Small presses, independent presses, imprints, labors of love. It becomes increasingly confounding to many, that people exist who are wholeheartedly committed to serving the culture. Ulterior motives are our knee-jerk suspicions when people seem to be devoted to something beyond themselves. We recognize it exists, but doubt it everywhere we see it. So, being closer in than most to the world of publishing, to presses big and small, we wanted to give praise to the hard, dedicated and yes, devoted, work of those at work in the fields of the word -- high quality, small, independent presses. Recently, we had the opportunity and pleasure to hear a lecture by David R. Godine, printmaker & publisher extraordinaire, discussing his forty years of independent publishing, his inspirations, his accomplishments, and the fineries of press, paper and design. The particular aesthetic commitments to design as well as content are what he is known for. This particularity, idiosyncrasy, and excellence of editorial and production values are what draws us to small presses and what reassures us of their integrity. They are the conscience of the book industry, the culture, and our society. We depend on them for the life of our language, our culture and our very minds and hearts. So, here's a toast to small presses! Long may they live, arise and thrive! Long may we have the time to read their wonderful, carefully chosen books.
John & all Dieselfolk
I picked up this book because of its canary-yellow jacket and interesting typography; I didn't realize until I started the first chapter, that About a Mountain is, actually, about a mountain - Yucca Mountain, specifically, 90 miles outside Las Vegas, and the proposed site of a plan that would entomb America's 77,000 tons of nuclear waste for 10,000 years. It would have been easy to merely rant about what an absurdly bad idea it is to store nuclear waste inside a mountain, but essayist D'Agata is much too sophisticated for that. Instead, he teases out the realities of the astonishing plan via linguists, geologists, cultural anthropologists, transportation experts and the like and, in the process, opens up a discussion about "the fragility of our capacity to know," definitively, anything about anything in the grand scheme of things. It's an impressive feat and stylishly done. -- Kim Okamura
Every art form based on new technology spends its first few decades in a sort of limbo, during which any attempt to valorize it as art is duly given the smack down by the guardians of high culture (see Roger Ebert's recent blog post, flatly titled "Video Games Can Never Be Art"). But as video games near their third decade, the argument for games as art is surely, if haltingly, becoming irrefutable. Today's games are as far from Pong and Pac-Man as modern film is from "Man Catches Train," and Bissell is the perfect candidate to take the discourse on gaming to - pardon the expression - the next level. Each chapter of Extra Lives focuses on either a category of game or a specific game, and with chapter titles such as "Headshots," "LittleBigProblems," and "Grand Thefts," you can tell right away that this is a book by, and for, gamers. Fortunately, as impassioned as Bissell is about games as art, he approaches the whole project with a generous sense of humor, which makes his discussions of the more sordid aspects of video games far more palatable. As a gamer, I've been waiting a long time for a good book-length study of one of my favorite activities, obsessions, and yes, art forms. --John Peck
Sometimes I worry that there's something recursive - or, yes, even vaguely masturbatory - about reading books about books. But I love them; I read them constantly; I may have what you'd call a bit of a problem. Perhaps the reason I can't seem to let a literary satire or reader's memoir pass me by is that I know from the start that - to very loosely paraphrase Woody Allen - I'll be reading a book about a subject I love: books.
Last year it was Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist that earned my ardor. The targets of Hely's affectionate skewering are the "literary" blockbusters that tend to cling like limpets to the top of The New York Times' bestseller list. As part of a get-rich-quick/spurned-lover's-revenge scheme, Hely's protagonist devises a formula for bestsellerdom and swiftly hammers out his literary masterpiece, The Tornado Ashes Club. Yes, that title alone should be enough to do it: I'll pause for a moment here to let you snort and cringe and remember your book club's worst excesses.
Fortunately, those past mistakes can be remedied by Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan, which has a bit of old school adventure and a dash of film noir thrown in with its playful poking at a rather ripe target: memoirs. Ian Minot, a sad-sack, down-on-his-luck barista - a.k.a., an unpublished writer - finds himself embroiled in a scheme (those pesky buggers are everywhere!) to rewrite a stranger's failed novel as a true story starring none other than Ian Minot. When this exciting and heartwarming tale lands on the bestseller lists, Ian, the plan goes, will then reveal that it was all fake - thus, says his new benefactor, humiliating the publishing executives who did them both wrong. Sounds foolproof, right?
Of course things get completely out of control, in an enjoyably madcap Hitchcockian way. But what really made me stop and savor The Thieves of Manhattan - and How I Became a Famous Novelist, as well - are the examinations of the creative urge and the question of how to honestly express oneself in a commercial world, artfully sprinkled amongst the shenanigans. A satire that isn't entirely cynical? That seems as rare and delicate a creature as a memoir that really is entirely true.
So, fine. In the spirit of all the honesty we're cultivating here, I'll admit: I did not stop and savor The Thieves of Manhattan at all. I raced through it in less than a day. Like a certain type of lie, leaping off the tongue, it wasn't something I could help. It felt too damn good. -- Anna Kaufman
At the core of Greg Milner's absurdly well-researched treatise on the history of recorded music is a question: Should a recording document reality or improve upon and transcend it? Is it nobler for a record to be an artifact or an art object? In his search for answers, Milner begins with Edison's phonograph and, as he works his way forward into the iPod age, encounters racist historians; a $100,000 record player; the militarist applications of magnetic tape; and Adorno's belief that the only reason people like popular music is because it is cynically tailored to mirror their world. Things get even weirder when Milner discovers the godfather of radio technology, Guglielmo Marconi, believed that with the right kind of device one could pluck from the air Christ's Sermon on the Mount, or that the ancient Egyptians possessed the technology to record and replay wax or metal disc phonographs, if only the thought had occurred to them. Of course, there is no right answer to our central question, only a slew of knobs, cables, monitors, hard-drives, headphones and very strange people that inhabit the variegated world of the audiophile. -- Grant Outerbridge
William Boyd's remarkable novel describes the life of an Englishman, Logan Mountstuart, from his birth in 1906 to his death in 1991 at age eighty-five, a life lived through the waning of the British Empire. Our all-too-human protagonist does a stint in a British boarding school, attends Oxford, fights in the Spanish Civil War and is present for almost every important historical event that follows. He becomes a celebrated writer for a time; works for British intelligence; keeps the dreadful Duke and Duchess of Windsor out of the hands of the Nazis; is captured while on a spying mission and put into prison; meets everyone from Picasso to Hemingway; has continuous flirtations with various women; often drinks too much; marries badly and almost perfectly. Because the novel is told in journal form, we're privy to Logan's intimate thoughts on literature, art, politics, war, drink, sex, friendship and love. Although towards the end Mountstuart seems surprised by his lack of success, this reader felt triumphant in knowing him so completely. In the month since I read this novel I've thought of Logan countless times. -- Diane Leslie
It's nearly impossible to improve on the flavor of fruit at the peak of its ripeness, all juicy and lush. One look at this collection of recipes and you will notice the respect Deborah Madison has for preserving the integrity of the fruit. She uses a minimal amount of quality ingredients to compliment their flavors and textures - perennial favorites like crisps and cobblers are here along with other updated classics: white peaches in lemon verbena and lavender syrup, and a sticky pudding with dates and coffee. A small, but good assortment of companion items for fruit are also included: the olive oil orange cake is a particular favorite of mine with a texture similar to pound cake and a delicate crumb that pairs nicely with berries. The full-color photographs - broken jellied wine with summer fruits that shimmer like jewels, and chocolate bark with cardamom and sea salt studded with apricots - will have your mouth watering. This is definitely a book you will return to for years to come. -- Cheryl Ryan
Curious Mauk only turned his Master's sketches for the new palazzo a bit to look at them, but now, inside the building, no one knows which way is up! The story itself has you turning the book upside down (or is it downside up?) to follow along. This clever tale, based, on the work of M.C. Escher, is a great introduction for young minds into the world of optical illusion, where nothing is as it seems. -- Cheryl Ryan