It was closed. Steel gates locked. I could see two women at the foot of the stairs stacking books on a table under the bronzed eye of Dr. Pepper
Dr. William Pepper, Founder, Free Library of Philadelphia - (who--in statue form--plays an important role, as does the library, in my novel, The Magic Slate
Of course, he didn't look that big from the front door, at the far end of the great hall...
Keep in mind, too, that I was peering through the criss-cross grid of a steel gate. At least I knew I wasn't there on the wrong day. That table--just where they always set up when they have a reading, the author's books stacked up to sell, the author, after the reading, one table down signing copies for those who go in for that sort of thing.
The reading itself takes place in a small auditorium downstairs. Seats 387 people. For the "Celebrity Authors" (such as we have these days), chairs are set up in the great hall with a large screen blocking everyone's view of Dr. Pepper. Late comers get to see the projected image of the author, and hear his projected voice. Even less to my liking than expecting authors to scrawl flattering lies to perfect strangers on the inside covers of their books. As if what you have to go through to write and get published isn't humiliation enough.
I paced back and forth, watched the rush hour traffic on the parkway, the homeless men lined up behind a van waiting for the cup of soup and plate of food being dished out by three women racking up points for the sake of heaven; listened to the flags of the world flapping in the wind. Then I remembered--it was early enough, not much past 5:30, that the library bookstore would still be open. Yes! ...and I had just withdrawn money at an ATM. What better use of a conscientious citizen, a recession looming, than, like those women feeding the homeless, rack up points for the sake of heaven by going shopping!
Information for bibliovores. If you're in Philly and doing the rounds of bookstores, you won't want to miss this one. The Free Library is on the Parkway between 18th and 19th. Walk past the library to 19th, take a right and behind the library on the corner--large collection with hidden treasures, great buys]
I wandered back to the front doors, $40 lighter in the wallet, what felt like as many pounds heavier in my canvas (Cats, Books.... Life is Good!) book bag. Still locked. Okay, I missed John Updike. Wasn't that disappointed. More like duty that I went at all. Missed Sherman Alexie. Sherman is so at ease in front of an audience, witty, unpretentious. More like a visit with a good conversationalist than a "performance," so I was irked to miss that. Can't even remember who the other Celeb was. For them, the doors were open three hours before the reading. Manil Suri's stars, evidently, don't shine as brightly. There's something to ponder, I muttered to myself, pacing the sidewalk, waiting for the doors to open.
At last, after a forty-five minute wait that seemed much longer, a guard came to the door, unlocked and slid the steel gate aside, and I made my made my way to the auditorium--stopping to buy a copy of Suri's new novel.
Reviews from Publisher's Weekly at Powells
My Mind on Books and
Add $26.75 to $40. Add "don't go to readings in or near bookstores with cash in your pocket" to the rule about shopping in a supermarket on an empty stomach.
The lectern is set up at the center of a proscenium stage, backdrop of red velvet curtains. The stage is raised no more that two feet above the level of the auditorium, so from my front row seat, I would be about eight feet from the speaker. A young woman in plaid skirt, librarian blouse and brown boots offered the usual introduction, after an appeal for donations for the proposed new Moshe Safdie addition. Like my students (but only the women), she ended all her sentences with a rising inflection, as though asking a question. That's only a part of it. Young women have developed this tonal dialect on their own, quite apart from the equally incomprehensible young male mumble, a form of proto-speech produced with moth partially open, neither jaws nor lips moving (like someone with a sinus problem, or talking in their sleep--which may, in fact, be the case. I suspect this may be a dialect developed and reserved for classroom delivery); the women, on the other hand, use their patois all the time, pretending to understand one another perfectly well, but the consequence of this New Speak for me, is that, in the one case, the stress is so out of sync with the meaning, and in the other, vowels so blur into an indistinguishable porridge, that should I find myself listening to anyone under 35, I'm reduced to blinking in stupefied incomprehension. I never fail to be relieved at the beginning of a term to see several foreign students in my class. Thank god, there'll be someone in the room whose English I will understand!
This is where the mind goes when you have time on your hands. But at last, the introductions over, the author appeared from the wings and took his stand behind the lectern. Suri has an easy, relaxed manner (he looks a lot like Barack Obama--handsomer, without the big ears, tall, thin--an interior quality that projects a sense of effortless presence. The reading, I discovered, you can see and hear for yourself. It's on YouTube. Different location, but essentially the same event, so I won't say more about that, though I want to mention what he said after the reading about his design for this book in relation to The Death of Vishnu, and the third book he plans for the series. This should not be thought of as a trilogy, he explained, where the same characters are taken up in each book, in different situations and stages of life. Better to think of it as a triptych, each book related thematically with India as a background in different stages of its development since independence. In the Death of Vishnu, the near-homeless man who lives on the stairwell of an apartment, serves, like the god whose name he carries, as a kind of caretaker watching over (though with little power to intervene), the lives of the tenants. The setting is contemporary--India as it has come to be in the present. In the second book, he wanted to go back in time--not long after independence--to relate something of the story of how a post-colonial state, accepting the challenge of modernity, but without imitating the west, began to work through its own rich traditions to evolve an identity and place in the world that would be its own. Shiva, as a god defined by absence, serves in telling the story of Meera--a love story--maternal, filial and sexual, as she finds herself through the loss and absence of the objects of her love. Shiva is also the god of destruction, preparing the way for Brahma, the emblematic god of the next book--who recreates the world, beginning a new cycle of creation and destruction. Suri, then is engaged in creating a form of aesthetic national myth-making, not unlike that of English literature from the Arthurian legends though Spenser and Blake, but played out on a most intimate and human level. I look forward to reading The Age of Shiva--and to the third book in his triptych.
Manil Suri's webpage