Monday, December 11, 2006

Link-Mad Monday, plus book reviews

SERIOUSLY back in action! I downloaded Firefox and everything seems to be working beautifully in blog-land (thanks John T., our indefatigable store factotum, for the advice). And after a super-lovely birthday weekend (our rather literary dinner and a movie were very satisfactory, and we did some local Christmas shopping), it's time to get back to business.

Want to know the books indie bookstores sold this year? Check out the ABA's beautiful poster of Booksense Bestselling Books of 2006, for reading or downloading.

It's super-satisfying to be a bookseller at the holidays, because customers are more willing than usual to take you up on that passionate book recommendation, for themselves or their giftees. But it still ain't easy. Douglas Dutton of Dutton's Books in Beverly Hills and Brentwood, CA, reflects on the recommendation in this charming and illuminating article on the bookseller's craft in the Los Angeles Times.

You may have noticed me mentioning Bookstore Tourism, the ingenious invention of Larry Portzline to bring booklovers to indie bookstores on day-long bus trips. Larry stopped by the store this weekend and reminded me that the Bookstore Tourism video is now available! You can see a higher resolution of the video on the website, but I thought I'd offer it here for your point-and-click convenience. (Thanks to the ALP for showing me how to do this!)

Here's Part 1, the New York segment. I'm on there at the end, saying what now seems like a fairly irrelevant thing about Bookstore Tourism being an education for folks who shop at chain stores, since the rest of the video makes clear that these "tourists" tend to be booklovers and supporters of "the independent spirit." Many of my favorite NYC bookstores are represented here -- HousingWorks and Three Lives look especially beautiful on film.



And here's Part 2, the California Bookstore Road Trip. It's a great chance to see the insides of some bookstores I've heard all about but never seen (like the famous Vroman's) and it made me super homesick for my home state. I may have to sign up for this myself one of these days!



If you're still reading after that rockin' trip, here are some quick book reviews for the day.

Book Review #48
THE YELLOW-LIGHTED BOOKSTORE
by Lewis Buzbee
(Graywolf Press, June 2006)
Isn't it always the way that the books you buy intending to read get sidelined by some fascinating title you came across in your library from months ago? This is why the "books I've bought" vs. "books I've read" lists in Nick Hornby's wonderful "Stuff I've Been Reading" column in the Believer are always so funny, and I suspect it's something rabid bibliophile Lewis Buzbee understands intimately. I had every intention of reading WIZARD OF THE CROW or maybe FRAGILE THINGS, but instead found myself attracted and then utterly absorbed by this title I've been passing over for months as just another book about books. Actually, it's a book about bookstores -- not an academic one like RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS, or a purely personal one, but a rich and textured exploration of the physical appeal of the bookstore, totally intoxicating to the initiated, and incidentally, how it got that way. Buzbee intersperses his story of growing up a booklover and working in bookstores and as a sales rep on the West Coast with an educated but breezy history of bookselling, from papyrus on a rug in the marketplace to the library of Alexandria, to the coffeehouses of the Enlightenment (the intertwined history of the bookstore and coffeehouse was an eye-opener to me), to the contemporary megastore palaces and warren-like independents of today. And I turned down the corners on dozens of pages (oh come on, it's only a galley) with phrases or ideas I wanted to remember: Elias Canetti's phrase "alone among others" to describe the appeal of browsing or reading in public; an explanation of the development of the codex (the current book shape, as opposed to a scroll); a description of the Sosii brothers, Roman booksellers mentioned by the poet Horace; Alexander Pope's cruel practical joke on a bookseller/publisher who was cheating him; or this fantastic sentence: "The world was bigger because of Steinbeck, but also within my grasp." The only moment I wasn't entirely on Buzbee's side was when he admitted putting his own books face-out in another independent bookstore -- you'd think as a former bookseller he'd know better! But this was an absorbing and truly delightful read, for the lover of books and especially of bookstores -- it's not just telling you what you already know, but it may describe what you've experienced in words that make you understand it as if for the first time; as Pope would say, "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." Bravo, Buzbee -- I hope I get a chance to shake your hand one of these days.

Book Review #49
THE DEVIL IN THE BUSH
By Matthew Head
(Felony & Mayhem, December 2005)
Speaking of great booksellers, the folks at mystery bookstore Partners & Crime in the West Village (especially the owner Maggie) are some of the best. The ALP and I were in there last Christmas season looking for some plane reads, and based on my love of Susanna Clarke and Agatha Christie, Maggie recommended both the astonishing Jonathan Coe novel THE WINSHAW LEGACY (which I read that holiday and reviewed at the beginning of this year), and this slyly wonderful little novel. Produced by the bookstore's own publishing arm Felony & Mayhem, which publishes out-of-print or overseas mysteries in lovely paperback originals, this book was originally published in 1945. And I was astonished anew at how much more was going on in books in that era than Dame Agatha ever let on. This one does have a bit of the British lady's sensibility -- especially my favorite characteristic of hers, confounding expectations about age, gender, and class -- but it's a lot more down-to-earth. Set in the crumbling colonial empire of the Belgian Congo, it includes racism, homosexual undertones, tribal mutilation, awkward casual sex, and a certain lady doctor with a mouth like a sailor. The narrator, Hooper Taliaferro, is a likable, if lightweight sort, who stumbles into a story of sinister and desperate people on an failing outpost farm, and is only saved from utter uselessness by the intervention of Dr. Mary Finney, the aforementioned sailor mouth and an extremely smart and practical character. Their interaction is possibly even more satisfying than Holmes and Watson, and the story itself had me scrambling for the subway doors (almost missing my stop) more than once. One caveat: a horrible colonialist racism is pervasive, even among the "good" characters, but of course that would have to be part of telling a story of this time and place; it's only weird because the author himself, being of this time, is probably not entirely aware of, or opposed to, the fearful and paternalistic attitudes. Still, it's a whopping good read; I'm grateful to Maggie & Co., and hoping to track down more Mary Finney stories soon.

Question of the day: what's the best, most unlikely recommendation you've ever taken from a bookseller?

Happy reading?