Indiespensible is the book-of-the-not-quite-month-club from Powell's, the great bastion of independent bookstores headquartered in Portland, OR. Last fall I subscribed (that seems to be the only way to get their selections, although you can easily unsubscribe whenever you want) to the not-quite-club, and quit after four books. I chose to insert them into my Reading List, hoping that I would have some exceptional material that was unusually current with other people for me.
The first book I received was recent Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch from Donna Tartt (which has been featured in the Coffeehouse before). I loved the opening act but didn't like the rest of it, basically. No big deal. More books to follow!
That was in April. In May I read the second book, Orfeo from Richard Powers (if you're curious, I've got a whole listening companion available). I wasn't really wild about this one, either.
Between last month and this month I read The Best of McSweeney's. Hopefully you're familiar with McSweeney's. It represents the modern literary school. I will be writing a full recap of my thoughts on each selection at some point. Basically, though, it was a mixed bag. There was stuff I loved and other stuff I have no idea why it would be included in a "best of" collection. But then, you can't really expect to satisfy everyone with all the stories in a collection.
This month I read the fourth one, The Blazing World from Siri Hustvedt. It was the most successful of the four books, although I had my issues with it.
Now, the big thing with Indiespensible is that these are all special editions unique to Powell's, complete with interview booklets and goodies the kindly booksellers slip into the packages. Most of the goodies I received ended up being actual goodies, sweets from local Portland businesses. Personally I think they really stiff the subscriber when they pull something like that. Fortunately, the add-on with Blazing World was a little more involved. It was one of the instances where Powell's sticks in another book!
This was We Are Not Ourselves, which is an advance reader because the book does not actually get published until August (which must have been bumped up, because the copy reads September). This is the debut novel from Matthew Thomas. I'm nearly a hundred pages in (five hundred to go), and I'm once again wondering how Powell's makes these picks. It seems all of them are from the literati, the establishment that doesn't really judge a book by its content so much as the pedigree of its writer. Tartt is the most obvious example (besides McSweeney's). Her past fiction was widely praised. I know for a fact that Goldfinch was not uniformly warmly received by critics. Reading the thing, I can't imagine someone arguing that it was the best possible writing from last year. We Are Not Ourselves seems to be receiving similar hype, but I find it pedestrian, a kind of historical survey that flits around its main character's perspective. I kind of expect better. I kind of expected much better from Indiespensible, from Powell's itself. But then again, maybe my instincts were off because I had no idea what to expect. I've never visited Powell's itself. I do know readers can make some arbitrary decisions on which bookstores to laud, based on factors that don't really seem to have anything to do with the quality of its literary environment. When I lived in Colorado Springs, I had just missed the Chinook experience. Chinook, basically, was the Powell's of Colorado Springs. I worked with its star bookseller for four years. I think she wouldn't mind these Indiespensible books at all.
But they just aren't for me. I don't want fiction that just kind of explores what writers who have constantly been pampered by their peers think they should be writing. I want fiction that challenges and innovates. Tellingly, Blazing World is the only real innovator in this set, even though it has the same creaky pains as the others. McSweeney's published Roberto Bolano once (I know, because Best of... includes a full index of contributors to every volume). That story isn't included. Roddy Doyle is accounted for. He's really the only writer I know of, have read, and fully endorse from the collection. You've maybe heard of him (several of his books have become excellent movies, including The Commitments). Strangely, the McSweeney's guy himself, Dave Eggers, doesn't have material featured in the book.
So I walk away from the experiment kind of baffled. I wanted to have my finger on the pulse of some excellent contemporary, as-it's-published fiction. Part of that goal was achieved. And as I said, I'm still reading We Are Not Ourselves. It could still surprise me. Stranger things have happened. Blazing World alternately inspired and infuriated me, which is more than I can say for the rest of the Powell's selections. I consider that a good thing. If you want to know about feminism in modern art, Blazing World is a good place to start. If you want to read a good book, maybe...look elsewhere.
But then, I can be hard to please.