At the top of the stack this week is the recently released Encyclopedia of Misinformation: A Guide to Six Million Different Ways in Which Poorly Constructed Headlines, The Media(tm), Your Well-Meaning Friends, and Your Mother-in-Law are Feeding You Conspiracy Theory Bullsh*t. Okay, for once, that subtitle isn’t on the book, but our version is only slightly longer. Anyway, Rex Sorgatz has put together a compendium of a couple hundred ways in which we embrace lunacy, denial, and outright wish fulfillment in the course of our tiny little lives on this vast rock hurtling around an even vaster sun. Which is to say this is the best gift book for anyone who thinks they know everything. We are going to take a page out of Rex’s encyclopedia this week—no, seriously, we’re going to tear it right out and stick up next to the desk—and each of the remaining books we are going to highlight this week will be highlitted (what? I highlight, you highlit, they have hightlittened) with a nod toward the con man lexicon page on page 64.
What? It’s a single-o short run with a basic C play to salt the mine before doing the fiddle game with a glim-dropper. If it curdles, then hopefully we can blow off without having to resort to a cackle bladder and a ball drop. Like you do. Ready?
Oh, let’s see, how about we start with a new collection from Michael Chabon called Pops? It may seem like a good gaff, as didn’t Chabon have a collection of essays about eight years ago? Ah, yes, but that was then, and this is now, and eight years is a lifetime—or at least a reasonably sized collection of thoughts and nuances if you’re a memoirist. The core of Pops is Chabon’s 2016 essay for GQ about spending a week in Paris with his son Abraham at the Paris Fashion Show. Naturally, the story is more than just a cleaned-up list of what they liked and didn’t like from the runway, as Chabon gradually realizes the depth of his son’s passion for clothes. In doing so, he learns a bit about himself. Et voilá, Bob’s your uncle, and the ball is never under the cup you think it is. Such is the experience of the well-crafted essay.
And speaking of things moving quicker than the eye can follow, David Itzkoff’s biography of Robin Williams is out this week. Williams, as you know, was a man who never had a thought he couldn’t spin four jokes from in the time it took you to double over with laughter from the first joke. For a man who appeared to be a non-stop improv machine, Williams had some issues with self-doubt and depression, and in a certain light, one can read this rapid-fire patter as an attempt to keep from looking at the darker corners of one’s mind. Unfortunately, Williams left us much too soon, though Itzkoff’s book, which is the distillation of hundreds of interviews as well as an exhaustive examination of Williams’s entire career, provides us with a bittersweet and thought-provoking portrayal of a man who never stopped seeking affirmation.
The trick here is not just confidence, but misdirection, which is how to you set up the big store, right? You’ve got to start with a pigeon drop and then you can pull back the curtain. For instance, like David Tanguy and Mike Fairbrass do with The Scale of Things, a cute little book that tries to provide some perspective. For instance, did you know that the average office desk has as much bacteria as four hundred toilets? Or that the human brain has more brain cells than all the trees in the Amazon? Even taking into consideration the rate at which our youth are pickling their brains, this ratio is not in danger of flipping anytime soon. [Insert sad noise about the rate of deforestation happening in the rain forest.]
Also, the Internet weighs about as much as an egg. That’s the sort of factoid that snaps you back into the game, doesn’t it? While you were feeling sorry for the trees, one of our fine wirers released you of the burden of your pocketbook, two guys in the back skimmed all your credit cards, and you’ll find out next week that they bought a dozen Rolex Cosmograph Daytonas. Cheers!
Naturally, it’s important to have an exit strategy—the blow off, as it were—and we’ll go to Katherine Center’s How to Walk Away for a heartbreaking story of resilience and recovery in the face of unexpected changes that can derail your life (a crack out of turn, to keep in character). In Center’s novel, our protagonist is about to grab the brassest of brass rings when everything turns sideways on her. The center cannot hold, as Yeats would say, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Now, most of us would curl into a ball and beat our fists against the linoleum floor for awhile, but our plucky protagonist perseveres. And in doing so, discovers that she is strong enough to put up with some unreasonable sh*t, and that strength leads to something better. So, huzzah for her! And no, we didn’t just spoil the book. It’s the journey, grasshopper, not the destination. [Also, we took your watch while you weren’t looking. Sorry about that. Not really. What is it with watches and con artists, anyway?]
Moving on, because any good shill will tell you that there’s no point in getting upset about that old watch when there’s a bigger prize that needs retrieving. This, of course, is the setup for the Spanish Prisoner, both a David Mamet film from 1997 (staring Steve Martin, playing against type) and the subtext of Alison McGhee’s new book, What I Leave Behind. Now, the Spanish Prisoner is all about convincing a mark to retrieve a treasure that doesn’t actually exist, and What I Leave Behind is the story of a young man named Will who, over the course of one hundred chapters of exactly one hundred words each, discovers that it’s not his father (who recently committed suicide) that he’s looking for, it’s something much less tangible. Will starts to perform random acts of kindness for people (sort of a reverse Spanish Prisoner, if you will), and in doing so, learns that maybe he doesn’t have to carry this imaginary trauma around for the rest of his life.
We may have worked that one too hard. Let’s take a break and look at pretty pictures for a second. Here is David Farley’s Underground Worlds: A Guide to Spectacular Subterranean Places. Now, we’re not a fan of crawling through dingy tunnels where you’re likely to inhale a desiccated six hundred year old rodent carcass when you lose your mind about how close the walls are getting, and we like that Farley recognizes that crippling unease and sticks with places underground that you can reasonably get to. Like that theme park in the old Romanian salt mine. Or the three-story train station in Taiwan that has more than four thousand panels in its famous “Dome of Light” display. Or a cave in Sulawesi where paintings of the mysterious “pig-deer” go back at least thirty-five thousand years. So, remember to look up, and not just because that ceiling might be right there, but also because there is interesting stuff to see when you’ve got rock overhead.
And speaking of rock and things overhead and marvelous feats of engineering, R. G. Grant’s “illuminating” history of the lighthouse is out this week. [And yes, we got that pun from the book itself; we did not have to work terribly hard at it. Sometimes when you are setting up the Big Store, you need to do an Account Flash to loosen the mark up a bit. Make him feel like he can trust you with his earnest money before we pull the Jamaican Switch or something.] Anyways, lighthouses. They’re big. They look out at sea. Sometimes they shine bright lights. They’re terribly nostalgic photo ops for people who want to visit the sea, but who don’t want to get their feet wet and who would prefer to be back by tea time. Grant goes one step further with his lavishly illustrated book that goes all swoony over the engineering and architecture of lighthouses.
And speaking of the night sky and keeping charts, we’ve also got Carolyne Faulkner’s The Signs, a book that will help you decode the stars and reframe your life. [It says so. Right there on the cover!] Now we all think we know something about astrology and perhaps we do know more than figuring out where the horoscope is hidden in the newspaper these days. Faulkner, however, wants to teach about the underpinnings of natal charts and star signs and all that stuff that guides your life from the very instant you pop into this world. It’s sort of like whichever planets are in the house when you arrive are the ones that stick with you for your whole life. “Oh, great, so Pluto is playing hide and seek with Jupiter while Mercury is doing that ‘Look at me!’ thing it does, and so I’m going to spend my whole life being afraid of weiner dogs and black velvet paintings of dead pop stars.”
And now, for something completely different, here is Victoria Aveyard’s War Storm, the stunning conclusion to The New York Times #1 Bestselling Red Queen series, wherein Victory Comes at a Price.
That’s it. That’s all you get. You are either excited about this, or you haven’t been paying attention. If you are the former, we have a copy for you. Try not to Squeeee! all over the front table as you lunge for it. If you are the latter, well, bring your wallet because we’ve got a couple books prior to this one we need to set you up with. What’s the point of reading about victory if you don’t understand just how much it cost!
And that’s the difference between a good grifter and some dude on the corner who is doing balloon animals and making quarters drop out of your nose. The good grifter plays the long con, because they know the big payoff is always worth the wait. For those of you who have been waiting to find out whether Mare Barrow lives or dies, er, gets the boy or not, well, that wait is over.
It’s important to know what’s truly at stake, right? Otherwise, it’s a bit of a pig in a poke, thanks for your watch and wallet, and don’t forget to tip your serving staff on the way—oh, never mind that last one, we took your wallet already.
Anyway, we have now highlightened. We thank you for your close attention, as much as we tried to distract you with foam balls and stuffed pigeons and shiny objects. Be well to one another. Learn a magic trick. Make someone laugh. We’ll be here all week. And next week too, just in time for another evening of Salon night at the bookstore.