I was just going to skip the write-up on Arresting god in Kathmandu by Samrat Upadhyay, mostly because it doesn’t take many words to say “the writing was okay, but I didn’t get the point of any of its short stories.” Instead, I decided it was an opportunity to discuss how I chose the books I end up reading.
Several things led to my picking up AgiK, none of them very scientific (must be the lit major in me). I have several beloved authors that are Indian (Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Arundhati Roy), and this author comes from the same area of the world. I read ‘Nepal’ and my brain said ‘Tibet’ (again, same part of the world, I believe they maybe even be adjacent to each other, although I have not verified that). So I was thinking ‘the same country as the Dalai Lama’. But of course, that couldn’t have been true, because one of the other things that intrigued me was that Samrat Upadhyay is supposedly ‘the first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West.’ And we all know that the Dalai Lama has published several books – but maybe he doesn’t write in English? You see how I was tricked?
And that title – Arresting god (note small g) in Kathmandu – how cool does that sound? I’m a sucker for the obscure title (Five Quarters of an Orange? quarter=four, how did they get five?). Smacks of questioning religion (a particular area of interest for me), exotic places (who even knows where Kathmandu is? Or how to pronounce it correctly?). And in practical terms – as my roommate pointed out – what do you do, put handcuffs on him? How exactly does one arrest a deity? (I’m sure Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman would have a few ideas).
In the case of Away by Amy Bloom, I already mentioned that I picked it up because of 1) the title, and 2) it mentioned Alaska on the back. In addition, the edition I have has a close-up of a fancy fruit bowl/centerpiece with a background of a stream through the wilderness. Having picked up Blackberry Wine on the same shopping trip (with its associations with Five Quarters of an Orange), I imagined it would be similar to something by Joanne Harris so I finally picked it up. Turned out, not so much.
It doesn’t surprise me that people stick with authors they know – if you’ve read previous books and enjoyed them, it is a safer bet to buy another of their books than to try someone you’ve never read. That makes it tough for new authors, but there it is. For those of us with an ever-voracious appetite for something new and exciting to read, there are resources out there to get more information on the latest book. I have an email subscription to the weekly Powell’s newsletter, and in it they discuss upcoming releases and do tons of reviews/interviews/whatnot on their website as well. I picked up Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Population: 485 by Michael Perry, and bonk by Mary Roach (which I have not read yet) based on information I read in those newsletters.
There are also independent bookseller associations (such as indiebound.org) that distribute information on new releases that are less about making the publishers happy and more about telling readers about great writing. In stores like Title Wave, you’ll find cards placed in front of new releases with recommendations from the American Booksellers Association (a trade association of independent booksellers) and, like Powell’s, hand-written notes with recommendations from staff members. (In case y’all haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m a big fan of the independent bookstore ).
Obviously, you can check the best seller lists and book reviews in sources such as The New York Times and your local paper, but people like books for very different reasons, and you don’t always get a good sense of the book from a review. I mean, seriously, some of you may have already decided that I have no idea what I’m talking about because you loved Away and have devoured everything Amy Bloom has read. And it’s a tough world out there, I hate wasting my money on a book that wastes my time. Thankfully, the world also invented the used bookstore.
I love spending half as much on a book – whether I love it or hate it – and having the option of getting at least half my money back (or like credit for future books) for a book that suckered me in with a cool title and a completely inaccurate synopsis. I just add those to the pile, and next time I go to Powell’s (until recently, Title Wave) I take those duds with me and let the fine people at the store credit me for the junk I don’t want while I spend all that credit and more before they’ve even had a chance to look at them. And of course, when the budget has been stretched beyond its limit, and the credit is all burned up – there’s always the library (whew!)
So get out there! Take a chance! Read a book! That’s an order.