, from time to time, these questions when they come up. This is one of them.

Recently I wanted to know how programming code becomes computer  instructions. What, exactly, is the interface where binary digits touch hardware?

Binary code is meaningful. It’s a type of arithmetic that encodes everything in a computer, even the text of this post.  But machines do not trade in meaning.  You wind them up and they perform. They don’t mean anything by it. For example, your TV does not know what show is on, and your email program does not care what you have to say. So how does a computer “capture” the meaning of binary code?

I asked, “What is the ultimate interface between the text on my screen and the computer hardware?”

I was not surprised to find that the question had been asked before. What was surprising was that there was no good answer, because the question itself could not, apparently, be understood by the people attempting an answer.

There were pages of verbose explanation about how software  converts text into ascii code using lookup tables, and how compilers convert programming language into the 1’s and 0’s of binary, which then tell the computer what to do.

But I wanted to know what “tell” means. How exactly, could any sequence of 1’s and 0’s “tell” any computer anything, as a computer is an insentient collection of hardware components? It can’t understand anything. “Language” was a common though inadequate metaphor.

Pressed on that point, several computer experts described how the computer interprets 1’s and 0’s as differential voltages, or the optical pits and valleys of a CD, or the high and low flux of a magnetic tape, or the piezoelectric vibrations of a recording needle, or the differential reflectance of a barcode. On and on they went about how “switches” can be “on” or “off” and that represents the ones and zeroes of binary code.

But the question had only been begged. Hardware can be made to act on many kinds of energies and forces, whether electronic, optical, or mechanical. Hardware can  transform, transduce, record, playback, add, subtract. Hardware can do many things, even transform the energy of a flowing stream into the grinding of a miller’s wheel.

But how can hardware deal with binary digits, which are not a kind of energy, but rather, a meaningful human code? Again, the question is: I have a string of binary digits compiled from high-level, English-like text, and I want to know how that string of binary digits becomes implemented in the computer’s hardware.

Back in the old days, we punched holes in cards, changing the binary string into a pattern of holes, and those holes passed over sensors, either mechanical sensing fingers, or light beams.  A hole in the card would cause a computer switch to be set on, and the absence of a hole would leave the switch off.  Thus the computer got “set” to do whatever the programming code on the punch card indicated.

But we don’t use punched cards today, or punched tape, or toggle switches. We use a keyboard, which is a set of micro-switches, to create the high-level programming code, but even if we used a keyboard to create the final string of binary digits, the question would remain: What is the causal connection between that string of binary digits on my screen and the correlated set of switch settings within the computer hardware? Where do they touch?

There is no answer on the internet. People who tried to answer elided the central issue: the interface between mind and machine.

After twenty-four hours of thinking about this problem I arrived at the startling and simple solution. I have not posted it online. Why spoil a good mystery?

The Horror is Not Where You Think it is

I don’t normally do movie reviews on this site, but this film was related to a question I had about a particular genre of writing, the horror genre.

I rented Get Out, (2017), nominally a horror film. Normally I wouldn’t, as I do not enjoy the genre, but this one had good ratings and it had Catherine Keener, who I love, and lately I’ve been thinking about what constitutes  horror. The result was surprising.

The writing in this movie is so appalling, it’s risible, but hey, that’s Hollywood.  The acting is quite good in places, interspersed with cringeworthy mugging. Photography is overall strong, music above average. Directing is clunky but perhaps it was supposed to be parody of directing in the horror genre. (Don’t go into those woods!). Sets are LOL ridiculous, especially the enormous Connecticut mansion deep in a secluded wood.  Non-sequiturs and red herrings abound. It’s not a great movie, craft-wise.

But my main interest was in identifying the “horror” elements, to answer the question, what makes horror horrifying?  In this case the horror arises when bad guys threaten to take possession of your mind (via hypnosis – of the Hollywood kind) and then occupy your body (by some kind of hand-waving psychosurgery).  So the horror is fear of being possessed, not by evil aliens as the pod people were in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but by ordinary folks who simply want your body because it’s better than what they have. The pleasant old rich people around you could be alien “others” whose bodies are failing so they want yours. Watch out for them!

I like that premise, but truth be told, it wasn’t horrifying because it wasn’t believable. It’s just not a fear that any normal person has, I think.  So as a horror movie, this one didn’t work for me.

There’s mandatory squirting blood at the end and a satisfying conflagration (though not a satisfying intellectual conclusion), but most of the movie is slow and mysterious, actually more of a mystery or thriller than a horror.

But there’s another layer to the movie, one which makes me think that it is not actually supposed to be a horror movie at all. Rather, it is an allegory, an indirect invocation of slavery, without explicitly naming it. Slavery was the real horror. But who would watch that movie? Get Out is successful as a superficial horror ($5m to make, $17m gross so far). So let it be that.

How subtle is the secondary slavery theme? Not very. The idea is clear from the start that black and white people are inexorably alien to each other. That theme seems oversimplified for today’s world though it justifies some pretty good ethnic humor. And plenty of people are afraid of other colors so maybe I’m naïve about that.

Once you get plugged into the secondary theme the movie becomes much more interesting. A silent slave auction is shown but not explained. The side-kick’s humorous conspiracy theory has hidden meaning.  I think the movie tries to invoke the mental state of slaves the way Colson Whitehead did (Underground Railroad), but it fails in that, because the modern day context and characters fight against it. But as a symbolic allegory, I think the movie works and it gets extra points for trying to be educational.

My favorite bit was how the white girlfriend goes from loving partner to evil other by putting her hair into a pony-tail.  Watch out for that!

Bel Canto

Fifteen international world-travelers attend a gala party in the presidential palace of a  South American country to hear a famous American opera singer perform. The palace is stormed by armed terrorists who hold the party-goers hostage while they negotiate with the government over four months. During that time of confinement, relationships develop.

The characters and their relationships are cartoony, the way they are in opera, where plot is vehicle for the music. Operatic plots are often stereotypical stories of impossible love, palace intrigue, betrayal and unjust death. One of Patchett’s hostages learns to play chess rather well simply by watching a few games, so he can go on to play against one of the terrorist generals: convenient for the story but not the least bit believable.  In many improbable, unmotivated turns of events we must allow operatic license.

Yet where is the music for the story?  Supposedly, it is Patchett’s lyrical writing, and that analogy almost works.  Some of her descriptions and some characters’ thoughts and observations are insightful and beautifully rendered. But not consistently over three hundred pages. This book is not prose poetry. The music goes quiet for hundreds of pages at a time and absolutely nothing happens. The micro-movements of the characters’ thoughts and feelings cannot be interesting if they are not motivated by anything. That is the definition of arbitrariness.

We get endless description of characters’ thoughts, hopes, anxieties, memories, desires, and idle speculations. These I found extremely boring but judging from reviews, some readers were enraptured by them, so that’s who should read this book: people who have little insight into human psychology so are fascinated by Patchett’s ersatz intimacy with their thoughts.

It might have worked if the characters were distinguishable on the inside but they were all the same: bland and banal. On the outside, they all spoke different languages so communication was difficult without the single translator, and the music. So there is a tiny paradox there between what keeps us apart despite being all the same.

On the plus side, I liked the way the narrator flitted from head to head, something we are never supposed to do as writers, but which she does successfully and without confusion.  That’s an accomplishment no opera, indeed no theatrical performance, can do, so Patchett did exploit the unique capabilities of her medium with high skill.

Her descriptions of opera and the music were superficial, so despite the operatic  theme of the book, you won’t learn anything except maybe the titles of some of the more famous arias in some of the more famous operas. As a fan of Italian opera myself, I know there are shelves of books describing the great operas with insightful detail, both the plots and the music. None of that is in Bel Canto (=“beautiful song,” an operatic term for a lyrical style of singing).

The appalling epilog, clearly tacked on as an afterthought, was probably demanded by the publisher, a tribute to the tyranny of book marketing.

I enjoyed this book a lot more when I read it fifteen years ago when I had not yet started writing fiction and was swimming in Puccini and Verde. I wish I had written a review of it then.  That me is gone now.

Rumor has it that a movie is in the works with Rene Fleming as the opera star. I’ll see it, but if the movie hews closely to the book, there won’t be much singing in it. It will most likely be a sentimental costume drama. A lot of people like those.

Patchett, Ann (2001) Bel Canto. New York: Harper Perennial. (318 pp.)

Degrees of Invisibility

The first-person Invisible Man is an unnamed young black man in the 1950s who recounts his journey from the fog of unknowing to self-awareness. The story is framed in opening and closing scenes by the mature narrator, who lives in an abandoned coal cellar in New York. “I am an invisible man,” he says in the opening line, and the rest of the novel explains how that came to be.

His journey took him from a black college in Georgia to a paint factory in New York, and then to a socialist political organization, and finally to his cellar. Along the way he becomes aware of the different aspects of his invisibility, which are many.

The most obvious sense of his invisibility arises from his blackness. White people do not see black people, or don’t want to, or if they do see them, avert their eyes, or if they must interact with them, do so as master to servant. That is apparent to the young narrator even in his early college days and emphasized to the reader by having him be anonymous throughout the novel.

Yet is it so obvious?  In early scenes, the narrator is a driver for a rich white man, a perfect role for invisibility. But the white man is a college benefactor who wants to “do good for your people.”  He sees black people. But after the narrator drives the benefactor into the country and accidentally exposes him to impoverished and ignorant blacks, the president of the college expels him for having “exposed” the benefactor to the seamy side of black life, tearing open the cloak of respectable black invisibility.

The narrator leaves school and migrates to New York to seek his fortune but he is ignored by potential employers. As an educated black man he is uniquely invisible, neither an ignorant laborer nor an accomplished businessman, yet still black. He is misperceived on both ends of the spectrum and is located nowhere. Again though, it’s not a simple invisibility, and his letters of recommendation are not what he thought, either.

In the throngs of New York, there are so many people that the narrator feels anonymous and invisible as he roams the streets. Things are more complicated than they seem though. He rents a room from an older black woman who treats him kindly even though he’s behind on the rent. Why would she do that when she doesn’t even know him? Is he invisible to her?

When he gets a job working with a socialist political organization, he is thrilled to be doing something positive to uplift his people. Yet he soon discovers secret political machinations that have nothing to do with his grand speechifying and suddenly he realizes that anyone who works behind the scenes is invisible. Yet the highly visible activist who calls for violence on the streets is later revealed to be just a pawn in a political chess game, actually not as visible as he seems.

At the same time, the narrator discovers a flamboyant preacher, reverend Rinehart, who is highly visible and well-loved by his people, but who is also secretly a pimp and a gambler.  He’s visible in each context he operates in but nobody (except the narrator) knows his public personas. The real Rinehart is invisible.

There are many other examples of how the theme of “the invisible man” play out, including the framing pieces describing an anonymous black man living in an abandoned coal cellar. Near the end, the narrator makes the case that invisibility is what everyone desires, even white people, who strive to become invisible through conformity.

Yet paradoxically, and brilliantly, the narrator of the novel is extremely detailed in describing every movement of his soul, every fluttering of his heart, every spasm of his thoughts. From the reader’s perspective, this man is anything but invisible. We occupy the inside of his head for 600 pages, the full landscape of his interiority exposed to us as he describes his “invisibility.”

Many other layers of meaning can be, and have been, mined from this book, from the themes of social history, black identity, economics, politics, symbolism, humor.  It’s a complex and moving tale that wears well even after the better part of a century.

Ellison, Ralph (1952/1995). Invisible Man. New York: Vintage/Random (581 pp).

Snowdrops in Gorky Park

SNOW DROPS

This short novel is written by the former Moscow correspondent of the Economist newspaper, which is how I learned of it. It wants to be Gorky Park, but isn’t. Protagonist Nick is a U.K. lawyer working real estate deals in Moscow right after the fall of the Soviet Union. He meets a couple of beautiful and seductive sisters who end up scamming him. That would be a spoiler, except anybody could see it coming in the first quarter of the novel. The rest of the story unfolds slowly, the only suspense being the details of the scam. Nobody in their right mind, especially a lawyer, would behave as Nick does, so the character isn’t interesting and the plot is given away too early.

There are some good and even haunting descriptions of Moscow during that time period, especially the winters and the way people ate, lived, dressed, and so on, but it’s not enough to be compelling (the way Flaubert’s description of 1850’s France was, for example, in Madame Bovary).

Structurally, the whole novel is supposed to be a confessional, a letter Nick writes to his fiancée, who never appears.  That technique can be useful when there is some artistic reason for it, but in this case, a confessional only succeeds in distancing the main character from the reader. Unaccountably, the book was shortlisted for the 2011 Man-Booker.

Miller, A.D. (2011). Snowdrops. New York: Doubleday (262 pp.)

Vietnam Era Shows its Age

This novel about America after the Vietnam War must have seemed more profound and insightful in the late 70’s. Now it seems worn and clichéd. Converse, a hard-bitten foreign reporter in Saigon buys three keys of heroin and attempts to smuggle it back to the U.S. and that’s his retirement plan.

The opening scenes are pretty good, lots of humid sweating, dank concrete rooms, incessant smoking and surrounding paranoia.  I could feel for the character, thinking that while Vietnam was a stinking hellhole, there was opportunity: drugs were ridiculously cheap, so for a man without a moral compass or even a rational strategy for living, his scheme might have seemed like a kind of salvation.

But the plan, and the story go down the tubes when he recruits a partner, Hicks, a tough, know-it-all merchant marine sailor (whatever that is). The partner will actually transport the dope home. But when he gets to Converse’s wife, Marge, who is supposed to pay him for the drugs, he is almost captured by the law and narrowly escapes with Marge. Was he double-crossed by Converse?

After that, the story is a long chase, as Hicks and Marge are pursued by law enforcement and by Converse. Along the way the reader is treated to a dark view of post-Vietnam culture in the so-called hippie counterculture, full of drugs, sleaze, filth, addiction, and crime.

The story was made into a movie starring Nick Nolte, Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), which was not a bad movie, way better than the novel. The movie cut the long, moralizing reflections of the narrator,  mouthed by Converse, about how America has gone to hell. I was on the margins of the counterculture during that time (not the hard drug culture, but the politically engaged hippies), and that’s not how I remember it. The whole point of hippie culture was to express certain values, of individual freedom, anti-industrialization, anti-government, and especially anti-plutocratic capitalism.  We were not all Charles Mansons.

Maybe it was different in the hard drug world, how would I know, but then that’s the story stone should have stuck to and kept his moral agenda to himself. He does not actually address the serious social changes that were under way in the country, but only whines about them. I did have a little sympathy for Converse, trying to make sense out of a country he didn’t recognize anymore. The changes were many, and fast (Nixon quit the presidency in 1974).

In the last half of the book even the chase becomes boring and predictable, so it doesn’t even succeed as a kinetic thriller. Nevertheless, it managed to win the National Book Award in 1975, so the logical conclusion is that its characters and its tale have not aged well.

Stone, Robert (1973). Dog Soldiers. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. (342 pp.)

Astrophysics in a Nutshell

Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s short (222 page) book on astrophysics is attractive in a 4.5 x 7.5- inch format (hardbound). Just looking at it you get the impression it would be easy and fun to read. If you have some science education and are familiar with modern cosmology and general relativity (and you should be if you count yourself as an educated person), the book is a breeze, written with style and wit.

Tyson starts at the beginning, with the Big Bang, and moves briskly on to the formation of stars and planets, and our solar system.  He talks about the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, then tours through the periodic table of the elements, picking arbitrary favorites to comment on. Then he presents a history of astronomy, from the first visible light telescopes to spectroscopy and radio telescopes.  He describes the search for extra-solar earthlike planets, and then, looking from the outside-in, what aliens would see if they were searching the heavens for Earth. Would they find us?

If you saw Tyson’s television show, “Cosmos,” modeled after Carl Sagan’s 1980’s show of that name, you’ll recognize this tour. To cover the entire cosmos in a couple hundred pages and make it roughly hang together is a remarkable exercise in editing, all the more so because there is no math. It really is a good basic education in cosmology for someone who only has a few hours to give.

The content would be too much for a beginner new to these ideas,  nor will the book satisfy someone already familiar with modern astronomy and cosmology.  So who is it for?  I imagine it will appeal to those who read the science and technology sections in the popular press like the New York Times and The Economist, and someone who reads Science News and watches ‘Nova’ on PBS.  The book is indexed lightly for quick look-ups.

I do have some complaints. The content seems to be almost entirely excerpted from earlier Tyson books, especially Death by Black Hole, and Origins. If you’ve read those, there’s nothing new here. More seriously, the first chapter on the Big Bang is a meaningless word salad. For example, the very early universe, pinpoint small, ‘expanded’ rapidly. Well, what can ‘expanded’ possibly mean if gravity and therefore space and time had not yet been formed?  Nothing. It’s pure word soup.

Mathematically you can say that at T2, V2 was greater than V1 at T1. Those are variable names and they have numerical values and the equations they’re used in are internally consistent but they convey no commonsense meaning in ordinary language. Despite that, physicists of all stripes, from string theorists to quantum theorists and cosmologists seem immune to their own jabberwocky. I’d advise a naïve reader to skip the first chapter for that reason. It would take a lot more words than what Tyson offers here to make a coherent natural-language presentation of the Big Bang.

In the section on the development of astronomy, Tyson quickly (everything is quick in this book) moves from early visual observations to today’s large-scale radio telescopes, but though the book has a 2017 copyright, there is no mention of the new LIGO telescope that detects gravity waves and promises to open a new world of exploration.

When discussing what hypothetical aliens would have to do if they were to detect intelligent life on Earth, Tyson describes how well-hidden our planet is in the bright glare of our huge sun, and suggests that we would never be seen, but could be discovered in the radio spectrum because we give off a lot of radio waves. It’s an interesting section of the book but he fails to take into account the timescale. In cosmological time, humans have been capable of generating radio waves only for an immeasurably short flicker of an instant. Even if aliens had their scopes trained right on the planet, they would surely miss our shout.

Finally, the book ends with a longish reflection on the meaning of the cosmological observations discussed.  Many other reviewers seem to like that section, but I found it strained with manufactured sentimentality. Yes, space is big and we are small. Got that. But small as we are, we are ‘precious.’  What?  Precious to whom?  To ourselves, I guess.  Readers might skip the last chapter’s nonsense along with the first.

Despite some flaws, the book is excellent for the right reader.  It would make a perfect gift for any scientifically curious person, perhaps a special high-school or college student.

Tyson, Neil De Grasse (20117). Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. New York: W.W. Norton. 222 pp.

Shadowy Characters

This little time-burner involves a young college grad in San Francisco who gets a job at an all-night bookstore that seems to have more books and shelves than New York’s Strand. Certain preferred and important customers use the store like lending library, bringing and taking “special” books. All transactions must be logged in a secret and sacred journal that goes back years.

The MC, “Clay,” writes a program that maps all the shelves and all the books (with a 3D visualization program no less – he’s a whiz), and discerns a mysterious pattern. I can’t remember now what it was, but it’s mysterious.  Consulting the log book in conjunction with his map, he finds a grand puzzle that he must solve. Why? Because he must.

He recruits the help of a cute female executive from nearby Google and she helps him use their supercomputing capacity to crack the mystery code, which is supposed to reveal the secret of eternal life or some such. Together, they go on the hunt for that secret, and if I recall, they find it, but for the life of me, I can’t recall what it was all about, so it must not have made much of an impression.

The characters are cartoon vehicles for the ideas, which are mildly interesting. The writing is good, with often unexpected details, and the mood is convincing, the dusty old bookstore, especially.  But in the end, without compelling characters, no defined antagonist and basically a silly story, it adds up  to forgettable fluff — just what you might need on an airplane trip.

Sloan, Robin (2013). Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. London: Atlantic Books.

Holden Caulfield’s Evil Twin

Charles Bukowski is a name that often comes up in conversations among and about writers, so I decided to sample him. Ham on Rye is his quasi-autobiographical tale of a young man in Los Angeles, from abusive childhood to alienated adult in the years before WWII. The 58 chapters are small, 3-7 page vignettes, scenes from his life, most involving getting whipped by his father, fistfights, drinking, trying to get laid, or some combination of those. The only thing that unites the scenes is the first-person voice of the narrator.

The book has no plot, no significant character development, and nothing of any import happens, so what do we have?

Mainly voice. The character of Chinaski, the narrator, is a self-loathing, defeated, taciturn outsider and, from a very young age, a violent alcoholic. He manages to get a partial education and a few odd jobs but never does amount to much, nor does he want to. Despite all the fistfighting and drinking, he’s an uninteresting, unlikable, and irredeemable character, but his hard voice is full of attitude and that’s the fun part of the novel.

Chinaski is the tough-guy Holden Caulfield, and maybe that explains the book’s title and some of Bukowski’s motivation for writing it. It would be going too far to say that the whole novel is a parody of Catcher in the Rye though. Ham on Rye seems genuine and heartfelt, not merely a sendup.

Another interesting aspect is the setting, LA in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. It’s presented as any gritty depression-era city. It could have been Chicago or Memphis. No glimpse is offered of the movie industry, the freeway networks, smog, technology, Disney, or surfers, and omission of those stereotypes was refreshing, although on the downside, it didn’t feel like Los Angeles, either.

Some of the scenes are poignant, a few funny, all well-written, but I got tired of fistfights and alcoholic binges and hangovers that weren’t interesting either the first or the fifteenth time. The writing is terse, “muscular” as we say, meaning descriptive with plenty of action verbs, but it’s not lyrical or memorable. Lots of cursing.

Unlike Holden Caulfield, Chinaski didn’t ring true for me. Granted, that could be because of my sheltered middle-class life, but I don’t think any young man who isn’t brain-damaged or mentally abnormal would have zero interests, no aspiration or hope at all over a whole lifetime, and such unrelenting self-loathing. Even the most damaged, victimized youths are interested in something and good at at least one thing. That doesn’t mean my experience is more valid than Bukowski’s, but for whatever reason, I didn’t connect with his character’s personality. And yet unlike Camus’ Mersault, Chinaski doesn’t convey that existential ennui that characterizes so much WWII-era writing. Chinaski is just angry, confused, and dull-witted. A portrait of a relatively uninteresting person is uninteresting.

Bukowski, Charles (1982). Ham on Rye. New York: Harper Collins (283 pp).