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Monthly Archives: April 2016

Neighborhoods New York, Special Edition: Brooklyn Bookstore Crawl, April 30 2016

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Lately, I’ve been realizing I’m in a bit of a rut.  I slacked off with this blog some, I was spending too many nights zoning out in front of the television, and I wasn’t exploring the city.  So I needed to shake things up a little – cut the cable and stock up on books, get out and see more of the city, and have something to write about.

This weekend’s Brooklyn Bookstore Crawl let me do all three in one very big fell swoop.  In honor of Independent Bookstore Day, a lot of Brooklyn’s indie bookstores banded together to make a day out of it – with special sales, promotions, and funky events, meant to draw us all in and send us hopping from store to store.  And thus I spent the afternoon on a whirlwind tour – of five bookstores I actually know about already.  Oh well.

FREEBIRD BOOKS

I’d actually just been at Freebird, my first stop, only two days before.  Freebird is a quirky used book store, which is only open on weekends – but it also operates as a collection site for a couple of book-donation charities, like Books Through Bars, which gives reading material to prisoners.  Peter, the owner, was especially pleased with a couple of the books I brought in to donate; somehow I acquired a couple of Spanish-language books, including a Spanish-language guide to Feng Shui, which he said would definitely end up with Books Through Bars.  As he sorted through my books, I made a beeline to see if a book I’d seen a couple nights prior was still there.

Freebird hosts the only book club I’ve ever stuck with for more than two meetings – a club devoted exclusively to post-apocalyptic fiction.  I can’t even begin to figure out what draws me to that niche – because hoo boy, is that a niche – but I thought I was the only one who was into it, until last February, when I discovered the club.  The group’s been meeting there for eight years, and the members – a faithful lot – are all a wildly interesting lot, including publishers, doctors, students, and bakers among them.

But while just before our last meeting, I saw Peter slipping a used copy of the WPA Guide to New York onto a sale shelf – and was instantly covetous.  And – it was still there.  I brought it to the counter just as Peter was finishing sorting my books; he tipped me off to another club he’s thinking of starting, devoted to New York-centric books.

A young couple was coming in as I was heading happily out – their eyes drawn to some of the shelves towards the front, where Peter displays books that have especially unfortunate author photos or books with really bad titles.

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BOOKCOURT

Bookcourt is a little sleeker and spiffier compared to Freebird.  They also had a whole roster of events, all of which I managed to miss – I showed up about twenty minutes too late for a trivia contest, and an hour too early for an author lecture. But no matter. I tend to visit this place for some of the more mass-market things anyway – the rack of Dover Thrift Editions of the classics or their Moleskinne collection. In fact – usually I come to browse while sitting in an insanely comfortable couch they have towards the back.

Bookcourt was encouraging people to take selfies “with your favorite book”.  I wasn’t going to at first – something about a middle-aged woman taking a selfie seemed undignified, and there was no way in hell I was going to be able to pick one favorite book.  But then I spotted a nice big copy of Boccacio’s Decameronwhich is definitely one of my favorites.

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Plus the copy was also big enough to hide behind.

POWERHOUSE ARENA

I have absolutely no idea why I’d never realized that Powerhouse was also a publisher. Possibly because I’ve always only gone in when I was looking for something fairly small, to slip into a pocket on my way to Brooklyn Bridge Park.  Or I hover towards the front, where they also have a little collection of blank books, crafty things and candles. Once I even got a map pinpointing “Brooklyn’s Best diners”.  But sure enough, they have a sizeable collection of titles themselves – mostly photo and art books, with some…odd craft titles as well.IMG_1885IMG_1886

GREENLIGHT BOOKSTORE

My ‘hood!  I’ve stopped in here plenty of times – so much so that I am in their rewards program, and it’s often one of my “I don’t know what to do with myself” options on a weekend.  Today, though, they’d really pulled out the stops for the Independent Bookstore Day activities – including a “photo booth” right by the door, where a bunch of local authors were taking turns letting patrons pose for pictures with them, complete with silly props.  I didn’t recognize the author holding court when I was there – Tanwi Nandini Islamwhose first book just came out. She saw me hovering curiously around the booth and asked if I wanted a picture.  “….I guess…” I said, putting my bag down.  I confessed that I thought that the whole idea of selfies was a little undignified.

“Aw, why be dignified?” Tanwi said. “In fact, I think that undignified is more interesting.”  She grinned and thrust a hat at me, and put one on herself, and then turned me to the camera and put on a mock-serious face.

Sometimes you just have to go with the moment.

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The crowds around the table where her book was were too thick, so I resolved to pick it up later in thanks. But I did find something tucked on a back shelf – a graphic novel retelling of some of the racier stories from the Bible.  The clerk chatted with me about the book as he rang me up.  “Have you ever heard this guy speak?”

“No, can’t say I have.”

“I did, for his last book,” he said, scanning my book.  “He’s pretty…interesting.”

I wasn’t sure why he hesitated until later, when I read through the book and saw that the author was also making an impassioned argument that there is a good deal of Biblical support for prostitution.  His scholarship is credible, but…he has a bit of a zealot’s fervor.  Still, it was an eye-catching enough title that Tanwi saw me with it as I made my way out, and gave me a wink and called, “That doesn’t look dignified! Good for you!”

UNNAMEABLE BOOKS

Maybe it’s because of the prices, or maybe it’s because of the curation – but I love used bookstores.  The people running them always have a discriminating eye, and eclectic taste.  Peter at Freebird is one example (come on, an emphasis on New York and post-apocalyptic fiction?), and here at Unnameable, there’s a good collection of religion, poetry, and small presses, a whole shelf of mass-market sci-fi paperbacks, and two shelves of books on sex.  Although that section is way up at the top of its bookshelf, so you have to ask for the ladder to get at it; I suspect a lot of people are too shy to ask.

Today, though, was the first time I learned that the staff has a collection of “Weird Things We Found In Books” posted on one of the walls.  I made my choice here early, but then spent a good five minutes browsing the wall before even making it to the cash register.

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If I’m giving books away to a used bookstore, I check them pretty carefully.  This has all only strengthened my resolve to check them even more carefully, or possibly never get rid of any book again just in case.

A Kingdom For A Stage, Princes To Act

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Four centuries ago today, William Shakespeare died.  Four centuries and fifty-two years ago, he was also born.

A big part of why I got into theater was because of a presentation on Shakespeare that happened at my grade school when I was only eight, when a theater professor from the local university came to give a presentation to the third-graders at my school.  He talked a little bit about Shakespeare and about theater techniques in Tudor England – I remember especially he showed us a nifty piece of stage business that he said they used to have a fake “dog” onstage; he had a piece of fur that he draped over his arm, then worked his arm like it was a puppet of a little lapdog he was holding. We were all fascinated.

Then he closed with Marc Antony’s big speech from Julius Caesar. He told us a little bit about the plot – how Brutus had been one of the people who killed Casesar, and how everyone was mad about that now. “So can you all pretend to be Romans?” he asked us. “You can shout good and loud, before I start, because you’re all angry about Brutus. Go ahead, and then I’ll start.” And because we were eight-year-olds being given license to shout, we got way into it, shouting “boo Brutus! Down with Brutus!” or whatever.

He let us go on for about ten seconds or so, and then in this big, booming voice, he shouted “FRIENDS! ROMANS! COUNTRYMEN! LEND ME YOUR EARS!”

I have never since seen fifty-odd third-graders go from loud and boisterous to dead silence that quickly. I listened as he recited the rest of the speech, occasionally gesturing at the robe which he had on the floor to stand in for Brutus; and I remember thinking that I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying, but I didn’t care, because I knew in my bones that it was really, really important.

…Shakespeare wove his way in and out of my life after that a few times; I saw a god-awful production of Hamlet starting Richard Thomas at Hartford Stage when I was sixteen (when Laertes ran onstage at one point in camouflage tights and carrying an Uzi, I decided the production didn’t know what it was doing).  I’ve seen Henry VIII as part of New York’s Shakespeare in the Park festival.  I’ve seen a lot of off-the-wall takes on Shakespeare plays in various off-off-Broadway venues – a Mad Max influenced MacBeth, and another MacBeth which added references to Fast Food Nation and cast various restaurant mascots in the various roles.  I was nearly beaned in the face when a Mercutio lost control of a quarterstaff in a college production.  I was floored by a free Romeo and Juliet in Tompkins Square Park when their Juliet actually played the part as a giggly tween – the kind of giggly tween Juliet really was – and it woke me up to the part anew.  I made a point of seeing Dustin Hoffman in Merchant of Venice on Broadway, and I saw David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing in the West End.  I’d flown to London expressly to see the show, and had come almost directly off the plane to the theater (I mentioned that fact to David Tennant outside the stage door, when I was in the throng waiting for autographs, and he stopped signing my program for a microsecond to marvel at that, thank me and ask me how I was coping with jet lag). Earlier this month I saw David Tennant again as Richard II, as part of the “King and Country” repertory the RSC has now at Brooklyn Academy of Music, and when an actor friend offered me a spare ticket to the Henry V performance a couple weeks later, I said sure.

That actor friend is someone I had met through being a stage manager, and my life was set off on that particular path by that presentation back when I was eight.

Ironically, I have only worked on one Shakespeare play; a gender-bending production of Hamlet, with a brilliant actress playing Hamlet as the princess of Denmark.  Ophelia was still a woman, and Horatio was still a man; it did all sorts of interesting things to the way Hamlet’s scene in each were played.  There’s also a little scene where Polonius comes to Claudius and Gertrude with the news that he’s discovered Hamlet and Ophelia’s affair – it’s usually a bit of a throwaway scene, but this time it got played for some comedy, and I was delighted at how fresh the script could still be.  But the audiences didn’t need the gender-bending to react to one of the biggest plot twists – each night, during the final duel, when Gertrude unknowingly drinks from Hamlet’s goblet – which Laertes has poisoned – at each night, at every performance, people in the audience gasped.

Theater is a path that has not always been kind to me, and at this point I’ve pretty much retired from theater. I know that I’d be doing a lot better off financially if I chose a different path. Sometimes I’m still bitter about that. But instead, what I got was tales like that – where words written four centuries ago can so grip a person such that even though they know that the woman they are seeing is clearly pretending to be the Queen of Denmark, and is clearly drinking water out of what is most likely a plastic goblet spray-painted gold, they will still gasp with shock because she has poisoned herself.

I went back to London a year after seeing Much Ado, and made a point of visiting the Globe Theater. I wanted to see more of the backstage, but there was a troupe rehearsing that day – when I went, there was a whole festival of various regional theaters from around the world who’d all come in to London to do various Shakespeare plays in their own native languages. We’d dropped in right when the troupe from Afghanistan was wrapping up their rehearsal for Comedy of Errors, so we could only walk around in the house a bit. The guide gave us all a basic Tudor-England-theater 101 talk, about stuff I’d already known, and then let us wander. I looked up at the richly painted proscenium and the Tudor Rose painted on it, thinking of the prologue from Henry V – “can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”

In case Shakespeare’s ghost was listening, I quietly whispered to him – “thanks for everything, you jerk.” And smiled and walked out.

The Zeal Of The Young

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For part of my bus to work, I’m usually on the same bus with a big gaggle of students from a nearby junior high.  I haven’t tried talking to them, but I’ve gotten to know them a little from exposure – their energy, their conversations, their sasses back and forth through the bus full of in-jokes.  Like any tweens, they’re all full of passion and a crusading, make-the-world-better spirit – but also, like any tweens, they’re a little thin on context.

This morning, as we were passing a wall on our regular route, one of the girls stopped mid-sentence when she saw some wheat-pasted posters  covering it.  “That’s it,” she announced.  “I’m gonna tear that wall down.”

“Whuh?” said a kid towards the back.

“I’m gonna tear that wall down.”

“Whuh? How come?”

“It’s got Trump posters on it.”

The boy turned to look, then snickered.  “….It’s calling him a pendejo.”

“So?”

“….Don’t you know what pendejo means?”

“What?”  The boy told her something quietly, and she blinked.  “….Oh.”  And she quietly sat down.

And…scene.