Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store, by Robin Sloan

Synopsis 

When Clay Jannon looses his design/marketing  job at NewBagel in San Francisco he begins a quest to find a job. Armed with an Art School Degree and no real world experience, he scours the city both virtually, and physically for a job with little luck, until one afternoon, when he happens upon a help wanted sign in the window of a 24-hour bookstore located, as he describes it, in a euphemistic neighborhood. Inside the strange little bookstore, he meets the enigmatic owner, Mr. Penumbra, whom with one question sets the tone for the rest of the book as well as Clay’s relationship with him “What do you seek in these shelves?” On the surface, it is a simple enough question, but is phrased strangely enough to make one wonder what exactly he is expecting, and hence what is he really asking…

In this case, Clay’s answer is somewhat pedestrian, and not at all surprising; he is looking for a job. Which, after answering questions about nothing more than what his favorite book is and why, he gets the job. The work is simple enough: sell books to those customers who come in to buy them, lend books to members of the book club, record details about the transaction making sure to always include the customer’s clothes and state of mind. Oh, and never read any of the shelved materials.

Well, obviously anyone with half an iota of curiosity couldn’t possibly follow a rule that banned him or her from peeking into forbidden books. Especially not when they are surrounded by a three-story store filled with them, have very few customers at all, and the people who come into borrow the books are, well, strange (even by urban San Francisco standards). When Clay finally gives into curiosity and does peek inside the forbidden cache of books, he discovers more than he ever expected: the books, all three stories of them, are encoded, the order the customers check them out in is significant, and that all of this is tied to a secret society that dates back more than 500 years.

The story that unfolds is an interesting blend of modern technology, old-fashioned detective skills, rare books, and friendship.

 

Thoughts

This was a quick fun read, and I enjoyed it. It was great to spend time in San Francisco searching for a solution to a unique mystery with a wild blend of ethnically diverse arty and techy characters that I haven’t seen so intermixed since my time as an undergraduate at Cal.  However, despite this, I just didn’t love it the way I expected to. To put it plainly, it was good, but not great.

I really enjoyed the way Sloan managed to weave together modern technology, art, books, antiquated printing equipment, trivia, and the City of San Francisco nearly seamlessly. I even found his (purely fictitious) secret society, to be both unique and clever. Usually the appearance of the words “secret” and “society” are quickly followed by the words “Masons” or “Templars,” and then what follows that is usually outlandish claims, apocryphal (if not just downright inaccurate) history, and is a huge turn off for me in a book. So, the fact that Sloan took the time to create his own secret society, with its own history, mission, and funding was awesome!!!

Likewise, I really appreciated the way he managed to show the value and importance of many different talents, from many different disciplines, never at one point falling in to the trap of pitting the arts and sciences against each other. They all had their places and their roles to play, and none was held above another in terms of their value or importance. This, in my opinion, is one of the book’s greatest strengths. All too often, I have found that the boundaries between the arts and the sciences seemed to be lined with invisible barbed wire, a very clear delineation of “them” and “us.” Yet, when those barriers are broken down, the collaborations that come out of mixing these very different groups and disciplines are often phenomenal.

I also really appreciated the manner in which Sloan used San Francisco as a backdrop for the story without letting the city take over the story. Anyone who has spent time in San Francisco can tell you that the city has a personality and a pulse of its own, unlike anywhere else. A personality that can easily overwhelm and engulf a person (or story) if one is not careful. So, while there were definitely telltale signs of that uniquely Bay Area way of thinking, Sloan did not let them become sloppy clichés or tired stereotypes.

However, while the puzzles, odd trivia from history, and of course the constant appearance and reference to books, definitely appealed to me, I found the female characters (all 4 of them) to be a bit wooden at best. I do give him credit for making two, of the women programmers, one a PR wiz, and the final one the curator of a small and obscure yarn museum. It was refreshing to have the token female characters be intelligent and self-sufficient. However, outside of this aspect of their personality (and their level of physical attractiveness), Sloan didn’t really seem to know much else about who his female characters were…. A problem he did not seem have with his male characters, they all seemed to be much more whole and well rounded. Even those male characters that merely appeared on the fringes seemed to be more, for lack of a better term, fleshed out than even the most predominate female characters. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this was intentional or even as a result of some sort of well disguised misogyny. I just think that Sloan spent more time getting to know his male characters, understood them better, and as a result managed to write and portray them better.

I give Sloan credit for making his lead female character, Kat, both beautiful andbrainy (instead of just beautiful)…it is definitely a step in the right direction, but she had far too many elements of the manic pixie girl for me to really connect with her or feel she was much more than just an adolescent male fantasy. Maybe if she had just been super smart, and funny, without also having to be beautiful if might have been more believable…no one else in the book is particularly attractive, in fact most of them seem to be a bit odd looking.

Finally, a word about diversity; I love that this book managed to successfully have a diverse range of characters without ever allowing the character’s ethnicity define them. In each case, they were a character that happened to have a particular background; not one of them ever felt like the “token ethnic character” in an otherwise sea of white characters. This was, in a word, awesome. People come from different backgrounds and creeds, and while it is a part of them, it doesn’t usually define them as a person. It is really refreshing to have the print industry start to catch on to this concept. Perhaps as the trend continues it will not only allow us all to recognize ourselves within the pages of a story, but also start to see how much more we have in common with each other rather than focusing on how we differ.

Over all, this was a quick, fun read, and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. The story was pretty good, and had enough twists and turns to keep me reading, but never really wowed me. However, I do think that Sloan has real talent and potential as a writer. He has good ideas, diverse characters, and a good sense of humor. I believe that as a first novel, this is an excellent effort…and I look forward to seeing how his story telling skills progress over time.

 

Locations Both Real and Imagined 

  • Sloan sets the book in the City of San Francisco and describes the city as “a tiny square punctuated by steep hills and bounded on three sides by water, and as a result there are surprise vistas everywhere.” (Page 6)

 

  • Near the beginning of the book when Clay takes a walk looking for work, it appears from the following quote

“I had followed one strange vista down a line of steep stair-stepped sidewalks, then walked along the water, taking the very long way home. I had flowed the line of old piers –carefully skirting the raucous chowder of Fisherman’s Wharf – and watched seafood restaurants fade into nautical engineering firms and then social media startups.”  (Page 7)

that he begins somewhere in North Beach down along Bay street towards The Embarcadero.

 

  • Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, is purely a work of fiction, it does not exist exactly as it is described in the book.

 “It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town.” (page 7)

However, with the this description in conjunction with the assistance of Google Maps I am figuring that this puts Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore somewhere around the corner of Kearny and Broadway, as there are a number of “euphemistic” stores in this particular area, and just as in the novel there are multiple bus stops in this area. Finally, it is almost the exact location in which one would find the legendary, and absolutely not to be missed under any circumstances, City Lights Books (http://www.citylights.com).

 

  • Industrial Light and Magic in the Presidio, where Mat (Clay’s roommate works). This is indeed a real location. Apparently the LucasFilm Headquarters, The Letterman Digital and New Media Arts Center, is located within the Presidio National Park and is home to Industrial Light & Magic, Animation, Consumer Products, Digital Media, and Franchise Management.  You can see some great photos of the campus on their web site: http://lucasfilm.com/letterman-digital-arts-center-san-francisco

 

  • The Gourmet Grotto, where Kat and Clay have lunch is a real place, but is not called this. As described in the book the Gourmet Grotto is

 “part of San Francisco’s gleaming six-floor shopping mall. Its downtown, right next to the cable-car terminus, but I don’t think tourists realize it is a mall; there’s no parking lot. The Gourmet Grotto is its food court, probably the best in the world: all locally grown spinach salads and pork belly tacos and sushi sans mercury. Also, it’s below ground, and it connects directly to the train station, so you never have to walk outside.” (Page 59).

While this place sounds like something out of a science fiction story, it is (for the most part) real. Located in the Westfield San Francisco Center, there is a rather well known high-end food court, and as described in the book it is subterranean and is connected to the train station. However, I couldn’t find any evidence of it actually being called the Gourmet Grotto. On the other hand, the photos provided on the Westfield San Francisco Center web site definitely made my mouth water. https://www.westfield.com/sanfrancisco/entertainment/dining

 

  • The Mountain View Google Campus, where Kat works, is both very real and very large. However, since Mountain View is closer to San Jose than to San Francisco, and traffic is notorious in the Bay Area I am not so sure that Kat would be living in the city and commuting all the way down there everyday. From what I can see it looks like most of the Googlers live within the areas surrounding the campus.

 

  • Telegraph Hill, where Lapin lives, does indeed offer views of Coit Tower and brags a flock of “wild” parrots living amid the community’s treetops.

 

  • The Reading Room, in New York, brags a 5thAvenue address Central Park. As far as I can tell the building is real enough, but what lies within and beneath, unfortunately, is pure fiction.

 

  • The Dolphin and Anchor, the pub where Penumbra meets Clay and his friends, does not exist as described

“all dark heavy wood and low brassy light.” (Page 131)

Anywhere other than within the pages of this novel. Too bad, it sounded like a cool place,

 

  • Dumbo, the area where Neel and Clay go to collect their package from Grumble, is a Brooklyn neighborhood located between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. It is currently home to a large number of high-tech start-up companies.

 

  • Pygmalion Bookstore in Berkeley, CA, on Engels Street, is sadly not real. However, I did gain a great deal of relief in learning this. If I had managed to miss a bookstore, the size of a city block while I was a student there, I would have been very disappointed in myself indeed.

 

  • The California Museum of Knitting Arts and Embroidery Sciences, in Emeryville, also appears to be a construct of Mr. Sloan’s vivid imagination. Not only does this totally sound like a place I would want to go and see, Sloan managed to describe it in such a manner that it felt authentic to the offbeat unique flavor of the East Bay. So much so that I was genuinely surprised to learn that it was completely fictitious.

 

  • Consolidated Universal Long-Term Storage, appears to be a fictitious business, however, there are plenty of such types of storage facilities.

 

  • Valencia Street, home of the narrow office that is to be the home of Penumbra’s newest venture,

“wedged in between a taqueria and a scooter repair shop,”

is a real location. Or at least as far as I can tell there are a few places along this street that fit the description. However, the actual office of Penumbra is purely fictitious…. Unless, of course, there really is a secret society of book lovers in San Francisco…

 

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