Tag Archives: Books

Retail minions unite!

5 Apr

This weekend was my one year anniversary of quitting my job at the Giant Evil Bookstore. That’s weird, man. I don’t think I’ve ever been this stress-free for this long. I live in California now, where things are blissful and it’s gorgeous anywhere you look. Unexpectedly, I enjoy digging in the dirt. Being tired at the end of the day, but saying “Hey, look at this thing I accomplished.” That’s pretty great on a lot of levels. And the husband is the happiest monkey in the world out here. The other day he yells at me from across the living room, using his excited voice, “You know what we should do? We should make a wood stove that looks like R2-D2!” I sigh. He continues. “No, wait, no, we should make one that looks like Darth Vader’s helmet mask. And you put the wood in through his mouth? Nothing says ‘nerds off the grid’ like a Darth Vader wood stove.”

I’m not sure anything actually says “nerds off the grid.” But if anything could, it would, in fact, be a Darth Vader wood stove.

That’s like a Twilight Zone sentence, right? I’m not imagining the weirdness?

Anyway, I digress. I always had mixed feelings about the bookstore. It was books, and I love books. It’s like a little kid getting to wallow around in a pit full of kittens all day. Sort of. I do miss my peeps, good booknerdy folks who knew their shit and with whom I could comfortably commiserate about the horrors of minimum-wage shilldom. I liked knowing what books were coming out before anybody else. And seeing the ridiculous furor over best sellers or weird fads (thanks for that, Oprah). But the zombifying, soulsucking, spirit-crushing nature of a retail job definitely outweighs all of that.

But the best thing about working in a bookstore was definitely the customers. Also the worst thing. We had some fantastic regulars whom I adored. But most everyone else…hmm, there aren’t really words. But there are examples! (I’m the one in italics. I look great in italics.)

“You guys had a book on a table up front about six months ago? It had a blue cover.” It’s always the book with the blue cover! “Do you know where it is now? Why isn’t it still on the table?” Do you understand how marketing works? No? Ok.

“Where’s your nonfiction section?” Well, I can show you were my fiction section is, and then there’s the rest of the store, which is nonfiction. “What’s the difference?” Sigh.

“It’s a novel, but it really happened.” Novels are not nonfiction!

“I want something with wizards, but not like Harry Potter.” Urm. Good luck with that.

“Where’s your Harry Potter section?” Seriously?

“Where’s your Twilight section?” Fucking seriously?

“My kid really likes Twilight. Do you have anything that’s like that?” Everything’s like that. Can you be more specific? “Well, she’s ten.” Holy shit, lady, why did your kid read Twilight at ten? Or at all, for that matter?

“My kid’s a really good reader so it’s hard for him to find books that are challenging. He loves science fiction and fantasy.” Ok, great, let’s go over to the Science Fiction and Fantasy section. “Oh, no, I don’t want him to read adult books. He’s only a teenager.” This is why America is crumbling.

Kid with a giant stack of books she’s pulled out of the shelf and practically destroyed. Her mother: “Oh, no, honey, don’t put those away. That’s what she’s here for.” Point that finger at me again, bitch, and I will eat it.

“Why aren’t there any new Hemingway books?” Well, because disembodied dead spirits have a really hard time getting publishing contracts these days.

“I need these eighteen books as quickly as possible.” They’re out of print. “What do you mean?” I mean they don’t make them anymore. You’ll probably have to look at a used bookstore or order them online. “What do you mean?” When books stop selling they stop printing them. “What do you mean?” Are you stuck in a logic loop, Borg person?

“You can’t find it? Obviously your computer is wrong.” Obviously. Can we maybe think of more than one vague word out of the title with which to search? “Well, it should pop right up. It was ‘The’ something.” Can you think of any part of the author’s name? “Bob or Dave or John. Maybe.”

“I really like this author, but I’ve read all his books. Can you suggest something similar?” Sure, try this guy. “Oh, no, I don’t think so. I’ve never heard of him.” That was kind of the point, wasn’t it?

“I can’t find it. Can you just show me where it is?” Yes, ma’am. It’s right there on that shelf next to your eyeball.

“This place is so big. How do you find your way around?” A nauseating degree of repetition. And a basic understanding of maps and the alphabet.

“I ain’t never been in here before.” You don’t say.

Ok, ok. I’ll stop. I do tend to go on and on sometimes, don’t I? I don’t mean to sound so negative. It wasn’t all bad. Sometimes I even liked my job at the Giant Evil Bookstore. It taught me a lot about how not to run a business. Like not treating your employees like useless idiots. And refraining from most kinds of corporate scumfuck douchebaggery. What blew my mind the most about working there was how ignorant people were about books in general. I was endlessly fascinated by it, honestly. It’s like there’s a blind spot in their cultural awareness, you know? So often people would come in and say things like “I need that book that was on the news last night.” At which point I’d tell them that I don’t have a television and they’d look at me like I had three heads. And of course they didn’t remember the title or the author because they assumed that everyone at the bookstore would know exactly what they were talking about. Because it was on tv. Why wouldn’t everyone know exactly what they were talking about? It’s tv. Why have we gotten to a point where this is the norm? I’m upset and icky-feeling over it.

The other interesting thing is the way that customer service folks are looked at as subhuman. Like those types of jobs make you less, somehow, than other people. But you’ve got to pay the bills. Stupid capitalist society. For the record, we’re not in these sorts of service industry jobs because we’re too stupid or lazy to get a “real” job. Every single person I worked with either had a college degree or was in college to get one. Bookstore employees are pretty knowledgeable, if just by virtue of being forced to hang out there all the time. Don’t assume that they won’t know the answer to your question because of where they work. It’s their job to know the answers, and it’s a thankless job most of the time. Your shopping crisis may seem like the end of the world to you, but it’s only a few minutes out of their long-ass day, a day filled with all kinds of interesting shopping crises. So be nice. And be patient.


All hail the Stephen!

22 Mar

A while ago I mentioned in passing that I planned to write a post about my rabid Stephen King fandom. He’s got a new book coming out in April (the 24th, a Tuesday), so I figured now would be a good time for that post, while my booknerd dander’s all up in anticipation (dander? hackles? I think hackles). Furthermore, this new one is in the Dark Tower storysphere, so I’m extra squishy excited about it. If you never read another Stephen King book, at the very very least, read the Dark Tower series. In. Cred. Ible. (I love that breaking-up-words-for-emphasis convention. I love being able to say “Ible” in a sentence. Go to hell, spell check.)

So when I was in sixth grade somebody (probably my sister, she’s a bad/good influence) gave me a copy of The Stand. For which I got sent home from school and my parents got called in to a meeting about my “emotional development.” Keeping in mind that my parents are very bright people, it should come as no surprise that they told the school administrators to get fucked and that an eleven year old who could read and comprehend and enjoy pretty complex adult fiction was the least of their redneck, backwoods, puritanical little concerns. When you’ve got kids in middle school with kids of their own, it blows my mind that these people took the time to gripe about my reading habits. My father, ever the confrontational atheist, made a point to ask them whether my reading level was the problem or the material. Specifically: “If she had a copy of the Bible, would you be throwing this shit fit?” And then we walked out. And went to the bookstore. I honestly don’t know that the principal understood the question. No one down there thinks of the Bible as a book. But that’s a conversation for another time.

I guess that experience meant a lot. Not because the book was hyped up and made taboo, but because it wasn’t. Tell a kid that they can’t do something and they’ll want to do it even more. But tell them that they can keep doing something that they really enjoy and you won’t judge them for it, and they’ll go apeshit crazy. I spent the next couple of years reading mostly Stephen King. I read them all and then suddenly there weren’t any more. Which is torture, isn’t it? You try to find something to fill that hole where your favorite writer goes and nothing quite fits. It’s a square peg situation, and I was too young to have really discerning taste so I went through a wicked horror novel phase during which I would read pretty much anything with ghosts, demons, death, destruction, serial killers, fucking ancient space alien monster gods. Whatever. Did not contribute to my middle school/early high school goth weirdness period at all. Nah. Not even a little. I swear. “Emotional development.” Pfft.

And then Kerouac came along and I went through a Grateful Dead phase and started wearing tie-dye and taking a lot of hallucinogens and Stephen King kind of took a backseat for a minute.

I kept up. I wasn’t a total slacker fan. But let’s face it. He had some weird shit come out in the 90’s. There are three distinct periods to King’s work. The early stuff when he was poor and raising kids and drinking too much. That is the Golden Age (to use a comics analogy that doesn’t quite fit) of Stephen King. Very punk rock. And then he had the middle years when he was sober and his kids were grown and he was kind of bored and it showed. Not that it’s not good writing. Some decent stuff came out of that period, but it all felt like he was ripping off a Stephen King book. Between Insomnia and Hearts in Atlantis, pretty much. And then some drunk asshole hit him with a van and he almost died and his career was invigorated again! Thank the gods for drunk assholes in panel vans. No, not really. I wept when I heard it on the radio because they got a bad report and said that he had died. (It’s called due diligence, people. Give it a try.) My sister had to sit on the floor with me and listen to me babble and cry. Oh, it was awful. But then when they said they fucked up we all did a happy dance. He was risen! Like, um, who was that guy who came back from the dead in the Bible? No, no, the other guy. Shit, I’ll remember it in a minute…

Anyway, everything since then has been awesome. King said after the accident that he wasn’t going to write anymore, that he had three books in a safe deposit box that were finished and he would publish those and complete the Dark Tower series and that would be that. But the books kept coming. The dude’s got an addiction, frankly. Drank too much, did too much coke (that might just be a rumor, I honestly don’t know if it’s true), plays the guitar. These are all things writers do to distract themselves from the fact that writing is their real fix. You don’t have hobbies or habits when you’re a writer, you have procrastination tools. Bonus. Score.

Lazarus! It was Lazarus.

But I guess I should get to the point, hmm? (Sorry, too many procrastination tools. But wine’s so cheap in California.) Why do I love Stephen King? It’s a conversation I’ve had quite a few times, actually. Not foamy fangirl “you’ve gotta gotta read this” kinds of conversations, which is what you’d expect. No, most of my Stephen King discussions are in his defense, oddly. Fucking literature people are snobs, man, for real. In college I had so many folks scoff when I said he’s my favorite. Apparently being a #1 bestselling author forty-something times makes your talent questionable? Who knew? “But it’s so pop,” “But it’s just fluff,” “But he only writes horror,” and so on. Which is exactly the sort of thing that people repeat because it’s what they’ve heard. It’s petty name dropping in reverse, basically. King got too popular and his reputation suffered for it, I guess.

I don’t give a good goddamn how many books you sell. A fine storyteller is a fine storyteller is a fine storyteller in my book (icky pun, sorry). Stephen King’s work falls into what I have dubbed the “weird shit happening to normal people” category. Which is a style that sucks you in with a quickness. Usually I’m hooked by the first chapter or so. In fact, I tend to chop two days out of my schedule when a new one comes out and do nothing else until it’s finished. (Now you all know why I always called out sick on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.) And here’s where the clichés kick in. It’s intricately woven storytelling. He tends to start with a big cast of characters and either whittle it down to a nub of important players, or just make all their stories eventually collide. Excellent worldbuilding. Most of it is horror set in our world, but there’s a big whack of his work that’s fantasy, a few I would call scifi, the occasional supernatural love story. With two distinct personalities and writing styles (he used to write as another author who died of cancer of the pseudonym; occasionally one of his lost manuscripts will “surface”). And that’s just the novels. He’s also a master of the short story, which I think is an even harder form to wrangle with, but he does it well. Another point in his favor, that he can do both. Not a lot of writers like that. And nonfiction! Danse Macabre is one of the best books on the history of horror.

Anyway, I’m just gushing now. I’ll stop. But seriously. Don’t believe all those stuck-up book people who say Stephen King’s no good. Or don’t knock until you’ve tried. Even if you do see his work as just shallow pop fiction (which it’s not), we all occasionally need some junk food for our brains, don’t we? There’s some cheap therapy opportunities there.

Long-winded Thoughts on Nomenclature

26 Jan

So this is a nerd blog, right? And of all the species of nerds, I’m undoubtedly, unquestionably, first and foremost, a booknerd. Books. Mmm. Books, booky book books. I could talk about them all day. And I have. And I probably will again. True to type, though, I read mostly science fiction. Some fantasy, some horror. Right now I’m trying to work my way through the whole list of Pulitzer winners. You know, just for giggles. I quite enjoy historical nonfiction stuff, too, lots of biographies and science books and things about abandoned hospitals (don’t ask). But I’ll read whatever. If it’s been collated, I will probably at least peruse it.


I’m deeply irked by the label Speculative Fiction. There’s a lot of wiggle room on the term “speculative” in the first place. Isn’t all fiction, by its very nature, speculation? Isn’t that what the whole thing is about? In a meta-sense? In an it’s-humanity’s-duty-to-tell-stories kind of way? The Speculative Literature Foundation (I’m not even kidding) defines the genre as “Any piece of literature containing a fabulist or speculative element.” Could they just go ahead and make my point for me? It would save you guys a lot of reading.

I worked for a huge chain bookstore for a long time. And (disclaimer) I’m bound to say some nasty shit about them so I won’t name names, but it’s the only one still standing after the Amazon and e-book revolutions. The one with the green signs? And the shitty coffee? And the & in the middle? You know the one. Anyway, they sell tons of scifi and fantasy, so they put them off to one side in their own little section. With the graphic novels. Between self-help and romance, which seems either really insensitive or just outright mean. What a weird cross-section of humanity. Walking past those few aisles is so fucking pitiful I can’t even stand it. So ten thousand times I’d get some college freshman standing lost and confused in the scifi/fantasy aisle asking me “Where are Dracula and Frankenstein? I need them for a class. They should be right here.” And I’d say, “No, no, come along, moron. Let’s go to the Literature section.”

First of all, as a point of etiquette, don’t wait until the last minute to buy your books for class from the only bookstore in town. They will not be prepared for forty kids to come in all on one day. Just so you know. Secondly, Dracula and Frankenstein are both horror novels and do not, by any stretch of the imagination, belong in scifi/fantasy. And finally, what the fuck does “Literature” even mean in this context? Comparatively speaking? Does that mean that scifi/fantasy or romance or mystery aren’t good enough to be Literature-with-a-capital-L? What do you call them then? Books? Stories? Tales? Yarns? The term Literature carries this onus of heady intellectualism which is completely arbitrary and made up. It’s an invalid connotation of some sort of classicism, one that can be used against people. Note the two different reactions I usually get in the following situations:

I have an English degree.

– Oh. That means you read a lot, right?


I have a Literature degree.

– Wow, that’s really interesting. Tell me about Shakespeare.

Sigh. Yes, I read a lot. Also, fuck Shakespeare. I’ll get crucified for saying that, but the guy was a hack and I stand by my statement. But you see my point? It’s the word. Not even the whole word. The capitalization of the word. You can hear it when people say it out loud. Drives me batshit crazy. So when I capitalize these somewhat subjective categories, please know that I’m doing it in the Big Evil Green-signed Bookstore Chain way and not in an I-have-a-literature-degree sense. I’m bitter, not pretentious. For the record.

Here’s the thing: I’ve always had a problem with these labels, specifically “scifi/fantasy.” It’s that slash. These are two separate entities. This is not an and/or/if/then slash-worthy situation. When you say it out loud, it’s different. It’s like a pause: “I read scifi, fantasy, horror, computer manuals…” You see? But when you write it down it becomes amalgamated. That’s the issue here. And I understand that this is trickle-down vernacular. It comes straight from the marketing imps of Satan who lump scifi and fantasy together because of the fan base overlap. Like how Velcro gets put in the same category as all the other lowly hook-and-loop tape. Urm. Sort of. For the most part, the bottom line is that bookstores don‘t want to split up an author‘s work. They want to be able to put everything in one category so that shoppers only have to look in one place. Take Stephen King. (And let me preface this part of my little rant by saying that I have a deep and abiding love for Mr. King that borders on unnatural. But that’s a whole different blog. We’ll get to it, friends. Fret not.) So Stephen King has written mostly what would be conventionally labeled horror. With a few really notable, important exceptions: the seven books in the Dark Tower series, Eyes of the Dragon, and the graphic novels all fall squarely into the fantasy category. But one has to file all of these under Literature so as to keep them all together on the shelf. Because some fuckwit can’t be bothered to walk two aisles over and find the K’s again. This is why America is obese, people. Because those tricksy marketing bastards are calling all the shots.

I digress. Speculative-Fiction-seekers want to further confound this whole situation by just shoving everything somewhat wacky into one big mushy mess. A mess where Twilight seems to be invited to the party. And that, frankly, is not a party I want to go to. I like my categorical language neat and tidy, right? Science fiction has to have some science in it. Or something remotely science-y. I want robots and spaceships and lasers and germ warfare. Get it? Fantasy is a little more ethereal. Fantastic, if you will. Maidens, dragons, quests, swords, magic. Horror has all the delicious gory bits and the occasional ghost, possession or serial killer. Possibly a demon (but not a daemon, those go in fantasy). There are a few things that successfully cross the line. Star Wars had a princess, right? Albeit one who was apparently from some futuristic braless utopia. And the Force seemed like magic until Lucas fucked up and explained it all away with science (which is a bullshit maneuver to pull in a prequel, George – yeah, I said it). Blurry lines aside, to put everything in one big honking category is simply not ok. But if we’re going to conflate, let’s just go whole hog and really conflate, right? Screw mystery, scifi, classics, romance, Literature, and especially Speculative Fiction – get rid of them all. Label everything Fiction and be done with it. With a capital F.