Friday, December 16, 2011

The Passing of Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens: 1949 - 2011

I was saddened to read about the passing of Christopher Hitchens this evening. It was no secret that he was dying of cancer, and his biography book tour was cut short due to his diagnosis. While I didn't agree with many of the positions that he took, I found him to be a true man of letters. He was definitely one of the last of the best essayists. Christopher Hitchens wrote many great books on the subjects of government and religion. While I was infuriated with some of his points of view over the years, I found some of his work intriguing. One of my favorite pieces that he did was where he allowed himself to be waterboarded to see whether or not it was truly torture; he changed his position on the subject and agreed that it was torture in the worst way imaginable. 

His positions when it came to religion were at times extreme, but many of them I agreed with. I don't believe we should have a war on Islam, but I feel many of the "God" religions to promote a war on reason. I also have problems with the theories that he and Dawkins professed on Tibet's situation. 

Gore Vidal supposedly named Christopher Hitchens as his "heir" in the world of literature. Hitchens was once friends with Gore Vidal, and later on they had a nasty end to their friendship, which became part of a very nasty public feud where Hitchens seemed to suggest Gore Vidal was a crazy old conspiracy theorist while Gore Vidal concluded Hitchens had become a fascist. 

Hitchens made a promise during his interview with Larry King that he would not leave this world crying out to God to accept him as a believer. I'm pretty sure he kept to that promise and left this world just as he was. If he did, I agree with what he said would be the circumstances of him doing so, being pumped full of those wonderful drugs to take the pain of death away. 

R.I.P., Mr. Hitchens. We'll miss you, and thanks for the many great writings you have left behind. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A.J. Weberman: "Dylanologist"

"In 1961 Bob Dylan struck a bargain with Satan. In return for his soul Bob would have half a century of fame and fortune. Then the Devil would materialize and spirit him off to Hell in a hand basket (Made in China)." - Exercept from The Devil and Bob Dylan.

When it comes to Bob Dylan, you’d probably think about his folk anthems and his unique voice that many people can easily recognize in any era of his career. Bob Dylan has been well documented through music history; people have written books trying to analyze his lyrics and his statements during interviews; and there are those who are left guessing about Bob Dylan. One of the most well known of people who have studied the life of Bob Dylan is A.J. Weberman. Rolling Stone has named him “The King of all Dylan Nuts.” One of Weberman’s most well known of research methods was digging through Bob Dylan’s garbage, and Weberman has been the source of ridicule and controversy. At the same time, Weberman’s material has contributed to over 400 books on Bob Dylan from various writers.

The discoveries in Dylan’s trash that Weberman has shown the world have been rejected songs and poems, scribbled sketches, and even lived to tell the tale about coming across Jakob Dylan’s dirty diapers. Weberman has also extensively studied the lyrics and has come up with a method in how he reads Dylan’s lyrics. He was even the subject of a documentary in 2006, ‘The Ballad of A.J. Weberman.’ Weberman moved on to dig through the trash of other celebrities and public figures and coined the term “garbology” and even wrote a book about his life going through the garbage to get the facts and the dirt (literally) on other public figures.

Weberman is back with a new book, ‘The Devil and Bob Dylan.’ The book discusses the very moment that Dylan went bad, which Weberman believes was in 1961, when a young Bob Dylan supposedly sold his soul to the devil to become the famous musician he would become. Weberman also brings his own revelations from his research about Dylan through his discarded poetry that Dylan is a closeted racist, that “Blowin in the Wind” is a song that contains lyrics about lynching African-Americans, that Dylan is HIV positive, has connections with Palestinian terrorist organizations, and many other facts about Dylan that Weberman has stated in previous years with further insights.

I tried to read through this book with as much as an open mind as possible. I found it to be very interesting in some places, I found places where there’s some good old- fashioned yippie radicalism at work, and I also found a lot of the information to be intriguing. So, I wanted to ask A.J. Weberman some questions about his life digging through Bob Dylan’s trash, about how he views Bob Dylan, and of course some of the things in the book.

When you first started going through Bob Dylan’s garbage, did you ever think there would be anything in there that would keep you digging through it? When was the exact moment that you knew you were going to keep digging through Dylan’s trash?

Dylan told me that one morning he got up and there was an empty wine bottle on his stoop so he opened his garbage can and realized the trash that the maid had disposed of last night was like gone. He set up a video camera was a relieved to find out it was me and not someone trying to find out his routine so they could kidnap his kids.

I’ve seen some of the things that you have shown publicly that you have taken out of the trash. Some of which is Dylan’s poetry, which you seem to have a deep interest in. You mention at the beginning of the book in the pretext that you had the gift of being able to provide insights into classical poetry while studying in college, and that you applied the same methods to analyzing Dylan’s lyrics and poetry. You also mention that you make your assumptions based on clusters of words around one specific word, and that Bob Dylan is also, like you, politically incorrect. Some people believe that Bob Dylan was a civil rights hero, a folk hero with liberal beliefs in the same light as Woody Guthrie, and someone who would hardly be in the light that you paint him in. When you say that Bob Dylan uses racist analogies in songs like ‘Blowin in the Wind,’ do you believe that there’s a level of accuracy you can hold to such a claim?

I believe that I have pointed out many dog whistle racist words in an entire series of Dylan poems. You can read the book and it is up to you to decide if I prove my case.

The first chapter of the book is when you say Dylan made his deal to the devil and subtly admits it in an interview that was done in 2004 for ’60 Minutes.’ They say that Robert Johnson, one of the earliest influences in blues, also made a pact with the devil in exchange for talent and fame. Robert Johnson sang about making the pact at the crossroads, you say Dylan sang about his pact with the devil on Highway 61. It seems the two of them have something in common about revealing their flaws, or their supposed deals with the devil.

Here is one verse from Highway 61: "Well Georgia Sam” well the Communist Party USA controlled by the Soviet Union “had a bloody nose” idiomatic expression, they were defeated and damaged but not permanently and seriously by McCarthyism “Welfare Department” the anti-Communist liberals who invented the welfare state “they wouldn't give him no clothes” they wouldn’t let the Communists express themselves in words that clothed their true Soviet puppet totalitarian agenda “He asked poor Howard” the Communists asked a folksinger, poor Howard “where can I go? Howard said there's only one place I know” the folksinger responded that there is only one outlet that entertained Communist thought “Sam said tell me quick man I got to run” the Communist folk singer said tell me quickly as it is urgent I run for office, take over America, run at the mouth “Ol' Howard just pointed” the Depression Era folkie just wrote a song direct and obvious in meaning and reference; often unpleasant; ‘a pointed critique’ ‘a protest song’ “with his gun” accompanied by his acoustic guitar “And said that way down on Highway 61” and Howard told Sam to infiltrate the world of folk music in order to receive mainstream media acceptance. It is not about the Devil.

The one era of Dylan’s career, which even I agree in finding to be comical, is the Christianity era. The one thing you mention is that was a period in his life where he was at the height of a heroin addiction. It’s also an era of his career that he hasn’t really addressed as it seems to have been something he sweeps under the rug. People wonder if he still practices Christianity. Not even T. Bone Burnett, who Bob Dylan confided in as they walked that path together, will even say if Bob Dylan is still practicing Christianity. What insights can you provide into that era of his career that we probably don’t know about?

After Dylan became a Christian he stopped shooting dope. If he were still preaching Christianity he would be in touch with his Minister, Michael Canfield, and Canfield would have mentioned it to me. A lot of Christian cats want to believe he is still a Christian but he is not. I don’t know where Dylan prays or if Dylan prays but I believe he, like others in Neturei Karta, pray for the destruction of Israel which they believe will hasten the coming of the Messiah.

Besides Bob Dylan’s garbage, you have also gone through the garbage of some other well-known figures. One of the more interesting of garbage piles that you have gone through was Richard Nixon’s. What interesting finds did you end up with in Nixon’s garbage?

Never got it. The Secret Service had the police arrest me.

You had an interesting history through the 80s and 90s. You belonged to the Jewish Defense Organization, where you taught people how to fire weapons; you lived in Israel for a short period of time where you found yourself involved in the middle of some controversy related to [domestic assassinations]; and you contributed research for a PBS documentary on Lee Harvey Oswald. You never settled down, you never became a stockbroker like Jerry Rubin, and you’re still going strong today. You’re obviously someone who isn’t going to go away silently or tone it down. If you had to define your life’s experiences and travels, how would you do so?

Well Jerry Rubin got run over and became road pizza. Cross at the green not in between. What a long strange trip it has been

When people say “A.J. Weberman is a madman,” is that as much of a compliment to you as someone saying, “A.J. Weberman is a genius” when they talk about you?

No one says I am a genius, but history will absolve me.

One last question… Will Bob Dylan’s Christmas album be playing in your apartment on Christmas morning?

Never bought it, as I know some of the money from it will be going to Palestinians.

Many thanks to A.J. Weberman for allowing me to interview him. You can learn more about A.J. and purchase his book through his website at Dylanology - The Study of a Poet Who Sold His Soul to the Devil

Book Trailer and Trailer for 'The Ballad of A.J. Weberman.'

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Different Look at Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle'

“I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” - Upton Sinclair on the impact of The Jungle

When I’ve talked to people who have also read Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle,’ the one thing I hear is “it made me not want to eat meat ever again.” The book definitely details the once unregulated industry of factory farming, meat packing, and canning. I have read about how many people have listed ‘The Jungle’ as a major influence as to why they became vegetarians. However, I think people are missing the point that Upton Sinclair was trying to make with this book. 

The book is credited for inspiring the Food and Drug Administration, for creating safety standards for beef and pork, and it was also highly controversial when it was released. Theodore Roosevelt hated the fact that Upton Sinclair had written this book, but he agreed to create the regulations that were put in place. It’s hard to say exactly how much influence this book had in that process, but there is no doubt that ‘The Jungle’ did just that. Upton Sinclair wrote this fictional book based on his discussions with those who worked in the slaughterhouses, the people in that industry talked to him about the struggle to unionize, and he based it on their personal stories through the character of Jurgis Rudkus and his family who immigrate to America from Lithuania to make a better life for themselves.

The book is about more than just the conditions of slaughterhouses; the book is actually a book about the struggles of the working class in the early 1900s. This is a book that talks about predatory lending, urban housing, income inequality, creating profits instead of revenues, child labor, working conditions, and what happens when you have an unregulated, laissez-faire system that Ayn Rand wrote in favor of in her own novels and philosophy. The results of it are disastrous and barbaric, and we see the consequences and the plight of the people who are trying to make it in a society where they can’t; they’re living at the mercy of fate and have no means to protect themselves.

I would think that this book would be flying off the shelves in an era when we’re calling for deregulation, getting rid of child labor laws, and after Newt Gingrich says he wants to put young children as janitors in schools( along with his earlier statement in the 90s that we needed to get rid of the Food and Drug Administration), and the fact that we are living in the age of predatory lending practices again. We’ve also seen people such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser discuss factory farming conditions, the use of illegal immigrants for labor in slaughterhouses, and we’re seeing that our food is unsafe. We’re also using poison known as “high fructose corn syrup” in most of everything that you buy in a supermarket. It’s hard to believe that books like Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” are more popular now than you’d think “The Jungle” would be.

If you want a sobering account of what deregulation looks like, read ‘The Jungle.’ You’ll see what living in a deregulated country will look like if we continue on the path. The one thing you’ll read is that there were some regulations in place during that time, but the regulator was turning a blind eye to what was going on in the slaughterhouse; it’s similar to the stories of those trying to regulate big oil and the big banks. What we are seeing now is what Upton Sinclair was talking about when he wrote 'The Jungle.' The slaughterhouses and all the stuff about the conditions of the slaughterhouses were all just part of the story, but it wasn't the actual point of the book. While it's great that 'The Jungle' has influenced people to reconsider their diet, we should be reconsidering our hearts. 

Please Support the Borders Group Foundation

During the early morning of 11-11-11, I took a fall in my bedroom and cracked the L1 vertebrae in my spine. This disaster unfortunately came during a time of being uninsured due to the fact I’ve been unemployed since Borders closed in September. While I’m definitely lucky I’m not paralyzed and not in any serious pain, there are of course physical discomforts I have to go through, and I have to wear a compression brace through February. The biggest problem that this has given me is getting the proper follow-up care. Living in Riverside County in California, being uninsured, and having to be at the county’s mercy does not come with good follow-up care. The county of Riverside was ineffective in being able to provide me with follow-up care. Follow-up care with any injury such as this one is obviously important, especially when you could require medication refills, and to make sure the injury is healing properly.

However, I was referred to the Borders Group Foundation given I’m a former Borders employee. The Borders Group Foundation existed through the company’s years of operation; the foundation was supported by voluntary deductions from the paychecks of employees who decided to give, and many people in the stores and at the corporate office supported the foundation through the years of operation. The foundation would cover travel expenses for those of us who lost family members if we needed to travel, helped employees who were going through financial hardships, or employees who suffered medical issues. The foundation definitely saved a lot of Borders employees during some very difficult times.When I heard that the foundation still existed and was referred to them, I put in for assistance and explained my situation being uninsured and injured. I explained I was having difficulty in attaining follow-up care, and they sent me the paperwork and helped me through the process. Today, I found out my paperwork was approved and I will start getting private follow-up care in 2 weeks. The foundation will be picking up the entire cost. 

I know a lot of people who didn’t work for Borders were sad that we closed. A lot of authors that I knew also told me they were saddened and concerned about the closure of Borders and concerned for Borders employees. I’ve also had former Borders customers read this blog and send me e-mails telling me they were so sorry to hear that Borders closed, that they missed having a local Borders, and that it’s sad we have very few book stores around anymore. There was also a heartfelt video while we were going through liquidation on YouTube that Borders employees shared of a little boy crying about how he was going to miss Borders after the family made one last trip to their local Borders, and the mother thanked Borders “for all the years and memories.”

If any of us booksellers at Borders touched your lives, gave you a coupon when we weren’t supposed to and told you that it was because you were a good customer, came in frequently and got to know us, you appreciated our help in finding books you couldn't find or needed suggestions, we agreed to help carry your Christmas shopping goodies to your car, or you were one of those people who asked us the question while we liquidated of what we were going to do next, I ask that you please do one thing: make a contribution to the Borders Group Foundation on the website as the foundation now also accepts contributions from the public. We’re also reaching that time of the year of generous giving, and it can even be written off on your taxes.

There are a lot of us who were part of Borders that are going through hard times right now. Having the Borders Group Foundation around for us may save some lives, as it has mine. This is when I feel proud to have been part of Borders. I feel truly blessed and I want to publically thank the Borders Group Foundation for assisting me during these times. I'm also making my plea to my readers who may have been Borders customers, and the authors who were self-published or published by a publishing house that had events at Borders, to please consider giving a donation to the Borders Group Foundation. 

You can learn more and make your donation at the Borders Group Foundation homepage by clicking HERE

Thank you, and best wishes to all of you during this holiday season. Unfortunately there's not a Borders to go to anymore during the holidays, but I hope you all will support your local book stores and the "other" book chain that still exists. 

-Brian the Bookseller

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hermann Hesse

"For he was aware that in the academy he would have to be even more ambitious if he wanted to outstrip his new fellow students. Why did he want to surpass them actually? He didn't really know himself."- Excerpt from Hermann Hesse's 'Beneath the Wheel'

"It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is."- Hermann Hesse

For most of us who read, it seems that we all have one particular favorite author that goes beyond the consideration of literary tastes of other people; some of the great classic literary authors are also considered “too deep” for others. Hermann Hesse is of the authors that people seem to be impressed, shocked, or curious about that appears on my Goodreads list, my list of literary influences, my bookshelf, and when a book of written by Hesse is in my hands. Hesse never appeared on any required reading sheets in the school that I went to back in Ohio; when I moved to California, I noticed that his classic ‘Siddhartha’ is listed as required reading for some of the local area high schools. The reactions I get when people see with a Hesse novel—or even mentioning Hesse as an influence of mine—is “that’s a little too deep for me, Brian.” I’ve also heard that he’s a difficult author to read for many people, which somewhat baffles me. I’ve also heard the surrounding controversies about his supposed views on the Nazis during WW2.

I recently found a copy of ‘Demian’ at a Barnes & Noble in the bargain book section and couldn’t resist checking it out. I’d always heard about it from people who read it; one of my friends absolutely loves the book and calls it Hesse's best work,  I remember reading a lot of different moral points of view on it over the years, and it was one of Hesse’s novels I had never read. My purchase of “Demian” and reading it while at Starbucks, at home, or friends seeing that I was reading it from my Goodreads list, and people seeing the book in my possession in general sparked a lot of conversation about Hesse. So, this is my Hesse inspired entry as a result of reading "Demian." 

My appreciation for Hesse is actually recent; I want to say that I first started reading Hesse around 2006. I stumbled upon Hesse's "Beneath the Wheel" while shelving books in the literary section. And again, I also knew a couple of people who read Hesse and told me he was an author I needed to start reading. Plus as a Buddhist, I knew about his book "Siddhartha" given I had listened to good and bad conversations about it with other Buddhists--some of which turned into nasty arguments about the Buddha's teachings. I remember being told to read it, but take it with a grain of salt if I was looking for Buddhist insight from it. 

Hesse is indeed one of my favorite writers. And I have heard time and time again that it’s very heavy reading, very deep, and that it’s too difficult. I have never found his writings to be any of those things. My interest in Hesse’s writings are all based around the moral dilemmas that his characters face, and I don’t find his message or the viewpoints of his characters to be all that difficult to understand—even in today’s standards. If you remember yourself as a child, if you've had a life full of predicaments, or you've struggled to make the right moral decision, you can understand Hesse. He's not as difficult as many of the classic literary authors that I have tried to read, such as Goethe or O Henry. Now those authors are some heavy reading! O Henry's short stories are like having teeth pulled; Goethe bored me to the point of contemplating literary suicide and never wanting to pick up a book ever again. 

One of my favorites of Hesse’s works is “Beneath the Wheel.” The main character, Hans Giebernath, is a sensitive and gifted child. His father has very big demands of Hans' academic performance, people who know him around the town are proud of him and want to see him succeed beyond their expectations, and he’s eventually encouraged and nudged into a private school on a scholarship. The question of what Hans really wants for his life is the main idea of the book; the teachers presenting the works of Homer to him in different languages to read and understand, the pressure he faces when it comes to other assignments and pressures from his school and competitiveness with the other students also depress him and makes him feel burnt out. He worries about disappointing the people who love him and believe in him, he worries about the consequences of failure in his own life; and at times his life is not that of a child, but of an object, an object and showpiece to please those with high hopes of him. His friendship with another student of a rebellious nature who opens him up to the idea of finding his own way, finding his own voice, and finding what he really wants out of his own life becomes his downfall to where he simply burns out and can’t take it anymore. He goes home a failure, he can’t face his father, he can’t face people in town, and he’s desperate and lonely. He is crushed by his failure to where he doesn't feel alive anymore. The ending is so sad and tragic, but it's a story we have heard time and time again, especially in this current era. 

The premise of “Beneath the Wheel” applies today. We live in an era where we’re applauding Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” for her intense parenting style to where she demands her children be child prodigies instead of live happy, normal childhoods. It seems children are not allowed to be children anymore. While we should definitely strive for them to learn as much as possible, we see the “Beneath the Wheel” effect. The character of Hans Giebernath lives in many high school children who have been crammed with educational material that they don’t have any social connections, and haven’t been able to discover themselves as children, and they don't know where they fit into this world with their talents. Some children are naturally gifted and should be allowed to naturally follow their own pursuits; sometimes being intelligent comes with the cost of sensitivity, and sensitivity can be a good or bad thing in my own opinion and experiences with my own sensitivity. Hesse was writing about something that has been going on for years in many different countries when it comes to the cultural influences of parents on the subject of education. The children in South Korea are unhappy, overworked, overstressed, and are committing suicide. South Korean advocacy groups for children run around the cities at night looking for these “after-school centers” that keep children learning late at night, sometimes beyond midnight. Plus consider adults who are pressured in their careers who are Hans Giebernath. We're all Hans in our own ways. We strive to be people we are not to win over others, we strive to destroy competition without an understanding of why we choose to live this way at such a high cost to our moral and spiritual well-being. 

Next is 'Siddhartha.' The book is one I have seen sold even in Buddhist publishing such as Shambhala Publications, I've seen it in new age bookstores, I've seen it in coffee shop bookshelves, and it's a book that is everywhere. As a Buddhist, I’d like to correct the people who believe that “Siddhartha” is a fact-based story about the Buddha. It’s actually not a fact-based story, but it’s inspired by the life of the Buddha. Many of Siddhartha’s (the novel character) experiences and point of view are based on the actual story of the Buddha; being the son of a Brahmin who sets off to seek enlightenment with a friend of his. Siddhartha encounters a lot of painful journeys along his road to enlightenment, and Hesse’s understanding of the life of the Buddha provides a different twist to his own character of Siddhartha embracing his own pain, emotional issues, and the fact he’s just tired of life to where he wants to find freedom, but is too afraid to experience freedom. There are a lot of ways to interpret the book. A lot of Buddhists I know find it to be a cutesy novel with a lot of references to Buddhism; I personally find it as one that doesn’t really have anything to do with Buddhism in general, but it does reference how we suffer, how we yearn, how we struggle to understand ourselves. Hesse kind of left it open for the reader to interpret in his/her own way how to view the story. I enjoyed Hesse’s story about the Buddha like character of Siddhartha, but I personally don’t find the book to be one that I would consider to have a genuine connection to Buddhism. It makes for great literature, but not for literal interpretation. Plus I remember reading a Theravadan Buddhist monk’s autobiography where he mentioned a follower of his treated “Siddhartha” as if it were a Buddhist text, would abandon his wife and children for days at a time to seek his own freedom, and didn’t realize he was oblivious to the pain he was causing his family and to himself. As far as high school kids reading it, I see a lot of critical thinking essays and getting students to understand things such as balance, responsibility, and asking questions about ourselves and our intentions as people.

If you’re a fan of the lives of classical composers or artists who found solace in their pain, ‘Gertrud’ is one of Hesse’s true masterpieces for anyone of that crowd. If you can tolerate hearing about the life of Mozart or any other composer, you can read 'Gertrud.' And some of those composers from various eras were fucked up, and 'Gertrud' doesn't even go close to the lives of actual composers. I used to recommend ‘Gertrud’ to a lot of people as a great introduction to Hesse. I also feel that ‘Gertrud’ has been the real life story for many through so many musicians throughout many eras of music history, including modern and mainstream music. They say that “pain makes great art,” and that’s the premise of ‘Gertrud.’ A young struggling composer named Kuhn who thinks everything he writes is unworthy of being his opus; he falls in love with 2 troubled people who make his life miserable. It doesn’t have to be love, you can relate to it through so many other things that end up making someone who thinks their art is shit actually turn around and write something truly remarkable. Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd lost his mind on LSD, went schizophrenic, and wrote truly genius music while Pink Flord wrote 20 minute long songs about Syd's demise, or even whole albums. Gwen Stefani from No Doubt broke up with the bass player in the band before they eventually found success, and wrote nearly 2 albums about her pain from the heartbreak that spawned hit single after hit single in the late 90s. That experience made them a modern day 'Gertrud" with Gwen Stefani being Kuhn. The guitar player of the band said, “it felt like it was her saying, “here’s another song about Tony (the bass player)” Kuhn’s burn from love ends up creating his best piece of work. This is another story that goes to show Hesse’s struggles with emotional pain and pressure can bring out the worst or the best of us. 

My experience in reading ‘Demian’ is that ‘Demian’ was unlike any of Hesse’s other novels—at least in my opinion. It’s a very complicated novel to explain in detail given it’s in parts of a man’s life where there is so much going on, and the redeeming character of his life that helps him through his trials and tribulations appears in his life at various times through the book. I found it to be similar to Hesse’s works that I have read, and I also found it to be unlike him after reading his other books based on the experiences of the character being changing from phases in his life from childhood to adulthood. The theme of war also set the tone to make it even more of an interesting novel.

Hesse as a person was no doubt a very complicated man. It’s been said that he suffered from very horrible depression after trips through various countries in Asia as a result of experiences he had on those trips. He was seeking so much in terms of spiritual knowledge, spiritual experience, and spiritual freedom that he failed ,and had a point of view from those experiences that tore him apart. His marriage was falling apart, he found himself in WW1 as a volunteer in the imperial army, until he was deemed unfit for combat. He made controversial statements; one of which was saying that patriotism was not a virtue or a trait of a true intellectual, and it was during a time when his country was at war. His son became ill, his wife was diagnosed as schizophrenic, he remarried and kept having failed marriages, and Hesse observed Hitler’s rise to power and Nazi Germany spreading through Europe with great concern, but he was criticized for never making any statements against Hitler, and he was condemned by people from that era for not writing statements of outrage or shunning Hitler (Hesse was living in Switzerland at the time), yet he was never a supporter of anti-Semitism, and his wife at the time was Jewish. Hesse's silence on a matter of horrific events in his native country, as well as other parts of Europe, became part of a dirty rumor and lie about his life and work. 

There’s no doubt that many people probably don’t understand the depth of Hesse’s work; many probably find it depressing, or they simply don’t want to. I know a lot of people who came into the bookstore seeking out material that didn’t have death in it, didn’t have deep sentiments, and didn’t have anything depressing in them. I wanted to tell those people not to read books, listen to music, or watch movies.  I also believe that we all have our own understanding of literature with our own developed tastes; some of us understand literature that others do not. I don't believe any of us are more well-read than others--unless all you're reading are the "Twilight" novels, or all the James Patterson books that come out once a week. 

The one thing I can say about Hesse is that if I can understand him and find reason in it, I believe a lot of other people could. He’s deep, but his characters stay with you after you read his books. The character of Hans Giebernah is one character I thought of a couple of years ago as a friend described the dilemma of her son being in a private school with a heavy curriculum, his vocabulary and ability to use words that his classmates didn’t understand, the pressures he faced in school, and the sensitivity he had as a result of being a smart child. Hans is also a character that fits part of the description of my childhood. Hans is with me right now after suffering too many setbacks this year that derailed me. Hans represents Amy Chua’s daughters that she wrote about being a hard ass, Chinese culturally influenced mother who refuses to let her children be children in hopes of them becoming child prodigies. Hans represents the younger generation of people who had expectations placed on them by their parents and have found it hard to find a suitable career or life due to a recession and "NOT HIRING" signs.

Hesse's characters moral dilemmas make you view your own perspectives and the perspective of others in a different light. Hesse is one author I believe wrote about the human condition to where we could gain an understanding from where he failed. I also believe that while he suffered so much in his life, he was able to create some of the world’s greatest literary works. His failure in spiritual matters made him a great philosopher, and he philosophized through his characters and in his novels. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

5 Questions for "Skinhead Confessions" Author T.J. Leyden

“Every night, everywhere we went, my gang and I were packing guns, knives, and enough ammo to take down the Alamo. I always had my 9mm pistols with me. At times, I got a weird a feeling—fast, strong, and shocking. The tension had become almost palpable every night we went out, and were out every night. Something inside me inherently knew what we were doing was wrong, but eventually I came to believe so heavily in the cause that it didn’t matter. I was a soldier for the movement, and I was committed to my very core.” – Excerpt from “Skinhead Confessions.”

There have been a few recent memoirs written by survivors of the white supremacy movements in the United States—one of which was written by T.J. Leyden. “Skinhead Confessions” is Leyden’s story of his broken home leading to his life of racial hatred and violence, and his shocking moment of truth where he turned his back on it all. T.J.’s childhood and family life in the beginning of the book start out like many at-risk youth story: his father was an alcoholic and the family suffered through his verbal and physical abuse. His parents eventually divorced and he went through a period of numbing himself and disassociation. 

T.J. joined the white supremacy movement when he was a teenager. He took part in physical violence against others, he began drinking heavily, and he began actively recruiting other people into the movement. He eventually developed a reputation that caught the attention of local law enforcement agencies in Southern California. After some brushes with the law, he joined the United States Marine Corps and began recruiting members of the military into the movement. He eventually married his girlfriend who was also involved in white supremacy. When he and his wife became parents, they began to raise their young children to be white supremacists, which later inspired him to leave the movement.  

After T.J.’s moment of truth and rejecting the movement, he found himself at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, allowing himself to be interviewed and interrogated by the people he once loathed entirely, confessing to them all of his sins, and giving them information to help them in their fight against these groups. He became an employee of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, he began doing speaking engagements, and he became a marked man by several white supremacists.

Today, T.J. Leyden continues to speak to law enforcement agencies and political leaders, he also gives presentations to teens and gang members, he’s helped people leave the movement, and he has appeared on several news networks to discuss the issues related to white supremacy gangs. His now ex-wife and his children are out of the white supremacy movement. T.J. is now remarried, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and he recently celebrated 11 years of sobriety.

You mention at the beginning of the book that you came from a violent and broken home, that you found an outlet for your anger in the punk scene, and that you eventually found an attraction to the Neo-Nazi lifestyle. I remember seeing an HBO documentary years ago about Neo-Nazis who said they sought out young individuals such as yourself: teens from broken homes, teens who were angry, and teens searching for a family environment. Plus there are people who left the movement such as yourself that said you believed minorities were the source of all your problems. Do you find that this mentality is hard to overcome when someone wants to leave racial identity movements? 

The mentality of racism is easier to break then people think. Racism is an ISM or a belief. So, if a belief can be proven false or untrue, then you are a fool to follow it. The truly hardest thing to give up is the power and sense of identity it gives you. When one’s own life agenda gives them power over others, it’s very hard to surrender that power and control.

    The one thing that is interesting about you is in order to avoid jail and to try and escape the notorious criminal reputation you built up for yourself, you joined the United States Marine Corps. You handed out white supremacy literature and your commanding officers knew that you were doing this. You tell an interesting story about a commanding officer that was African-American and a racial separatist, whom you had mutual respect for. Are racial identity movements common in our military?

Racial groups are still alive and well in the United States Military. The FBI just released a report that proves this. The FBI said that there are 53 different gangs in the U.S. military--and that’s just the ones they know of. Below is a picture of two of the US finest, one covering his buddy so he can tag a wall in Iraq.

    Your family life during the times of when you were in the movement is probably the hardest part in this book to read. Your wife at the time was in the movement, you were still very deep in the movement, and you began to raise your children to accept the movement. There’s an interesting story that I’ve heard you tell about the exact moment when you knew you didn’t want this lifestyle for your children. Can you explain that moment and how that began your exit from the movement? 

Well, it was a morning when I was watching TV with my youngest at the time and we were watching a show on Nickelodeon called “Gullah Gullah Island.” We were laughing loud and woke up may oldest son who came out in to the living room and saw what was on the TV. With an angry look on his face he turned off the TV and said, “we don’t watch TV with Ni**ers on it!” At first I was proud of him, but once I started thinking about my boy’s future, I knew who they were going to become. I really wanted more for them than jail, gangs and fighting. It was the first time I think in my life that I was more concerned about someone else.

    When you left the movement, you showed up at the Simon Wiesenthal Center with loads of material to give to them in order to help their cause against white supremacy groups. Over a period of time, you let their staff interrogate you and ask you question and after question in a tone of which that suggested they didn’t really know what to think about you being genuine about leaving the movement. They even asked you to come back on certain days to answer more uncomfortable questions and interrogate you, to which you agreed. Did you feel that this was this part of the healing process for you? 

This is and was a part of the healing process. I thought I was doing a good deed, so they could have asked me to come back 100 times and I would have. I did it to try and pay back a little of the wrong I had done. I never thought in a million years they would ask me to come to work for them and speak out. Over the past 15 years I’ve been speaking out, I still have healing moments.

You have the book; you’ve been a commentator for racial issues on various news outlets; you’ve met presidents and several influential figures; you travel around the country speaking and doing presentations for law enforcement agencies; you are an encyclopedia on things such as the language of white supremacy groups, as well as the symbols—some of which you still have tattooed on your body to this day; you are still a marked man amongst the white supremacy movement; you’ve helped people leave the movement; you’ve probably saved a lot of lives; and you haven’t stopped educating people since you left the movement. Do you ever have days where you wish you could just put all of this behind you and feel satisfied with what you have accomplished after leaving the movement? What would you like to see happen for yourself for the long-term?

I am never satisfied--and never will be--as long as one kid is at risk from these groups. I do feel that I have accomplished many things and I feel I still have much to do. What would I like to see happen for myself long-term? I would like to put myself out of work. I would love to see tolerance become real. I don’t really like the word tolerance, because it means to “put up with.” I would love to help the world get to acceptance.

Many thanks to T.J. Leyden for allowing me to interview him. You can learn more about T.J. and purchase the book at Skinhead Confessions. You can also follow his blog at Former Skinhead

Video of T.J.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Character Assassination of Sarah Palin

I will admit that I don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings for Sarah Palin. In fact, I disagree with most of her stances on the actual issues. I will also state for the record that I don’t believe she isn’t an articulate speaker; however, I will note that I think some of the things she has said have not been really thought out, and some things she has said don’t seem to be based on actual facts. The life of anyone in the political spotlight is always made out to be a circus. While Sarah Palin has some very thoroughly documented skeletons in her closet, the latest book ‘The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin’ by Joe McGinniss seems to be a character assassination that resembles an issue of the National Enquirer.

I want to remind liberals of something that happened during the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. In 2004 when John Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president, a conspiracy theorist named Jerome Corsi teamed up with a Vietnam veteran named John O’Neill and wrote a book titled ‘Unfit for Command’ about John Kerry’s military service. In the book, he made accusations based on hearsay from some people who never served with John Kerry in Vietnam. Veterans who actually served with Kerry who were not contacted by Corsi or O’Neill to tell their versions of the story came out swinging against the book. The book led to the P.A.C. known as “Swift Vets and POWs for Truth” that ran ads against Kerry stating that he wasn’t entitled to the Purple Heart honors, questioned his honesty about the war, and criticized his anti-war stance after his service was up. The book made a lot of serious accusations that even upset people in the right-wing; John McCain was upset and was one of the Vietnam veterans who defended John Kerry.

In 2008 during the presidential election, Jerome Corsi was back in the spotlight after releasing a book against Barack Obama titled ‘Obama Nation.’ The book was highly controversial, had questionable sources, made strong and baseless accusations, and left-wing figures immediately fact-checked everything that Jerome Corsi wrote and appeared on television with him questioning his sources. Jerome Corsi’s only defense was that he hadn’t been sued for slander. The book stated that Barack Obama and Michelle Obama bought their condo and lived out of wedlock, which was later proven as false when Obama’s wedding date was thrown at Corsi and the date of their condo purchase as a matter of public record was after their wedding. And of course all of the accusations of being affiliated with extremist Islamic groups and other conspiracy related garbage was stated in the book. John McCain was hesitant to criticize the book during the campaign and stated that one needs to keep a sense of humor.

This past Tuesday, Joe McGinniss released his book on Sarah Palin that is similar to the slanderous accusations that Jerome Corsi made against John Kerry and Barack Obama during their presidential campaigns. The book states that Sarah Palin had premarital sex, used illegal drugs, isn’t the mother one of her children, and that she had a fear of colored people. The book is an unauthorized look into her life and also has the similar style of “research” that Jerome Corsi uses to write his books on the left-wing. The book obviously has an “anti-Palin agenda” and is in poor taste.

The sad fact is that people will read these books to feel their partisan rage coming into fruition and believe that character assassination through the stories of others and shoddy research will mean the truth. John Kerry wasn’t popular with the right-wing based on his affiliation with anti-war groups after he came home from Vietnam; the right wing came up with some hearsay to throw at him that was pretty questionable and equated it with the truth. The right-wing continues to the same to Barack Obama given he’s someone they saw as a political threat the minute he made a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention where he stated his liberal values that fired up the base and made him an overnight sensation. Sarah Palin obviously infuriates the left-wing voters for reasons that are obvious, but does this really justify someone having the right to character assassination via the printed word?

While I’m a liberal, there is one thing I hate about a lot of political books: you can judge them by their cover. You’re finding what you want to hear to broaden your point of view. Good political books are hard to come by and I don’t like to read a lot of political books based upon the fact that you already know what you’re getting. There are some political writers who do great research that can be backed up that starts an honest political debate, but many of them are just blowing smoke. The sad thing is that there are publishers who will publish this garbage. There are also people that see this as sweet revenge. Either way, I don’t believe anyone should have to go through these types of accusations, no matter what their political beliefs are. If you have the facts on someone’s dirty laundry that you can prove instead of hearsay based on a few people telling you some fairy tales, then it’s justifiable.

Whether you are a liberal or a conservative, I’d say that these books are a horrible representation of your political values. I hope that both the right and left will agree and not support these kinds of books. But I guess I’m asking for too much in a world where spin based on “garbage writing” is all about setting up someone’s political victories. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Look Into Prodigy's Infamous Life

I’m impressed with the amount of people in the hip-hop/rap industry who are writing autobiographies/memoirs; I’ve found that a lot of the autobiographies/memoirs that have come out by rappers have actually been well written, informative, and actually quite interesting. The RZA wrote ‘The Tao of Wu,’ which was a very impressive look into his life, his spiritual beliefs, and his dedication to making The Wu-Tang Clan one of the world’s most commercially successful rap groups. I stumbled upon Prodigy’s ‘My Infamous Life’ during our liquidation and decided to give it a read based upon my interest in hearing rappers explain their lives.

If you’re not familiar with Prodigy or Mobb Deep, Prodigy is considered to be one of the best rappers in the game. He and Havoc made an impact with Mobb Deep in the mid-90s representing the Queens borough of New York City. They referred to themselves as part of the “Queensbridge Murderers” and were contemporaries of The Wu-Tang Clan, The Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, Nas, Cormega, and many others. Prodigy’s story is unlike many of his contemporaries when it comes to his family tree and his struggles with a lifelong illness. His great-great-grandfather was the founder of Morehouse College; his grandfather was Budd Johnson, a jazz saxophonist who worked with Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and Prodigy made the claim that his grandfather taught Quincy Jones how to read music; his grandmother was Bernice Johnson, a dance teacher and the founder of the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center; his mother was an NYU graduate who later worked her way up in the housing authority; his father was a businessman with a street hustler mentality who later battled drug addiction.

Prodigy discusses his early life in his musically and culturally rich family, but he also goes into detail about being born with sickle-cell anemia and the pain he endured with sickle-cell related episodes as a child. His father’s street hustler ways were part of his early influences; he describes incidents while growing up where his father told him to never walk away from a fight and to never let anyone have an advantage over him in order to gain respect. While his family struggled with living in the projects, his grandmother paid for him to attend a prestigious private school where he was one of the few black students. His grandmother’s dance studio was a place with cultural-richness, as well as celebrities and their children; he took dance classes with children who would go on to be musicians themselves such as Ashanti, and he lost a Broadway acting role during his childhood to Alfonso Ribeiro, who later went on to be part of the TV show ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ 

One would question as to how Prodigy would become involved with the street mentality. His father’s influence ran very deep. He took part in selling drugs to buy his own clothing that neither his mother or grandmother would purchase for him, he took part in street crimes and robberies, and his relationship with Havoc was the result of a botched attempted robbery that they both took part in. He began to use his street mentality as an influence to rapping when he was a teen. With his mother managing his music career, he landed himself on the soundtrack to ‘Boyz in the Hood’ and was nearly signed to a record deal that he later refused due to the record company’s refusal to allow him to include Havoc in his recording contract. Havoc and Prodigy persevered on their own to become the best in their game amongst their contemporaries; Havoc learned how to produce and come up with their beats while Prodigy worked on his rapping, which led to a rap battle with Nas in which Prodigy lost, but gained Nas’ respect and encouragement.

The memoir pulls no punches when it comes to the wild times of Mobb Deep, the conflicts they had with other rap artists that included many of their close friends, the gun violence that they took part in as a result of their fame, the loss of many friends due to murders and retaliation, and the excesses that they took part in with female groupies. Prodigy is open about the relationship he has with his wife, he’s open about the drug use he took part in, he’s open about the birth of his children, and he’s honest when it comes to his criminal rap sheet and his history of run-ins with the law that some of the most expensive attorneys in America defended him from. The spiritual side of Prodigy’s life includes influence from ‘The Autobiography of Malcom X,’ various Nation of Islam figures, conspiracy theory related material in relation to the Illuminati and secret societies, and his own personal views of God that are not made up of biblical truths.

While the memoir is detailed, it’s also an unorganized mess that also seems to have dates and places mixed up. Prodigy tells the story from the perspective of flashbacks while he was serving 3 years in prison for a gun charge (he was released this past spring), but it goes all over the place and there are moments where I found him going way off track. The moment in his career that people would probably find most interest in would be the time that Mobb Deep were part of the G-Unit stable under 50 Cent, which is what most of Mobb Deep’s fans gave them criticism for, and yet where they found the most financial success even while having dismal album sales. The one thing that I find disturbing about Prodigy’s point of view is the fact he doesn’t seem to offer much remorse for what he’s done, but he justifies it with human nature being that of a savage and that being a savage is part of any human being’s survival. Prodigy’s conspiracy views of the world are also hard to take; he equates conspiracy theories as truths. The truths of his conspiracy theories include vaccinations of his children including microchips, his ability to view advertisements and billboards the same way Roddy Piper does in John Carpenter’s ‘They Live,’ and his stories about being visited by UFOs hovering above his home.

While Prodigy does have a personality and lifestyle that many of us probably do not understand, his knowledge and experience of the music industry is very well stated and explained. He has a do-it-yourself ethic that has kept them successful, has helped them in negotiating their record deals, and it has also put him at odds with Havoc and many of their former business associates. He also makes it clear that he doesn’t believe anyone should be oppressed for who they are and states that he doesn’t believe homosexuals should face discrimination, and he is sincere when he thanks many of the white musicians that include Eminem and many rock bands who were supportive of their music, listed them as influences, and toured with Mobb Deep during the ‘90s and during the last decade. He's also thankful for the white audience that has followed Mobb Deep since the beginning. Some of us would probably not understand Prodigy’s life, but nevertheless, it is one that is based on his hard work and his love for what he does. For someone who has a disease with a life expectancy of 40 years (which he has lived beyond), he is a truly blessed individual who is likely going to dazzle the rap world once more now that he’s out of prison and recording music again.

Here is a performance of Mobb Deep in 2004 with The Roots. Prodigy is in the Yankees jersey. And remember kids: there's no such thing as halfway crooks.

I've Decided to Continue This Blog

I made a post after Borders went into liquidation stating that I was going to stop this blog. I have since changed my mind and would like to bring it back. People aren't really talking about books anymore. I've always enjoyed sharing book recommendations with people, I continue to read a lot of books, and I'd like to continue to reach out to authors to help promote their books.

Consider this blog reactivated.

-Brian the Bookseller

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The End

Well, it's unfortunate to report that I will soon be joining the ranks of the unemployed. The book chain that I have worked at for almost 7 years is now shutting its doors for good nationwide. Borders will be no more by the end of September.

People have asked me, "What went wrong? Are all Borders stores closing?" several times over the past week. It goes back a long way, back before I even started with the company. It supposedly started in the mid-90s, some say around 2000, and some say around 2005, and one of the first nails in the coffin happened around 2008. I don't want to bash my employer, but I can definitely concur that the company not getting behind the internet revolution was definitely one of the main faults. Borders wasn't selling books online as Amazon began to dominate the market, and they had actually partnered with for a short time sending Borders customers to Amazon's website.

People have asked, "Is it because of the Kindle?" Nice idea given most Borders employees hate, but the Kindle definitely didn't help as the company got behind the less impressive Kobo line of e-Readers and those horrible Cruz readers and Cruz tablets. People have asked a lot of questions that each represent a brick in the end of Borders--all of these things from people going online, the kindles, Wal-Mart and Costco are all to be considered. One thing I can say that probably took us down was the massive amount of debt that the company carried through the middle of the last decade until now.

I will say that I loved Borders as a brand before I even worked in a Borders. Borders is where I found all of my Buddhist reading material; I found such a variety of books that I didn't have to go into special bookstores to buy; I took comfort in the fact that I could buy my books, DVDs, and CDs all in one spot given they would likely have anything I would be looking for. Borders to me represented a place where you could go and find laid back and incredibly knowledgable people who could recommend anything to you; you wouldn't regret buying anything a Borders employee suggested. In late 2008, it seemed that being part of that Borders image was about to change for the worst. That's when a CEO came to town named Ron Marshall who forced us to sell specific "MAKE titles" to customers; it didn't matter if you came in for a specific book, we had to recommend these titles to you and push you to buy them. The image and the atmosphere of Borders wasn't what it used to be, and we played the role of a retailer that was desperate for sales as we prayed that we would never see the company in bankruptcy. We worked in the store short staffed and stressed out during peak times of the year--including the infamous Christmas season of 2009 where most employees were complaining about 3-5 people being staffed in the store during the Christmas peak shopping days and hours.

What are my reflections on it now that we know what our fate includes? I would say that while it's sad, we definitely knew what was coming (in fact, a Borders employee made a Borders Liquidation BINGO sheet that has a "we knew it was coming" tile). I can also say that people shouldn't think Borders is the end--Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million are going to be in the same position in 3-5 years with Barnes & Noble losing a couple of billion dollars in assets and Books-A-Million reporting 100 million dollars in losses. as one customer told me is the "Wal-Mart of the internet, and has killed the book business." I can say I agree, but I also heard many customers tell us how sad they are we are going under--but yet many of these people will also tell you they can't resist shopping on

How am I handling the liquidation process?

Well, TIME magazine wrote this amusing article HERE about how much our liquidation sale sucks because anything that was discounted last week via a coupon or discounted price of 20-30% is now only 10% in the liquidation's starting process (funny how TIME Magazine doesn't understand how liquidation sales work), and we're hearing a lot of people say they want deeper discounts and will come back. We are simply in the store as staff of the liquidation company that now owns us and are selling off the assets. There is nothing we have to sell, we don't have access to our own computer systems to help customers find titles, the pictures from employees showing up on the net show stores in disarray with piles of books everywhere in their store, and we're simply there to take the customer's money. Am I taking it personally? Not one bit. Am I bitter towards the liquidators? Not at all. I'm just taking the process like those who knew what their fate was on the Titanic as it sunk.

To the customers asking me and my fellow Borders employees "What will you do now?" Please stop asking us. Many of us simply don't know what's ahead of us in our lives. I don't know what the conditions will be of the job market next week, next month, or around September when this process will supposedly be over and we're left to filing for unemployment. Many of us are responding with witty comebacks or mild smartass comments in reply that you are taking literally; I can assure you none of us are really going to go be on Safaris in Kenya, and none of us are going to be sitting at home counting how many millions we have left from our lottery earnings. Just stop while you're ahead, enjoy your bargains, and mourn the loss of your local Borders without asking us if they're finding us jobs or asking us personal questions about our finances--unless you're prepared to offer us jobs.

So, with that, I'm sorry to say that I will probably not be seeking employment in this business after it's all done. I'm probably done being Brian the Bookseller. But I want to thank all the customers I had who appreciated all my recommendations, all of the authors who gave me the time of day when I e-mailed them or added me to their personal Facebook pages to talk about their books, and most of my co-wrokers who I have gotten to know over the years as well as Borders for giving me a job in 2005 when I relocated here to California.

I wish this blog could have lasted longer and regret that I'm pulling the plug on it as quickly as it began. But if you were a reader, thanks for following.

-Brian the Bookseller

Here are some liquidation related photos for your enjoyment. I took a few of these in my store during Day 3. I also included the Borders Liquidation Bingo, a letter to customers left by the staff in a closing store, and where you can find the nearest Borders restroom.

Friday, July 15, 2011

5 Questions for "Malled" Author Caitlin Kelly

If you're familiar with the work of Barbara Ehrenreich, you're probably aware of her book, "Nickel & Dimed." Ehrenreich did an experiment to see if she could survive working minimum wage jobs in various cities. Caitlin Kelly’s "Malled" is NOT one of those books.

Caitlin Kelly was a successful journalist and author. She did many exquisite pieces as a freelance writer, and for the Daily News. She had sipped tea with the queen, wrote a story on the DNA testing of 9/11 victims, and she has experience as an editor. As the journalism profession began to constrict, she found herself laid off after one of her most productive years ever; she eventually did something she never thought she would do, get a retail job.

Kelly took a job with The North Face at an upscale shopping center outside of New York City. Her book describes her transition into the retail world and having to use a different set of people skills, her frustration in dealing with the store and corporate management, and her research on the world of retail. “Malled” raises the question about the quality of our shopping experiences, exposes the low wages and the abuse of retail employees, and also talks about the extra mile that retail veterans go to serve their customers.

You weren’t sent to do this for an undercover writing assignment, and this was nothing that you had actually planned on doing; you really went to work in retail to pay the bills. You mentioned that during the year you were laid-off that you actually had one of your most productive periods. You have an impressive resume as someone who interviewed the Queen of England and did some very exquisite pieces in your journalism career. How much of a shock was it to go from a person in that position to going to work at The North Face? 

It was a shock, as much to go from an industry I know, and have worked in since college, as to drop from a good salary to a minimum-wage job. I was naive enough to think that any work done well and cheerfully would be respected, but quickly discovered how dismissive some customers can be when they assume you have no better work options than a low-wage position. I didn't mind the work at The North Face, but I really disliked the way many of were treated for simply doing that work. I liked that the North Face job required emotional skills from me that journalism did not.

What led to you writing a book about your experiences while working at The North Face? 

I wrote an essay for The New York Times, a column about work called Preoccupations, in which I compared retail to journalism -- and preferred retail, for a few reasons. The essay drew 150 emails from all over the world, so it clearly hit a nerve! I spoke in Manhattan on a panel about a month after that, and there was an agent's assistant in the audience who suggested I write a memoir. My new agent agreed and we sold it to Portfolio in September 2009.

As someone who has worked in retail, one of the interesting research points that I thought you made was based on the idea that you get what you pay for when it comes to people who work for you. You mention the high turnover, employees being paid less, and the quality of customer service going down. Do you think this is becoming more common? 

I really find it counter-intuitive -- pun intended! -- to underpay your front-line, customer-facing staff who very much help drive corporate profits yet pay them pennies, rarely give raises and offer little chance for promotion. Very few people will tolerate such conditions, and then companies just hire a whole new crew and burn them out. It's no way to run a business, yet it's very typical of large-scale retail. In a terrible economy, companies can be even more abusive, so I see little chance of improvement until things pick up again. If then!

You mentioned that you had applied to be in management and you were turned down. Were you ever given any idea as to why you were turned down? 

I was given no reasons why I was not even interviewed for a managerial position. I had asked repeatedly. I suspect because I would have been managing former co-workers and that might have been uncomfortable. If I had specific weaknesses preventing me from being considered for it, these were never addressed or discussed with me.

What has been The North Face’s response to your book? 

The North Face refused comment when the Associated Press called them about Malled. An employee at a store in another state told me the company required every staffer to sign a document promising not to discuss the book with customers.

Many thanks to Caitlin Kelly for allowing me to interview her. You can find out more about "Malled" and Caitlin Kelly by visiting

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why You Should Read David Foster Wallace

There is a fact that when an entertainer or artist passes away that their work goes into demand. We’ve seen this with many people from Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Jerry Garcia, etc. The same can be said for authors; I remember the rush on Salinger when they announced he had passed—Vonnegut was another author that I can remember a rush on after the announcement of his passing. There has been one author that I have found interesting in his death years: David Foster Wallace. While there has been a genuine interest in his work, it hasn’t been at the levels of the well-known writer when one of them pasess away. It seems that people are slowly stumbling upon his work. 

If you aren’t familiar with David Foster Wallace or any of his writings, here’s what you need to know.

David Foster Wallace was a very clever, articulate, and fascinating individual in the sense of his writing and imagination; he contributed to publications such as Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, Playboy, GQ, and Esquire. He wrote very provocative pieces on a whole range of subjects; he wrote pieces on things such as a porno convention, his time following John McCain in the 2000 campaign and primaries for the Republican nomination, many articles, essays, and themes in his novels about tennis (a sport he loved and followed religiously), and many other articles that showed his versatility and interest in a whole range of subjects.

My experience with reading David Foster Wallace’s works of fiction is that you read the back of the book for a description; when you start reading the story, it's nothing that you expected or understood from that back cover; you can’t believe what is being thrown at you and where the story goes. His non-fiction work is exactly the same; it's funny, serious, frightening, and it's all true. The one thing that I have found to be an annoying feature to his work is his obsessive-compulsive use of the MLA writing format. There are some pages in his books that are entirely in-text MLA format citations, and long extensive notes within the citations that can be entertaining to read, or you eventually just start to find them a pain in the ass and start skipping over them entirely.

The Broom of the System was his fiction debut. It received a lot of critical acclaim, and he was branded as one of the best new writers upon its release in 1987. My response to that book was that it felt like John Hughes movie, a William S. Burroughs novel, a David Lynch film, and some real slapstick humor all rolled up into one. David Foster Wallace’s ability to channel some of Thomas Pynchon’s writing ideas and yet keep the reader fascinated is something that most authors are probably jealous of when it comes to Wallace’s brilliance. He went on to write another critically acclaimed novel, Infinite Jest, that goes the same route of The Broom of the System in writing style.

If you desire to read some smart reading that goes beyond the works of David Sedaris or Chuck Klosterman, his essays and articles also show his brilliance. The one essay of his that gave us a look into his compassionate personality was in a collection called Consider the Lobster; his essay about the events of 9/11 and how he spent his time dealing with it during and after as he watched our country become transformed is a look into how the artistic and sensitive soul viewed the events of that horrific day.

His versatility and time as a reporter made another work of fiction of his become one of his most well known works, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. The book features interviews with fictional characters; interviews with demented individuals that have fascinations with the darkest of things. It’s a look into the philosophy of wickedness, and even douchebaggery goes under the microscope. 

The death of David Foster Wallace was indeed a tragic end. It’s sad to think that a writer with the tremendous gift of writing and the ability to teach writing to others would take his own life. David Foster Wallace’s suicide was a result of his lifelong clinical depression that he took anti-depressant medication for that gave him the foundation for his productive life. While suffering severe side-effects of his medication, he weaned off of it and then found himself severely depressed; he went back on his medication and also tried other methods of treatment that were unsuccessful, which led to his suicide on September 12, 2008.

In April of 2011, Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, was released. The novel deals with the life of an employee of the Internal Revenue Service taking the same strange turns as the events surround the characters in his previous novels. There are also themes of depression and despair; obviously subjects that David Foster Wallace was dealing with at time he was writing it. I've read some criticisms about how it was published as an unfinished novel, while others have praised it. I have yet to read it, and I hope to find the time to read it sometime soon. 

While David Foster Wallace is an acquired taste, I think everyone could find some enjoyable reading from his works. If you can’t get into his fiction, I suggest checking out his essay collections. If you enjoy the works of Pynchon, Kafka, or Burroughs, you’ll definitely love David Foster Wallace. David Foster Wallace cracked our minds open to the idea of having a sense of irony when viewing the world around us; he made us think differently about how we interpret art; and he’s also one of the last great writers that is truly irreplaceable.

“The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, "then" what do we do?” – David Foster Wallace

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Books I Recommend: July 2011

Here are some new books I recommend checking out for the month of July.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson 

Set in Vermont and NYC during the days of hardcore-punk music and the straight- edge movement. The main character, Joel, deals with the overdose of his friend during New Years Eve 1987 and relocates to New York City. He falls in with the straight-edge movement after joining the Hare-Krishnas. The book is a great journey through the days of CBGB, "Krishna-Core," the beginning of AIDS, and 1980s NYC through the eyes of a young man who refuses to accept his parents hippie culture lifestyle as his own.

Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson 

According to Internet Movie Database, Steven Spielberg has already attached himself to a film adaption of this book (unknown on whether he will produce or direct it). Released during June 2011, this book is already picking up incredible buzz and popularity. The story has been compared to Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park" and "The Andromeda Strain." It's a story of the coming age where artificial intelligence comes back to bite us in the ass. As a fan of Isaac Asimov, this one has me VERY excited. I also see this one climbing up the bestseller charts in the weeks to come. Move over zombies! Robots are making a comeback as the new sexy!

Then They Came For Me by Maziar Bahari 

Maziar Bahari, a London journalist, went to Iran to cover the 2009 presidential election. While he was covering the election, he was arrested and imprisoned for 3 months in Iran. He wrote about his imprisonment and also told the story of his father who was imprisoned by the Shah of Iran during the 1950s, and his sister who was imprisoned by Ayatollah Khomeini during the 1980s. This book chronicles the brutal regimes, coups, and the revolutions that have caused strife and polarization of the Iranian people. This is not just a great tale of survival, but a good look into the disregard of human rights in Iran under different eras of intervention from the west, the fundamentalist based revolution, and the modern day totalitarian state.

Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach

I was a bit taken back when I first saw this. Whether you're a parent or not, this book is hilarious. Written in the poetic tone of "Goodnight Moon," this expletive filled spoof of a children's book will have you doubled over in laughter as you read page by page. Example: "The cats nestle close to their kittens, the lambs have laid down with the sheep. You're cozy and warm in your bed, my dear. Please go the f**k to sleep."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bob Mould's Wild Ride

The 1980s were an interesting time for music, there was an evolution in the mainstream and underground music scenes. While bands like Duran Duran and pop-icons like Michael Jackson were at the top of the charts, the hardcore-punk scene was starting to pop up all over America in various cities. The Los Angeles based record label, SST Records, was leading the way in the hardcore punk movement. SST Records' roster included several of the legendary names in hardcore punk music such as Black Flag, The Minutemen, The Meat Puppet's, and a Minnesota based band known as Husker Du.

Bob Mould was the the frontman for the band Husker Du. If you've never listened to Husker Du, you have never experienced the sometimes raspy vocals of Bob Mould screaming out lyrics that dealt with broken homes, broken hearts, and more emotional depth than most of their contemporaries who were about destruction, chaos, and anarchy. His book tells the story of his childhood and growing up in Malone, NY. He discusses his 175 IQ, his violent father, his love of music, his ability to compose music at a very early age, and his relief when he left home for college; his college days are where he met Grant Hart and Greg Norton, whom he started a local band that spent time gigging around Saint Paul, MN doing covers and playing a few originals they wrote; the band eventually became Husker Du. The band's name was inspired by the board game of the same name. The band attracted the attention of SST Records and Black Flag guitarist, Greg Ginn, who signed the band to the label.

Mould discusses the early days of the band spent in a van provided by his father as they played all over the United States. The band spent time hopped up on truck-stop speed and alcohol, and soon he was coming to grips with his sexuality, trying to make sense of the band's finances and record releases as SST Records encountered cash flow problems, and the crowd shenanigans at the band's shows. The mentioning of his homosexuality touches upon his fears in the early days of AIDS, his attempts at a romantic relationship with various men, his long-term relationships, and the homophobia of his father and his contemporaries (The Bad Brains are mentioned in a story he tells about how they stayed with Grant Hart and left him an anti-gay note the following morning).

The split with Husker Du as told by Mould was due to each of the members drifting apart, fighting over creative differences, and the nail in the coffin comes after he and Greg Norton discover Grant Hill's heroin addiction. He later finds himself picking himself up and resuming as a solo act and discussing the events of the 90s, a brief hiatus while he took a job working at WCW, and into the current day as he continues to make music and tour. The troubled relationships, the issues with his management, and finally finding peace with himself while not looking back prove that Bob Mould has the ability to heal and persevere. This is definitely a great look into a fascinating period in musical history as well as into the life of one of the hardcore-punk movement's most influential figures.