Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

After Clay Jannon loses his web design job to the ravages of the recession, he walks San Francisco’s streets in search of help wanted signs.   He spies a 24-hour bookstore sign seeking HELP WANTED Late Shift ~ Specific Requirements ~ Good Benefits.  Jannon says “Now; I was pretty sure “24-hour bookstore” was a euphemism for something. It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town. . . the place next door was called Booty’s and it had a sign with neon legs that crossed and uncrossed.”  Still, he walks into the store and finds “no bodices, ripped or otherwise. . . there was a stack of dusty Dashiell Hammetts on a low table.  That was a good sign.”  He meets Mr. Penumbra, the custodian of the place and tells him he’s looking for a job.

“Tell me,” Penumbra said, “about a book you love.”

Thus Jannon becomes the night clerk, the one who rolls a ladder down the floor, climbs it, and then leans to grasp the volumes requested by a small band of seekers who visit the store. The odd visitors “arrive with algorithmic regularity. They never browse.  They come wide-awake, completely sober and vibrating with need.”  They don’t purchase; they seek and check out volumes looking for pieces to the puzzle they’re trying to solve.

Jannon’s job description also requires that he log the appearance and manner of each person entering the store.  Soon he decides to engage his tech-savvy friends in a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and the volumes they borrow and thus to solve the mystery they all seek. They take their information to Mr. Penumbra and the merry band makes a pilgrimage to New York in pursuit of clues at the underground headquarters of the group overseeing Mr. Penumbra’s work. 

Sloan imbues the novel with clever banter, just enough to keep the book light, as in his description of Jannon’s girlfriend upon their arrival: “Kat bought a New York Times but couldn’t figure out how to operate it, so now she’s fiddling with her phone.   
Occasionally the novel’s cleverness pulled me away from the storyline but my affection for Clay and Mr. Penumbra always drew me back to the fairy tale unfolding before my eyes.

This book takes Saint-Exupery’s “what is essential is invisible to the eye” and turns it slant for the 21st century.  It’s a joyful exploration of friendship, life, and work done well that reminds us that the secrets of life are there if we’ll just bend a bit and lean toward them.  

Summing it Up: If you’re looking for something new and different, yet as familiar as the tattered copy of the first book you ever loved, then Robin Sloan’s blend of bookish secrets, early fonts, and advanced Google search engines will engage your imagination.  Enigmatic Mr. Penumbra and hip, young Clay Jannon will find their way past your internet-challenged attention span and into your heart.  

Footnote: Sloan knows that book buyers today want compelling reasons to purchase books  in hardcover so Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore's cover glows in the dark. 

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Dessert, Sushi, Book Club

Publication date: October 2, 2012

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I rarely quote an author in a review but Robin Sloan’s words say it all:
I wrote this book because it’s the one I wanted to read, and I tried to pack it full of the things I love: books and bookstores; design and typography; Silicon Valley and San Francisco; fantasy and science fiction; quests and projects.  If you love these things too, I hope and believe you will enjoy a visit to the tall skinny bookstore next to the strip club.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Fobbit by David Abrams

Do you watch Jon Stewart to understand the “why” of current events?  Was “Good Morning, Viet Nam” one of your favorite movies?  Did you love Catch 22 (the book or the movie)?  If so, then Fobbit, David Abrams’ razor-sharp comedy novel of the war in Iraq, is the book for you.  Abrams retired in 2008 after serving twenty years in the Army as a journalist.  He was named the Department of Defense’s Military Journalist of the Year in 1994.  In 2005, he joined the 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad.  The journal he kept during his year in Iraq formed what he calls “the blueprint” for the novel that became Fobbit. Abrams’ experience makes the novel exude the truth of life on a base in Baghdad. That truth is evident from Abram’s first paragraphs:
They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow.  Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center.  They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazard of Baghdad’s bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph.  If the FOB was a mother’s skirt, then these soldiers were pressed hard against the pleats, too scared to venture beyond her grasp.
Like the shy, hairy-footed hobbits of Tolkien’s world, they were reluctant to go beyond their shire, bristling with rolls of concertina wire at the borders of the FOB.  After all there were goblins in turbans out there! Or so they convinced themselves.
Supply clerks, motor pool mechanics, cooks, mail sorters, lawyers, trombone players, logisticians: Fobbits, one and all.  They didn’t give a shit about appearances. They were all about making it out of Iraq in one piece.
The novel’s main character, Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding is a true, stay-back, stay-safe Fobbit who reads Cervantes and Dickens while penning reports designed to make the deaths around him look sensible to readers back home.  He works in one of Saddam’s former palaces, sleeps in air-conditioned comfort and gets his choice of great food shipped in to keep his ilk happy. He follows orders and files news releases that make the war seem winnable.  His diary tells the true story and may be keeping him sane with entries like: What was life like in Baghdad? “A car bomb every day. Sometimes three on religious holidays.”

Gooding’s fellow soldiers include Lt. Col. Eustace Harkleroad, a spontaneous nose bleeder, “a thick man, thick the way a bowl of risen dough is said to be thick.  When he leaned back in his chair, other soldiers flinched, afraid a button would pop off, come flying across the room, and put out an eye.”  Capt. Abe Shrinkle, a complete failure who fires first, thinks later and whose name could become synonymous with military ineptitude, provides comic relief while showing the most absurd details of the war.  Lt. Col. Vic Duret, whose brother-in-law died in the World Trade Center, offers a more nuanced view of the kind of men serving with honor.
Fobbit was published as an original paperback making it accessible to a wide audience. It’s a debut novel and the book Abrams seems born to write. It’s a hilarious, yet searing picture of an upside-down world where winning “hearts and minds” while killing and fearing Iraqi terrorists (or are they insurgents) is a contradictory goal that eats at the guts of those sitting safely inside a fortress.
If you possess a brain and a heart, you’ll laugh out loud, shed some tears and find a quiet place to contemplate the lessons of this astute novel. Book Clubs – this may be the best choice you’ve ever made.  Caveat: it might be too sardonic for avid Bush-Cheney supporters.
Summing it Up: Read this to bear witness to the absurdity of war. Relish it for the word pictures that will put you “up close and personal” in Baghdad.  Ponder it to make sense of the increasingly strange world we inhabit. That David Abrams could have served and survived in this environment then could speak to it with humor and dispassion is a great gift to readers. Make sure you open that gift.
Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Super Nutrition, Sushi, Book Club

Publication date: September 4, 2012 (original paperback)

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