Thursday, September 22, 2011

Guest Review: LIFE AFTER SLEEP Reviewed by Joel Thomas

Mark R. Brand. Life After Sleep. Chicago: CCLaP Publishing, 2011. Fiction (novella). Available as an e-book or in handbound edition.

Mark R. Brand’s sci-fi novella centers around the premise that through the wonders of science, humans can get by on significantly less sleep. A device referred to as a “Bed” allows for full rest in only two hours. Will we use the extra hours in our day for education, cultural enrichment, and making the world a better place? Will we finally get around to donating blood and going to the gym regularly? Or will we simply possess a few more hours each night to help us keep up with our favorite reality shows? Surely we can find more “Real Housewives” adventures to follow, and their own reduced need for sleep will provide even more snippy banter and social catastrophes.

Fortunately, Brand takes readers down a more interesting road. His own background in science and medicine informs the novella throughout, allowing him to provide detailed exposition and explanations of the technology itself and its effects on each protagonist. As we all know, the literary world of tomorrow’s technology often turns out to be a curse more than a blessing, and this novel displays the personal dystopia that is Life After Sleep. Capitalism always wins, of course, and readers soon learn that corporations expect humans to work many more hours, often for less pay. The most glaring example: a war veteran with PTSD working an inhumane number of hours at a futuristic version of Walmart. His Sleep (Brand refers to the shortened version of sleep with a capital letter: “Sleep”) struggles prove nearly devastating, as do the hallucinations of a rest-deprived surgeon who blacks out during operations.

Even with an overarching social theme, the narrative stays focused on individual lives rather than sweeping political statements. This move keeps the novella lean and intimate. Readers meet characters who stay vulnerable and believable, beset by problems and conflict but never forced into saving the world. One major narrative branch, for example, portrays the difficulties of a couple trying to adapt back to more traditional sleep patterns after having a baby. As it turns out, Beds aren’t safe to operate near infants. The young father/husband works too many hours without the benefits of a Bed and its technology-enhanced Sleep, and the young parents both struggle to adapt to their physical needs for rest. In another vein, a successful band promoter pushes the legal and physical limits of Sleep while dabbling in other intriguing technologies (which this reviewer will leave unspoiled so the reader can take pleasure in discovery). Her own desperate lifestyle brings a hedonism and danger-driven appeal to the book.

With Life After Sleep, Brand doesn’t push extremes, keeping a sense of relative believability. Some readers may prefer fantasies so unbelievable that the enjoyment comes from reveling in the seemingly impossible, but this novella’s appeal comes in its chilling likelihood.

Recommended for collections of contemporary fiction, science fiction, medical fiction, and Chicago authors.

Available from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, or from Amazon.

Reviewed by Joel Thomas
Midwestern adjunct writing instructor

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Important Week for an Important Bookstore

Image from Marty After Dark

By now, you've probably heard about the Cooper Square Committee petition to save St. Mark's Bookshop by asking Cooper Union (the bookstore's landlord) for lower rent. The petition response has been amazing, with over 23,000 signatures gathered in less than a week; every time I look at the petition, there are 1,000 more signatures. Many of those signing have left enthusiastic comments about the bookstore and what it means to them, or strong words addressing the irony of an academic landlord who might boot such an intellectual institution out of the neighborhood:

"Please don't let this bookstore close! It would be a disaster. It's one of my favorite bookstores in the world."

"St. Marks is NECESSARY!!! Cooper Union shouldn't be behaving like a commercial landlord -- there's an intellectual heritage at stake."

"Find the pride to claim the St. Mark's Bookstore, a cultural and historical icon, as part of the Cooper Union community."

"Please help this great literary institution to survive. There is no other bookstore with their taste and selection. In a time when we are almost out of places in NYC to find books of the calibre St. Mark's Bookshop selects, it is an essential cultural and historical part of our city."

"one of the most important independent bookstores left in the country."

"Please, the city is slowly losing its soul.... "

If a fraction of those who signed the petition spent $25 at the bookstore this week, it would make an enormous difference to an uniquely wonderful bookstore. It is my humble observation that St. Mark's Bookshop, having been a player in the center of a thriving multi-disciplinary art scene for three decades, has fostered the creation and growth of many small presses and literary journals, and facilitated conversations and connections between many influential artists, writers, and intellectuals. Meanwhile, e-books (and their intersection with Amazon and iPad) seem to be reaching a savvy demographic of readers (many of whom have loathed the chain stores), dealing heavy blows to longtime brick and mortars just as Barnes & Noble's deep-discounts did to local indie bookstores in the 1990s.

But e-books can't be the whole demise of great bookstores, since St. Mark's is one of the many stores that sells Google e-books. Perhaps more to blame is the skyrocketing Manhattan rent that threatens to strangle all but the chain stores. When I lived in New York in the Giuliani years, rumor had it that many of the chain stores (which Mayor Rudy had courted with tax breaks), including Barnes and Noble and Nike, didn't actually make a profit on their New York stores. But they paid exorbitant prices just to maintain a high-profile, big-city "flagship" store. So if no one can actually afford their New York rent, what does that mean for the continuing culture of a great city? To paraphrase a Jim Jarmusch quote from the 2010 documentary "Blank City," New York was always a trading post, but now the main trade is real estate itself.

I do think that this week in particular is an important time for indie bookstore lovers to give more than just their signature. The Village Voice reported on Monday, September 12th, that St Mark's owners are due to meet this week (Wednesday, September 14) with Cooper Union's Vice President of Finance, Adminstration, and Treasury, in order to negotiate a rent reduction--but that "the new administration has not been 'particularly sympathetic.' "

Won't you please show your support in the form of buying a book from St. Mark's Bookshop THIS WEEK? You can browse their selection online via title, author, new arrivals, store bestsellers, autographed copies, remainders, or Google e-books:


Update: Since I posted this late yesterday afternoon, the petition signatures are up to 24,500.

New comments on the petition:

[Dr. ____ from Berlin] "St. Mark's is the only top quality bookstore in NYC. The staggering selection, extensive and discriminatingly selected, is unparalleled - none of the big chains and none of the smaller ones (with their necessarily narrower focus) come close to this unique institution. I send all my students, colleagues, friends heading for NY to St. Mark's. Don't liquidate New York's most respectable Bookstore!"

"How is New York City going to continue to be a literary and cultural center if we lose all of our independent bookstores?"


Note: It is true that I am not only a disinterested bookstore blogger in this case; I am not unbiased. I am a former employee of St. Mark's Bookshop, with years of memories and friendships there. I am also currently writing a book about my years at the store. I should add, however, that I am not writing about my time there just to write a fun memoir about my own life; the bookstore itself was largely the inspiration. St. Mark's Bookshop is such an unique gathering place in the heart of the city of art, the city of publishing, I want to help give it its legend in print; it is certainly long overdue.