Monday, September 21, 2009

On the orange book

This story starts back in Oslo, Norway, some six months ago (or so). It was a cold and rainy day. (I don’t remember if it actually was, but since we’re talking Norway in approximately March, it’s not at all unlikely.) I had just left my comfortable, office-like space at the university to go downtown to run an errand. On my way, I stopped in a convenience store and looked around for a while.

“Convenience store” is a term I use for my own convenience. See, the concept isn’t as common in Norway. We do have grocery stores, and we have kiosks that are a little less kiosky than they are convenience storey (but we still call them “kiosk”, for some reason). I guess the closest to a proper, U.S. convenience store would be what Norwegians politically incorrectly refer to as “immigrant stores” – usually small stores that have all these convenient supplies you’d expect to find in a convenience store, they have the convenient opening hours you won’t find in most other Norwegian shops, and they are often run by immigrants (hence the name). Also, they usually carry a number of foreign food items that are hard to come by in regular grocery stores, so the convenience just goes on and on.

I am digressing (no surprises there). The store in question is of the (Norwegian) kiosk variety, but to avoid confusion it will from now on be referred to as “the inconvenient convenience store”.

In the inconvenient convenience store (at some point I should explain why it was inconvenient. Alright, I’ll do so now… It was inconvenient because a) it was out of my usual way, and not a place I normally visit. Why this was a problem will be apparent soonish; b) it had books. If you wonder why that is inconvenient, you should try to read some of my blog entries from last week. Books are magnets and I’m just a poor needle not capable of letting go.) – this digression was so long that the poor sentence deserves to be started over (a trick my new friend Jane Austen taught me. Honestly). In the inconvenient convenience store, I spend a considerable amount of time browsing the books. Whenever I step into a bookstore, I will look at the cover of any book I don’t recognize (I work in a bookshop, remember – I recognize quite a lot of them), then pick up whichever ones have covers that appeal to me (yes, I am that shallow), and read on the back. If the back is splattered with “this famous author/critic/newspaper loves this book” and nothing else, usually I will put the book back down. Seriously, I don’t give a tofu turkey’s wobbly breast if The New York Times or Mark Friggin' Twain loved the book (well, if it’s a modern book and Mark Twain rose from his grave to praise it, maybe I care a little) – I want to know what the book is about! (This requires modification: I don’t – I repeat – do NOT want to know ALL of it. Don’t reveal who the murderer is on the back cover! If you do so, why would I then want to read the book?) Occasionally, however, the cover gives a decent description of the story. If this is the case, and if it sounds like a story I might like, the chances are that I will buy the book.

On the day in question, in the inconvenient convenience store, one book in particular caught my attention. It was bright orange, for one thing. And when I turned it around, the back cover text intrigued me, if in an unusual way:
We don't want to tell you too much about this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this:
It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.
The story starts there, but the book doesn't.
And it's what happens afterwards that is most important.
Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.
As a marketing strategy, what they are doing is clever, but risky. The whole “I don’t want to tell you”-part fascinated me, but it could also easily have put me off completely. The most risky part, however, would turn out to be my short attention span.

For some reason I didn’t buy the book (I tried explaining why, but this blog entry is long enough as it is, and I didn't come up with the answer anyway).

However, the book never quite left me. I kept returning to it in my mind. As a result, later that day I went into another store, this time a highly convenient bookstore, to buy it after all. Only to find that I could not remember the title. Or the author. Or what it was about (since that piece of information never was revealed to me).

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had customers ask me for books, starting with “I can’t remember the title, but I think it’s about horses” or “I know for sure it’s got a picture of an albatross on the cover”. It’s not my favourite part of the job. Sometimes I manage to find the book, (my proudest moment was when I was able to trace down “blue cover with short stories written by a man” for a customer once), but I know better than to inflict such impossible tasks on others. Instead, I solitarily scanned the bookstores all over Oslo, looking for a bright orange book.

When you look for them, there are surprisingly many orange books out there. But none of them was the one I was looking for.

However, I was not about to give up. The next time I went to work, I used every possible means of trying to trick our searching system to reveal the title, the author, anything about the book. But the computer was as unable as me to track it down. Those search systems really should have a “search for book cover colour” option…

Finally facing defeat, there was nothing I could do. Unless… It had been a week, but since the store where I had first seen the book is a convenience store and not a bookshop, it was not entirely unlikely that they didn’t sell that many books, and thus the book might still be there.

It was inconvenient for me to go back, but there was nothing else I could do. It was a small price to pay compared to insanity, after all.

The book was still there; in the exact same spot I had put it down a week earlier. The title? The Other Hand. The author – Chris Cleave. I still have trouble remembering that, and for the purpose of this post, I had to look it up. The American version is called Little Bee, and for some reason, that sticks better in my mind.

So, was it worth the trouble? Oh, yes. The Other Hand is one of those books that grips your heart tightly and won’t let go. It had me laughing; it had me crying; it made me read two other books (Chris Cleave’s Incendiary and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – which is considered “the archetypal modern African novel”); and it made me aware of certain problems in the modern world which I previously was completely ignorant about. It’s not a good book – it’s a great book – one I heartily recommend.

The process of finding this book also had a considerable impact on me (though less than the actual book). “The orange book” will forever be something of a Holy Grail to me – it was a quest, and at the end I found, not only the grail shaped bacon (yes, I still know it's actually beacon, but this is how I always read it), but the actual golden cup – the book was a gem well worth every fake orange book there was on the way.

Therefore, imagine my expectation when I recently found myself doing the same thing all over again. The “new orange book” is in fact green. I found it in a college book shop the very first week of term, but I didn’t have the stamina to wait in line behind all the (extremely young-looking) college students who were buying hoodies, tee shirts, caps, shot glasses, boxer shorts and whatnot with the university logo on it (plus maybe a textbook or two). I put the book back. But only in the physical sense.

In my mind I’ve been carrying it with me ever since. I knew it was green. I knew I found it somewhere in the M, N, O or P part of the fiction section. I thought it had something to do with Congo, or at the very least, Africa.

After having looked through every bookstore in Washington, D.C. and in Boston, and consulting my “carries a book catalogue in her head”-friend, Leanne, I once again had to retrace my steps. I went back to the college bookstore. They had fewer hoodies, fewer shot glasses, and most importantly fewer students this time. The book, however, was still there.

I have not yet read “the new orange book”, so I cannot tell you whether this is the grail or the bacon. I can, however, give you the title (Pandora in the Congo) and the author (Albert Sánches Piñol) so that you will have a better chance than me to find it, if and when you ever go looking for it.


Watery Tart said...

I love your tale Mari! You are far more persistent than I am, but I am well aware your love of books is deeper--I love books, but in my tartish, fickle way.

I will keep my eyes open for Little Bee through.

M.J. Nicholls said...

This orange wonder sounds like precisely the sort of cult postmodern heart-tugger I should be reading. I'm sure I can locate a copy in my local library. They have EVERYTHING.

Thanks for the entertaining read about the entertaining read.

Word verification: singes

Cruella Collett said...

Tami, please do! Little Bee is well worth keeping an eye open for! And, judging from the first three chapters, so is Pandora in the Congo too.

M.J. - me likes local libraries with everything! (I was very close to once again brag about the Library of Congress, but I think this blog would explode should I ever mention it again) Cleave is a countryman of yours, I think, so that should further increase the possibility that the book is in the library of everything. Unless someone singed it.

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