Saturday, December 31, 2016

"At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails" by Sarah Bakewell

ISBN: 978-159051488-7 Other Press
The existentialist thought has been around forever.   We didn't have a name for it, but clearly, the issue of the importance of a commitment is something one shouldn't take lightly.   In a flash thought, when we (meaning us mortals on planet America) hear the word existentialism, we think of Jean-Paul Sartre.   Clearly, he's the figurehead, but the roots of that thought go back to Nazi-loving Martin Heidegger, and of course, Søren Kierkegaard.   In other words, it's an endless depth in a lake or pool in one's consciousness with respect to who, how, and why we came to the subject matter of existentialism.  

Sarah Bakewell's "At The Existentialist Café" is a very good in-depth read on the subject matter of Sartre and others such as Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, as well as Albert Camus, Boris Vian and the underrated Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  On the latter, Bakewell seems to be the most pleased with as a personality (he liked dancing and the social nightlife) and his work as a philosopher.   

Bakewell knows her territory well, and this is an extremely well-researched book on not only the writings that came out by these super-smart individuals but also capturing the time and anxiety of the 20th century.   A book for someone who knows nothing of the subject matter as well as one who's a fan of the Existentialist writer.   She never dumbs down the information, yet this book is written for the masses who are curious about the culture around Sartre and friends.   The arguments, the battles, and the friendship are all displayed on these pages.   A very good book. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

My Favorite Book Stores, Part One: ALIAS BOOKS EAST

I love my collection of books. I often walk by my bookshelf and just marvel at my selection of fiction, poetry, music, and art from the 50s and 60s.  My library represents an imagined bookstore from the 1960s.  I often feel that I have the best collection of books than anyone else.  I don’t have rare books, but just the right titles for the right moments in one’s life. Just like my book collection, I often go to Alias Books East in Atwater Village, because in a very real sense, it’s an extension of my personal collection.  Although I don’t own the books in this specific store, it feels very much like home to me.   In fact, it feels like a new bookstore in 1966.

Alias Books East, has a mid-20th-century vibe to it.  Some of it is due to the architecture, which I imagine being built sometime in the 1950s, with a beautiful old-fashioned window display space to show off books on their stands.   Two rooms, tall ceilings, and very clean interior.  There are used bookstores that look like a hoarder’s nest - and then there are those that have a ‘moderne’ aspect to their design and purpose.  Alias Book East is very much like a very disciplined business from the Mad Man era, full of the right literature for the right people.

As mentioned, I have a large collection of books from the 1960s. It seemed to me that the best time for books on cinema came from that era.  Film writing, which wasn’t considered literature, all of sudden, around 1966, became important series of texts about contemporary films of the time.  Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Peter Wollen, and at that point and time, translations of French Surrealists who wrote about cinema came out on University and small presses, as well as critics from the Cahlers du Cinéma publication, all came out in English during the 60s.   I’m often reminded of that era just by visiting Alias Books East film section.   If you come in at the right time, which is important, because due to inventory being second-hand, they do tend to disappear into the daylight/nighttime.  But alas, once there, and if the stock is full, one comes upon the world of Hitchcock, Godard, Ozu, Melville, Ford, Hawks and so forth.   It’s a rather serious section on the auteur and their work.  A perfect location if one is curious about the classics of the cinema and it’s makers.  Reference alone makes this section of the store priceless, but it’s the aesthetic of the collection that really makes one feel that they are in a private cinema club, somewhere with a 16mm projector and among cineastes.

The fiction section is full of great titles, and the only missing is crappy books by third-rate authors.  One can close their eyes, and just reach out for a book out of the fiction bookshelf, and surely it will be a classic of some sort. So bookshelves themselves are not packed and full, but the titles that are here are truly 20th-century masterpieces.  Foreign literature translated into English - mostly (when I’m there) from the French and German.  And where else can one find “Oil” and “Jungle” by Upton Sinclair?  What I have noticed is that the store carries a lot of titles from specific authors.  For instance, they pretty much have all the early books by Paul Auster.  Now, one would think that is not so unusual, but do go to a new bookstore, and see what they have under Auster’s name.  The same for Brett Easton Ellis - maybe they will have one title, but Alias Books East has at least 3 to 4 titles under that author.   Also, writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway are well represented as well as the cult authors, such as my beloved Boris Vian.  

Without a doubt, their poetry selection is superb.  A good place to locate the New York School of poetry - and all of its off-shoots.  If you hit the section at the right moment, you can also find French 19th-century poets, which I think is the basis for a lot of the New York poets, more so than say the Beats.  One can tell the aesthetic of a book shop by their poetry selection.   A lot of stores don’t have the foggiest idea what to do in that category.   You can tell that either the bookseller, buyer or owner have no clue what or is poetry.  If it is just big names, it’s like they don’t want to take chances.  Alias Books East has a very strong presence in their poetry section.  I can tell that they read these poets, because even though some are obscure, their obvious importance is very prominent.  You can feel it just by walking within their poetry section’s space.

Their backroom consists of art, graphic art, photography, and cinema.  I only call it the backroom because it is a separate room from the entrance part of the store.  In this space is a long bench that is perfect to look at oversized photo and art monographs.   At this time, I have a deep interest in FLUXUS related artists, and when I visited the store, they had a handful of obscure and hard-to-find titles in that specific art movement.   Also plenty of catalogs on artists that I didn’t even know existed.  A catalog from a gallery or museum often goes missing with respect to their distribution.  So to come upon a favorite artist, and they happen to have a magnificent catalog, is a major plus in a bookstore like Alias Books East.  The element of surprise is a big part of this store.

The first section I look at in the store is the recommendation bookshelves, which is on your right when you enter the premise.  Patrick, the owner, I feel has a copy of my DNA with respect to books that I’m interested in.   A lot of times, the books displayed here in this section, I already have. Still, I have this burning passion in purchasing another copy. However, foolish that may be.  The other great section is the books displayed behind the counter. I often talk to the staff here, and even though my ears are on them, my eyes are checking out each title behind them.  Incredible first-editions, also here are books that I hadn’t the foggiest idea that they existed.  For one, I found this fascinating book by Georges Simenon called “When I Was Old.” It’s a journal, he kept up from the age of 57 to early 60s.   Written in the 1960s as well.  A bookstore should be able to follow a thought or the dots, which acts like footsteps from one person to another.  If you are in a large library (like the Los Angeles Central Library in downtown) that is easily done.  But in a bookstore, it can be a rare occurrence. Not the case at Alias Books East.  Reading here and there, I was surprised to know that Simenon was a good friend of Henry Miller, as well as Charlie Chaplin.  All three had dinner together, which for some reason, really surprised me.  Another pal of Simenon is Blaise Cendrars.  You can find books on or about Chaplin in the store, as well as titles by Miller and Cendrars.

I often go here to free up my mind during a writing session.   The store is walking distance, and once I enter, I just let my mood take me to a specific section of the bookstore.   Lately, I have been very much interested in 20th-century classical music - more of the experimental side, than say just straight orchestration.  A god in that field is Edgard Varèse.  Alias Book East has a very expensive, but ‘must-have’ copy of a book put together by the Paul Sacher Foundation.   This hardcover catalog covers Varèse’s entire career as a composer, in exact detail.  Beautifully illustrated, this is the final word on this composer and his work.   I never knew that this ever existed in any form, yet, here it is at the store.

A bookstore serves very specific purposes.  Not all can be the same.  Nor can everyone be happy with respect to their interests.  On the other hand, if one is interested in 20th century aesthetic as well as all the by-products of that century - including music (equally matched with rock/pop with jazz and classical), philosophy, political science, cooking, drama, and literary theory - as well what I mentioned above - this store will serve your purpose perfectly.  

Alias Books East
3163 Glendale Blvd. 
Los Angeles, CA 90039

Hours:  Mon-Thurs: 11-8pm, Fri-Sat: 11-9pm, Sun: 10 -7pm

Tel: 323-661-9000




- Tosh Berman December 25/26, 2016

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"When I Was Old: Simenon on Simenon" by Georges Simenon

I'm a fan of the writer's journal.  Basically, nothing really happens in a writer's life, except what's in his or hers head.  Georges Simenon is no different.   This journal takes place in the early 1960s -in fact, it ends in spring 1963.   Simenon is in his late 50s and often his journal writing deals with aging and his life with the family.  What's interesting about him is one, he's close friends with Charlie Chaplin and Henry Miller (all three lunch or have dinner together) and also a friend of Gide and Blaise Cendrars.   

As a writer myself, I'm totally fascinated with a writer's writing schedule.  Simenon wrote hundred of novels in his lifetime and at the time of writing "When I Was Old," he was contracted to write six novels a year.  How can one possibly do something like that?  Also, he had a full family life.  A wife, young children, and then occasionally having sex with four women in one night.  Which doesn't seem to be that much of a big deal for this busy writer.  Still, he suffers from depression, has strong doubts and thoughts about his daily take of alcohol.  Very much the normal Joe, except he can write six novels a year, and most, are pretty good books.  

Early this year I read John Cheever's journal, which is very similar to Simenon's book.  Both are into self-examing their purpose in life and their art.  And real life enters the picture with respect to drinking, love, and family.  And both were successful writers at the time of their common journals.   I recommend this book to anyone who is writing or having trouble sitting down and getting the work done.  Simenon was a very disciplined writer and had his life organized pretty well.   Which makes him sound dull, but believe me, he's not a dull man whatsoever. 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Books I read in 2006 That I Love by Tosh Berman

Not all the titles are new or were published in the year 2016.  But they are books that I read through January 1 to December 17, 2016.   I read something like 70 titles.   Some are fiction, some are non-fiction, and some are essays on art.  Nevertheless, these books made an impression on me. It has been a horror show of a year for so many people.  And I think that as a background made an impression on me as well.  For those who want to read about these books, you can find my name at Good reads, where I wrote commentary on them.  Also check this blog as well.   And in no special order, here they are: