Thursday, November 30, 2006

Chronicle: ELNO Winter Edition; The Breathless Season

Folks, I'm still without a home computer, and to put the last topic first, it's begun to be a bit crazy around the bookstore. In addition to making schedules around everyone's vacation wishes and trading Secret Santas for the holiday party, we're working on beautiful new windows and display, a roster of staff recommendations, and other things to make the season bright. Yours truly is also scrambling to get the events schedule set in stone for the first few months of the new year and hoping against hope that our new website will be up soon, but those are my own struggles.

Suffice to say, it's darned difficult to find a moment to blog. But will you be surprised if I admit that I love it? Aside from that whole magic-and-mystery thing, the Christmas season is a great one to work in retail -- at least in a bookstore, where you don't have to feel bad about what you're selling and the customers tend to be great. Folks are excited to buy, so every effort seems instantly rewarded; the energy and atmosphere are electrtic; and there's some extra good will floating around that makes it a joy to be in a job that involves talking to people. I'll probably put in an extra shift or two at my alma mater Three Lives, just because it's the most magical place of all. But there's certainly plenty to be excited about around here, as we get this beautiful store into fighting trim for the highlight of the sales year.

HOWEVER, I do need to spend a minute or two to report on, yes, the third quarterly Emerging Leaders Night Out, which came off with great success last night at Under the Volcano in midtown Manhattan. (I was just glad to get the chance to walk -- quickly -- past the Macy's Christmas windows, since I'm almost never in the neighborhood.) Festivities kicked off around 7:30, and by about 8:30 the place wass wall-to-wall with publicists, editors, agents, booksellers, and everyone in between. Steve, Amanda and I got there a bit early and put up some posters advertising the Small Press Book Fair this weekend, thanks to the good offices of Anne Garrett of the James Fitzgerald Agency and her boss, who supplied the promos. I felt a bit more laid-back about this event than I have before (maybe because Steve did all the hard work in keeping track of RSVP's this time -- you rock, Steve!), so I didn't meet as many new folks as I have at the previous two ELNO's. Still, I was happy to see familiar faces, and lots and lots of new one.

Of course I forgot both my camera and the guest book, so there's no way to prove to you how cool it was (anyone see anything on GalleyCat, let me know). But I think it's clear that this project is gaining steam, and will continue to get better quarter by quarter. Thanks so much to everyone who came -- see you in February!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Comment: Please Stand By... And Holiday Reading Anticipation

It's been an entire week since my last confession... er, post; my apologies. I'm having major computer trouble (i.e., I got a new one but it won't turn on - ??$#%@??), so I'm sans computer at home, and too busy to blog at work. But keep your eye on this space -- I'll be back as soon as I can with links, stories, and reviews.

In the meantime, here's my question of the week: what are you looking forward to reading over your holiday vacation (if you're getting any)?

I've got my eye on the Neil Gaiman collection FRAGILE THINGS -- I find good fantasy extremely appropriate for Christmas reading. (Of course, I am a big nerd about Christmas, among other things, and believe in the magic and mystery of it all wholeheartedly. You may find other genres express your sentiments...)

I've also just dipped into THE WIZARD OF THE CROW, one of the nominees for the Litblog Co-Op spring selections, and have found in surprisingly engrossing for such Serious Literature. It's a hefty one, though, and I'm looking forward to a long plane ride to see family on the West Coast in order to really dig in.

What about you?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Mad Monday: Quick News, Quick Reviews #44, #45, #46, #47

Got stuff to do, but a couple of important notes before I dash.

* I did succeed in honoring America Unchained! on Saturday. The ALP got up early to restock our coffee supply from local favorite Gorilla Coffee (gotta have Flash to see their site), which is not only locally owned and operated, but roasts the beans locally, and stocks only organic, free trade coffee. Hooray! We later went grocery shopping at our local Key Foods/Pick Quick; I did a smitch of research and found that apparently, Key Foods is a New York co-operative supporting local groceries like Pick Quick. Sounds good to me. We both need some new clothes, but decided we could wait on visiting mega-chain Old Navy until another day. I admit clothing stymies my ethical shopping impulses, since the only local places seem to be boutiques way out of my price range. I suppose I should just go back to the thrift-store shopping of my high school days. Anyone else got stories?

* The New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) has unveiled the new format for the fall trade show! It's now the Booksellers Sales Conference -- a name that reveals a focus on education and pick-of-the-lists. As electronic ordering has become more prevalent, trade shows have become valuable to booksellers more for education than as a chance to place orders with reps, though they still value the chance to meet face to face and especially to see the great stuff the reps are pitching for the next season. The streamlined new fall format will highlight those two aspects, making the event more attractive to booksellers and thus to publishers as well.

As a bookseller I'm psyched about two days of learning about the best that publishers and NAIBA have to offer(and not feeling guilty that I' m not placing orders). NAIBA Prez Joe Drabyak has declared this the era of the Citizen Bookseller -- the frontline staff who actually put the books in the hands of customers. That's an exciting, galvanizing phrase if I've ever heard one, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the idea develops. I'll be talking about this much more as the date approaches.

Oh, links: click here for the revelation in Bookselling This Week, and click here for the article in Publishers Weekly.

* Quick question: do you all care whether I buy the books I review or receive them for free? There's a big ol' flap going on about this issue (bloggers receiving free review copies), kicked off by this piece on MetaxuCafe, and stoked by Ed's ranting (see bottom of his post to links to other bloggers sounding off). To me it seems like a bit of a tempest in a teapot, but maybe that's because I get free books as a bookseller and as a blogger and it seems fairly normal to me. But in case you wondered, yes, I do sometimes get books for free. A lot of the time. In fact, I get far too many books to ever be able to review them all. So why would I give a good review to a book I didn't like just because I got it for free? Perhaps only, as the original writer suggests, if I were an inexperienced blogger dazzled by swag would it be an issue. Ah. Just for the sake of interest, I'll reveal where I got each of the books I'm reviewing today. Curious whether you're interested.

Okay, so here they are, the quickie book reviews -- though these were all so good they deserve more space.

Book Review #44
by Joann Sfar
(First Second Books, June 2006)
I've been on a Joann Sfar kick since his amazing visit to the bookstore a few weeks ago, and by the time I finished this one it had an awesome original drawing and signature inside the front cover. I picked it up for free at a graphic novel seminar at NAIBA in the fall. While I can't say I loved it as much as KLEZMER, it was still fun times. It's an episodic story of the romantic life of a rather neurotic vampire, who tries love with a tree nymph, a fellow vampire, a witch, a phantasm, and a mortal, among others, all complicated in the most contemporary of ways. Ferdinand the Vampire is the opposite of gothic (though he meets Goths); he's more like Emo. My favorite four panels show a sad Ferdinand floating away (his preferred means of locomotion), saying sadly "I don't want to see anyone." He hits his head on a tree branch with a "BONK!" His friends (the Tree Man and a detective) rush up, saying "Oh, the poor thing!" "He knocked himself out!" A third character then observes, "That's what happens when you stare at your shoes while flying." It's the perfect emblem of Ferdinand's plight: his immortal powers do nothing to spare him from angst. The ending is rather abrupt and inconclusive, but unless it ended with a marriage how else could a tale of modern love be ended, or rather interrupted?

Review #45
by Stefano Benni
(Europa Editions, November 2006)
Holy cow, this is an amazing book. It's New Fabulist, anti-capitalist/consumerist, witty and youthful, contemporary and terrifying. It's eerie and charing and hilarious. Margherita is a teenager in semi-suburban Italy, content with her slightly oddball normal family, until the del Bene family moves into a newly built sleek black cube next door. Soon everyone is dissatisfied with their lot and seduced by the glamourous del Bene's, and only Margherita is left to protest on behalf of magic, dirt, and authenticity. Things get weirder and weirder so you think you're expecting anything, but the ending is still a shock. And it's one of Europa Editions' beautiful trade paperback originals, a lovely thing to hold and laugh over and ponder and cherish. I was sent a comp copy by a friend at Europa who is crazy about it and prosletizing incessantly, and I'm grateful to him. I'm amazed at the wittiness of the translation from the Italian, but not surprised -- these guys do good work. This is one to read -- it's that whole serious-literature-that's-actually-fun genre that I love. Do yourself a favor and find it, buy it, read it, and tell me what you think.

Review #46
by John Connolly
(Atria Books, November 2006)
It seems to be a run of books with magic in them, and I've been eating them up. This is one I picked up from the publisher's table way back at the last NAIBA trade show, and finally got to it, much to my gratification. It's the story of David, who's unhappy after his mom's death and his dad's remarriage, and finds himself in a haunted fairy-tale world seemingly created from the old books that talk to him from his shelves. In a way it's the fairy-tale equivalent of the movie SCREAM, where a character who knows all the rules finds himself in a story he has to stay one step ahead of. But this is an extremely dark version, even for the Brothers Grimm -- it made sense when I realized Connolly's usual beat is the harshest of violent crime thrillers. There were moments when I was frustrated that all of the good magic seemed to be absent from David's story, leaving only the fears and the tests and the impossible tasks. But there's a reason for that, as it turns out, and David's maturation in this alternate reality is convincing, and a bit saddening. Because it's a story of growing up, not in rosy terms, but in hard ones -- realizing what has to be given up, what will be asked of a responsible adult, and what the rewards may or may not be. I was riveted all the way through, and finished with a lump in my throat and a lot to ponder. Fans of Phillip Pullman or Ian Rankin alike will find much to love in this one -- it may be a fairy tale, but it is by no means a children's book.

Review #47
by Susanna Clarke
(Bloomsbury, October 2006)
Magic, indeed! I was wild about Susanna Clarke's literary magical history JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL from the moment it came out, and I was very grateful to my friendly neighborhood Bloomsbury rep for sending me a copy of this one -- I've been longing for more of Clarke's alternate England for years. This is a collection of stories set in the world of JT&MN, though only tangentially connected. Jonathan Strange makes an appearance in the first story, and it will help if you have read the novel to understand the references, but all the other stories are literate little fables that stand on their own. This, too, is a magic with some darkness in it -- Clarke draws on the very old British tradition of fairies, who are enchantingly powerful, beautiful and fascinating, but also completely amoral and unpredictable, prone to stealing wives and babies and discarding them on a whim, and as likely to embrace you as to cleave you in two. It's the best of legend with the best of contemporary character development and narrative subtlety -- no one writes magic as well as Susanna Clarke. I savored these stories one at a time, like truffles, pausing in between to save them longer. The illustrations by Charles Vess are also charming, and haunting, like this wonderful addition to the world of Susanna Clarke's England.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Challenge: America Unchained!

The American Independent Businesss Alliance (AMIBA) has designated tomorrow, November 18, for America Unchained! Here's an excerpt from their press release (you can read the rest here):

"Independent Business Alliances, community groups, partnering national organizations, and individual locally-owned businesses nationwide are urging citizens of their communities to “unchain” themselves on Saturday November 18—to do all their business on that day only at locally-owned independent establishments. The efforts are part of America Unchained, a national campaign of the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA).

“Studies from small towns in Maine to urban areas like Austin, TX and Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood found locally-owned independent businesses to generate 3 - 3 ½ times the overall economic benefit to our communities as chains. Why? Home town businesses use far more of the goods and services provided by other local businesses, which chains centralize at corporate headquarters. And despite corporate chain boasts about charitable giving, independent businesses give back more to communities from every dollar.... According to the US Small Business Administration, small businesses create two-thirds of new jobs, and the interdependence of home town businesses creates local job security."

To be honest, my bookstore hasn't officially signed up to be involved. And I haven't heard much about this project in the national media. AMIBA is an organization still in its infancy. But it's growing fast. And I think it's one of the best resources for those of us who believe that independent, locally-owned businesses are important for so many reasons.

You know what the reasons are, and they're not just economic: they have to do with using sustainable practices (less polluting transportation and outscale building projects), with spreading more personal connections and less anonymity and homogenization, with supporting people who are actually doing art and other projects in your home town, with making a place for uniqueness and originality, with creating real community.

So maybe America Unchained! won't be huge this year. But my Book Nerd Challenge to you is to make it happen in your own Saturday shopping. Go to the local coffee shop, the local bookstore, even the locally owned clothing store. See how hard it is to avoid chains for just one day. And if you can, let me know in the comments what your day was like. What local enterprises did you discover for the first time? What neighbors did you run into? What weird, unique little encounters or products or inconveniences or joys did you experience? I'd even love to have someone write a guest post about it (email me if you're interested).

I'll report back too. It'll be good practice for next year.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Comment: National Book Awards

The National Book Award winners were announced last night.

Hooray for ECHO MAKER!

This Fox News article has quotations from Richard Powers' acceptance speech.

The NY Times focuses on the nonfiction winner, Timothy Egan, author of highly acclaimed dust bowl history THE WORST HARD TIME.

The NY Sun talks about the ceremony, with Fran Liebowitz, Adrienne Rich, and David Remnick waxing eloquent.

GalleyCat was there, starstruck as I imagine I would be, and mentions the reading segment (with Gene Yang's AMERICAN BORN CHINESE and Danielewski's ONLY REVOLUTIONS projected overhead to help audiences follow their reading) and Nicole Kraus's remarks. LBC member

Sarah Weinman was in attendance too, and has a similar reaction to Richard Powers' win, along with some choice remarks about attendees.

And I missed hearing it on NPR this morning, but the ALP tells me that YA winner M.T. Anderson's remarks contained a declaration of respect for Gene Yang's work and pride that his category was the first one to include graphic novels. (I'm all the more interested in reading Anderson's ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING.)

Actually, it seems like a really good year for the NBA. Apparently there's been the requisite complaining about the nomination of unknowns when there were so many big name authors releasing books this year (though you won't find me taking issue with the passing over of John Updike and Phillip Roth's contributions). With the exception of perhaps Taylor Branch's ambitious biography of MLK, it seems as though everyone who ought to have won, did win. It seems to me truly a representation of the best books coming out of America this year. I'm looking forward to reading those I haven't, and triumphantly displaying and selling the winners for customers who actually have some good options to choose from.

(Oh, and I'm sorry about no posting yesterday -- I've got some good books to review, but it was totally mandatory to finish a certain freelance project, and thankfully I got it done. I'll be back with the reviews ASAP.)

Monday, November 13, 2006

Link-Mad Monday: ELNO Winter 2006, Awards, Complaints, and the Pervasiveness of Powell's

Quick little link-madness for today.

* The next Emerging Leaders Night Out has been announced! We'll be getting together on November 29, to celebrate the Small Press Book Fair on December 2 and 3. And thanks to the good offices of marketing wizard Steve Colca, Emerging Leaders NYC now has its own website. It's little more than a blog at this point, but it's a start, and hopefully it will be another resource for connecting with each other. Check it out, tell us what you think, and RSVP for the ELNO!

* As I was making my Christmas wish list on (yes, Mom, there are still books I don't have), I finally discovered the Powell's blog. And duh, it's great! Several of my links today are courtesy of the alert and witty folks at Powells, and there's more where these came from. Is there anything those Portland indies can't do?

* The National Book Award winners are announced this Wednesday -- oh, the suspense! (If Richard Powers doesn't win, I'm going to be very disgruntled.) A commenter on this blog a couple of weeks ago mentioned the flap about Gene Yang's graphic novel American Born Chinese being nominated for the Young Adult award, so here's some links on that: the Wired article lamenting the choice (along with a lot of comments taking issue with the writer's opinion), and Gene Yang's response to Wired on the blog of his publisher, First Second Books. I had the pleasure of hosting the publisher of First Second, Mark Siegal, at an event with cartoonist Joann Sfar last week, and Mark mentioned the complaints about the nomination (the first ever for a graphic novel) with a kind of rueful satisfaction. Sometimes criticism is the sincerest form of acknowledgement.

* I'm working on freelance projects, volunteer projects, reading projects, blogging projects, and holiday projects. But I'd better get my tuchas in gear on my bookstore project, or someone else will do it first. (Thanks Bookslut, Powell's, and The Onion for the hilariously close-to-home link). One major obstacle is the fact that my ancient laptop isn't up to handling the spreadsheets I need to create a workable budget, so I'm in the market for a new computer -- I'm thinking Apple since there's a store nearby my house and I love their customer service, but it's all new to me and I wonder if I'd be paying for cuteness and creative options when all I really need is Microsoft Office and a bigger hard drive. Any thoughts from book people and/or business people on PC vs. Mac in our particular industry? And how's a poor bookseller like me to afford it all?

Sorry for ending on a complaint -- must be the gloomy, sloppy weather. I'll be back on Wednesday with some book reviews and in a better mood, I promise. Happy reading!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Comment: Check out the fat rat action!

I know it's weird for me to post on a weekend, but you should seriously check out the Litblog Co-Op right now, because FIRMIN Week is turning out to be awesome. Not only is there a fascinating conversation going on about whether or not Firmin is actually a rat, there's an opportunity to tell everyone which book you'd most like to eat (though the giveaway prize window is over), AND a podcast interview with author Sam Savage by the infamous Bat Segundo. Bat meets rat. Author talks about a book set in a bookstore. What could be better??? Have fun -- see you Monday!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Question: Who Needs a Bookstore?

No time for a real long post today -- my day-off schedule has been torqed nine ways from Sunday and I'm scrambling to get everything done. But I do have a question for y'all.

This morning I had coffee with a woman who's about to make that crazy leap into opening a new independent bookstore. I think she's picked a great neighborhood. The rents are low -- there are some housing projects nearby -- but there are a few writers in the neighborhood, and she knows from living there that there are some folks with money to spend. Not much of a restaurant or bar scene, but it's one of those neighborhoods on the brink. And no bookstore for miles around. I'm excited for her.

So my question is this: where do you think someone should open a bookstore? Is there a neighborhood, town, street or state that you think needs a bookstore and doesn't have one yet? Why would it be a good spot? What kind of bookstore could be a success there?

Maybe we can get some more crazy folks inspired to open new bookstores. As Andy Laties says, when the revolution comes, it's gonna look like a whole lot of rebel booksellers.

Check out the HOW TO COMMENT ON THIS BLOG link on the right under "Previous Posts" if you're not sure how to post a comment. Can't wait to hear what you think!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Link-Mad Monday: Housecleaning

I've got a bit of time this morning, so in addition to some recent links I'm excited about, I'm cleaning out my inbox of all the suggestions and requests I've received since way back in July. So it's a long list today. Enjoy!

* It's Firmin week at the Litblog Co-Op! Click over for the beginning of a roundtable discussion about Sam Savage's literate rat (including commentary by yours truly). Rumor has it Mr. Savage himself will join the discussion later this week.

* Bookselling This Week has this article about the winners of scholarships to the American Booksellers Association's Winter Institute -- with some (as usual) slightly cringe-worthy quotes from your Book Nerd.

* In the spirit of the documentary INDIES UNDER FIRE, Bookselling This Week also reports on a number of independent booksellers who are involved in fights to keep chains and big box stores out of their communities and encourage local, small-scale retail. In Montana and California, the size cap that would keep big boxes out is up for a vote. In Nantucket, the little guys have already won! Hooray for indies!

* On that note, the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) has declared November 18 to be America Unchained! day. On that date they're encouraging American (and Canadian) consumers to avoid shopping at chain stores entirely, and do all of their consuming at locally owned independent businesses -- just to see if we can do it. Anybody up to the challenge?

* I'm delighted to discover two new booksellers-as-bloggers! Well, new to me -- both of these folks have been blogging since 2005. Sarah of Sarah's Books in Bangor, Maine has a blog called Sarah's Books - Used and Rare (thanks for your comments, Sarah). And Stanley of Book House in Albany, NY has a blog called Stanley Reads (thanks to Robert at Fresh Eyes for the link). Glad to have your company!

* Can I just point out that Edward Champion agrees with me about Michiko Kakutani. The man's no stranger to the (cleverly) snarky review himself, so when he's baffled by Michi's hostility, you know she's gone too far.

* Another new blog I'm enjoying: John Fox's Bookfox. He directed me to Marilynne Robinson's fierce essay on Dawkins' THE GOD DELUSION, for which I'm grateful, and I'm looking forward to more bookish thoughts from the West Coast (John is a writer and professor in L.A.). Glad to have your company as well!

* My friend the food writer Stephanie Rosenbaum (also known as the Fabulous Pie Queen) hepped me to this supercool, (relatively) new Brooklyn website, Until Monday. I've only just started to explore, but I know it's going to be an incredible resource for Brooklyn events (especially of the literary sort) and other resources. Up with the borough!

* Two more shameless friend plugs: the artists in my life seem to be starting blogs lately, and they're so lovely you'll have to forgive me that they're only occasionally about books. Our mistress of the bookstore receiving room has created the meditative and joyful Hundreds of Ways (the title is a Rumi reference about loving beauty), and a longtime bookstore customer and good (if too rarely seen) friend has started up Auk Wrecks & Auk Larks, a title as unclassifiable as her own art, with a recent post about Nell Freudenberger among thoughts about social justice and bits of unexpected art. Enjoy.

* Larry Portzline of Bookstore Tourism directed me to this charming post about book browsing in Europe. Click for a window on bookstore culture far away from our American battlegrounds.

* Okay, and now a roundup of all those lovely folks who have emailed me over the last couple of months with links to other blogs. I admit I haven't had time to peruse all of these, but I wish them all the best -- perhaps you, the readers, can check them out and report back.

- Gimme Your Stuff, a "cultural exchange blog." Rikki, Australian ambassador for Gimme Your Stuff, writes "It'd be fantastic to get some more book lovers involved, as i think it'd be amazing to give and receive pre-loved books which may not be available in your area of the world. It's also a great way of getting new or culturally significant authors noticed in different countries."

- Reading On Writing, a blog by Kevin Allison "about short stories and how they work."

- I was invited to join this group blog based in Canada, but I'll admit I can't figure out what it's all about. Anyone?

- Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie, from Lewis Jaffe of Philadelphia, PA, "a passionate bookplate collector."

- Underground Literary Alliance Book Review blog, one of many projects of founder Victor Schwartzman. Word has it he's looking for additional reviewers, so get in touch if you've got something to say.

Whew! That's it. See you Wednesday!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Book Reviews #39, #40, #41, #42, #43

I've finished two more books since I announced my recent reads, so I'll try to keep these reviews short, though I'm not always good at that. Here goes:

Review #39
by Nicola Monaghan
(Scribner, April 2007)

I have to admit this is one of those books that induced a groan when I got it in that Jiffy Pak mailer. Maybe it was the candy pills on the front cover, or the back cover copy comparing it to Irvine Welsh's TRAINSPOTTING. THE KILLING JAR looked like a sneering, adolescent, gratuitous drug trip of a book; not my favorite genre, as it tends to combine the self-dramatizing, overwritten prose I first encountered in my high school literary magazine with the self-righteous, damn-the-man self-destructiveness of drug culture. 'Scuse my snarkiness – I'm just not the Trainspotting audience, I guess.

But Nicola Monaghan's story of growing up screwed up on one of Britain's "council estates" (suburban low-income housing projects) surprised me. Maybe it was the Nottingham dialect that pulled me in (sample sentence: "It must of been summat what you did") – it's hard to write dialect that's both readable and feels authentic, and Monaghan never crosses the line into impenetrable caricature of lower class British speech. This is probably because she grew up on the council estates, a fact which I imagine will be used a great deal in marketing the book.

But the biggest draw of the book was the narrator, Kerrie-Ann, known as Kez (in that weird and charming British nicknaming tradition that makes Madonna into Madge). She's a tough, smart kid, into science, especially butterflies, who because she's born to a heroin addict turns her brains to the only business she knows: dealing drugs. After an extremely brief childhood, Kez rides the wave of the rise of Ecstasy and raves to a cosy little business with her childhood friend and lover Mark, taking care of her little brother John. Her mother's boyfriends treat her badly; her mom disappears; she's seduced and dumped and has an abortion at 14. But she gives as good as she gets, and does some pretty horrible things herself. She's believable and self-aware, not always sympathetic, but always readable, and a far cry from the self-justifying, overdramatizing teen I was expecting. She knows her life is crappy, even when she's having fun, and struggles with competing desires to get ahead and to get out. This is a literary novel about the equivalent of the ghetto, and it's infuriating and heartbreaking as real poverty and addiction and unnecessary violence can be. It won't be out until spring, but if it sounds like your thing, bug Scribner for a galley – Monaghan is the real thing.

Review #40
by Joann Sfar
(First Second Books, September 2006)

I'd been meaning to read this since the supernice folks at First Second Books agreed to have Joann Sfar come to our store for an event – everyone seems to agree he's the best thing in French cartooning right now (and it's quite a scene, has been for longer than comics have had cred in the U.S.) I read it in an evening and it's SO good. This is Part 1 of a saga set in Eastern Europe and Russia between the World Wars, and begins the story of a group of misfit klezmer musicians playing in the Jewish towns and cities of the continent. Sfar's drawings seem looser than the ones in THE RABBI'S CAT and VAMPIRE LOVES (both of which I've glanced through with pleasure), which adds to the sort of dreamy folktale feel of the story, where characters' appearance and surroundings can shift subtly from panel to panel.

It's an energetic, often funny story, but it begins with a massacre: bandleader Noah Davidovitch is the only survivor (a Biblical trope?) when a rival klezmer orchestra kills all of his bandmates. He gets his revenge in a very Jewish folktale way, and as he leaves town is joined by a pretty, forceful girl who prefers the romantic itinerant singer's life to her boring hamlet. Then the action skips to a promising, but disgraced (and very cute) yeshiva student, who wanders into the world having given up on God. He meets a much more neurotically dedicated student who has also been expelled, and the two of them accidentally rescue a persecuted Gypsy. Turns out the Gypsy is a guitarist, the neurotic a virtuoso violinist, and Cute Yeshiva Kid knows some good Jewish songs. They make their way to Odessa, which in this book has a very Casablanca air of romance, and of course are bound to run into Noah and the singer.

Sfar somehow gets the music of the klezmer bands into the book, filling whole page spreads with no dialogue except the onomotopaiec (ha! spelling) sounds of the instruments and swirling, dancing revelers. There's so much life and energy in these pages, and also the deep melancholy of anti-Semitic persecution and a feeling of abandonment by God. Sfar's mother was an Eastern European Jew, and he's clearly deeply invested in this culture; at the end of the book is an impassioned essay on safety, terror, and the contemporary world. I can't wait to meet the author of this rich text; it's highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the medium, the time period, the music, or the culture – or anyone who loves a swinging good read.

Review #41
by Nell Freudenberger
(Ecco, September 2006)

Let me admit that I was a little lukewarm about Nell Freudenberger's short story collection LUCKY GIRLS when it came out in 2003. I read the whole thing, and met the author at a reading (who was rather shy but super nice and professional), but I thought it was fine rather than great, and joined the throng of skeptics who wondered if she got famous just because she was young, cute, and worked at the New Yorker. (But I felt the same so-so way about the much-touted INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri – maybe I've got some weird prejudice against multicultural short stories by women.)

But a recommendation from a fellow bookseller (thanks, Amanda!) made me pick up Freudenberger's novel THE DISSIDENT anyway, and it's freakin' great. If you haven't heard all about it, it's the story of a Chinese artist, famously jailed in his own country as a political dissident, who comes to the U.S. and stays with a well-off (but seriously messed up, of course) Los Angeles family while teaching art at a girl's school and preparing for the first U.S. showing of his work. Ironically, I think a lot of its strength comes from the sense of an artist meditating on the arbitrariness of artistic fame, and the half-truths, plagiarisms, self-betrayals, and poses that can be part of the process for even the most talented and sincere artists and works.

The sometime narrator and eponymous dissident "Yuan Zhao" is a retiring sort who feels something like guilt for the acclaim he's getting in the U.S. (and the reasons for that become more and more clear to reader and characters as the book progresses). His story is his own, and the suggestion of the clash of Chinese and Los Angeles cultures is well done but never over done (a strength of Freudenberger's which I'm always impressed by). But I couldn't help thinking of him as in some ways a stand-in for Nell herself, rather baffled by the acclaim she's received and wondering how on earth she can live up to and follow up on her early success. All I can say is, she's done herself one better – if the first book's success was partially a fluke, this one is entirely deserving of praise. (Ironically again, the reviews haven't been entirely favorable.)

There are some loose ends that I wanted tied up – the Los Angeles mother's abortive affair with her brother-in-law, the son's offstage violent episode and new Hispanic girlfriend, and some other stories that seemed begun but abandoned when the dissident's own story became too interesting to leave. But I finished the book with a great sense of satisfaction, the kind that comes when a story has left your heart aching at its sadness and confusion and injustice but with a saving remnant of hope, and a new understanding of an idea or two. Is copying a master a talent equivalent to creating something original? Is it art because the artist says so, or because someone is paying attention? What good are good intentions, and what obligation do we have to those who don't appreciate our efforts? Are there other satisfying roles besides that of the artist?

Me, I think so. The gallery owner, the teacher, the Mrs. Dalloway-esque housewife – those are the artists that appeal to me, making a space for original work to grow and be noticed. Maybe that's one of the reason's I'm such a fan of this book. Nell Freudenberger, unlike her characters, doesn't need to act like an artist or live an "artist's life". She is a serious artist, and potentially, a great one.

Review #42
Edited by Jacquelin Cangro
(Plume, September 2006)

I missed the website (, which is kind of an open forum for telling true tales of subway life, inspired by a conversation the editor/webmaster had with friends over a Thanksgiving dinner, everyone trying to top the other. But I love the idea and the book. Some of the pieces in here I've read before and loved – Jonathan Lethem's "Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn", Colson Whitehead's "Subway" chapter from COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK. Some are from favorite writers I hadn't heard on the subject – Vivian Gornick, Calvin Trillin, Francine Prose, Johnny Temple. But the majority are from writers I've never heard of, who as far as I know could be the guy across from me on the D train, and that's what makes them great.

Riding the subway for a New Yorker takes up a big chunk of life, and sometimes the most interesting one. Usually, it's reading time (and I read a lot of this book on the subway, which was kind of meta). It's also where you encounter your fellow citydwellers at close quarters, for better or worse, and that makes for a lot of good stories. I love April Reynolds' theory in her essay that
"every New Yorker has his or her own private stock of cocktail party-worthy subway stories that fall into three major groups: the stinky story, the Good Samaritan story, and the scary story. These are broad categories that can conflate or morph at will."

I'd add the preacher story, but the basic theory holds. This paperback original may be the perfect collection of such stories. They're like the best of Studs Terkel-style themed oral history, except written by real writers, and all immensely readable.

Riding the subway for New Yorkers is part of our identity, I think. One of the reasons I moved here (or rather, stayed here) is that I hate driving, and I've traded it for an experience that's new every day, for better or worse. I'm grateful to Cangro for making space for these stories to be told outside the cocktail party. They're great fun, and only as long as my commute. I hope there's a sequel.

Review #43
by Cornelius Medvei
(HarperCollins, April 2007)

I hate to end on a down note, but this was the only one of my recent reads I found disappointing. I'd had it mightily pitched to me, and it seems like the sort of thing I would like given my love for FIRMIN: a brief, illustrated chronicle of the city life of a persecuted talking baboon. But unlike with FIRMIN, I ended up thinking it was a mistake to publish this work as anything other than a quirky short story. The journalistic description of Mr. Thundermug's education, housing, romance, arrest, trial, and happily ever after were told with such a deadpan brevity that I didn't have time to feel anything about it. Actually, I read this in one sitting at a bar while waiting for a lunch date, and didn't even mention it to them when they arrived.

In its defense, the character of the City where Mr. Thundermug lives is more interesting than the character himself; it reminds me of the hybrid all-city of the brilliant animated movie TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, which was supposedly a composite of Paris, New York, and Montreal. This city is a more ancient English one, but seems to have elements of Indian or Southeast Asian ruins and North American technological dependence. It's a strange and fascinating place, and makes for a melancholy, whimsical little book. It wasn't exactly to my taste, but maybe it will be to yours.

Happy reading!