Facts stand no chance

John D'Agata, a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa, writes essays, but not the kind you remember composing in school. His particular style of essay--which he calls "lyric"--blends fact and, well, something on a continuum of fact and if not fiction, something more akin to it than nonfiction, to convey what he feels is the essence of what he's exploring. D'Agata's stance, which he argues is valid based on the etymological and historical sense of "essay," a verb synonymous with trial, test, and attempt, is that the Truth of a matter cannot solely be conveyed through empirically verifiable facts.

Some, including Jim Fingal, the Believer fact checker assigned to research the contentious essay at the center of this book, take issue with D'Agata's playing fast and loose with our mutually shared reality. Fingal, NY Times Book Review editor Jennifer McDonald, and others point to the troubling aspects of D'Agata's process, arguing that blurring the lines between fact and fiction may be aesthetically justifiable, but is morally questionable. D'Agata counters with the argument that he's never claimed to write non-fiction, only essays. And essays are a genre of their own, amorphous, personal, drawing on myth, poetry, and imagination as well as facts (as commonly understood) to portray the richness of life--or, in the case of the essay under the microscope here, death.*

These fundamental differences in opinion create a dynamic tension in this record of D'Agata and Fingal's dialogue about the essay in question, which would later become a critically lauded book, About a Mountain. What starts innocently enough, with a bright-eyed intern's attempt to iron out some seemingly straightforward facts (are there 31 or 34 strip clubs in Las Vegas?), by the end has taken on a much larger meaning, becoming a tense ideological and aesthetic battle about the nature and value of art, truth, and meaning.

The text on the page of Lifespan of a Fact is neatly arranged, with the back-and-forth between Fingal and D'Agata surrounding the essay, marginalia that overwhelms the text. I'll refrain from drawing my own conclusions here, but am curious as to what other readers think, whose side you fall on. Are facts negotiable? Do they matter in a work of art? Is truth only what's verifiable, or are there truths of feeling? These are big questions, of course; Lifespan of a Fact is a compelling contribution to this age-old debate.


* The argument D'Agata makes would be more acceptable in France, where a genre-bending category of literature called l'autofiction has become increasingly common in recent years.

Blind Items: Bay Area Author Edition

Just like the celebrity gossip blogs except mild-mannered and fun, without indiscrete stories of drug dependence and promiscuity.
And all the facts come from totally legit sources, author websites and Twitter.

1) What disciplined, UC Irvine grad, aka August Van Zorn, sometimes seen in Peterborough, New Hampshire or Oakland Burma Superstar, once turned down an offer to appear in "People Magazine"’s “50 Most Beautiful People” issue?

2) What local psychiatrist, a Katherine Dunn and Fredric Brown fan, sometimes compared to Carl Hiaasen, whose first hard-boiled thriller was optioned as a Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle, and has a recently published a footnoted sequel that begins “Ishmael—Call me,” -- owns a Boston terrier named Lottie, aka “Sweetiebunch”?

3) This "RuPaul’s Drag Race" fan, former chauffeur, once a student of Robert Coover and Edmund White, whose last novel takes place in the Sunset District, currently teaches in Iowa City, (but he talks live with Roz Chast on City Arts and Lectures in June). His next book is getting spiffed up by Stephen King editor Lee Boudreaux at Ecco Press.

4) This Outer Sunset District-residing scuba diver, and author of 50 books, 30 of them for young adults, dedicated his 2008 novel (in which John Steinbeck friend- Ed “Doc” Ricketts features heavily, to a dive boat operator. One of the tattooed writer’s vampire-themed titles was once listed ninth in "Entertainment Weekly"’s list of best horror books.

5) This Peninsula professor, and former Raymond Carver co-worker, was expelled from prep school. His perennially class-listed memoir was brought to screen starring Robert De Niro as the alcoholic dad. The professor’s mom once led the League of Women Voters.

6) This SoMa-residing clarinetist and former ACT-Uper, reads at Magnet Book Club on March 26.

7) The first chapter of this former newspaper serialist’s beloved Russian Hill-based stories was pub’d in Marin’s Pacific Sun. Upon it’s first "SF Chronicle" appearance, a drunk Rock Hudson read the story aloud to friends (including the author), in his Fairmont Hotel room in (big hint) 1976. True story!

Ivan Vladislavic's The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories

I'd been waiting for Ivan Vladislavic's The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories somewhat anxiously since discovering that it would exist. I say anxiously in part because that waiting also entailed hoping that it would, in fact, be what I hoped it would be, though I didn't know quite what that was. (This can be a thrilling but somewhat stomach-tightening process in discovering a book that seems to be just what you were looking for -- I've left a book unopened for a while simply because I'm afraid that it won't speak to me as directly as its title does, or that it won't end up being about what I want it to be about). What I do know is that lately, I've had somewhat of an insatiable appetite for books that are in a roundabout way about writing -- to get at some sort of truth about process, perhaps, or simply to understand what writing is better.

The Loss Library, as lovely a thing open as it is closed with its accompanying illustrations, did not disappoint.

Ivan Vladislavic describes this collection of stories he hasn't written (plus the completed titular story that deals in books his predecessors haven't written) as a gathering of "unsettled accounts" or "case studies of failure". But while I appreciate the soul-baring nature of such statements and can relate to the sentiment, as reader, I felt nothing akin to failure or unsettledness. I would instead describe the collection as being an account of circling things -- ideas, characters, research, inspiration -- in a way that brings them into such a clear focus that, in the end, the fictionalized version needn't exist at all. What exists instead is something I find much more interesting: a map of sorts through the formation of the idea itself.

In The Last Walk, he begins with an idea to write about a writer who dies while walking to his favorite vista in a winter landscape -- a thought inspired by the famous photograph of Robert Walser dead in the snow on his own such walk. In preparing to write the story, he instead finds himself "preoccupied with hats", preoccupied with how a photograph documents a moment (quoting Geoff Dyer), and disappointed to discover a photograph of the same scene from a different vantage point that alters some of the enigma that drew him to the image in the first place. In Gravity Addict, a story idea of a woman who is writing a book called The Art of Falling instead becomes a thought about Don Delillo's account of the World Trade Center collapse. In Mrs. B, his research for a fictionalized account of the Burden Expedition in search of the Komodo dragon leads him to dislike the real people involved so strongly he can't see fit to continue with the project -- leading, then, to this strange and dismal thought:

In a gloomy corner of hell reserved for readers, the damned clutch copies of the books they dislike most. The masters of scholarly misunderstanding and the critics who turned a profit on review copies fight over the armchairs in which no one may sit. Instead, they crouch in the corners, where a little light lingers, trying to decipher the notes on the backs of their hands. Sometimes they open the books they carry and gaze dumbfounded at the space between the lines. The room is lined with shelves and the shelves are crammed with books, more books than you could read if you lived to be two hundred years old, but the damned, who have all the time in the world, are not allowed to touch.

To which I can only say: yeesh.

The more wonderful aspect of this image, though, approaches what is wonderful about this collection of essays as a whole: that image of a room lined with more books than you could read if you lived to be two hundred years old. Doesn't that line make your heart leap a little bit at how much knowledge there is in the world? When you think about that, don't you kind of panic, want to simultaneously absorb everything you can and also move on to the next thing because OH MY GOD THERE'S SO LITTLE TIME FOR ALL THIS STUFF? That's how I feel. That, at its most heartfelt and poetic and urgent moments, is how this book feels. And it is, I think, an honest, lovely, and heartbreaking way to think about not only writing but also reading -- always an expedition, always something of a race against the clock, always an attempt at something, often a desperate one. But nothing beats that feeling when the thing you're trying to trying to describe gets drawn close enough that you no longer feel a need to describe it. The Loss Library is an account of that, over and over. The word "failure" has no place here at all.

On Thursday, I was lucky enough to be able to attend one of the Center for the Art of Translation's Lit & Lunch events with translator and poet Richard Howard. As many of you may know, Mr. Howard is an accomplished translator of French poetry and literature, notably introducing American readers to the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nobel Prize winner Claude Simon, as well as rendering canonical works by Baudelaire, E.M. Cioran, Camus, Foucault, and Roland Barthes into English. His latest project, in fact, is a translation of Barthes' complete Mythologies, due next month. (Can you believe we've been reading an incomplete text of Mythologies all this time?)

And, for good measure, he's also the translator of the beloved Little Prince, a fact I just learned. As a poet, he's proven himself equally adept, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1970.

At yesterday's talk, a free event held at 111 Minna, Mr. Howard spoke of the vagaries of translation, focusing specifically on the difficulties presented by Stephane Mallarme. He also gave an account of a scandalous 1912 balletic adaptation of Mallarme's poem "The Afternoon of the Faun" during which Nijinsky simulated masturbation.

One of the more entertaining moments of Mr. Howard's talk came during a discussion of "three old men" who influenced his reading and writing. One was his grandfather, a great book collector in the 19th-century mold; another a professor at Columbia in the 1940s; and the third, much to my delight, was a bookseller, Richard Laukhuff. Laukhuff, a German immigrant who settled in Cleveland, seems from what I can gather to be one of those legendary early-20th century figures who took bookselling with a seriousness that seems almost unfathomable now. His eponymously named store specialized in carrying challenging and often hard to find literature. If you were an Ohioan in the 1920s and wanted to find something by that smutty Jimmy Joyce, you went to Laukhuff's. Hart Crane apparently knew this; he frequented Laukhoff's Bookstore. The incident that Mr. Howard related is of a more mundane moment in bookselling, one that hearkens back to a different era.

One afternoon, while Richard and his mother were in the shop--the Howards were family friends of the bookseller and his wife, both of whom, according to Howard, "never left the shop"--a woman inquired about purchasing a Bible. Laukhuff, who was sitting behind the counter, turned down the woman's request. After the customer left, Mrs. Howard, who knew that there were indeed Bibles in the store, asked Laukhuff why he would send the woman away empty-handed. To which he replied, "There are some days when one doesn't feel like selling a Bible."

* * *

If you're interested in more events like this one, including an upcoming conversation between Haruki Murakami's collaborative translators Jay Rubin and J. Philip Gabriel (April 3), check out the Center for the Art of Translation's events page or consider donating to this fine non-profit.

Out with the NEW

Yesterday I escaped from the bookstore (and our super-busy used book buy counter) to work an off-site event at Fort Mason Center for the annual Gambero Rosso Italian Wine tasting. And while I didn't get a chance to sample any of the hundreds of wines being poured, I did manage to talk with oodles of Italian wine fans, a cult-like crew that brimmed with excitement for the 2012 Italian Wine Guide!

The Gambero Rosso guide to Italian wine is an amazing production, rating and reviewing more than 20,000 wines from close to 2,500 producers, and folks were chomping at the bit to get theirs. Maybe due to the fact that the 2012 guide won't officially release for months yet, and the copies we had available yesterday were shipped directly from the bindery to the event. Nice to have friends in high places, yes?

The upshot of all of this is that I managed to save just a few copies to have available for sale here in the store! So if you (or someone you want to do something nice for) want to get a copy way before the clamoring masses, simply disregard our website's 'not available' notice and put that copy in your shopping cart! Or come in to Green Apple and check the wine and spirits shelves in our cooking section. (click here to go to the item listing on our site)

Madame Figaro

You've probably all seen the March issue of Madame Figaro by now , but if not, here's the cover. Don't miss the SF coverage in the middle; we're on page 118.

Teach the controversy

Look at 9/11, the (most recent) Iraq war, the bank bailouts of 2008... What do these events have in common? Decisions made by the powers-that-be were incompetent at best, deceitful and irrepairably harmful towards the other end. Who paid, by which I mean, who got in trouble? No one. Three planes crash into landmarks, the weapons of mass destruction lie gets repeated endlessly, and the largest businesses are rewarded for going broke, taking millions of citizens with them. No one is held accountable.

As we approached the previous holiday season, a book appeared here at the store, deceptively simple, yet carrying a strong moral lesson. Thankfully, it's a kid's book -- I've given up on adults.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press) tells the story of a bear in crisis. The bear reaches out to his community, to no avail. Then, in a flash of insight, our ursine protagonist realizes a particular individual has broken the forest code. Measures are taken--radical measures, by some standards--but for sure the perpetrator will never wrong another furry friend, fish, or fowl.

Personally, I was quite taken with this title. One thing so often lacking in our society is consequences. Here is a story where the wheels of justice grind quick as well as small.

Soon I became aware of the backlash to Klassen's fine work. In this critique, the bear is equated with the victimizer. An innocent, our hero is shocked when exposed to devious behavior. The bear later utilizes these novel tactics.

Supposedly this behavior is inappropriate for children. The other day, a semi-distraught customer returned the book for this reason. Having perused the tome many times, I am convinced this interpretation is highly problematic, as well as underestimating the intellectual capabilities of youth.

The crux of the difficulty lies with adults believing children will identify with the bear. This is not the case. The bear, a sweetheart when not riled, is a simple-minded type. Being bamboozled so easily is evidence of this. The child does not identify with the bear. The book builds confidence in children by having kids perceive themselves as smarter, more worldly, than the bear. Kids would not be fooled as easily as our hero is. Likewise, the fibs so new to the bear are hardly new to children. And of course, children love seeing the villain get it.

It is protection from consequences which stunts growth and development. Denying children a chance to grapple with ethical issues, in the guise of 'protecting' them, will have the same result

Cafe Green Apple

No, we're not installing a cafe at Green Apple. Not with Schubert's, Toy Boat, the Blue Danube and many other fine options on Clement Street.

But we are partnering with four local cafes to bring books to you where you eat and drink. Check out our small but well curated selection of used books, all priced to move at $5 each, at:

  • Devil's Teeth Baking Company (3876 Noriega @ 45th Ave). Our first partner, a fantastic family owned bakery on a lively stretch of Noriega. The lemon bar, the $5 BLT and the sourdough bread are worth the trip!
  • Beachside Coffee Bar and Kitchen (4300 Judah @ 48th Ave). From the owners of Java Beach comes this newish cafe with cutting edge coffee and a solid menu of hearty fare, like the Irish Breakfast sandwich.
  • Bazaar Cafe (5927 California Street @ 21st Ave). A lovely cafe, alive with neighborhood love and frequent live music.
  • Cafe Divis (359 Divisadero @ Oak). Blue Bottle coffee, a variety of panini, and a wine bar all rolled into one.
Find Green Apple's good used books at your local cafe. Know another cafe that could use a few hundred books? Leave a suggestion in the comment field. Cheers.

The Ice Balloon

Come January, I usually start getting a little nostalgic for the winter everyone back home on the east coast seems to be suffering through grumpily. This year was no different, so I decided to chill myself vicariously--the best kind of chill--by indulging in a little polar exploration from my armchair. Fortunately, Alec Wilkinson's The Ice Balloon arrived just in time to allow me this indulgence.

The history of polar exploration is largely a history of successive catastrophes. From Sir John Franklin's ill-fated attempt to find the fabled and, it turns out, utterly impractical Northwest Passage to Robert Scott's stubborn demise in Antarctica, the poles have withstood a great deal of human ingenuity and determination. Wilkinson's account of S.A. Andree's ambitious and novel attempt at the North Pole--he was the first to try it using a balloon--is the chronicle of another disaster, but one that comes alive in the telling with an unexpected degree of suspense.

Andree is presented as the first non-Romantic explorer, one whose faith in science and technical progress led him to believe almost dogmatically in the success of his expedition. (He was so confident of his success, in fact, that he brought a tuxedo along with him, certain he'd have reason to don it for a celebrated return to civilization.) And, in the story as Wilkinson tells it, it seems Andree had sufficient reason to believe in the success of his voyage.

By weaving into the narrative covering Andree's attempt--which includes several poignant biographical sketches--other episodes from the "golden age" of polar exploration, Wilkinson presents not just a vivid biography of a man, but of the obsession of an age and the characters who acted out the often harrowing consequences of that obsession.

Visit this page for more photographs of Andree's doomed expedition (which were discovered nearly 40 years after its mysterious demise).

Super Bowl, Schmuper Bowl - an option.

My favorite weekend of the year is upon us, but no, it won’t involve being glued to the television watching Super Bowl commercials. Rather, this Saturday and Sunday is the return of The San Francisco Antiquarian Book Print & Paper Fair, held at the Concourse Exhibition Center.

Over 200 dealers from all across the globe will be hawking their wares, and while I’m always impressed with the scope of tomes on display, it should go without saying that Booth 312 will dazzle you the most. Was that too subtle? Then how about this: Green Apple Books will bring the best of our best, and we will be at Booth 312 all weekend.

What is the best of our best, you ask? How about a batch of Arion Press titles, including The Great Gatsby and Coney Island of the Mind; The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W.B. Yeats, SIGNED by Yeats; The deluxe edition of Danny Lyon’s Knave of Hearts, limited to 50 copies, and including a SIGNED print; SIGNED first editions from Ansel Adams, Haruki Murakami, Wayne Thiebaud, Maurice Sendak, Edward Abbey, Tasha Tudor, Robert Crumb, and many others. Did I say dazzling? I do believe that I did. But without a doubt, my personal favorite is the true first edition of Ambrose Bierce’s landmark story collection, Can Such Things Be? published in 1893. Oh, wait – maybe it’s the hand-numbered copy of Raymond Pettibon’s Pig Cupid. No, it would really have to be the beautiful, SIGNED first edition of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – man, what a way out signature. AAAAaahhhhh!

Please slide by Booth 312 and say “Hi” – show hours are from 10 to 7 on Saturday, Feb. 4th and from 11 to 5 on Sunday the 5th. Free appraisal service on-site during Sunday, and a discounted admission coupon is available HERE.