Sunday, August 13, 2017

Five while I've been away

I suffer from the common, paradoxical sickness of a bibliophile: I read and read and read and yet my bookshelves don't seem to get any smaller.

Like any other reader, however, there's no one to blame for this but myself because -- let's face it -- I'm a compulsive book-buyer. I use finishing one book as excuse to buy six more. I long for the yellow-paged scent of used paperbacks in my room. I give homes to books despite my already overflowing bookshelf shelter. This is who I am in a nutshell.

I've done a fairly good job of sticking to the general reading goal I set for myself long ago -- finishing a book every two weeks -- and I've tried to keep my reading material somewhat varied so that (love them as I may) I'm not reading Kurt Vonnegut and/or TC Boyle all the time and trying to discover, you know, new authors out of the thousands running wild in the literary world.

Over the past two years, I've read some surprisingly good works by authors I'd known little about (Kate Zambreno's Green Girl, Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist), a few duds (David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day), and a few outstanding classics where my already shoddy high school curriculum failed me (I seem to be the only student in eternity who was never assigned Fahrenheit 451). Most of what I've read over the past two years has been good -- I've become fairly adept at picking and choosing books I think I'll enjoy -- but only a select handful of those have flat-out floored me.

So, though the effort may be futile, I'm going to try and play catch-up with my reading activity over the past two years: here, tonight, are the five best books I've read since I've been away.

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Thus opens Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, and damn if that isn't the one best of the best sentence clusters in the history of the written English language -- made all the more hypnotizing by the fact that English wasn't even Nabokov's first language(!).

You probably already know the basic plot of this book -- as I did long before I actually picked it up -- but to form any kind of judgment on Lolita from the plot alone is to do the work a criminal disservice. One of my great disappointments in a lot of literary discussion I see today is the emphasis on likable narrators. Likable narrators are, in my opinion, boring, at best. Humbert Humbert -- Lolita's narrator -- is, to put it mildly, unlikable. By no means are you supposed to like him, and yet Lolita remains a novel well worthy of its place in the literary canon despite the unlikability (is that a word?) of its narrator.

What the book does do, however -- at least if you're anything like me -- is take you into HH's linguistic web, turn you a fool by his penchant for the written word. You may have to stop and remind yourself that the guy's a narcissistic pedophile because of his ability to spin off magical prose. This is what I extracted from the pages of Lolita: not a commentary on/justification of pedophilia as many others are wont to read, but the psychological power of the well-written word. 

I haven't yet read anything else by Nabokov (though I did run out and grab just about everything else I could find by him because of how much I enjoyed Lolita) but from what I can gather, Lolita seems to play into his fascination with unreliable and/or criminally insane narrators, and if Lolita is any indication, my god can he write them well.

"I may have been a lousy painter, but what a collector I turned out to be!"
- Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard

Many times I have been tempted to take a few months and just read everything Kurt Vonnegut has ever published.

Perhaps one day, but for now I contained myself and read Bluebeard a few months ago. The novel tells the tale of one Rabo Karabekian, a (fictional) abstract expressionist painter who long ago gave up the art until the mysterious Circe Berman shows up on his doorstep and persuades him to write his autobiography. 

This enables Vonnegut -- as only Vonnegut can do -- to turn Bluebeard into a book that's part-diary, part-memoir, and part-diary-about-writing-the-memoir. As is also par for the course with Vonnegut, the book's ending is one I'll remember for the years to come.

Bluebeard may not be one of Vonnegut's better known works, but the more I think about it, the more I think it might be the best one I've read so far.

"But people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot."
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

I've had The Handmaid's Tale on my bookshelf for a while now: in a rare case of film dictating my reading, it was actually the release of the TV series based on the novel that finally convinced me to dive into it.

Funny thing is, I haven't yet watched the TV show even though I finished Handmaid this past winter. I don't know what I'm waiting for. I've heard nothing but good things about the series, but maybe that common book-to-TV fear is still holding me back, because I don't know how in the heck anything I watch could ever compare to how much this book grabbed me.

Handmaid is set in the (semi) fictional nation of Gilead, a dystopian land where women are valued for nothing more than childbirth and sent off to exile and, ultimately, death when their ability to reproduce dissolves. The narrator, Offred (for women are known only through the names of their Commanders: of-Fred), perhaps nearing her own exile after failing to have any children, discovers a dark underbelly of Gilead which forces her to revisit the hauntings of her past, and in the process, confront the doom of the future -- a two-sided suffocation like the slow closing of elevator doors.

Though Handmaid was first published in 1985, the novel is still intensely relevant today, if not (sadly) more so in what feels more and more like a Gileadian dystopia with each passing day.

"The most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid."
- JD Salinger, Nine Stories

This collection made me fall in love with short stories all over again, plain and simple.

My first literary love is the short story but, somewhat subconsciously, I'd been straying towards novel after novel as the months wore on. I spotted Salinger's Nine Stories on my shelf not long ago -- a book I'd purchased when I first became an English major almost five years ago -- figured what the heck, and picked it up.

And from that point on, I found it almost impossible to put down. My only prior exposure to Salinger had been -- like many others, I'm sure -- Catcher in the Rye. Like most high schoolers, I found myself swept up in the adolescent Oh my god, I LOVE Holden Caulfield vs. Oh my god, I HATE Holden Caulfield debate at the time, which caused me to become blissfully ignorant of one key realization I failed to make until I read Nine Stories: Oh my god, could JD Salinger just plain WRITE.

Ever since I finished it, I've mentioned to a few people that these are like blueprints for the short story form, and there isn't a bad one in the bunch -- though my favorites were likely the first two: "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut."

I've read nothing but short stories since I finished Nine Stories, and I owe JD Salinger a great debt for reminding me how great the form can be.

"You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do."
- David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

A few sporadic notes, since I'm not going to even try to summarize this magnum opus in the sparce space of a few paragraphs.

1) Slow reader that I am, it took me eight months to finish this book, and I can say without question that it was worth every single solitary minute.

2) Wallace is up there with Vonnegut as my favorite writer, and I have yet to come across a more fascinating literary figure than DFW. Wallace has said that part of the beauty of reading is that it allows you, the reader, to participate in something that should be impossible in terms of basic human existence: reading allows you to share a double consciousness with the writer and see what he/she feels and thinks, and no book I've read does that better and more intensely than Infinite Jest.

3) This is what I imagine it'd be like if you put a thirteen-foot man on a basketball court: complete and utter obliteration, from beginning to end.

That's it for now, and hopefully I won't have to write another one of these kinds of posts two years from now.

- Nick

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

It's the beautiful things we pick out

"When we think of the past it's the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that." -- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

Hey, remember this blog?

Probably not. I barely do, and it's my blog -- I mean, it's been almost two years since I last posted here. But no matter: the point of this is post that I've decided to relaunch this blog, thanks to a little nudge I received from my buddy Alex, a fellow English major with a literary blog of his own who I (virtually) met by way of our baseball card collections.

The inspiration couldn't have struck at a better time, because lately -- more than ever -- I've felt the need for an outlet regarding my (not at all brilliant) literary thoughts and musings. Whether it be book reading, book collecting, or simply book loving, I'll try to tackle any and all things books around here.

Also, as the newly-christened title of this blog indicates, I work at a bookstore, and I figure this might also be a good place to chronicle some of my more curious stories from my menial job (and boy are there some stories).

My posting rate will probably be sporadic, at best. I barely have time to write for my other blog these days -- not to mention trying to squeeze out time for my own creative writing -- but I just want to know that this page is simply here, whenever I need it. Hopefully I'll have a few fellow literature lovers along for the bumpy ride.

Books really are a beautiful thing -- as the bursting crates and shelves in my room indicate -- and I'm excited to have this blog up and running again.

- Nick

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review: Women by Charles Bukowski

In relative terms, I'm just getting started with this whole literature thing.

In the year-and-a-half since I've become an avid reader of fiction, I've discovered a slew of fantastic authors (though I know I've barely scratched the surface of all the great novelists out there). My goal, I guess, is to sample as many different writers/books as possible, but, admittedly, I have to restrain myself in order to meet that goal.

There was a time where I planned on reading everything I could find by some of my favorite authors like John Updike and Don DeLillo, but, again, I wouldn't be able to sample much else if I only focused on the catalog of a few select authors.

Perhaps the author I'm most tempted to immerse myself with is none other than Charles Bukowski, which would be an overwhelming task because of how much material he's published in the literary world. His first novel, Post Office, ranks in my All-Time Top Five Books list, and, though my mind was telling me this one can wait, you have all these other books by other authors you haven't read yet...I couldn't resist picking up Bukowski's third novel, Women, a few weeks ago.

How I Found It: Bukowski was, as far as I can remember, the very first author my dad recommended to me when I hopped on the fiction train last year. I had Women on loan from him, and I plan on borrowing more Bukowski books from my dad in the future.

Total Reading Time: Two weeks.

Overview: It seems like every bookstore I've visited a special shelf for Charles Bukowski and a few other select authors (Kerouac and occasionally Vonnegut). You won't find him on the regular fiction/poetry sections, and I still can't decide whether I love or hate that. I guess it makes sense, considering that I'm guessing authors like Bukowski are in high demand at used bookstores, but, then again, it seems like a bit of a sales ploy.

No matter, because, as I've said, my dad has an expansive Bukowski library, which means that I have access to a large number of his works. Bukowski has one of the most distinctive writing styles I've ever come across, and I knew from Page 1 that Women was going to be another gem.

The novel, by and large, centers around Bukowski's famous alter ego, Henry Chinaski, a man who has found relative success as a writer. As the title suggests (a perfect title for this book in its simplicity, I might add), he embarks on an eye-opening amount of, er, "research" involving a large amount of eager young women that present themselves throughout the novel.

One of my favorite aspects of this book (and many of Bukowski's works in general) is his hit-and-run chapter structure. Women contains over 100 chapters, and, I wouldn't think a book would realistically be able off so many shifts in scene, setting, etc., but this one does. I have read novels where the chapters are long and meandering, leaving no place for the reader to find a reasonable spot to stop his or her reading for the night. This book is the opposite of that. I don't remember any of the chapters running longer than five or six pages (if that), and, despite their brevity, each one definitively stands alone. There aren't 100 chapters for the sake of having 100 chapters. Each, to me, give the reader glimpses into various points and events in Chinaski's life, ones that serve the overall progress of the novel. (It also serves Chinaski's initial "hit-and-run" attitude with women as well.)

When picking up Bukowski, you should expect some vulgarity. Women is chock full of it. But, like the chapter structure, it isn't vulgarity for sheer vulgarity's sake. The fact of the matter is that you're not supposed to see Chinaski as this holy character. You're supposed to be appalled by what he does at various points in the novel. Not every character has to be likable in order to be enjoyable, and I think some people forget that while reading fiction.

And, hey, by the time all is said and done, Chinaski does good. I wouldn't rank Women above Post Office in my lists, but I do think I enjoyed the ending of the former a bit more than the latter. All in all, Women is yet another home run in the catalog of Charles Bukowski.

Final Grade: A

(And I'll just leave this here for now.)

Friday, July 31, 2015

Review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Once I got off school for break back in May, I set a simple goal for myself.

Read five books over the summer.

Seems easy, but, for a notoriously slow reader like myself, it presented quite a challenge. A challenge, as I'm happy to report, that I've already completed. I'm currently on my seventh book of the summer, and, although the size of John Kennedy Toole's nearly 400-page novel A Confederacy of Dunces gave me pause at first (most of the others I've been reading are in the 200-to-300-page range), I ended up bolting through it at a surprisingly quick pace.

Like most things in life, novels are about quality, not quantity...but that doesn't change the daunting crate of unread books in my room right now.

A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the few works that's made its way into my "read" pile.

How I Found It: Recommended by my dad at this year's Lit Fest. He sold me on it after about two sentences, and Toole's novel shot right up my "to be read" list before I started it a few weeks ago.

Total Reading Time: About two weeks.

Overview: Part of the reason I was able to finish A Confederacy of Dunces fairly quickly (for me) was the fact that I was taking a two-week summer course at the time, and I had an ample amount of time to read the novel on the bus to and from class each day. The course was in creative writing, which is fitting because, as became obvious to me about ten pages in, Toole's novel is a blueprint of fiction writing at its finest.

Tragic as it is, the backstory of A Confederacy of Dunces is worth knowing upon starting the book. John Kennedy Toole, the author, completed the novel in the mid-1960s and was a professor at the time. Sadly, he committed suicide in 1969, a decision which may have been influenced by Toole's inability to get Dunces published. It was only the work of his mother ten years after the fact (who had found a manuscript of Toole's book in her attic) that eventually triggered the novel's publication and ultimate success, culminating with a Pulitzer Prize award in 1981.

Now, for most other novels, I'd provide a basic (and perhaps meandering) bit of plot detail, but, in the case of Dunces, I have no idea where to start. In its most simple form, the book follows one Ignatius Reilly and his various travels around the city of New Orleans. He makes enemies (many of them), finds (and loses) jobs, and is pestered by letters from a former sexually-open girlfriend from his past. Because of the wide range of characters and scenes in the book, the plot detail describing this book could be as long as the book itself, so I'll just leave it at that for now.

If you haven't figured it out by now I really, really enjoyed Dunces. The sheer authorship of it is masterful, for one. Most books need time to warm up until hitting the ultimate climax somewhere near the middle before falling back down. Not this one. I might argue that the climax in Dunces comes somewhere around Page 5 or Page 10, because the entire novel is basically a fallout from the first two scenes featuring Ignatius getting kicked out of a shopping center, and, immediately afterwards, a shady local bar. The entire cast of characters (around a dozen or so) materialize from the events of first twenty pages or so. And, despite my initial worries that the book was biting off more than it could chew, Toole does indeed tie each and every one of said characters together with a brilliant scene near the end of the novel, a scene that most definitely ranks as one of the best I've ever read in the world of fiction.

But, just as importantly as anything else, this novel is flat-out funny, too, and it had me laughing out loud at many points. Perhaps the best was Ignatius's failed "revolt" at his office job at Levy Pants, and, for some reason, simply picturing image from this particular passage had me in stitches...

         "Attack! Attack!" Ignatius cried again, even more furiously. His blue and yellow eyes protruded and flashed.
         Someone halfheartedly whizzed a bicycle chain over the top of the file cabinets and knocked the bean plants to the floor.
         "Now look what you've done," Ignatius said. "Who told you to knock those plants over?"
         "You say, 'Attagg,'" the owner of the bicycle chain answered.

I'm a man of lists, and I thought it'd be a long time before my All-Time Top Five Books list saw any changes. But, against all odds, I think A Confederacy of Dunces managed to do it. It is, by all accounts, one of the finest works of fiction I've ever had the pleasure of consuming. Welcome to the Top Five, Ignatius.

Final Grade: A+

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review: The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover

I apologize for the long, long delay between posts here.

I'll try to maintain at least a semi-regular schedule on this blog from now on. I don't plan on making this thing exclusively book reviews, but I do need to catch up on a few novels I've read over the past month or so.

Tonight, I'll be combing through Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., a novel that combines my recent romance with literature and my lifelong romance with baseball.

How I Discovered It: This is not to brag, but a baseball-themed story I wrote was published by my school's literary journal in the Spring. The piece later won the yearly Creative Non-Fiction award at my university, and, as a result, I found myself known as "the baseball guy" amongst my peers. One of my classmates found out about it and recommended this book to me due to the baseball-centric subject matter. I ordered a copy of Coover's novel for myself about a week later and dug into it not long after that. It's the first book I can think of that I bought/read on a recommendation by someone other than my dad.

Total Reading Time: A week.

Overview: I'll say right off the bat that this novel is built around one of those ideas that, as a writer, I wish I'd had. 

The basis revolves around an accountant (J. Henry Waugh) who becomes deeply immersed in a baseball dice game born entirely out of his own creation. Specifically, when the reader meets him in Chapter One, Henry is completely enthralled with a star rookie pitcher named Damon Rutherford (son of Brock Rutherford, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the UBA -- Universal Baseball Association). Damon tosses a perfect game, and Henry celebrates as if it was, on a personal level, a major accomplishment. The climax of the novel, however, comes when Damon is tragically killed by an errant hit by pitch, a dire end that comes about as a result of a three straight triple-1 dice rolls by Henry. The rest of the novel, more or less, features the downfall of Damon's passing though Henry's eyes. Henry loses his motivation, his job, and, as the reader can infer, his mind.

I went into this novel with high hopes and wasn't quite sure what to think by the time I flipped the last page. It may have been the most night-and-day narrative of any book I've ever read. I'd put the first two chapters up against some of my most treasured pieces of literature. Coover blends a perfect mix of comedy, fantasy, celebration, anticipation, and, ultimately, tragedy into the first 50-75 pages of this novel. The opening chapters almost make you forget that this is a dice game. You celebrate right along with Henry after Damon's perfect game, and you feel beaten and empty after the pitcher's death. I breezed through the first two chapters and couldn't wait for more.

But, to be completely honest, the final three chapters of this novel were somewhat of a slog. The third chapter features a long, meandering bar scene featuring a countless number of Henry's mystical, fantasy ballplayers, whooping it up in celebration of the "good ol' days" of the UBA. Henry himself, meanwhile, is vacant from the third chapter. I got what the section was trying to do, trying to highlight Henry's seemingly paradoxical attempt to escape the tragedy of the current UBA by immersing himself in the old UBA, each of which are fantasies within themselves. I understood this after about five pages, but the chapter goes on for about five times that and doesn't advance the novel a whole lot. The fourth chapter was a bit of a rebound, in that Henry seeks some sort of "retaliation" for the pitcher (Jock Casey) who threw the pitch that caused Damon's death. The fifth and final chapter is somewhat of a variation of the third, and left me lukewarm about the ultimate end of the novel.

Though I doubt it's through any fault of Coover's, I was also unhappy about the descriptions on the book jacket itself. The very first sentence of the brief description on the back of the novel gives away the ultimate "shocker" of the plot, Damon's death. This, as a result, made me read the first two chapters in a way that had me waiting for the climax, rather than it catching me off-guard. Part of the beauty of reading a good book is that feeling of WHAT?!?!?! when something unexpected happens. This novel definitely had that, but the publisher (or whoever writes the those back descriptions) gave it away within about three seconds of me picking this book up.

In the end, I did enjoy this book, even if I felt that it was a little lacking in execution. If nothing else, the novel got me to pick up an old baseball dice game I used to play as a preteen/adolescent. I've been playing it daily ever since I finished this book. Unlike video games, dice games place the entire burden of creation upon us, the players. Dice games allow us to create the setting within our own imaginations, which, for some of us, is precisely the fix we need. Maybe I'm not that different from J. Henry Waugh after all.

Final Grade: B

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: Please Step Back by Ben Greenman

My latest finished novel tackles a topic that has always been near and dear to my heart.


I've tended to gravitate towards books that revolve around music, and I've made it an unofficial quest to pick up as many as I can find. Back in high school, Blake Nelson's Rock Star, Superstar started my fascination with music in novel form, and it's stayed with me to this day with books such as Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street, which I just completed last month.

For these reasons, I was eager to dig into Ben Greenman's Please Step Back.

How I Discovered It: Purely accidental. The flashy color of the spine grabbed my attention on a random shelf at a bookstore in Wrigleyville and, after flipping through a few pages and reading the back cover, it went straight into my purchase pile. Those kinds of unexpected finds are often the best.

How Long It Took To Read: About two weeks.

Overview: Greenman's Please Step Back follows the travels of soul/funk/rock star Rock Foxx (real name Robert Franklin) and his (fictional) band, The Foxxes. Set in the psychedelic, booming, and drug-infused music world of The Sixties, the novel offers a view of the ebbs and flows of a world-famous rock icon. As the Foxxes begin to hit it big, Foxx eventually courts his eventual wife, Betty, after she ambles backstage after a show one night. The novel very much reads like an album, and the idea that "every record has two sides" is represented in the shifting (and distancing) accounts from Foxx and Betty's respective perspectives throughout much of the narrative. Being a rock star isn't nearly as easy or as glamorous as it seems, and, when you get right down to it, Rock Foxx serves as the epitome of this very idea.

Review: I had high hopes for Please Step Back, and it shot up my reading list like a cannon as I thought more and more about it. I guess part of the reason for that is the fact that I'm currently in the (slow) process of writing a music-centric book, and I want to soak up as much material on the subject as possible. In all honesty, however, I don't feel that I gained much after reading this novel.

The story itself was as tight as a Ramones song. The narrative flowed well, for the most part; I never had to read and reread sentences to make them stick in my brain. Trouble is, I didn't have that burning desire to pick the book up night in and night out. It often went untouched for days at a time, kind of that middling book that isn't much of a page-turner, but one that I enjoyed just enough to want to finish.

Ultimately, I think the reason for my semi-apathetic view of Please Step Back was the fact that I didn't feel attached to any of the characters. The up-and-coming Rock Foxx was a pleasure to read (the first fifty pages are this novel's best), but I became more and more disenchanted with him as it wen't on. I flat-out didn't care by the time I trudged to the third section (of four total) of the novel. The back-and-forth structure between Rock Foxx and Betty in the second part was enjoyable (Betty's nostalgic passages were moving and well-written), but I'm not so sure a predictable in-love, out-of-love romance was what this novel needed. On top of that, the novel lacked a stable supporting cast.  Some members of the Foxxes are only given a few sentences in the novel all together, and most of the other people around Rock Foxx felt like forced caricatures. The sex-crazed drummer, the guitar player who wants the pretty lead singer, the hip record executive. Even the best characters in the world of fiction need a bit of support.

In the end, Please Step Back hits its stride when it focuses on the music. Almost all of the artists, albums, and songs mentioned are real. Greenman's vast expansive musical tastes become apparent while flipping through the first few pages. As it stands, I think the novel shines when it blends the perspectives of musical fiction and reality. Foxx idolizes Ray Charles and engages in a running competition with James Brown. The Foxxes repeatedly hit the Top 10 on the Billboard charts. Perhaps my favorite scene of the novel was when Rock meets Mick Jagger and Keith Richards while opening for the Stones. Fictional words given to real rock stars in a fictional novel still somehow feel real, and those select scenes rang true more than virtually anything else in this book.

Flipping to the last page of a novel is usually a cause for celebration, a moment of joy and a time for reflection. I felt little of that by the time I finished this novel. I was proud of myself for finishing it, but the expected end-of-book emotion bank was nearly vacant. Please Step Back is a relatively easy read, and one privy to spurts of greatness. Overall, however, it doesn't lend itself to that deep, indescribable attachment readers feel to the books they love.

Grade: C+

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A day at Lit Fest

This past weekend marked the gathering of Chicago's annual Lit Fest.

My dad and I had originally intended on attending on Sunday, but we ended up pushing our plans up to Saturday because of the possibility of grim weather (which did, in fact, arrive this morning despite Chicago's schizophrenic forecasts). All in all, I'm glad we made Saturday the day, because you couldn't have asked for a more pleasant afternoon for book browsing.

This was my second Lit Fest experience, though I classify it as my first real one. I was in attendance last year, but, admittedly, I'm not sure I was fully immersed in literature yet at that point. I didn't even buy a book, which seems like a sin at something as large and as substantial as Lit Fest. (I did, however, come away with a fantastic Marx Brothers Horse Feathers movie poster, so it wasn't a total loss.)

This time, I made darn certain that I came away with some books.

I find it unbelievably odd that I haven't yet read George Orwell's Animal Farm.

It seems to me that every English program in the history of high schools has assigned this book at one point or another. Every high school, that is, except mine, apparently. Orwell's 1984 was part of the curriculum from my 20th Century Fiction class last semester, and, since I enjoyed the dystopian novel so much, I made a mental note to myself to get going on Animal Farm. I found this nifty little pocketbook copy in a dusty box for a mere two dollars.

It seems almost counterintuitive to say, but the so-called "classics" often seem to be the cheapest books out there.

Some books are just in the right place at the right time.

Last week, I finally watched Penelope Spheeris's infamous Decline of Western Civilization film after years of it sitting on my "must watch" list. The movie depicts a unflinchingly first-hand glimpse into the early '80s west-coast hardcore scene, with a focus on Black Flag, The Germs, and X. (The arguably superior sequel of DOWC, which I also viewed last week, is centered around the late '80s heavy metal movement.)

As fate would have it, a copy of Thorn Kief Hillsberry's What We Do Is Secret (which takes its name from the title of the first and only Germs album) stared back at me from a bookshelf on Saturday. The novel, as far as I can tell, is set around a group of young L.A. punks in the time directly following the suicide of Germs singer Darby Crash (who, coincidentally, died on the same night John Lennon was assassinated).

Admittedly, I'm more a fan of early '70s punk (Ramones, Sex Pistols, etc.), and, save for a small handful of bands/songs, I've never been big on hardcore. Even so, the west-coast scene itself absolutely fascinates me.

I'm hoping it translates well into novel form.

This was one of those unplanned, last-minute pickups that collectors of any sort know all too well.

My dad and I were actually leaving for the day when I spotted several copies of Kevin Kaduk's Wrigleyworld sitting on a passing bookshelf. I picked it up, flipped through a few pages, and knew I had to leave with it.

Baseball is a huge part of my life, and the Cubs are by far my favorite team in all of sports. Purchasing this was basically a reflex. Wrigley Field, in many ways, lends itself to books because so many of the fans, for better or worse, read like characters in a fictional novel. Heck, the stadium itself is probably the main character.

I found Lonnie Wheeler's Bleachers: A Summer in Wrigley Field in a thrift store bin for a buck a couple months ago, and I'm sure Wrigleyworld will make for a nice accompanying read.

A good chunk of the books I've read (or are planning to read) are due to rave reviews from my dad.

You can add John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces to that list. My dad says it's one of the best books he's ever flipped through, which meant that it instantly catapulted to the top of my "want to read" list.

This is one of those novels that I'd heard rumblings about, but never really investigated. Turns out Toole committed suicide eleven years before the work was even published, and ACOD likely wouldn't have been published at all had Toole's mother not found a manuscript of the novel lying in the bowels of her house.

There's a certain amount of risk in a lot of the books I buy, knowing full well that they might not turn out to be as good as I'd expected. But, on the other side of the coin, some books have that kind of understated certainty to them, ones that I'll know I'll like before I even start them.

A Confederacy of Dunces has that certain kind of certain feel.

On a larger level, Lit Fest makes it very clear to me that books are still alive and well in today's society. Saturday's gathering was almost too crowded, in fact, as I seemed to be bumping into innocent bystanders with every step I took.

As somewhat of a cynic by trade, I sometimes think that actual books themselves are on their way out with people my age, the nervous, early-to-mid twenties, just-about-to-graduate college students. Nope. I couldn't be more wrong. Books are alive and well, people.

If you don't believe me, do yourself a favor and attend Lit Fest this time next year.