Saturday, February 19, 2011

Judging books by their covers.
And maybe a little inside information as well.

My dad, may be he blessed by Odin, Mithra and the li'l baby Jesus, often treats me to breakfast, but this week he offered a lunch where I got to pick the place. I suggested Buffalo Bill's in Hayward, a brewpub down on B Street. The weather this week has been cold and wet, so sitting outside was not an option, but it's still a great place to get a beer or wine and some hearty simple food.

I've lived in Hayward several times in my life, first in college back in the seventies and then in the nineties through the early aughts when I was finishing my career in video games and then going back to Cal State Hayward to get my master's.

Whenever I eat at Bill's, I always make sure to stop in at The Book Shop down the street. It's a locally owned bookstore that has been there for quite a while, and I first stopped by back about fifteen years ago. The original owner Hank died a few months back and the place is now being run by a woman named Renee who has been working there for many years. Renee is sweet as honey, smart as a whip, cute as a button and tall as a willow tree. Longtime readers of this blog can figure out how many points that scores on the Matty Boy scale.

(Hint: many.)

Times are tough for people in my profession in general, but right now I know I have enough work until the end of the year, which is an amazing level of security for a part timer like me. With a few extra bucks in my pocket, I'm doing what I can within reason to support local businesses. With this in mind, I decided to stop by The Book Store and pick up about a hundred bucks worth of reading material.

I started with a pile of eight books total, but I knew that was over my limit, so I reluctantly returned a few to the shelves. Going to the counter with six, the total was around $150, so two more got cut from the final roster. Here's what I bought on Friday.

They had a used copy of the recently printed Autobiography of Mark Twain. Anyone wondering why this made the cut cannot be a longtime reader of this blog.

Michael Lewis' The Big Short is out in paperback, and this was an easy decision as well. This book is about the people who caused the financial crisis we now find ourselves in. It started as an article in the now departed online magazine Portfolio, which I linked to way back in 2008.

I like Lewis' writing style a lot and I'm always happy to read about something I don't know that well. He has also written several other best sellers including Moneyball and The Blind Side, so you may already be acquainted with his work. I also love the opening quote from Leo Tolstoy just before the table of contents.

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be explained to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.

The next two books were much more about the covers, since I didn't know exactly what to expect. The anthology series The Best American Comics of 2010 has guest editor Neil Gaiman, who has written a lot of comics and movies that I have enjoyed. I flipped through the book and found several strips of which I was completely ignorant. Trusting Gaiman's taste, I decided to pick this book up.

Right now, I have a job that is about a fifteen minute BART ride away, and I picked several of these books with the specific idea that I would be able to read them during the commute. Some of the artists in the anthology I was already acquainted with, like Peter Bagge, the Hernandez Brothers and Robert Crumb, but most I haven't read before. There is an excerpt from the well-regarded series Scott Pilgrim Versus The Universe by Brian Lee O'Malley, which has been turned into an indie film that most people consider a weak substitute for the original comic book. I'll let you know what I think.

The last book really was bought almost entirely based on the cover. Hellhound On His Trail is the story of how the lives of escaped prisoner James Earl Ray and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. happened to cross, and what happened to Ray after he assassinated King. The author Hampton Sides was a boy of six living in Memphis when the murder took place. After writing several other successful books on many topics in American history, he decided to write about the event in American history that took place closest to him. I skimmed a few paragraphs before I decided to buy, and the writing style reminded me of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which is high praise indeed.

But in all honesty, it was the title that jumped out at me. When I went to the counter, Renee was very happy that I was going to buy the book, since it had sat on the shelf for some time and would soon be released in paperback. She gave a discount given the situation, which is the kind of business this place has always been. I asked her if the title rang a bell with her, and she said no. It was the great blues performer Robert Johnson who wrote the song called Hellhound On My Trail, and Dr. King was quoted in the last year of his life as saying "Discrimination is the hellhound that gnaws at Negroes every waking moment of their lives."

Renee spun a little display at the counter and picked out a bookmark with the famous picture of Robert Johnson sitting with his guitar, smiling at the camera and wearing a suit and hat. I of course added this to my purchase immediately.

There will be reviews of all these books as I get through them over the next few months.

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