Top 10 Most Wanted

September 21st, 2015

We still have the biggest selection of titles in English you’ll find between Oaxaca and San Antonio, but we’re always looking to backstock our biggest sellers. We offer the most generous terms in cash and book credit you will find ANYWHERE – and we gratefully accept donations.

#1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Has there been a more solid twofer than this Nigerian-American’s debut ‘Half of A Yellow Sun’ and ‘Americanah’. No. That’s why we don’t have them in-store right now, and they are badly missed.

#2. Jack Kerouac: Visitors coming through town make a beeline for his geographically apt volume of poems ‘Mexico City Blues’ and, because a young man’s gotta dream (and get mired in cliche), ‘On the Road’.

#3. Sylvia Plath: Her novel ‘The Bell Jar’ and stunning thin volume of poetry ‘Ariel’ disappear almost as soon as we get them in. Keep ‘em coming.

#4. Roberto Bolan(y)o: His executors are still publishing found files, obscure stories and novels that make an art of being unfinished. We want them all.

#5. Elena Ferrante: Her autobiographical trilogy of novels has just been completed in English translation. We only have the first.

#6. Edward St. Aubyn: Same kind of thing. People are crazy for these books and loath to part with them. Maybe they should talk to Mr. Benito Juarez?

#7. Jonathan Franzen: Nobody seems as flat-out ecstatic about ‘Purity’ as the previous two books, but we’re still eagerly awaiting this one’s arrival.

#8. Philip Larkin: If you want to fall in love with a poet, Google this man’s name and ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ – or if you’re in a vulgar mind, ‘This Be the Verse’. His substantial recent resurgence has yet to land his Selected or Collected in our hands.

#9. William T. Vollmann: We are slowly accruing this most prolific of living American authors’ oeuvre, but still lack the five published volumes of the ‘Seven Dreams’ series, his National Book Award-winning ‘Europe Central’ and his raw punk semi-fiction opus ‘Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs’.

#10. Geoffrey Hill: This English poet, little-known beyond academia, deserves a bigger audience for his deep-rooted strangeness, guttural, Saxon lines, and long-range historical vision. You see it, grab it: I’ll buy it.

Get your Face in a book

August 4th, 2015

So… We’ve made the plunge. Your proprietor is no longer on Facebook. The store page is still active, under other and extremely loose management, as a signpost to tell people who look there where we are. I’ll just say that’s a damn enchanting app Mr. Zuckerberg semi-not really invented, and while not as deadly to the organism as the titular tech of David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ certainly something like what he had in mind. It’s incredibly useful and endlessly entertaining, and was working to the detriment of my reality. So farewell.

We spent all of June and half of July on the biggest book run since our inauguration, from New Orleans clear to California. We will no longer be sourcing in Texas and driving the long miles in between (thank heaven) but instead in Southern California and the Bay Area and shipping our stock home from Tijuana. I’m from L.A. And I find Tijuana endlessly fascinating, so I’m personally glad for the change, and you’ll find if you come by the store you’ll be happy with it too. Our collection has never been this diverse and of such high quality. And there are another 600 titles coming in September. Our overstock of top sellers is deep, and while a few writers are difficult to keep in the quantities our customers demand (Kerouac, Nabokov, Murakami are the three that come quickest to mind) we’ve a got a pretty full selection of even those writers right now, and hundreds more. We are still offering the best prices and the most generous trade credit for the books you bring in that you will find just about anywhere on the continent. The excellent bar and restaurant downstairs is open from 2:00 daily except Sundays and Mondays. What else can I say? Abandon Facebook and read!

Boxes are opening

July 14th, 2015

Back from the States and it’s crowded in here – boxes blocking the way, the soon-to-be-retired (disintegrating) rug folded back to roll up as bookcases fill and empty and refill in our general expansion and reorganization. Not quite the expansion you might have heard about: the store recently entered into a partnership that will eventually put us in a new location with many more volumes, but as it turns out that change won’t come as soon as expected. We will remain in the upstairs of the American Legion until further notice.

Still we are acquiring titles at an unprecedented rate, and with a fine-tuned attention to our customers’ wishes honed as never before. Our buying has picked up and moved wholesale to Southern California, and the resulting abundance of shopping choices has already borne fruit. Come see us and get the new stuff fresh outta the boxes!

Planned Inobsolecence

March 28th, 2015

Just thinking on my way to the store today – we’re closing tomorrow for Semana Santa, so hurry over for those beach books – about the inobsolescence of the book, and of literature itself, contrary to popular opinion. Sales of e-books peaked two years ago, and I can’t tell you how many owners of the device have expressed their final frustration with and abandonment of it – except for when traveling. (Another broadly held misconception, that our clientele are largely travelers and expats. But I’ll address that another time.)

You hear it all over, from cultural alarmists in schools and bars to our reigning titans Roth and Franzen: the novel is dying, or at least becoming the interest of a tiny cult, like we are headed back into a lost Middle Age. The very electronic culture we are so suddenly deep in was given its metaphors, it’s very language, by novels – specifically those of William Gibson and Philip K. Dick – and its favorite nightmares are those glossed two generations ago by Richard Matheson. How much more incomprehensible 9/11 would have been had we not been let in on the new world it made by Don DeLillo. Heaven forbid the same might be said for Cormsc McCarthy’s recent work.

Literature isn’t a weather forecast, but a constant and roiling two-way mirror. There still isn’t a better guide to choosing a life partner than George (Mary Ann Evans) Eliot’s Middlemarch. And though poetry in English lost its way fifty years ago, Whitman is still calling Americans to their better natures and shouting the broken dream at the heart of that experiment. Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens are still the strongest hallucinogens available on non-absorbent paper. And there are living poets – Dylan Brennan’s is the only volume we have in stock right now, but that’s soon to change – who are writing after hiphop and taking that genre’s sound sense and zero patience for whiners to remake and revitalize the discipline.

We are working on the small scale here, hand-to-hand, cash-only, and analog. But that doesn’t mean the Long Tail isn’t at play. The crack of a bullwhip begins with a hiccup in the wrist. From small things, baby, big things one day come.

We close for Semana Santa. If you can’t make it here today, we’ll see you on the 6th.

I was too angry to write this yesterday.

Three weeks ago, novelist Ryan Boudinot (author of the 2011 novel ‘Blueprints of the Afterlife’, a dazzling book the National Book Award jury surely hadn’t heard of the year they took the unprecedented step of bestowing the prize on …nobody) published in the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger, an article titled ‘Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now I No Longer Teach in One’:

The piece expressed, within a spirit of sympathy and friendship for his former (anonymous) students, some raw truths that are too little heard: desire and hard work aren’t enough to be a writer – a fair amount of natural talent is required too; no one who isn’t a devoted reader who enjoys being challenged and stretched has any business writing; a tragic tale poorly told shouldn’t find a publisher; and, in the MFA industry, these eternal truths must be put extremely gently if at all by any teacher wanting to keep their job.

The wounded, angry and hysterical comments in the blogosphere and on Twitter were instantaneous. Another Stranger feature followed immediately by a student from Boudinot’s workshop, taking reasonable – if unreasoned – offense with the piece. Soon enough, the board members of a civic effort spearheaded by Boudinot to make Seattle a UNESCO ‘City of Literature’ demanded he retract and apologize for the article. Boudinot refused on principle, whereupon the entire board, in classic Seattle politico chickenshit fashion, resigned.

This all made me so angry because it hit home deeply, for a couple reasons. The barely relevant one is that I spent fifteen years in that city’s civic affairs, and I know too well how terrified of criticism and original thinking the members of its political/nonprofit class are. The uncompromising stands that must be taken in politics translate poorly to the give and take of arguments about art. But I had cringed a little when I initially saw that Boudinot was taking his crusade to City Hall. I felt simultaneously like, that’s nice, and, keep me a million miles away.

The more relevant cause is that the intellectual cowardice that has sprung Boudinot’s crusade out back to where it belongs, away from the phony patronage of power, and multiplied on the interwebs like a fungus of boohoohoo, is epidemic. The reasons for the dumbing down of the larger culture are multiple, but working together. The Right impoverished education financially in the interests of corporate domination, and the Left impoverished it intellectually in the interest of equality. Both put us where we are now, with democracy nonexistent as the great mass of citizens can be convinced of almost anything, and the direst challenge facing humanity (global climate change) believed to be fiction by one-third of Americans, and not as the result of human action by another third.

Our present situation is a Huxleyan/Orwellian mix – Campechano, we would say in Mexico – entertainment is king, and reigns because the very language itself in its strongest strain has been exiled from the mainstream. Writing as it is known to most people has become a form of therapy. The automatic setting for the tone of a writing workshop outside the academy has long been one of sensitivity rather than rigor, that the pain which participants bring to their work is the thing being criticized, not the technique. Now it seems this approach is that of the standard MFA program – and how could it not be, with such programs numerous as they are? How much writing makes it into a book? How many books ever published are even worth reading?

Below our space is a bar in which a poetry group meets – mostly, people writing in or who at least speak and read English – drawing a dozen or two dozen people, once a month, evenings. I used to stay open for the event, waiting for them to finish, and come up to dive deeper in, to hook up in the constant orgy which is the writing life, which is primarily composed of reading. One participant, a high school drama teacher, climbed the stairs to the store. Again and again the others, having expressed their feelings and heard those of living, unpublished and unknown writers, packed their things at the end and left. I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is where the culture is now.

Given the level of discourse that passes for debate on the Internet, it’s not surprising that one commenter accused Boudinot of “wishing more suffering on” one student of his who the writer assumed was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. For clarity, let me quote this subtitled section (nearly) in full:

No One Cares About Your Problems If You’re A Shitty Writer 

I worked with a number of students writing memoirs. One of my Real Deal students wrote a memoir that actually made me cry… For the most part, students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.”

Pretty rough, right? Though this is perhaps more than a joke: the profoundest suffering cloaks itself in silence, is unspeakable. There is a reason a memoirist like Cheryl Strayed can artfully narrate a difficult year two decades on, during which she went off the rails a little before coming back. The worst experiences derange their witnesses past easy autobiography. As the White Stripes sang, ¨Truth doesn´t make a noise.¨

There’s a story I always tell my students on the rare occasion that I am invited to teach a workshop. (It has happened, and I’ve been paid, though with just a bad unpublished novel, a bad filmed screenplay and a decent but semi-self-published volume of poems to my name, I feel like something of an impostor when I do it.) I will change the names of the people in this story out of respect for their privacy, though I very badly want to find my old friend I have not seen in nearly thirty years.

I heard this story, first-hand, when I was studying at Cal State Northridge, in the 1980s. My friend was at once a companionable and somewhat mysterious figure in the dorms there where I lived after my father died. (A large commuter school, CSUN’s dorms were small, and attracted an odd and entertaining crowd of Japanese exchange students, deaf kids – it was a deaf magnet school – and older students going to college late wanting the classical college experience at an institution which then mostly catered to suburbanites’ professional studies.)

Jacob Stein was thirty-three, a grad student in linguistics, unmistakably distinguished by horrible, disfiguring facial burns; one  hand was a three-clawed, red thing. More than once someone in the dorms had unkindly referred to him as Freddy Kreuger, and though this met with humorless approbation because we loved and respected him, the comparison was no exaggeration. Jacob was sober, in a social atmosphere that modeled itself on the movie ‘Animal House’, and chain-smoked Camels and drank Classic Coke, the retrenchment branding after the failed New Coke. He had been a glam rocker in the wave of L.A. bands that followed Bowie, and between study sessions, certainly staving off a backslide into his worse habits, he stalked the dorm halls, Coke and cigs in hand, looking for company.

He was, I will tell you, legendary: the tragedy which lay on his skin, his epic style of storytelling, segueing into free association, lost lyrics of pre-punk bands, a kind of universal radio. But also, beneath this, a kind and intelligent soul, and a good friend. People secretly taped him, and the tape was copied and passed around, and gave a tiny culture a hoard of private catchphrases, quoted hilariously but respectfully, in a kind of friendly, historical awe. A buddy in my writing workshop wrote a story he presented to the class in which Jacob was the principal character. I don’t know where he is now.

Jacob’s parents met, at sixteen and fifteen, the last survivors of their respective families, in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Think about that. Would that not be enough of a story?

When the camp was liberated they stayed together, each other’s only world, and were married, and emigrated to America. Jacob’s father’s name was Howard. I met him only one time, in the parking lot of a Sam’s Club, somewhere in the Valley, where Jacob had asked me to drop him off. His father had the blue tattoo of numbers, on his forearm, and though I now calculate he must have been less than sixty, he looked thin, bent and old. I don’t remember, or didn’t know, Jacob’s mother’s name. Howard and his wife emigrated to America, and settled in Los Angeles: Van Nuys to be precise, where my Dustbowl grandparents came over the hill after the war to buy a house on a green lot with a swimming pool. I imagine their situation was much the same, with darker roots.

Jacob and his twin Albert were born, and when they were seven years old, the family took an outing by boat on some Southern California lake. The boat’s gas tank, for some reason, exploded, and both twins fell into the burning gasoline. Jacob lost two fingers and was severely burned over much of his body including his face, and spent six months in the hospital and endured a lifetime of skin grafts. His brother was just as badly injured.

Nevertheless both boys, recovering, had a kind of classic mid-century American suburban childhood: Albert was high school valedictorian, Jacob captain of the football team. Albert was the youngest graduate in the history of the UCLA Medical School, and on leaving school was immediately offered a position as a surgeon at a prestige Los Angeles hospital (I believe it was Mt. Sinai) paying one hundred thousand dollars a year. On the strength of the offer he borrowed the money to buy a house, and packed and moved in. In the living room of his new house, surrounded by boxes, he received a call telling him the job offer had been withdrawn, and he hanged himself. Jacob, his twin, broke down and was committed to a mental institution, from which he had only emerged when I met him.

I tell my occasional students that when you write, you are writing to Jacob’s father, Howard Stein. You cannot impress him with your traumatic childhood, your sense of exile and woundedness. The ostracization you have suffered in this society, your difficult childhood, gives you no authority with him. Those who have pilloried Ryan Boudinot, who have said he is abusing the (very real) privilege of white maleness in this context, that he has been insensitive – these people don’t understand what literature is, nor its purpose. They certainly have no business trying to make art.

1. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

2. Middlemarch by George Eliot

3. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

4. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

6. Infinite Jest and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

7. Final Harvest by Emily Dickinson

8 Aunt Dan and Lemon by Wallace Shawn

9. The White Album by Joan Didion

10. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

11. The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens

12. Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson

13. The Keep by Jennifer Egan

14. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

15. IQ84 and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

16. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

17. Murcian Hymns by Geoffrey Hill

18. Post Office by Charles Bukowski

19. Ariel: Poems by Sylvia Plath

20. Angels in America by Tony Kushner

21. Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

22. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

23. The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

24. Dispatches by Michael Herr

25. Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

26. Selected Poems and Collected Poems by W.H. Auden

27. Collected Poems by Philip Larkin

28. Europe Central and The Rainbow Stories by William T. Vollmann

29. The Road and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

30. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

A supporter came by yesterday and left a donation of hundreds of books in excellent condition, every one of them the kind we don’t sell. Ludlum, Patterson, Clancy, Coben, DeMille, Cussler, Forsythe, Childs… it’s all here: every suspense paperback of the last ten years plus some, sitting out front, for free.

Every now and then the novels of Australian novelist Patrick White show up, and there they sit still, unbought. White won the Nobel in 1974, spurring reprints of his entire oeuvre, its subjects (Empire, Victorians, Australia, passion) ideal for cover art that would disguise his work as historical romance. Voss, published in 1957, surely blew the minds of readers expecting something steamy and easy. Most strikingly, it resembles and prefigures the brutal, Transcendental works of Cormac McCarthy. I’d go so far as to make the case for White as the Big Cormac Attack’s chief antecedent: a dip into the fierce and startling work of this writer puts the lie to the timeworn Faulkner/McCarthy comparison. Voss is every bit the equal of those American historical 80s-straddling monsters Beloved and Blood Meridian, and its long neglect should come to an end.

I think no other book has impressed me as deeply as McCarthy’s The Road (2006). Its hard to find readers of the novel who didn’t pick it up in the afternoon or evening only to read the last page sometime in the late hours before dawn. It is in that very small company of novels that hold the reader hostage, body and soul. Is it horror, science fiction, prophecy, or as one friend tells me, a love story about a boy and his father? Certainly no other book contains as many superlative passages: scariest scene in any book or film? Check. Bleakest futuristic vision? Yep. Best final paragraph? Easily. No campaign to care for the Earth will ever come on as strong, not least because the writer knows our human nature. There are lights in the ashes, but dim. We are fucked.

One book that would certainly make the shortlist of fever dreams a few citations below McCarthy’s apocalyptic opus would be Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), a painstaking, dark procession from isolated childhood to adult madness so resonant in its evocation of the Pacific Northwest landscape it alone made one writer friend of mine move to Seattle from the East twenty years ago, and stay. Robinson broke fifteen years of silence after this book with a pair of cloistered, clerical novels that would be better appreciated in their own right had it not been for the surgical devastation wrought by her first book.

Another literary novel in genre garb is Robert Stone’s A Flag For Sunrise (1982). This book was everywhere thirty years ago: a breathtakingly real spy story set in a barely fictionalized Guatemala and Nicaragua shortly before their bloody civil wars. The strongest impression this novel leaves is an undeniable and unsettling verisimilitude – one thinks Stone must have known these characters, and plenty of them are bad people of the kind whose acquaintance can itself be deadly. The tautness of the narrative as it switches back and forth between three main characters’ destinies – yes, I’ll say it - undermines the deeper quality of the book’s language and surprise that has nothing to do with plot, a bubbling spring of authentic, shocking voices, references and delicate contexts Stone seems to pull in from a world one can’t help but think he knows too well. When you see that part of the novel was published in magazine form in 1977, two years before the success of the Sandinistas, it seems uncannily prophetic, a transmogrified, secret history. I read it first in my early 20s, a period of literary omnivorousness I’ve only approached recently in quantity and never in indiscriminate scope, and I’m afraid I forgot or never apprehended the book’s deeper channels, instead remembering its ‘behind the headlines’ aura and rush of suspense and filed Stone away as a kind of slacker LeCarre (whose work from the 70s is absolutely first-rate IMHO). I only came to this book after recently picking up his stunning debut Dog Soldiers and being urged by the customer who recommended that to pick this up as well. Now I have to read everything else he’s written.

Can fiction be used for evil? Does bad fiction whose intentions are harmless damage our common world? I think first of movies and TV because I haven’t forced myself to read a bad book since trying Ayn Rand at the appropriate age of 15. (I’m not pushing some easy liberal agenda here – I’m no longer American exactly and not following that game - and have started to suspect the most generous interpretation of ‘No justice, no peace’ is ‘We will not rest until we are exterminated’.) I know McCarthy is supposedly a conservative by some broad definition as was Patrick White for that matter: for all I know Stone could be too, and Robinson is a Christian.

No, I’m thinking of wrong art like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Returns where he puts an American Soviet among interior design from the Terror and in the costumes of Occupy. I’m thinking of Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode where he plays a banker so immersed in Dickens he won’t relate to real people. To string one argument onto the end of an unanswered question here – it is the literature that doesn’t lie that leads out into the actual world (prescriptive works are plowshares no worker will pick up). Maybe it develops, at its highest levels, in tandem with our need for it, to combat the soporifics of our separate eras that would lull us into unfeeling, waking sleep: the factory, consumerism, Empire, Communism, the security state. It’s not a sideline or an eccentric hobby but a kind of life one can enter and leave at will across the years. It’s waiting for you here.


Want to help us double the quantity of our fiction titles? Go to and contribute to the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that will make our selection like no other in Mexico, at lower prices than ever. (Link to on Facebook.) Our deadline is midnight on Tuesday, April 29th!

‘In Utero’ by Nirvana

April 6th, 2014

Found some time last night after a blue-sky reminder of the Cobain-suicide-anniversary, and being well-pulquedoed sat down – as I have a couple times a year the last two decades – to listen, deeply and alone, to Nirvana’s In Utero.

Holy crap.

Some works last, others date fast as milk. Somehow this record endures – let’s put aside for the moment its dubious validation as farewell to the world, that the record is better because he really meant it – untouched by time, a third rail, bolt-pure electric sensation and feeling. It arcs perfectly, and what to me seems to rise from it more strongly than anything is integrity. What a very disturbed and angry person thought merited being said.

Fools who throw around this ‘loser’ catchphrasery (Sub Pop was kidding, not trying to mint a generational label) or call him a coward, engage in all the positive-thinking claptrap that refuses to see life for some people is unlivable, need to get out – and in – more. The only negative judgment against him really should be that he shot smack with his pregnant wife: I hope my sins amount to less.

But the record. The record. I’d long thought ‘Scentless Apprentice’ (based on Patrick Susskind’s novel Perfume) was the band’s best song, but that honor could equally go to ‘Rape Me’, ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’, ‘Dumb’, ‘Radio Friendly Unit-Shifter’ or ‘Tourette’s’.

It does him no good whatsoever that this testament will be heard generations hence. The help it offers is only ours, and exactly what punk was made to offer, that from the trash, the lost and sold and brutalized modern moment, that dignity, humanity, compassion and clarity are possible.

I imagine that in Seattle, more than anywhere last night – where so many drugs are required to get through the long dark spring – that people were gathered here and there, dour-faced or singing in unison in some transport or tribute. I think of one drunk-and-high night around the turn of the century at a poor houseparty, beer-and-pot, where half the gathering collected into the barren, dim living room to stand stunned into silence by the last side of Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West. I nearly forgot that house until some years later my business partner at the time bought and renovated it beyond recognition, still oppressive and poor-feeling though, under fresh paint. (I also ended up one night in those years at a high-class affair in the Cobain house, also renovated ugly and past any trace of what happened there.) My ex-partner and his family have moved on since. Our longtime mutual friend, a realtor, arranged the sale, her very last. The night the escrow cleared, she died of a heart attack. Two decades pass and almost nothing is the same. Still, we cling to the verities.



The 80s were a decade about which sweeping generalizations are made which conceal a billion daily realities – I think of Christopher Isherwood visiting Venezuela late in life and remarking that it had been going about its very different business “the whole time”, all the time he’d been alive. But some generalities, being general, can be made. It was a point of huge capital energies being expended in the vacancy of a colossal crisis of faith, when the foundations of old views of the world had been cracked to their very base. New technologies, in what would in retrospect be seen as their infancy, were already changing the rhythms of daily life, the speed of information and capital. It was the best of times, the worst of times.

I’m talking of course about the 1880s, when Samuel Butler completed an autobiographical novel so critical of Victorian pieties that he suppressed it until after his death. It is all ‘tell’ and no ‘show’, with not a single quotation mark in 400 pages. To a contemporary reader, its cultural critique is shooting fish in a barrel. The cruel remnants of an already castrated church go through their tired and hypocritical pantomime, and Butler spends half the book laying the generational groundwork to explain one confused young semi-aristocrat’s journey through the stations of what eventually proves a full life, from cloister to gutter, prison to pundit.

This book somehow remains near the top of the occasional Best English Novels list, but is very little read today, and its easy to see why. As I read it myself, I was drawn on by its barely submerged, subtle wit even as it explained at length dry angels-on-a-pin arguments that were ideological current events in its own time, rendered by our epoch antique. I’m not sure why I feel this book has to be reckoned with, if to embody the irrelevant arguments of a lost time or to see summed up in one novel everything one writer felt must be said but never to the open air so long as he lived (the book was published in 1902).

My copy was one I stumbled on in one of our local used bookstores that carry a plethora of unsalable bestsellers from a generation back in dust and disregard, and a select few any customer would buy. 1919 Modern Library edition, so bound in gorgeous leather with the odd Art Nouveau landscape and muscled neuters holding up letters in the flyleaf. A friend visiting the store last week in a state of inebriation seized on  it and I promised I’d sell it to him when I finished for 100 pesos. (I paid 60. Like I say, what you pay for here is the selection.) I’m not sure I can still recommend it, for him. I’m not sure what to say about this book. Which is often better than knowing what to say.

Last night I was alone for several hours, slightly pulquedo, with the full choice of 20th century media options at my disposal (no computer and minus the stereo because I still have water in my ear from the puente). I spent the first hour reading seven chapters of a beautiful little leatherbound 1919 Modern Library edition of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh.  The book breaks that MFA workshop rule of show-don’t-tell: it’s all tell, wryly funny and engaging across the centuries, taking its time to deliver all the while giving you the strong sense the wait is worthwhile.

Under the influence of the maguey as I was, though, I felt I was reading a little faster than I’d wish I had later, so I turned to my audio-visual options, choosing out of curiosity a DVD which I have no idea how it entered the house, the 1978 Dunne-Didion-Streisand-Kristofferson second remake of A Star is Born. I can remember when this movie came out – repelled at eleven by its shirtless-and-shaggy poster image – and that’s why I’ll watch pretty much anything from the 70s: I can remember those years, and am consistently astonished at their current remove. It was blank, tacky, used-up modernity then, an Age of Brass, and it is astonishing to now see it antique and shadowy, a color lithograph. Screenplay by Joan Didion (and others)!

The movie is unwatchable. Kristofferson is believable as a washed-up rebel rock star, but his soul-crush on Streisand, in full eye-rolling wacky Jewish grandmother mode, is unintentionally hilarious. I finally had to turn it off at the scene where, at the AIM benefit that might salvage his career, Kris turns the stage over to Babs, who belts out her trademark corny, proto-Celine Dion scales practice that has in our time aged so badly, and the crowd goes wild. The Rock Generation just wanted Easy Listening!

So, the television. Saw several phenomenal hip hop videos and one by Miley Cyrus that made me think about getting an erection, finally figured out who the band Keane was, and settled into a back-and-forth between two fifteen-year-old extravaganzas of the American Gruesome: Red Dragon and 8MM. (I’ll assume, through remote-knuckling rumination, you know what these are by now.) Both, with commercial interruption, had me ambivalent enough to miss chunks of one while watching the other. When I finally settled into watching one of them, here’s the thing: I picked 8MM, though Red Dragon is clearly the better movie.

I had watched A Star is Born, though I had in my hands Butler’s novel (there were intervening factors), of which George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It drives one almost to despair of English literature when one sees so extraordinary a study of English life as (TWoAF) making so little impression that when, some years later, I produce plays in which Butler’s extraordinarily fresh, free, and future-piercing suggestions have an obvious share, I am met with nothing but vague cacklings about Ibsen and Nietzsche… Really, the English do not deserve to have great men.”

You don’t have to just be in a certain mood or state of inebriation to gravitate toward the easier thing. Movies and books are different animals, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that the great body of story-telling in our time and the one closest to the heart of our world culture is done on the screen. Watching this year’s Oscars with half the planet, it occurred to me that it would take a genius sociologist just to parse exactly what we were doing in that room and what it meant to us. It was beyond me. I did observe that for the first time I can remember, nothing that was complete trash won a major award.

Red Dragon – as much of it as I watched – worked in surprise, elaborated by talented actors. 8MM worked in cliché, stereotype and little-altered preexisting forms (though young megastars Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini and Catherine Keener supplied rye, mustard and onions to Nicholas Cage’s leading thick slice of ham). Why then, was it preferable?

I have some thoughts. For one, I watched neither film all the way through, and with frequent commercial interruption. The rewards of slow, unrolling narrative would have been lost were they available. Film is a kind of dreaming – while also a fashion show, a distraction, a moving painting and many other things – and in dreams we exercise the demons we have already. And as my partner points out, I’ll watch anything after a little pulque: SyFy network movies with their bad scripts, found locations and sloppy digital effects, badly dubbed Polish or barely intelligible Spanish TV, public programming about artesanal dollmaking, whatever. There is that bread-and-circus factor, the sleep of the mind we obviously crave.

I’m not justifying the recent universal dominance of big and dumb at the multiplex – those movies are hard work in their own dull fashion -but watching 8MM go through the motions, I can see how this happened. We go to better, one might say more literary films, and on a whole other higher or deeper level to literature itself, for a different thing. Surprise, and a captivation which is active on the reader’s part. We are not there to work something out, but to live in a new territory.