Tuesday, November 25, 2008


by Bayard Godsave

2666 by Roberto Bolano

What is it about Roberto Bolano’s prose, especially in his longer books, The Savage Detectives and 2666, that is so immensely readable? 2666, despite all its expectations, opens not with a bang so much as a yawn. In a prose that is purely functional, it sets out to tell the story of a literary scholar, and later, the stories of his like-minded colleagues, and their obsession with a little-known German novelist with the improbable name of Benno von Archimbaldi. Still, I remember wondering, as I slogged through the first fifty pages or so, why I kept reading (partly, because it was the new book by Roberto Bolano, and I’d been looking forward to it for a long time), or, perhaps more accurately, I wondered why I had absolutely no desire to stop, why, in fact, I found it impossible to put down.

Of course, Bolano’s prose is a mercurial thing, and it should be no surprise that, as the book progresses, what begins in the manner of a workhorse, gives way to vividly rendered landscapes, to hilarious internal monologues, to nightmarescapes so terrifying they will haunt not only your dreams, but your waking thoughts as well—there is a scene towards the end of the book in which deserting Romanian soldiers during World War II crucify one of their officers outside a castle, high in the Carpathian Mountains, that once belonged to a Count named Vlad, who had a certain predilection for impaling, that I can still see vividly if I just close my eyes. And perhaps this is it: maybe it is the blankness of Bolano’s prose that accounts for its shape-shiftingness, that allows it to become the conduit for such visions. His writing might best be described as a kind of white space where past and present, dream and reality, fact and fiction, come together to create something that cannot be contained in such dichotomies, but can only be made apparent through their dissolution. As one of the blurbs on the dust-jacket points out, Bolano is a linguistic borrower, who borrows from everywhere, from bildungsroman, to fairy tale, to science fiction, to the crime report; a chameleon of pastiche, Bolano’s prose, and therefore his book, in the end contains everything; it is a postmodern realization of the totalizing modernist projects of writers like Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.

When I first read the book over the summer, I had one of those moments of readerly sychronicity, picking up The Deluxe Complete Guide to the Marvel Universe purely by chance, and reading the two alongside one another. I decided to approach the Marvel Universe, not associatively as I might normally have (going from Magneto to X-Men to Wolverine to Alpha Flight and so on), but alphabetically, from the first entry to the last. And the experience was not unlike reading 2666, which is broken into five tangentially related sections, whose order, at first glance, seems little less arbitrary than if they too were ordered alphabetically—of course, there is an underlying design behind their order, but that’s a whole other thing. Reading the two side-by-side made me aware of the strange connectedness of everything in Bolano’s book. It is a book which builds through subtle repetition, through motif. Just as, say, the story of the Eternals began to fill in for me through repeated references in seemingly unrelated entries in the Marvel Universe, so too the major themes (art, death, love, fate) in 2666 become apparent, through a kind of echo effect, subtle at first but soon impossible to ignore.

2666 is a book, like so many of Bolano’s books, that has at its center an absence: the disappearance of the writer Archimobaldi, a character who, even after the final section, “The Part About Archimbaldi,” remains a mystery. The book is a kind of Gestalt image, with Archimbaldi’s outline, like a ghost-image at its center—which, when you think about it, is not unlike the ghost of Jack Kirby, which haunts the Marvel Universe—but like any Gestalt, it is not merely the revealed image that is important, but the relationship between the image and the shapes arranged around it. The book, taken as a whole, is not about filling in the absence of Benno von Archimbaldi, but rather, it’s about how that absence shapes and haunts the universe around it.

Finally, and this brings us back to my original question, there is a certain urgency to all of Bolano’s writing. Until his death, he was thoroughly convinced of the importance of literature. The writer’s art was worth going penniless for, going hungry for, and even dying for. His had a Romantic view of literature, and the importance he placed on it is something we all want to believe in (all of us who read anyway), but that kind of Romanticism, in these cynical times, is nearly impossible for anyone over a certain age. Bolano’s belief burned strongly, and urgently, and it is that urgency that ultimately drives his narratives. And it is the foundation on which this book is built. 2666 contains so much horror, whether it is the Holocaust, the brutality of South American dictatorships, or the hundreds of unsolved murders of mostly women in Juarez which serve as the books center. But furthermore, it seems to rest on the assumption—and I’m inclined to agree with this assumption—that it is only through art, and writing specifically, that we can begin to confront, and possibly begin to make sense of all that horror, and the uncountable other horrors that have come out of the 20th century.

Friday, November 21, 2008

More Information Than You Require - John Hodgman

If, like me, you are constantly frustrated by the mainstream media's ignorance regarding the contributions made to our democracy by mole men, take heart*. John Hodgman, of internet and minor television fame, is ready to blow the doors off the vault of knowledge with More Information Than You Require.

There's the vault of knowledge now. Prior to this book it was fifty percent less explode-y.

A direct continuation of his previous work, The Areas Of My Expertise, MITYR*2 doesn't even bother restarting page count from where it's predecessor left off (it's that much of a continuation). There's always more fake knowledge to be illuminated and Hodgman's flashlight of false truth runs on some organic battery alternative to conventional means*3. Whether he's revealing which of our presidents was a Time Lord, why uber-guitarist Steve Vai could not bring himself to kill Ralph Macchio, or the hidden danger of tiny doctors from the future, Hodgman does so with the studiousness and passion I wish our actual "accredited" historians could. But they can't.

It takes a rare breed to hang out on Twitter and go to Hollywood parties, plumbing the depths of situational notoriety in search of mole-manic rumor and sure thing bar bets to compile for his readers. I salute you, John Hodgman; you live the life so Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough*4 don't have to, and that has made all the difference.

On a personal note, this book is worth buying simply to know why Milwaukee was destroyed by a violent downpour of skulls on February 12th, 1980. Having been born just nineteen months later, I never knew of this event, and probably never would have if not for John Hodgman and his wonderful lies*5.

* Genuine Hissfurther, you are not forgotten.

*2 As the kids and the robots call it.

*3 Much like the Oan Power Ring of
Green Lantern fame.

In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might,
Beware my power...Green Lantern's light!

*4 Respected historians who write about 'actual' history, if that's what you're in to.

*5 Now I know why I find skulls every time I hang out at the beach. Whew! That's a relief!

Thursday, November 20, 2008



We're working on something big here at the Downer shop. It involves books and moving pictures. Revolutionary, right? Here's how we're warming up, working the kinks out and quelling Jordan's stage fright:

stay tuned for the real thing, the bigger picture.

-sarah marine

Monday, November 17, 2008

Broad Vocabulary

This week brought the announcement of the closing of Milwaukee's only feminist bookstore, Broad Vocabulary. The Bayview neighborhood, south of downtown, was home to this lovely little establishment and the entire Milwaukee community, not to mention knitting groups, book clubs and others who regularly gathered on its bright couches, have lost a great bookstore.

This is just another reminder to all that nothing can replace the bookstore experience, the interaction with other readers and booksellers, the thrill of browsing and value of a good book, turning a page and building your own precious library.

here are some relatively recent titles related to feminist topics, that I love and think you should too:

Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming
I am by no means a 'gamer', never have been, but when I was in college, as a partial media studies kid, I picked up this book, which was very interesting with its theories on pretending from a first person gaming perspective.

from MIT Press: 'Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat' brings together new media theorists, game designers, educators, psychologists, and industry professionals, including some of the contributors to the earlier volume, to look at how gender intersects with the broader contexts of digital games today: gaming, game industry and design, and serious games.

On Their Own: Women Journalist and the American Experience in Vietnam by Joyce Hoffman

I was just discussing with Dr. Godsave the difficulty Americans have to this day with negotiating a place in history for the Vietnam War. Although, I disagreed with John McCain's proposed policies and voted for Obama, I can't help but wonder if a sliver of his failure to be elected to president (twice) had something to do with the people's perception of our involvement in Vietnam as some kind of stain on our history- which I gauge entirely on the recorded popularity/approval ratings of that conflict. Well, in any case, this collection, like Journalistas, hopes to educate readers on the unique experience of females in the field and the newsroom.

Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics by Ronnee Schreiber

With Sarah Palin running all over the country at first calling herself a feminist and then saying she's not actually a feminist, I was really wondering what was up with all the flip-floppin' and ballyhoo. I heard this author on Fresh Air and was fascinated by the underground conservative women's movements and their open rejection of "mainstream feminism" or basically just feminism as we know it. Oxford University Press has their own great overview of the text here. This book is the first of its kind and really a must read for feminists of all waves and persuasions.

and a couple more:
One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers, ed. by McElvey, Tara and Ehrenreich, Barbara
Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America by Browder, Laura
Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Levy, Ariel

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


"if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

this quote is probably the most widely recognized legacy of the late (great) Harvey Milk, self proclaimed "Mayor of Castro Street". which makes sense as, considering the circumstances, it was really spot-on.

it's been a while now since i read The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts (and absolutely drowned myself in it, rejoicing in the viscous fluid even as it dragged me down to the depths of hell) - and therefore i don't want to try to talk about it much. in any case i feel i should mention it at least briefly for a few reasons:

1) It was absolutely great and the most engaging non-fiction work I have ever read (though, amazingly, Harvey Milk's life and death provided many events that would seem more at home in the pages of the most fantastic of novels.)

2) I haven't posted anything on this blog in a while.

3) THE FILM! If anyone doesn't know yet, Gus Van Sant has created a film about the life of Milk which will be in wide release in December (who can smell a bookseller field trip?) - aptly titled MILK! (the exclamation is mine, but the capitals are theirs). I'll even show you a trailer.

or follow this link to see it bigger.

so now that i know you're excited for the film, i want to encourage you to read the book before the film is released (as we should with any film adaptation) - it is certainly worth your time. it's safe to say that Harvey Milk would be thrilled to know that his life was being immortalized in film (he had a penchant for theatrics), and we can honor him by enjoying it.

and for the record (i.e. to amuse sarah): i'm obsessed with milk! i love milk! sweet, opaque white nectar of the gods (or cows, depending on your religious affiliation)! milk! miLK! MILK! milkedy milky milk milk-a-roo! chocolate milk! strawberry milk! banana milk! organic or soy or homogenized milk! the person AND the beverage!


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Celebrating the Rebirth of No Depression

For 13 years, the magazine No Depression engaged and enlightened music fans across America. Initially focusing on roots (also known as alternative country or Americana music), but eventually branching out to embrace numerous genres, the founders balanced profiles of better-known artists with amazing discoveries.

The founders, Grant Alden, Peter Blackstock, and Kyra Fairchild, ran their operation out of Seattle, counting on a devoted circulation mixed with advertising from indie music labels that were looking to find their audience.

By 2008, things were different. The chains and mass merchants had decimated the ranks of indie music stores that featured the magazine and its musicians, and the age of downloading helped finish the job (as well as killing off a number of chains). The music labels didn’t have the budgets to focus on a magazine, and readership started finding their information on web sites.

But as Grant says on his recent NPR interview, where on the web is there an audience for a 10,000 word essay on Little Miss Cornshucks?

A change in format has led to the magazine’s rebirth as a bookazine, or what we in the industry would call a literary journal. Think of it as the esthetic of a McSweeney’s, Tin House, or Granta, but with a music focus.

The comparison is not out of the blue. Many Schwartz booksellers have long been fans of No Depression. I am reminded of Nick Hornby’s essays, where he balances writing about his book obsession in Polysyllabic Spree with his musical ones in Songbook. And of course the fate of the music industry may foreshadow what is to happen over the next few years in books.

Several contributors to No Depression straddle both worlds. Eric Brace is a former Washington Post staffer who leads the Nashville-by-way-of-DC-based band Last Train Home while singer-songwriter Peter Cooper covers music for the Nashville Tennesseean.

These multiple talents must be a requirement for participation. Photographer Deone Jahnke (whose work in the new volume includes the arresting front jacket photo) is also a visual artist and writer. Her collection of portraits includes many folks in the alt country world, but you’ve also seen her work at the Lakefront Festival of the Arts for the last few summers.

And just to bring it all home to bookselling, while No Depression-aires Blackstock and Fairchild still operate out of Seattle, fellow editor Alden now lives in Kentucky, where he helps out at the family bookshop, Coffee Tree Books. Why not go to their site and buy something from them?

How does this all connect to the Downer Avenue Schwartz? Well, on Sunday, November 9th at 4 P.M. (after the Packers game), we are hosting a spirited discussion with Deone Jahnke, Eric Brace, and Peter Cooper on music, pictures, and journalism.

Then at 7:30 P.M. the same evening (11/9), you can head to the Fifth Ward (or alternately, the northern edge of Walker’s Point), where Brace and Cooper are performing as part of Deone Jahnke’s “Rock the Loft” music series, held at Jahnke’s photography studio, 228 South First Street. For more information on this event, contact deone@deonejahnke.com.

It’s all a celebration of the rebirth of No Depression, and we’re happy to help spread the word.