Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Link Lunacy

Happy Halloween! I love this holiday, despite my horror of horror films (and tendency to get freaked out when staying in the tower rooms of Victorian bed-and-breakfasts). It's an excuse to dress up and become someone imaginary (a thrill for a lover of the magical in literature), and a time to turn everything upside down: our version of the Carnival that provides a safe space for our strangest and silliest impulses. Whether or not you're planning on doing anything scary, eerie or carnivalesque today, it's a good time to get into the spirit of the macabre, if only as a break from your utterly reasonable interests the rest of the year. Here are a couple of suggestions.

Chas Addams, the New Yorker cartoonist and creator of the Addams Family, is the subject of a new bio by Linda Davis that looks pretty great. Check out this excerpt and some cartoons on the NPR website.

It's a great day to check out And Now The Screaming Starts, a blog dedicated to all things strange and scary (though it's more delightfully odd than actually frightening). Book reviews of WORLD WAR Z and Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins are just the beginning. Check out the links at right for more goofy horror blogs.

And if you're on your way to the Manhattan Halloween Parade, stop by McNally Robinson Booksellers after 5 for our own bit of spooky weirdness: the funerary violin stylings of Rohan Kriwaczek, author of AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF THE ART OF FUNERARY VIOLIN. Check out the NPR piece for the backstory on this enigmatic work, and Rohan's website for his own presentation of the matter. I'm looking forward to some dressing up, eating candy, and listening to some appropriately eerie music for the dead on this day of appreciation for the literary weird.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Comment: Recent Reads

I'm running out the door today, so I'll save my book reviews for a day when I have time to do them justice. But as a sneak preview, here are my three most recent reads, all of which I enjoyed in their wildly different ways.

THE KILLING JAR by Nicola Monaghan
(Scribner, due out April 2007)

(First Second Books)

THE DISSIDENT by Nell Freudenberger

In the meantime. I'd love to hear from you.

What are you reading, or what have you read recently?
What do you think of it?
Where did you hear about it?
Who would you reccommend it to?

I'm always looking for new reading suggestions, and stories of how books find their readers. Looking forward to hearing yours!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Chronicle: Light-headedness

I skipped out of work early today to come home and nap -- the bug that's been going around caught up with me, and I've got that heavy-limbed, fuzzy-headed, dizzy, nauseated, generally charming thing going on.

But that's not the only reason I'm light-headed.

I'm going to Portland!

I've been hearing about the ABA's Winter Institute since this time last year. It sounded odd at first -- like BEA, but without the sales floor: just pure programming for booksellers. But the booksellers who went to the first one in Long Beach came back singing its praises, saying they learned more practical stuff about running a bookstore, and had a better time meeting authors and each other, than at any other event ever.

So yeah, I wanted to go to the Institute in Portland, Oregon this year, especially when I checked out the session lineup. Financial documents! Store design! Magazine selling! New media! Not to mention the author events, and the chance to hobnob with other dedicated booksellers -- candy for a book nerd like me. But the bookstore couldn't afford to send me (and most of these are skills I'd be putting to use in my own future bookstore, not necessarily in my current job), and I couldn't see a way to swing that airfare myself, despite the admonitions of fellow booksellers and other advisors that I needed this education.

Then I heard about the Emerging Leaders scholarship, and thought I'd better give it a try. I didn't think I had much of a shot -- I've been in the business for a number of years now so there are probably folks who are more "emerging" than me, and since I won a scholarship to the NAIBA trade show several years ago I figured my karma was fresh out of scholarships. But I wrote my essay and I sent it off.

Yesterday afternoon, Len Vlahos (one of my favorite people at the ABA) called for me at the store and broke the news. The Emerging Leaders committee gave me the scholarship. They're flying me out and putting me up. I'm afraid I got all high-pitched on poor Len -- he really did make my day.

Thank you so much to the founders of the Emerging Leaders Group -- Julia Colishaw (Shaman Drum Bookstore), Cindy Dach (Changing Hands Bookstore), Allison Hill (Vroman's Bookstore), and Neil Strandberg (Tattered Cover Bookstore). This means so very much to me, and I can't wait to see you all in Portland.

Now, the ALP is making something that smells delicious for dinner, so I'm going to pull my bathrobe around me and shuffle off. But you'll know that dreamy smile on my face isn't just the fever talking.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Chronicle: Coming and Going, Watching and Talking

Time for a Chronicle update, as there seem to have been a number of Doings in my little bookselling world to report on in the last couple of weeks.

Did I mention I'm now the events coordinator for my bookstore? Our former coordinator decided a few weeks ago that he'd like to spend more time on the sales floor (he's in charge of the literature section, lucky guy), so I was tapped to step in. And I'm totally loving it. In addition to hosting events, I now get to work with authors and publicists to set up events in the store, figuring out what works best for us and them, trying to think creatively about what's likely to attract the best audiences. It's a lot of emailing, and also a lot of making up flyers and posters and ordering and returning books. I'm a lot busier at the store than I used to be, but it's something I've wanted to do for a long time. And spending half of the time in the back office and half of the time on the sales floor is great – computer work and customer service are a good break from each other.

Man, I love my job. The performative, conversational, communal aspects of reading really appeal to me, and I feel lucky to be able to help to shape that in our store. And I love pitching things I care about – I'm like some kind of semi-competent PR agent, who can only sell what she really loves. And I get to do arts-and-crafts stuff with the sign and poster making – what could be better?

Movie Screening: Indies Under Fire
As I mentioned, a group of us convened at Steve's apartment a couple of weekends ago to watch the buzzed-about documentary INDIES UNDER FIRE, which tells the story of the conflict of chains and indie bookstores in the San Francisco Bay area. Steve and his girlfriend Anique were there, along with Amanda and Alison from Good Yarns bookstore, Sean from independent rep group Parson Weems, and a longtime book industry type from Consortium Book Group. We'd gotten tentative RSVP's from a couple of other booksellers and publishers and were sad they couldn't make it, but the small group was actually a great size for conversation.

Unfortunately, most of us had criticisms of INDIES UNDER FIRE. While the footage of customers and staff at Bay Area indie bookstores clearly demonstrated the love and loyalty that those people felt for their local indies, it seemed to be preaching to the choir. I don't know that anyone who doesn't already see the value of indies or the dangers of the spread of chain stores would be convinced by the movie. And when a Borders exec claimed he knew many people who were "begging" for a Borders in their community, I wanted to see those people and their reasons, or at least some evidence that they didn't exist.

Actually (and this is strictly my opinion) I thought the chain employees didn't even come across as the biggest villains (there was one Borders manager in particular who was clearly very professional and sympathetic) – it was the landlords and developers who seemed like the worst players, with a short-sighted, self-serving idea of what their communities needed and no interest in responding to neighbors but only in making a quick buck. (But maybe I just feel that way because I live in the New York real estate market...)

But the best part about the movie was that it did instantly spark conversation – we were debating before the credits were over. Where is the line between serving consumer free choice and being a predatory business? Should independent bookstores position themselves as the equivalent of a nonprofit, something that should be supported and protected because it's an ethical thing to do, or should they focus on offering superior service and experience in order to effectively compete as a business? Is there some kind of conflict of interest in campaigning for preserving your community when it benefits you financially, or is that just a part of being a good citizen of your neighborhood? What exactly are the qualitative differences between chains and indies in terms of atmospheres, employees, selection, etc.? Is it possible that there are some readers who actually prefer the chains, or is it just a lack of education that makes them think so? Is there room for both the chains and the indies in the American bookselling landscape? How can we make the playing field more level, while still demanding the best from every bookstore?

Obviously, the questions go on and on, and our individual answers to them may determine our direction as local independent businesses of all kinds. I think it might be more productive to show this film to bookstore owners and other independent business owners than to bookstore customers in a public screening – it really forced us to think hard about how we position ourselves in our market, the factors we're up against, and the power we can have if we work together. I'm curious to hear others' takes on the movie – let me know what you think if you've seen it.

Meeting: Emerging Leaders planning
Last Friday I met up with Steve Colca (publicity, W. W. Norton) and Amanda Lydon (manager, Good Yarns Bookshop) to work on our game plan for Emerging Leaders, both the next Night Out and some additional projects and ideas. (I have to add here, that one member of our planning committee is having a serious moment in the sun – check out today's Shelf Awareness for a great piece on the media attention that Amanda and her mom, Margaret Osondu, have been getting from the Today Show and Oprah!)

Over fabulous tacos from La Esquina and a drink or two at Double Happiness, Steve, Amanda and I laid our plans, which involve another Emerging Leaders Night Out this fall, as well as a young bookseller/publisher roundtable of some sort early in the new year. One of our major focus points for this next ELNO will be getting more booksellers into the mix, and we've got some plans for doing so; drop me a line if you've got ideas about that or you'd like to get involved. I'll keep you posted!

Weekend: NAIBA Board Meeting
This Sunday and Monday was the fall meeting of the board of directors of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers association in Spring Lake, New Jersey. So Sunday morning I met up with NAIBA executive secretary Eileen Dengler, her assistant Doreen, vice president Lucy Kogler (of Talking Leaves bookstore in Buffalo) and secretary/treasurer Pat Kutz (of Lift Bridge Books in Rochester). Eileen drove us the hour and a half through Staten Island and environs down to Spring Lake, a pretty little town of high-end summer houses on the Jersey Shore. We met up with Betty Bennett (of Bennett Books and the fabulous Bennett family) and former president Fern Jaffe (Paperbacks Plus in the Bronx) and had lunch in the Who's On Third Diner, a baseball-themed place filled with locals, and we were already talking business. (Actually, we'd been talking bookstore stuff all the way in the car, and we didn't stop even for meals this weekend. What can I say? – we're all bookstore nerds.)

We stayed in a beautiful Victorian B&B called the Normandy, with weirdly wonderful "women's handicrafts" (like wreaths made of hair) on the walls, lots of adorable details, scrumptious food, sweet staff, and a super-cool Tower Room at the top, where I was lucky to be assigned. (The view of the ocean was great and it was charming in the daytime, but when the wind blew at night and the stairs creaked, I couldn't help imagining Victorian ghosts coming to join me in the Tower, and I tossed and turned a bit. This is what comes of having a book-addled imagination.)

The Board convened at two o'clock on Sunday, and we talked business straight through until two o'clock on Monday, with only occasional breaks to raid the cookie table, walk down the boardwalk for dinner in a local restaurant, and sleep. Joe Drabyak of Chester County Books & Music is president this term, and he led the meeting admirably, with his trademark brilliantly groan-worthy humor and a great instinct for making sure all voices were heard. You can see a complete list of the board employees, members and their bookstores on the NAIBA website (soon - it's in the process of being posted); for me this weekend they became just Betty, Fern, Eileen, Joe, Jack, Lucy, Paul, Pat, Harvey, Doreen, Carla, Lynn, Tim, and Rob. I treasure the conversations I got to have with them in between business about our towns and our stores, our lives and our families, our histories and our hopes. One of the purposes of the meeting, we all agreed, is to rejuvenate ourselves as booksellers and as board members by spending time with people who are equally committed to books, bookselling, and the independent bookstore community, and who become friends as well as associates.

Our goal for the weekend was to set our plans for the year, and figure out how we as an association can better serve the bookstores that make up our constituency (not to mention getting more regional bookstores to become members, goals which obviously go hand in hand). This involves allocating our finances, working with publishers, planning small events like the Trunk Show in upstate NY and the Shop Talk events in various cities, and the culmination of our year, the Fall Trade Show. We came up with neat ideas in a lot of areas (you'll see them happening and hear about them on this blog in the next year), but we saved the trade show talk for last.

In a late-night, after-dinner meeting on the wide porch of the Normandy, we worked to formulate what exactly the purpose of the fall show and convention is, and what it should be, and whether it's working to that purpose. We tried to figure out how we can make the show more attractive and more productive for publishers and especially for our membership. And we came up with a somewhat revolutionary plan for a new kind of show. I can't write about the new focus yet – "discretion" is actually right there in the "NAIBA Board of Directors Guidelines" – and anyway it will be so much cooler when we reveal it all at once. But it's going to surprise you and knock your socks off, and we think it's going to be a radical, wonderful clean slate. So be prepared, and stay tuned...

I hitched a ride home on Monday with Fern Jaffe (after ruefully admitting to Eileen that as a carless New Yorker I'm like the kid in the carpool, since after every meeting the question is "Okay, who's got Jessica?"). Fern and I talked about her experiences as not only the owner of the only independent bookstore in the Bronx (Paperbacks Plus) but also the first president of NAIBA, back when it was still the New York–New Jersey Independent Booksellers Association. (Eventually the organization merged with the Middle Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, and the combination of names is where New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association comes from – not, as I thought, because it's not the "old" AIBA.) Fern is an incredible mentor and force in the industry, and I feel lucky to have finally met her after hearing about her for years. She's just one of the amazing booksellers who make up this community in which I've found myself. And I'm grateful for all of them.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Stay tuned

I just staggered home last night from a super-productive board meeting of the New Atlantic Booksellers Association, and I haven't quite collected my thoughts on that and other recent events. I'll have a nice juicy Chronicle post up here tomorrow, so check in then.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Happy Birthday, Blog

On October 20, 2005, I posted my first entry on my new blog The Written Nerd (a name I had tentatively floated to the ALP a few days earlier and been encouraged by his laughter). The post was called My Overenthusiasm.

I'd been feeling a little isolated in my book nerdishness at the bookstore where I then worked, where folks didn't seem to share my enthusiasm for the work. I'd been inspired by Robert Gray's Fresh Eyes; I sent myself an email with his URL and the text "Think about doing this yourself." I wasted a lot of work hours reading Jessa Crispin's Bookslut (yep, she's an inspiration too in some ways), and I was getting excited about the possibilities of talking about books on the web.

A week or two after my first post, I sent my new blog address to almost my entire email list. That list included NAIBA Executive Secretary Eileen Dengler, who sent it to the entire NAIBA listserve, which is certainly how people in the industry started to hear about it.

In the whole year since then, I've been encouraged and inspired and challenged by your comments. I've been flattered and invigorated by hearing from people who read the blog at conferences and trade shows and in my own bookstore, and I've made more than one virtual friend who turned into a real one. Opportunities have arisen that would never have occurred without this exposure. And I've developed my own ideas about independent bookstores and what I want to do in this world.

James Frey, J. T. LeRoy, and Opal Mehta scandalized us. Orhan Pamuk was arrested, then won the Nobel. David Mitchell, Mark Binelli, Richard Powers, Sam Savage, Brian K. Vaughan, and dozens of others made us remember why we read. I've moved to a new bookstore (where there's lots of enthusiasm) and joined the NAIBA Board of Directors. Emerging Leaders has, well, emerged. I've discovered Bookdwarf, Bookseller Chick, Conversational Reading, Ed Rants, and dozens of other tantalizing litblogs. I've joined the Litblog Co-Op and had my own standards of reading and writing and supporting underdogs raised. We've debated the degree of independence that being an independent really means, and how we can effectively work together. I've learned, and thought, and written a heck of a lot more than I did in the year before.

So, this is one of those birthdays where everyone else gets presents, even if it's just a big old cyber THANK YOU. I really just want to say thanks to everyone who's read, commented, excerpted, linked, talked, and emailed in the last year. Despite my desire to talk, I probably would have quit long ago if I hadn't felt that you were listening, and talking back. You're my community, and you rock.

Not everything has changed -- I'm still pressed for time, running off to my paying job and tearing myself away from this most addictive and productive of free-time hobbies. Hope you're all enjoying the Halloween season this time around. Thanks so much again for your support. Happy reading!

Monday, October 16, 2006


(I've got a lot of work to do today, so I thought I'd post this handy reference guide I'd written up and meant to post for a while. That way it'll be there on the sidebar under "Previous Posts" if you ever need to refer to it. I'll post something more substantial later this week.)

I know I'm always prodding you readers to comment on the issues I discuss on The Written Nerd. However, it has occurred to me that since many of you are book people, not blog people, you may not know how easy it is to comment (or "post a comment") on a blog. Forgive me if this is all old news to you, but I thought I'd write up a brief tutorial to make commenting less of a mystery. These instructions look long, but I'd say they take about 30 seconds, plus however long it takes you to articulate your thoughts in writing.

How to Comment On This Blog

1. Click on the "[#] COMMENTS" link at the bottom of the post on which you wish to comment. A new window will pop up (disable your pop-up blocker if you need to.)

2. In this new window, type in your comment in the box under "Leave your comment."

3a. If you have a Blogger user name, click on the bubble next to "Blogger." Type in your user name and password in the blanks that appear.

3b. If you want to post your comment anonymously, click on the bubble next to "Anonymous." You will not be asked for any identification info.

3c. If you want to comment using your name (or any name), click on the bubble next to "Other". Type the name you wish to use in the blank marked "Name." The "Web page" blank is optional, but you can use it to include the address of any website you want people to link to when they click on your name in the comments.

4. Type the squiggly letters you see into the "Word Verification" blank. (This exists to prevent the comment equivalent of spam email.)

5. Click "Preview" to see what your comment will look like. You can edit the writing in the "Leave your comment" box to modify your comment.

6. Click the blue "Publish Your Comment" button.

Congratulations! You've commented on The Written Nerd!

Link-Mad Monday: Rats, Cranes, Ghosts

Hooray, actual links on an actual Monday!

* Last week was Slate's Fall Fiction week, which of course I'm slow in noticing. My favorite article in their "Book Blitz" is this one on Overlooked Fiction, with comments from bloggers (including Bookdwarf) and booksellers (including my former coworker Carol at Three Lives, a voracious reader and supporter of the underdog if ever there was one; hi Carol!) Lots of other interesting stuff in the Slate lineup, too; I'll have to read through some of it before I can link and recommend.

* And the winner is: FIRMIN! The Litblog Co-Op's Read This! Selection has been announced, and Sam Savage's literate rat takes the field. Click over for nominator Ed Champion's brief but thoughtful take on why he picked this book, including this great summation:

Firmin challenges our narrative assumptions by presenting us with a tale told by a rat, signifying perhaps both nothing and everything, about the relationship between reality and fiction. It can be read as a literal entertainment or a multilayered parable about gentrification and the palliatives and pitfalls of imagination.

* Speaking of Ed Champion, today the man is hosting what you've all been waiting for: the Richard Powers Echo Maker Round Table. Today is the first of five installments, containing the rambling thoughts of nine readers (including yours truly) riffing off of each others' musings on the novel, followed by a response from Mr. Powers himself on Friday. This will serve in lieu of a review of this Book #39 for me, as I found myself writing and thinking more deeply about this book in this format than about any I've read recently. (Yes, I'm still a fan!) I'm totally hooked on the roundtable as a kind of virtual book club, one where you have room to really develop your opinions. And of course I'm totally star struck that Richard Powers now knows my name (if only virtually, in order to comment on my crackpot opinions). Hope you enjoy the exchange!

* Last night I wore my CBGB T-shirt to a screening of INDIES UNDER FIRE at Steve Colca's place in Harlem (which I'll write more about later), totally unaware that last night was the last hurrah for this legendary rock fortress. I gotta admit I never actually went to a show at CBGB proper (I did go to the CB's Gallery next door, which had more folky and indie stuff), but it seemed important that it existed as an emblem of all things down and dirty and New York and punk rock. Now its legend will only grow, unimpeded by a concrete existence. Firmin would understand. Here's what Patti Smith said:

"Kids, they'll find some other club," Ms. Smith insisted during her set. "You just got a place, just some crappy place, that nobody wants, and you got one guy who believes in you, and you just do your thing. And anybody can do that, anywhere in the world, any time."


* And if you feel like continuing to bask in the sweet misery of nostalgia for places that are no more (a sentiment always easy to conjure up in this changeable city), the Times also has a piece on Bookstores That Live Only In The Mind: all the great NYC bookshops that have closed in the last 10 or 15 years. I think it's pretty amazing how long some of these guys lasted, from the 'teens to the '90s in some cases. Me with my militant optimism, I'd love to see a piece someday on stores that have opened and are succeeding. But it's also important to pay attention to what's come and gone. These were bookstores where dusty old print media could live and breathe, and we respect them as they respected books and readers.

So go ahead and indulge in a little Monday moping; I'll be back on Wednesday with a review of the new documentary and hopefully some new books, to help us face forward again. Happy reading!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Comment: Awards Week, with Audience Participation

As you probably know if you're a person who reads about books, it seems to be awards week in book country.

Kiran Desai won the Man Booker Prize for THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS.

Her fellow shortlisters were:
Kate Grenville for The Secret River
M. J. Hyland for Carry Me Down
Hisham Matar for In the Country of Men
Edward St Aubyn for Mother’s Milk
Sarah Waters for The Night Watch

(Since this is a British Commonwealth prize, some of these books have not yet been published in the U.S. and may be unfamiliar.)

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature (which I personally think is wonderful and inevitable.)

And the shortlist was announced for this year's National Book Award:

Mark Z. Danielewski, Only Revolutions (Pantheon)
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (Ecco/HarperCollins)
Richard Powers, The Echo Maker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Dana Spiotta, Eat the Document (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)
Jess Walter, The Zero (Judith Regan Books/HarperCollins)

Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Simon & Schuster)
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (Alfred A. Knopf)
Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Houghton Mifflin)
Peter Hessler, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present (HarperCollins
Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Alfred A. Knopf)

Louise Glück, Averno (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
H.L. Hix, Chromatic (Etruscan Press)
Ben Lerner, Angle of Yaw (Copper Canyon Press)
Nathaniel Mackey, Splay Anthem (New Directions)
James McMichael, Capacity (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Young People's Literature:
M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party (Candlewick Press)
Martine Leavitt, Keturah and Lord Death (Front Street, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press)
Patricia McCormick, Sold (Hyperion Books for Children)
Nancy Werlin, The Rules of Survival (Dial/Penguin)
Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese (First Second/Roaring Brook Press/Holtzbrinck)

I admit I strongly approve of some of the panel's choices, and find myself baffled by others (click here for a list of this year's National Book Award judges). Don't have a lot of time this morning to expand upon that, so I thought I'd ask you what you thought instead.

First off, what is the point of literary awards? To make up for the meager and unprofitable life of an author by offering a bit of glamor and/or money? To draw attention and boost sales of the best books of the year? To serve as a marker of changing public tastes? To have everyone in the tiny insular world of books pat each other on the back? Other ideas?

And once you've decided that, how well do awards achieve that objective? Are some better at certain goals than others? (Which award winner sells best is a subject of much discussion by booksellers.) Is this year's array of shortlisters better or worse at achieving these objectives than in years past?

And tangentially, how important is the ultimate winner to you? Does it make a difference which of the shortlisters get the final nod, or is the list itself more interesting?

And the irresistable question: how fair is the judging? Is the winner just the least offensive compromise option? Is there a way to judge literary merit outside of politics?

And as an alternate question, which books or authors do you think should have been nominated for these awards that weren't?

Go to town, folks -- I know you all have strong opinions on these things (I've witnessed many a heated debate about them) so I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Link-Madness Continues

Yeah, I know it's Wednesday and I usually write something more substantial, but there are a bunch of links I missed and lots to do at home. So check it out:

*Shelf Awareness on Tuesday noted that it seemed to be indie bookstore weeked for the Associated Press, with not only the story I linked about niche bookstores hitting national papers, but this article (here in USA Today) about indie store struggles and successes. More optimistic facts from Oren Teicher; more head-shaking pity from the reporters about those poor indie bookstores. But this does give some good attention to the good stuff that's going on in good stores. The AP really likes that photo of the guy next to the "Invasion from Mars" poster, huh?

*You've probably already heard that everyone's favorite radio voice Garrison Keillor is opening a bookstore in St. Paul, but here's the whole story from Bookselling This Week. This is only one of many stories of bookstore openings, anniversaries, and other milestones this week, but it's fun to have a famous name inolved. I wonder if you'll be able to actually walk in and say "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch" to the man himself? (Wait, is that even him who does the Writer's Almanac?) In any case, I love the description:

Store signage will read "Corner Books" and beneath that, in smaller letters, will be "G. Keillor, Prop." The store's tagline, created by Keillor, is "Live local. Read large."

* I found a new cool bookstore blog purely by accident: Downtown Books in Memphis, TN is doing the Blogspot thing. The 9/11 post links to an article in the Memphis Daily News about the store's inception. Good bookish writing, very cool store.

* It's been a while since I mentioned my hero among bookstore blogs:Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD. It's quirky and local and the whole staff is involved. When I have a store, this is what my blog is going to look like. But when, oh when, am I going to make it to Baltimore and visit all the cool bookstores there???

* Oh, and hello: Kiran Desai has just won the Man Booker Prize for The Inheritance of Loss. Hooray for her! Since David Mitchell didn't even make the short list this year I hadn't been paying much attention to the buildup to the prize announcement, but it is always exciting to have a new book-of-the-year to discuss. I haven't read Desai's book, but by all accounts it's a heartbreaking but fabulous thing. Take a look and report back.

Okay, off to make some yummy soup and wait for the delivery guys from the Container Store to deliver those delectable organizing contraptions that are going to change our lives around here. Enjoy the day.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Link-Mad Columbus Day Monday: Hauntings

Just a couple of light links today -- it's a beautiful fall holiday morning, and I can't confine myself to the computer screen for long.

* The ever-restless mind of the ALP has launched a new project: And Now The Screaming Starts, a blog devoted to the horror genre so dear to my man's heart. (CRwM is another acronym adopted by the ALP - long story.) His book and movie reviews are actually pretty darned insightful, and mixed in with appreciations of the new Halloween marshmallow Peeps. How can you resist?

* Speaking of Halloween-ishness, a sharp-eyed friend (thanks, Lauren!) sent along this article about a couple of fantasy & horror niche bookstores that are making good. I'm not sure they took the ABA's quotes entirely in context -- studies indicate that indie bookstore shares are actually increasing in market share, though times are still tough -- but it's a cool piece about another kind of community of booklovers.

* And another kind of haunting: I just this morning finished Richard Powers' new book THE ECHO MAKER. I'm not quite ready to review it yet; need to sit with it and mull. But there are some reviews of it floating around in Entertainment Weekly, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and the Wall Street Journal (try www.bugmenot.com if you're asked for a password). Some are harsh, some are worshipful, some are middling -- you'll probably have to, you know, read the book to figure out what's really going on. Thanks to the good offices of Ed Champion and the LBC, I'll be fortunate enough to take part in a roundtable discussion of the novel with Powers later this month, which will probably add some more perspectives. I'll keep you posted.

Okay, get out there and enjoy the holiday weather -- even if you're at work today, take a long lunch break. See you Wednesday!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Comment: New York Speaks about Bookstores

Wow! I've just discovered an amazing new community at Brooklynian.com. It's a linked series of blogs and message boards for discussion on issues related to different Brooklyn neighborhoods. Wednesday evening I logged on to the Prospect Heights forum and posted the topic "Who Needs a Bookstore?", asking users where they thought might be the best potential spots for a literary bookstore/cafe in Brooklyn. Since then there have been nearly 40 replies and over 400 readers! Most are excited, though some are discouraging -- it's an interesting cross-section of New York public opinion. Check out the conversation if you're interested.

Interestingly, this comes on the heels of the announcement that major New York indie bookstore Coliseum Books is closing, for the second time. Their first location on Columbus Circle closed due to massive rent hikes several years ago, and though they were able to open up in a new location on Bryant Park, their sales never really recovered.

Of course, this is cause for much woe-to-the-bookstore, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Check the Times in the next few days for an article containing other indie store owner's takes on the situation (including a particularly feisty comeback from my own boss). Coliseum's closing is heartbreaking, but I don't think it's inevitable, or indicative of the destiny of New York indie stores in general. Coliseum's business model just didn't work for their location, and that sucks. But check out the list at right for half a dozen indies that are surviving and thriving in the city.

I just came off of posting practically a manifesto on the Brooklynian boards, so my dander is all up. You know how I feel about snarks and naysayers -- sometimes my joy and optimism about independent bookstores can get a little militant itself. Check out what's happening, and form your own opinion. What do you think Coliseum's closing means, if anything? What do you think is the future of indie stores in New York, or other urban areas? How much of the story about the "time of financial troubles for independent book retailers across the nation" (to quote the Times) is an issue of focus?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Comment: LBC Winner; Big Ad Question

I've just received word that the members of the Litblog Co-Op have spoken, and the Fall Read This! selection has been chosen! But... it's a secret, and I can't tell ya whether

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage from Coffee House Press

Sideshow: Stories by Sidney Thompson from River City Publishing
Manbug by George Ilsley from Arsenal Pulp Press

is the big winner. That announcement will come on October 16, followed by lots of chats with the authors (of the winner and the two runners up) and blog posts by the clever literary folks who read the books and made the call. Pick up one or more of these books if you have a chance in the meantime - these links will send you to the Powell's website, or you can pick them up at your local indie bookstore.

* * *

And now I have a serious question for you, the readership. I've been approached by another blogger about a new service called Brainiads, which will allow bloggers to work with individually chosen partners (such as publishers) to show advertisements on their blog sites that might interest readers. Click on the links to The Millions or Conversational Reading at right to see some examples of what they're doing already.

I've specifically avoided having ads on this site before, primarily because most of the available ad software will leave me with a bunch of Amazon ads -- not exactly what an indie bookstore fanatic like me wants to promote. But I'm considering taking up the Brainiad offer, because 1) it would be nice to make some small change from all this time I'm putting in on The Written Nerd, and more importantly 2) these are ads that might actually offer something valuable to people reading this blog, and 3) from what I understand, these are ads that will uphold, not compromise, my values in terms of supporting independents.

There was some flap in the blog world a while ago (unfortunately I can't track down the posts) when John Freeman of the National Book Critics Circle and its blog boasted that the NBCC would never run ads on its site. Other bloggers reacted with indignation, saying that Freeman's income when he writes a review for the New York Times comes indirectly from that periodical's ads, so why should he begrudge bloggers a few pennies from Amazon clicks? It's a valid point, but I feel it's an issue that's still being played out, as are many other aspects of the nature of the Internet as both a free-for-all where opinions are posted for their own sake, and a way to actually turn a profit.

So I'm posting the question to you, if you care. Would you like to see advertisements on The Written Nerd? Why or why not? Are there some ads that would be more acceptable than others? Speak up if it matters to you, and I'll take your opinions into consideration as I plan for the future of this site.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Book Reviews #35, #36, #37, and #38: Cockroaches and Lions and Parties, Oh My!

One of these days Mondays will again be about Link Madness, but I always seem to have some catching up to do. Here's a rundown of my reading over the last month or so – at least the ones I finished. We're in Week 40 of the calendar year, so I've still got a chance to make my 52 book goal by December 31.

Book Review #35
by Tyler Knox
(William Morrow, January 2007)

I picked this one up with giddy enthusiasm – it is, as the ALP observed, my kind of thing. Here's the first paragraph:

As Kockroach, an arthropod of the genus Blatella and of the species germanica, awakens one morning from a typically dreamless sleep, he finds himself transformed into some large, vile creature.

Obviously, Knox is channeling and reversing Kafka's most famous short story, "The Metamorphosis", in which hapless Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into a cockroach. Such an allusive and fantastic premise piqued my curiosity, and I was definitely not disappointed. Like Kafka, Knox spends little time speculating on how and why this transformation occurred, but jumps right into the reaction of the transformee. And Kockroach's reaction is pretty much the opposite of Gregor's: rather than succumbing to loneliness and despair, he demonstrates the immortal survival instinct of the cockroach species and learns to thrive in the human world.

After figuring out food, clothes, toilets, and the rudiments of imitative speech, he ventures out of the flophouse where he woke up and meets Mickey, known as Mite, a pint-sized Times Square hustler and man-of-all-work, whose tough-talking account of their relationship makes up half the novel. With Kockroach's insectile strength, total lack of morality, and weird animal allure, combined with Mite's street-kid smarts, the two are soon running the organized crime of the Square. But Mite is a tormented noir antihero, and betrays Kockroach more than once when his conscience gets the better of him; only Kockroach's near-immortal cockroachiness allows him to survive a fiery inferno and eventually rise to even greater political power.

The novel quickly outgrows its premise, and become more Chandler than Kafka: the setting is a smoky 1950s New York, and the dialogue and action are pure noir. It's a heck of a read, with an astonishing cast of characters and constant surprises. One female character, Celia, speculates on Kockroach's weird mesmerizing appeal, and Knox makes that appeal very clear: the main character of this novel is a horrifyingly violent, completely amoral creature, but I found myself thinking about him constantly, even when I wasn't reading. And the character of Mite is possibly even more fascinating: his struggle with his chaste passion for Celia and his attraction to men makes the homosocial undertones of much of noir explicit in a poignant and believable way.

While the ending is a tad abrupt, this is ultimately a hugely effective and entertaining parable about greed, and power, and the nature of humanity, and whether we can ever do the right things for the right reasons. And I loved it. Highly recommended for anyone who likes their crime novels whip-smart, or their fantasy novels thug-tough.

Review #36
by Virginia Woolf; compiled and edited by Stella McNichol
(Harvest edition, 1973)

When we were first dating, the ALP happened to mention that he thought Virginia Woolf was an elitist snob. Since I wrote my undergrad thesis on Woolf, this led to one of the only significant fights of our relationship. We've long since made up, but he occasionally still buys me Virginia Woolf books as an act of good will. This one was a two-dollar purchase from one of the book tables on 7th Avenue in Park Slope, and I played hooky from new book reading to devour it in a couple of days.

The editor, Stella McNichol, writes in her introduction that Woolf wrote several short stories connected to Mrs. Dalloway during and after the writing of the novel, most concerned with what Woolf called the "party consciousness." This is not a political affiliation, but the sort of state of heightened awareness of social interactions that happens in the charged atmosphere of a party – something I have a huge appreciation of, as I love the potential of parties to make things happen and raise everyday life to a kind of lovely performance.

This isn't really a novel-in-stories (one of my favorite genres), so it doesn't particularly hang together, and some of the stories are more appealing than others, of course. The only common thread is that each of the characters attends the party that takes place at the end of the novel Mrs. Dalloway, though no one seems to have quite as much fun as Clarissa. "The Introduction" describes a debutante experiencing a kind of female helplessness and rage at the man she is talking to that seemed extremely dated to me; "The Man Who Loved His Kind" and "Ancestors" are both about the self-righteousness of isolated people, whether through class or age. Far from being elitist, I sometimes find Woolf a bit heavy-handed with the social commentary woven through her characters' thoughts: men oppressive, women forced to act stupid, artistocratic class obtuse and boorish, working class full of suppressed rage, everyone incapable of understanding each other because of their own self-absorption. I love her most when she complicates matters; the poor man's lawyer in "The Man Who Loved His Kind" has a kind of reverse snobbery that rings very true, even though he's right about the rich people he despises.

My favorite story is "The New Dress," where a slightly lonely, slightly dowdy woman named Mabel is radiant with happiness at her party invitation and new dress, until she arrives and realizes she's entirely out of fashion, and spends the entire evening in agonizing self-recrimination and speculation on the elusiveness of happiness. Mrs. Dalloway breezes through the stories, lovely and benevolent and self-possessed, but Mabel is universally sympathetic – her London drawing room put me right back in junior high math class in Bakersfield, California.

Reading these stories was a rich but subtle feast. I just wish there were more of them – floating between isolated consciousnesses, drawn into stark relief by the party, which is less a festive occasion than a ritual or archetypal one. You never know what might happen at a party, and Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Woolf have made the space to find out.

Review #37
by Brian K. Vaughan; art by Niko Henrichon

(Vertigo, September 2006)

I keep up with a couple of comic/graphic novel series (EX MACHINA, RUNAWAYS, FABLES), but while I honestly believe they have literary merit, it's hard to count even the trade paperbacks as actual books. Some graphic lit projects however, like this one, are conceived originally as a book, and it makes sense to count those in the total. Vaughan is actually the guy behind EX MACHINA and a number of other critically acclaimed works (including Y: THE LAST MAN), and I think he's one of the most original writers out there at the moment.

This novel is based on a true incident: four lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during the 2003 bombing, and wandered the city until they were gunned down by American soldiers. Vaughan makes the lions – a full-grown male and female, an older female, and a cub – into a dysfunctional family trying to navigate a terrifying freedom, and his talking animal story is as adult as only grown-up comics can be. The metaphors run deep and painful – the older lioness associates freedom with the rapes she suffered in the wild; a captive bear spouts Saddam-esque rhetoric; an ancient tortoise remembers the previous invasion of the city, and all the ones before that, with bitter apathy. The story is both action-packed and meditative, and the ending stunningly tragic.

Niko Henrichon's drawings do a great deal to make the animal characters both fully animal and believably sentient, and his smoking, ruined city is an eye-opener. I read the book with relish, and only broke down in tears on the final page. After describing the true incident on which the story is based and the lions' deaths, the following page simply shows a nighttime Baghdad and the words "There were other casualties as well." Nothing like making it small and personal to bring home the magnitude of a country's tragedy. Vaughan's novel is fairly apolitical, but his lion pride tells a story that is extremely humanistic.

Review #38
by Selim Nassib; translated by Alison Anderson
(Europa Editions, February 2007)

It's been a month of Middle Eastern reading for me – not usually a great interest of mine, but I was grateful that a review assignment forced me to finally read one of the beautiful trade paperback originals from Europa Editions, which brings under-represented European literature to the U.S. market. This one has an irresistible premise as well: legend has it that Golda Meir, future prime minister of Israel, had an affair in the 1920s with a wealthy Palestinian. Seems unlikely for a Zionist of such conviction and zeal, and it seems to have never been proved irrefutably, but as Nassib wisely notes in the introduction,

An impossible story? Almost impossible, obliged to unfold in the tiny space of this almost, where things that should not happen do happen, the narrow patch of earth where forbidden flowers grow, instinctive impulses, life itself.

The book itself is a tiny space; at a brief 192 pages (including intro and timeline), it barely touches on the complex political developments in pre-statehood Israel. But as Golda and Albert, her lover, play out their doomed romance, the land of Palestine/Israel, with its Jewish, Palestinian, and British forces all struggling for its future, becomes as much of a character as they, and my appetite was whetted for more information on this strange and fateful period. The diction, as my excerpt suggests, can be a tad portentious, but it was a time and place of all-or-nothing rhetoric, and a little high-faluting language is probably appropriate.

The other surprising thing about Nassib's story is that it's subtly very sexy. Who would equate the powerhouse Meir with sensuality? – but as the story makes clear, the physical is the only place that an apolitical Lebanese aristocrat and a fiery Zionist could really meet. It's a bittersweet sensuality, with compromises on all sides, but entirely believable, whether or not it's true. Add A LOVER IN PALESTINE to the wealth of literature from the Middle East that describes the human aspect of the political turmoil that seems ever-present; it's worth reading.