Get our weekly e-mail & find out about events and special promotions... Olsson's does not share, rent or sell
our list with any other companies or organizations.
Olsson's: Buyer's Corner
Olsson's is a locally Owned & Operated, Independent chain of six book and recorded music stores in the Washington, D.C. area, started by John Olsson in 1972. Each week the Head Book Buyer blogs about interesting new books that are available.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
Joe Murphy on American Poetry
I'm getting ready to leave on another, this time more ambitious, road trip to the IBC (Independent Booksellers Consortium) meeting in Oxford, Mississippi. I'm riding down there with Sam, our bookkeeper (who's not attending the conference but just loves the region) and meeting Alicia, our marketing director, in Oxford. I've heard such wonderful things about that part of the world, that I'm really lookng forward to the trip -- plus, I get to see Faulkner's house!
I just wanted to take this opportunity to mention a new Buyer's Choice. I hope you've been keeping an eye on our Buyer's Choice titles -- we've expanded the program a bit, and I for one am very pleased with the titles that the other buyers and I have selected. We picked them with you, our customers, in mind, and we think you will like our choices. A good example is the new Oxford Book of American Poetry. April is National Poetry Month, and here's a perfect place to start with a stunningly thorough collection of American poetry under one cover. Believe me -- as an English major, I saw every conceivable combination of poetry anthologies over the years, but this one really stands out. It features generous selections of all the greats: Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Moore, Eliot (including "The Waste Land" in its entirety!), Millay, and cummings. Plus, there are lots of major poets of more recent years: Donald Justice, Kenneth Koch, A.R. Ammons, Adrienne Rich, Charles Simic, Billy Collins, Anne Carson, and too many more great names to even begin to mention. I don't often use this space to stump for poetry, but this collection really deserves your attention. It's a lovely package, too, and as a Buyer's Choice, we have it at 20% off. Come take a look -- it's really a book you need to hold in your hands.
Well, I had a particularly nice, if short, vacation, with visits to friends in Belmont, NC, and Richmond, VA. I'll have to admit I didn't get that much of my planned reading done--it was a pretty busy trip. I did get to listen to the excellent, unabridged audio version of John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels, and I very highly recommend it. It's chock full of fascinating, diverting, and often very gossipy stories of Venice, centering around the 1996 fire that destroyed one of its most prized buildings, the Fenice, the storied opera house. As interesting as the story of the fire, its investigation, and the planned rebuilding was, many of the other stories Berendt discovered were even more riveting, including a power struggle within the American-led Save Venice Foundation and the exceedingly curious story of the possibly dubious Ezra Pound Foundation. The audiobook made a 14-hour round trip car ride go much, much more quickly.
I thought I'd also take this opportunity to mention William H. Gass' new book A Temple of Texts. There are any number of books out that review the authors' opinions on what makes great literature, but Gass' new work is something special. Gass' incredible sense of literary play, so evident in his (literally) labrythine novel The Tunnel, is the perfect for speaking of, and particularly for appreciating, the work of other brillinat authors. A Temple of Texts includes highly unique appreciations of great writers from Erasmus to Rilke to Flann O'Brien to Stanley Elkin. It also includes Gass' "fifty literary pillars," his picks for the greatest of the great books, with very short but exceedingly persuasive comments on each.
I for one was so dazzled by Gass' discussion of the similarly-named (to the point that Gass has often been commended for his work) William Gaddis, and particularly of Gaddis' masterwork The Recognitions, a fictional study of forgery and all that theme represents, that I'm about ready (gulp!) to take on the 1000+ page novel myself. I loved Gaddis' hilarious and scathing novel A Frolic of His Own, and this looks like a good opportunity to take on this acknowledged, if seldom-read, masterpiece. Anyone care to join me? We've brought in copies of The Recognitions for our upcoming Penguin buy-two-get-one-free sale (of which, more next week), so stop by and give these terrific books a try.
Hope all is going well with you. I wanted to start by briefly mentioning the fact that we have stock on hand of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is actually quite scarce at the moment. Gigantic, gorgeous, book that is is, it's quite a slow reprint, and the publisher has been out of copies for a few weeks now. So if you need a copy, call, stop by, or email us right away!
As for me, I'm getting to go on vacation (a nice road trip) for a few days. My reading plans always get more ambitious when I'm getting ready to travel, so here's what I'm hoping to tackle:
1. Off the Wall by Calvin Tomkins. This recently reissued and updated portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, the fascinating artist who straddles the worlds of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, and who is now being celebrated with a huge retrospective at the Met, appears to be a great addition to the superb art writing of New Yorker contributor Calvin Tomkins
2. Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard. I came across this in my basement and couldn't believe I hadn't read it yet. A brief, nifty recollection of life in Greenwich Village in the late 40's. I'm counting on it to help redeem the genre of memoir for me.
3. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Well, let's see exactly how ambitious I am, but I've been meaning for some time to read this biography of perhaps the most controversial founding father, and I was a huge fan of Chernow's great Rockefeller biography, Titan.
And hey - all three of these books are on sale as part of our current biography sale! Pick them up for yourself, and we'll compare notes. I'll let you know next week how far I got.
Well, I think spring is finally almost here - the weather forecast is calling for it to be seventy degrees and sunny this weekend, and I'm planning to get my bicycle out of the shed and hit the trails. And of course sit outside and do some reading.
Here at Olsson's, we're getting ready to start a sale on my own favorite genre: biography. I find biographies incredibly fascinating to read, and good ones feature all the artistry of a great work of fiction. There's a sort of standard tone that makes a good biography, and I've read enough of them to say it can't be easy to master. To take the colossal amount of research it takes to determine the facts of someone's life, to put them in the form of a sensible narrative, and to give them a real dramatic drive, is a feat rarely accomplished. Yet when it is, the result is a narrative surely on a par with the greatest fiction. And of course, biographies are informative, to boot!
We're featuring a lovely set of mini-biogrpahies from the excellent British publisher Haus with this sale. Quick, smart, and enliving, they include studies of great historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Leon Trotsky, and Napoleon, brilliant actors and directors such as Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, great writers and artists like Orwell, Wilde, and Monet, and great musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Gershwin, and Miles Davis. They're extremely attractive, with lots of illustrations and photos, and they're included in our biography sale, which starts this Friday the 10th.
And because I can't resist, here are a few of my own favorite biographies:
The Five of Hearts by Patricia O'Toole: This is probably the first biography I read while working at Olsson's, and it's handily reissued in a (long overdue) handsome paperback. It's a highly involving multi-biography of of some of the Gilded Age's most intensely interesting characters: the great writer Henry Adams and his brilliant but tragic wife Clover, the secretary of state and ambassador John Hay and his heiress wife Clara, and the rugged explorer and geologist Clarence King. Together, they formed the social group the Five of Hearts, and separately they touched nearly every aspect of life in the America - and particularly the Washington - of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their stories, as told in this lovely work, are riveting, passionate, and dramatic. And I guarantee you'll head straight to Rock Creek Cemetary to see the oddly ambiguous yet powerfully moving memorial to Clover Adams by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Huey Long by T. Harry Williams: Well, Long was also the basis for the central figure in my all-time favorite novel, All the Kings Men. And no wonder: what a character! Both a serious and important advocate for the poor and a towering demagogue, Long rose from an obcure life as a travelling salesman to become governor (and de facto absolute monarch) of Louisiana--and one of the most influential voices of his time nationwide. One of the very greatest political biographies.
Charmed Circle by James Mellow: This intensive and highly anecdotal study of Gertrude Stein and her circle, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Matisse and Picasso, is perhaps the best and most objective portrait of this group of recklessly brilliant and often difficult geniuses.
Duveen by S.N. Behrman: One of the New Yorker's most beloved portaits of all time is reprinted here in this great, brief-but-incredibly-anecdotal look at one of the most powerful art dealers in history: Joseph Duveen, who managed to match American fortunes with the need of European aristocracy to sell its artworks. His Svengali-like sway over his customers and his incredible tastemaking ability form the cornerstone of this fascinating character.
Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill. Another wonderful, and charmingly personal, look at the Lost Generation. Gerald and Sarah Murphy were the sane center of the swirling madness of their generation: their more glamous, if less wealthy, friends such as Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, and Picasso, could always count on their help and support, even if they offered little in return when the Murphy's own lives encountered a tragic twist, as movingly recounted by Vaill.
A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord: A brief, intelligent, and highly illuminating look at the work and philosophy of the great sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, told in a form few would be privileged enough to use: Lord recounts what it was like to sit for his own portrait by the great Giacometti, telling the intimate details of his (weeks long) series of sittings, and the amzaing proces of the development of the portrait. Giacometti's (or any other artist's) fierce commitment to his art could not be more perfectly described.
There's just a small handful of my favorites of this wonderful genre. Stop by the store for our sale and pick up some great biographies during our sale - it starts Friday!
Hope your February has gone well. It's getting light earlier and staying light later, so we know--at least on an intellectual level--that spring is on the way, even while Mother Nature seems to be holding out precious little other evidence of it. I am so ready for some warm weather.
I've been passing my time indoors by catching up on a title from last fall, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers' magnificent biography Mencken: The American Iconoclast. It's a powerful portrayal of a titan of journalism, master of wry commentary, expert on the American dialect, and professional gadfly. Mencken's life and career covered some of the most formative years of American history--starting his career in the late Guilded Age, he worked and wrote straight through the Second World War.
I have to admit that before now my familiarity with Mencken came mostly from my specializing in Southern lit at school--Mencken wrote a scorching critique of the state Southern letters at the early part of the 20th century entitled "The Sahara of the Bozart" (ouch!). It sufficiently incensed enough up and coming Southern writers that they actually created some of the greatest literature of the century partly in repsonse to Menken's statements.
This was of course only a small part of Mencken's tremendous output; he started his long journalistic career covering the devastating 1904 fire that destroyed much of his beloved (and lifelong) hometown of Baltimore, but went on as a commentator to charge headlong against anything that offended his sensibilities, particularly what he saw as small-minded Puritans imposing their will on others. He fought Prohibition with a vengeance (see the highly amusing cover photo on Rodgers' book), detested censorship in any form, and had an important role in the Scopes trial. Censorship and evolution: clearly Mencken was a man for our time as well as his own; we could use him to help fight some of our fights. The biography underlines these parallels while creating a completely compelling narrative all its own.
If you'd like a selection of Mencken's own writing, I've also ordered in A Mencken Chrestomathy, a generous sampling of Mencken's own funny, prickly, controversial, and always uncompromising writings.
Alexis Akre, a DC-area native, has worked at Olsson's for almost six years. She received her BA in English from Barnard College,
and lived in New York for several years. Since her return to her home town, Alexis has honed her gift for skewering both vapidity and
pretension with concise, well-worded psychological assessment. She can be seen tooling around town on her minty green bike, reading
one of the hundreds of books she has stacked in her home, and teaching her cat to do tricks.