Sunday, November 27, 2005

Chronicle: California and Catchup

Your friendly neighborhood BookNerd is back in Brooklyn after a lovely relaxing week in California, and newly energized to jump back into the ongoing conversation about books and bookselling. I've responded to several of your posts, so see below for my thoughts -- I'm grateful for your input and your words of encouragement. I'll be responding to your emails as I have time to give them the attention they deserve -- please bear with me as I deal with the surprising amount of backlog! I'm still working on my HTML skills too (woefully inadequate, due to my non-tech humanities education), so links may take some time to appear, and the format will hopefully only improve with time.

Talk about encouragement -- I was floored to find myself mentioned in the daily email of Shelf Awareness, an extremely well-researched summary of events in the literary world geared toward booksellers. Thanks to everyone for the publicity -- I feel like an institution! Actually, I feel like maybe the flavor of the week. But I plan to keep plugging away after this heady flurry of attention has passed, and I hope I'll still find all of you out there to talk to.

So, as it often turns out, I ended up reading neither of the books on my list on the plane, but something completely different instead. The ALP (adorably literate partner), aware of my plane reading agonies, gave me a copy of Conjunctions: 39, an edition of the twice-yearly literary journal. This edition was called THE NEW FABULISTS, which shows how well he knows me: it was devoted exclusively to contemporary literary sci-fi, fantasy, and genre writers. This kind of writing has been an obsession of mine since Michael Chabon edited the brilliant MAMMOTH TREASURY OF THRILLING TALES, which showcased ghost, mystery, fairy, and adventure stories from contemporary literary heavies. The obsession probably goes back much further, to my C.S. Lewis and Mervyn Peake days, but I love the fact that so many young (and not-so-young) writers are taking advantage of a postmodern anything-goes zeitgeist to explore larger-than-life stories, which at its best, fantasy can produce.

The issue is hit and miss for me, as is the case with most anthologies. Some of the stories are "fabulist" only by a long stretch, and some were so experimental as to be boring. However, there were some knockouts: Kelly Link's "Lull", which I'd read in her collection MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS, is a multi-layered masterpiece; China Mieville' "Familiar" is toe-curlingly eerie and beguiling; Karen Joy Fowler's "The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man" is a wonderfully twisted coming-of-age story; and Neil Gaiman's "October in the Chair" is satisying, if too short. But my favorite was by Andy Duncan, whom I'd never heard of before. His story "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" is basically set inside the world of the old hobo song about the place with "the lake of stew, and of whiskey too," and how our hero has to leave it and return again to figure out who he is and how he got to this paradise. It happens to be among the less dark stories in the collection (I don't mind dark but I'm a sucker for those who can make depth and drama out of happiness and joy), and it kept me enthralled. I guess I'll have to find more of his work.

At my mother's house in California, I glommed on to her copy of the catalog from A Common Reader, which in my opinion recreates the experience of an independent bookstore in mail-order (and website) form: careful selections, great descriptions and recommendations, the sense of a real personality. I actually suggested that I highlight some titles from the catalog for potential Christmas presents, prompting her to ask, "Wouldn't it make more sense for you to just get them at your store discount and I'll pay you back?"

It's a fair question: why, with books at employee discounts or as free reading copies at my disposal, do I continue to buy and request books? The answer can only be a deepseated and incurable addiction. Thank you all for enabling me.

(Coming soon: BookNerd's Best Books of 2005!)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Brief Hiatus

It seems like a silly time to take a break -- there are so many great conversations starting here! But I'm off to California until Saturday, and as it's the only time I get to see my family during the year, I probably won't have time for blogging. Please continue your interesting comments -- I look forward to engaging with all of you when I return next weekend (and I'll reveal who made the plane-reading cut). Happy reading!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Comment/Review: Airplane reading

For book people, the biggest question when taking a trip isn't What should I wear? What should I pack? Which suitcase should I bring? No, of course the vital question is, What am I going to read on the plane?

I'm leaving pretty soon to spend Thanksgiving week with my family in California -- a six-hour flight, plenty of time to get into something good. I love recommending plane books to customers -- it's a chance for them to spend a big chunk of time reading, and a good way to sink deeply into books that would suffer from short bursts of reading time. I tend to favor books that are rich and meaty, but not too heavy -- you don't want someone to get off the plane in a blue funk. It all depends on the taste and mood of the reader, of course -- some people want a beach read, and some want to tackle the Dostoyevsky they've been meaning to read since high school. It's highly ideosyncratic, different every time, and lots of fun if you happen to be a book nerd.

Since I wasn't able to lay my hands on a copy of Vollman's EUROPE CENTRAL, I've been toying with books already on my bookshelf as potential plane reads. The two top choices right now are THE GOLD BUG VARIATIONS by Richard Powers and MILL ON THE FLOSS by George Eliot. I fell in love with Powers' most recent book, THE TIME OF OUR SINGING, when it came out a couple of years ago, and I've been working through his backlist ever since. He definitely passes the dense and meaty test -- he's astoundingly brilliant, his sentences are linguistic and witty treats, and his subject matter is the stuff of "serious play" -- making connections between the largest themes of life. As I describe him to people, each of his books finds a perspective, and from there is about the entire world. TIME OF OUR SINGING was about relativity, music, and race in America; THREE FARMERS ON THE WAY TO A DANCE was about photography, progress, innocence, and World War I; PRISONER'S DILEMMA (reportedly the model for Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS) was about family dynamics, World War II, absolutes of morality, and Disney. The next one on my list is apparently about genetics and music, and it's a weighty one, all right. If I get into Powers I'll be blissfully dead to the world; if I'm too distracted, it will be hard to absorb his complexity.

I'm thinking of Eliot because I read MIDDLEMARCH last year about this time, and was amazed I'd never read it before. The author seems to me to combine the sense of delicate interpersonal dynamics of Austen, the gray-shaded but high-minded morality of Dickens, the social awareness and conscience of, I don't know, Karl Marx, and the sense of the subtle flow of events of Woolf. She's truly a wide open mind, and her book was absorbing and thought-provoking. I have a nice little mass-market edition of MILL ON THE FLOSS, so that might be a good choice.

Then again, there's always P.G. Wodehouse. And I suspect I may indulge my travelling habit of buying a brainless newspaper in the airport. Oh well -- you've got to aim high.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Comment: My People

So, I somewhat tentatively sent out an email about this blog to a long list of the folks in my address book on Thursday morning. The response already has been embarassingly wonderful. Everyone from my high school English teacher to Larry Portzline of Bookstore Tourism has commented or emailed to say that they're reading and enjoying. And best of all for me, I've heard from a bunch of my fellow booksellers with notes of enthusiasm and encouragement. Thanks, guys.

This last couple of days made me think of a time when I worked in a neighborhood where two independent coffee shops opened up around the same time. (Bear with me, this is relevant in the end.) As things settled out, they ended up serving very different clientele: one was the haunt of the older neighborhood denizens, and one was the hangout of a high-powered telecommuter crowd. But unfortunately, there was an intense amount of unfriendly competition between the two. The proprietors of the two shops were in print as denigrating each other, and they'd make snarky off-hand remarks about the other's place whenever it came up. I happened to like both -- one had better espresso, the other played better music -- but I had to keep my divided loyalty a secret so as not to offend the likeable staff of either place. This was in spite of the fact that both were in competition with any number of Starbucks within walking distance.

In the same neighborhood were two bookshops, less than a block from each other. (I worked at one.) Granted, they'd both been around a long time, so their respective areas of expertise were pretty well delineated. But the amount of cooperation between the two was amazing. We shared catalogs, traded books when our stock ran low, recommended each other for offsite events when we were unavailable, and most importantly, recommended each other to our customers when we didn't have the book they wanted but the other place did. It didn't do either of us any harm, and many people became customers of both shops based on our mutual recommendations.

My point is that the outpouring of support for my little efforts here seems to me to be indicative of a mindset among independent booksellers: we know we are not each others' competition. Our competitors are the chains and the internet, not other independents. Most booksellers seem to have really internalized the realization that the more we support each other, the better things go for all of us. That's why independents have the potential to form such powerful alliances, like the ABA, which can become a voice that publishers and the public can hear. Our collaboration is possible because we know that our unique neighborhood-determined shops mean that we can complement each other and increase the customer base for all independents by recommending each other. More than many businesses, independent bookselling is one in which relationships, not undercutting, are valued as business tools. Duh, that's one of the reasons why I love it.

The practice of recommending other stores -- even calling other stores to see if they have the book a customer is looking for -- is one I like to call the "Macy's-Gimble's Phenomenon," after Kris Kringle's ingenious innovation in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. One of my dreams is that regional bookstores could develop a database of the specialities and expertise of all of the bookstores in their area, so that they would know where to send customers even if they'd never been to the store themselves. There used to be a couple of "books of bookstores" for the New York area, but most are out of print because bookstores open and close and it's hard to stay up to date. I think the task of maintaining a list of independent stores is one which could best be undertaken by the bookstores themselves.

I've started a project recently to try to visit all of the bookstores in the New York area. I don't have a timeline or a specific agenda -- I just want to try to get to all of them and see what's out there. Maybe that will be the first step in developing that database. We'll see what happens, and I'd welcome any comments or suggestions. I'm a little shy, but invigorated to know that some of you are reading now, and I hope to hear from you on this and other issues.

Man, I love my people.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Comment: Vollman and the National Book Awards

I was making coffee and listening to NPR this morning when my partner (and several surrounding apartments) might have heard me say "WHAT?!?" I had just heard that William Vollman's EUROPE CENTRAL had won the National Book Award for fiction. The announcement was made as a kind of footnote to Joan Didion's win in nonfiction for THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (which was almost a foregone conclusion, and must make things strange for her, as the award comes at the cost of the deaths of her husband and daughter).

To be honest, I had forgotten that Vollman had even been nominated for the award -- I had glanced at EUROPE CENTRAL when it came out in hardcover and shuddered at how difficult it looked, filled with respect for those who would tackle its 800 pages. And my surprise (and initial indignation) came from the fact that he's not only difficult, but very little known, and it seemed like a purposefully pretentious choice on the part of the judges.

But as I look back at the nominees, I realize there's not really anyone I think should have won instead. Doctorow's MARCH (the only mainstream bestseller) was clearly the favorite, followed by Gaitskill's VERONICA, but I haven't read either or felt any desire to do so. Steinke's HOLY SKIRTS is the only one I know much about, since it's a fictional biography of insane genius Dadaist model perfomance artist New Yorker Baroness Elsa. And Christopher Sorrentino I've heard spoken of respectfully, but he also seems dauntingly difficult.

Fortunately, I was able to recover from my reflexive reaction thanks to having my thoughts on the subject of book awards crystallized by A.O. Scott's brilliant article in the Sunday Times Book Review. Scott explores the paradoxical complaints about the NBA, the Booker Prize, the Whitbread and Pen Faulkner and all the new literary awards cropping up all the time: either they're disgustingly commercial or disgustingly elitist, snobby or pandering. Written before the NBA was announced, his article is amazingly prescient:

"Anyway, the winners will be the obvious choices, authors who have already won plenty of prizes and acclaim, in which case what's the point? ... Either that, or the winners will be people nobody outside a tiny elite has ever heard of... in which case . . . well, see above."

Vollman falls into the second category, obviously, but when one honestly considers the options, that doesn't seem so bad. Sales of his book will likely spike briefly, and perhaps longer if it gets good word-of-mouth from average readers. As a bookseller, I am more likely to have positive feelings about literary awards because of this fact, regardless of fairly or arbitrarily they are awarded. But it does matter whether the books deserve their prize, if only because the award itself needs to maintain its value and integrity. If the NBA winner veers one year toward the commercial and the next toward the obscure, perhaps that's for the best in order to strive for balance and interest readers of all kinds each year.

In my long-held opinion, the lists of nominees for book awards are more helpful and indicative than the actual winner. The shortlist of nominees this year obviously contains some serious writers whose critical reception suggests they deserve a wider readership, at least among those interested in the heavy stuff. Maybe I'll even give Vollman or Sorrentino a try myself. I have a long plane flight coming up, and if they don't keep me interested, maybe they'll help me sleep.

Congratulations to all the winners. I'm especially pleased that Merwin won the poetry award -- I'm a fan of his work, and while I haven't gotten a chance to get to MIGRATIONS yet this will be a good motivation. We booksellers will happily be selling all the winners through the holidays, and hoping their reputations continue to grow.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Chronicle and Comments: KGB & J.T.

(Disclaimer: Today's post was written in a hurry and contains some pretentious New York City namedropping. Read at your own risk of annoyance.)

Last night I made an appearance at KGB Bar on East 4th Street for a goodbye party for an editor. She's graciously accepted my book reviews (and paid me) for a couple of years, and is now migrating west to work on her already-sold novel, so I thought it would be nice to stop by and show my face, since we'd never met in person. I hadn't been to KGB in a couple of years -- I used to go often when I was at NYU, since a professor of mine ran the Monday night poetry reading series. There's a gigantic neon "KGB" sign outside, and a set of stairs just inside the door. The first floor is a small theater, and the bar is on the second. It's just one room, all read, decorated with old Soviet propaganda posters and stencils of Lenin. Strangely cozy, in an ironic sort of way.

My former editor introduced me to my new editor, and we chatted for the duration of a long glass of wine. He looked tired (he's doing two people's work at the moment), but very wryly funny. As is my wont, I chattered on about bookstores -- he loves the store where I work now (maybe more than I do). When I started to tell him about my plans to start an indie of my own in Brooklyn, he asked if I'd like to write a piece about my quixotic struggle to open a bookstore. Of course I would, though I haven't gotten very far in the process yet. But I'm definitely going to start taking notes. As for his suggestion that I could get a book or two out of this -- maybe a little overambitious, even for me.

In other news, the blog of Atomic Books (one of the coolest new indies that I know about, at least based on their website) points out the debate over the reality of cult favorite author J.T. LeRoy. Apparently this article in New York Magazine has prompted the New York Times to stop publication of some articles they'd commisioned from LeRoy, on the grounds that he may be a made-up person.

I sold books at a J.T. LeRoy event a couple of years ago at Fez Cafe. Since the author is reportedly too shy to read from his own book, there were some fun literary celebrities reading from his book, including Michael Musto and Arthur Bradford. My friends and I speculated about whether J.T. might have made a covert appearance, as he supposedly often does. We identified a frumpy-looking woman who might have been a young man in drag. Then again, she might have been a frumpy-looking woman pretending to be a young man in drag, or a young man in drag who is not the author of J.T. LeRoy's books.

The world may never know.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Review: The Brooklyn Follies

by Paul Auster
Henry Holt
Publication Date: January 2006

I'm sorry to be reviewing something that isn't available to most outside the publishing community for a couple of months, but I wanted to get my thoughts down before they fade. This is a book I read in one day -- an extremely rare thing, and like the books that make you miss your subway stop, a good indicator of how compelling this novel was for me. I'm a Paul Auster fan, though I started late with THE BOOK OF ILLUSIONS and ORACLE NIGHT, and am only now coming to some of his earlier work (I have yet to find the time to sit down with the NEW YORK TRILOGY, though it's high on the list of non-new releases I want to read). He seems to me an eloquent storyteller of the city, with plots that sometimes seem modeled after New York streets; he's unafraid of lots of plot, and he sometimes lets his characters get stuck down a dark alley or around an unexpected corner. He's the kind of "postmodern" writer I like -- intelligently having fun with the freedom to use all genres, all voices, all non-traditional structures in the service of something powerful and pleasurable.

This new novel is actually a lot less dark than his two previous novels, and from what I've gathered than his previous work as well. Maybe he's been spending more time in the sunnier borough of Brooklyn, where he makes his home -- this is a novel of neighbors and neighborhoods, not of anonymity and bleak high rise rooms. The story is narrated by a retired insurance salesman, Nathan Glass, who grew up in Brooklyn and has returned there, half jokingly, to die. Glass is divorced, had cancer but beat it, and is planning to live out his remaining days in comfortable solitude. But an encounter with a long-lost nephew, the nephew's charismatic employer, and the sudden appearance of a child without her mother (another relative) hurtles him back into the world of relationships and dramatic goings-on. The plot is breathtakingly suspenseful, but never dips too deeply into darkness, and with a few exceptions, things turn out much as everyone would like, though not necessarily as you'd expect.

Three of the main characters have the last names of Glass, Wood, and Brightman, which is what started me thinking about comparing this novel to Dickens, with his emblematic last names, though these are much more sleek and contemporary than Fezziwig and Murdstone. This seems to me a Dickensian book in many ways: real moral dilemmas are faced, coincidences and plot twists run amuck, the hero finds himself changed by his fellow men, and the city itself plays a characteristic role. Not to mention the happy ending, which is immensely satisfying in a way that has nothing to do with expectations of harsh realism. (Auster subverts the ending somewhat disturbingly on the very last page, but this coda in no way changes the fact that this is basically a novel about happiness.)

Throughout the book, the characters discuss an idea they come to call the Hotel Existence: a real or imaginary retreat from the problems of the world, where all of the luxuries and interests you can imagine are there in a place of safety and companionship. At one point it is suggested that a Vermont hotel may be the embodiment of the idea, but I think for Auster the real Hotel Existence is Brooklyn itself. All vices and desires are represented there, but the strong fabric of the neighborhoods and the enduring hominess of the architecture, and all of the other indeterminable factors that make the borough "the world's biggest small town," mean that in some ways Brooklyn (at least the Brooklyn these characters live in) is both a safe retreat and a place to become deeply involved and fulfilled.

Incidentally, I tend to feel the same way about Brooklyn. It feels more like a hometown to me than anywhere I've lived since my childhood -- a place of traditions and of wild new possibilities. But even if you don't share the feeling, Auster's latest is definitely worth a read. Don't come looking for his traditional noirishness; just enjoy a grab-you-by-the-collar story full of meaty details and compelling characters that is as satisfying as a fat Dickens novel, with a very contemporary sensibility.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Response: Why Amazon Is Not the Best Thing to Happen to Bookselling

On Halloween, Bookslut provided a link to an article by Alison Rowat in the Glasgow Herald titled "Why Amazon is the best thing to happen to bookselling." (It's now been archived; here is a link to the abstract, and I'm happy to email the entire article to anyone who requests it.) I forwarded it to my local booksellers listserve immediately for consideration, but I've been stewing about it ever since. My first reaction to Rowat's complete dismissal of independent booksellers as "fantasy merchants" and "dated as ration books" was so dumbfounded, so full of personal righteous indignation, that I didn't feel capable of gathering my thoughts for a reasoned response. Tonight, however, serving my quiet shift at the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company (another quixotic venture I'll expand upon later), I feel ready to marshal my passion into the service of logic and offer my refutation of the points Rowat has put forward.

(To some, it may seem like a bit of an overreaction to so meticulously respond to an article in a small overseas online periodical, especially one written in a fairly tossed-off, ain't-it-obvious tone, and probably geared toward a set of readers entirely different from anyone likely to read me here. But I'm afraid Rowat's comments are indicative of a thoughtless mindset unfortunately widespread among book buyers. And I hope that we, as booksellers, can "be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in you" [as the underdog early Christians were admonished, if you'll forgive an un-PC literary allusion]. It matters that we know why and how she is wrong. This isn't for the Rowats of the world; it's for the independents who want to change their minds.)

First, I have to acknowledge that there is some truth in Rowat's defense of against the charge that it (along with Britain's Waterstones and America's Barnes & Noble) is destroying literature by offering nothing but blockbusters. As she rightly points out, Amazon makes a huge variety of books, both super-hyped and relatively obscure, available to would-be readers who don't have a local bookstore, or whose local bookstore doesn't carry what they want to read. This has been a boon for those outside of major urban areas in the same way that many, many aspects of the Internet and its age have been, and I don't begrudge Amazon its success, or those readers their books -- more power to them.

But my argument comes down, more or less, to this (credit for the metaphor to my adorably literate partner and housemate, who helps me focus my ranting). Amazon is to an independent local bookstore what the liquor section of the grocery store is to a local pub. Heck yeah, the stuff at the former is cheaper, and they probably have any variety you could think to want. But you don't go to the latter for the prices or the convenience, do you? People visit there for the product, yes, but also for a good recommendation, for the serendipity of who or what you'll find there, for the soul-strengthening reality of being in a building, on a street, with other people. They go there for community. And they go there for the good stuff you can only get in small doses, with luck, from a friendly host.

Okay, I've stretched the metaphor far enough. Truth is, as Rowat implies, there is a lot of nostalgia for an idyllic pre-virtual age in some of the grousing about Amazon, and indie bookstores aren't perfect little Edens, for the most part. What they are, however, is a very real, very contemporary, vibrant and changing part of the literary and cultural world, and one which can (potentially) offer benefits which Amazon simply cannot. Take, for example, the issue of recommendations. Rowat praises Amazon for suggesting "you may also enjoy" books by Saul Bellow when she purchases Portnoy's Complaint online. (She asserts, rather surprisingly, that she has had "bad" books pushed on her at brick-and-mortar stores by booksellers needing to get rid of overstock. I've never heard of this practice, which seems unlikely since a bookseller can always return unsold stock to the publisher, but if it's happened that bookstore deserves her criticism - neighborhood bookstores thrive on trust and returning customers, not on one quick sale. And I have heard it suggested, though I cannot prove, that in some cases Amazon actually accepts payola [i.e. co-op dollars] for prominent placement of books, rather than relying on any editorial discretion.)

In my opinion, it's pretty easy to give Bellow to a Roth reader -- heck, a computer could do it. Both authors fit easily into a certain era and sensibility. But to suggest that a fan of Portnoy's Complaint might also enjoy the dark hilarity, sexual anxiety, and Jewish cultural subtexts of Daniel Handler's (aka Lemony Snicket's) under appreciated adult novel Watch Your Mouth? That takes more insight, and more time, than an automatically generated list of "matches" can provide. It takes a bookseller.

I actually suspect that Rowat, perhaps like many Amazon users, doesn't really get much use out of the depth and variety that she touts as Amazon's strength. (As Andrew Laties, author of the phenomenal Rebel Bookseller advises, what customers say they want isn't always the same as what they do want, and superstores like B&N actually refer to most of their non-bestseller titles as "wallpaper" because of the merely decorative function they serve in such a store.) She complains that the brick-and-mortar store she visited didn't have a copy of the Man Booker Prize-nominated book she asked for. (This could have been oversight on the part of the bookstore, though it could also have been a result of over ordering by, and preferential treatment of, Amazon and the chains, which has been known to happen in the case of a big book.)

Rowat found her book on Amazon, of course. The book has been culturally vetted, one of the few that achieve wide enough notice that it becomes a must-have, go-to item. But as many readers and booksellers know, awards or blockbuster status or cultural cachet can be fickle and arbitrary things, and many readable, important, thought-provoking, brilliant, original, worthy, and loveable books fall through the cracks. The only way to discover them is to get them from someone who really knows your taste -- or just to browse a good selection and see what you run across. These two things, community and serendipity, are the treasures available from independent stores which, for all its riches, Amazon cannot provide.

For all its length now, my thoughts only scratch the surface of the online megastore/independent debate. Other voices have joined in the discussion of this particular piece: here, and here , for starters. (A quick Googling of Alison Rowat will reveal that her style and depth of coverage has made her more enemies that friends on previous occasions as well.) And I know that independents are actually gaining force and will to continue to find their place in a digital age, something I mean to chronicle here. Rowat compares Amazon to Dickens' publishing in periodicals, as "turning the technology of the age to his advantage." But buying well-known books from the standard online source isn't the same thing as creative use of technology. Independents will thrive as they bring their talents to the electronic age with passion instead of fear: with effective online ordering, websites full of their employees' unique recommendations, blogs to bring community and serendipity to a wider market.

We don't need to hate Amazon for what it does. We need to do what we do better. Because what we do is irreplaceable. A good local independent bookstore may be the stuff of book lovers' fantasies. But it's also as real as the corner bar, and getting better all the time.