Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Sabbatical, Of Sorts

As some of you have pointed out, I tend to take on a lot of projects. And what with NAIBA and various shift switches, I haven't had a full day off from the bookstore in nearly three weeks.

Earlier this week it got to that critical mass of tiredness -- panicky tired, teary tired, veering between lashing out and zoning out tired.

As I'm about to jump in to another, perhaps more intense work time in my life, I feel that now is the time to get a little rest and get ready.

So, until sometime in early November, I'm letting some things slide a little and doing like other professional readers (i.e. academics) do: giving myself a sabbatical. No blogging, only emergency emails (so forgive me if I owe you a reply). Lots of sleeping in, lots of long meals with the ALP, lots of reading for pleasure. It's only for a week or two , but I think it will help.

Right now, I'm going to run a bath, pour a glass of red wine, and find my place in Night Train to Lisbon. I'll see you on the other side.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Book Nerd and BookStream

No link madness today, folks. Instead, as promised, here's the big news:

On Sunday night at NAIBA, I sat in the hotel bar with Jack Herr, the president of BookStream, and my friend Carolyn Bennett, a BookStream sales rep, and hammered out the details of an arrangement that had been in the air for a while, by which this independent bookseller will become an employee of the independent wholesaler.

So what does this mean, and why am I doing it?

It doesn’t mean I'm leaving the bookstore.
It doesn’t mean I'm leaving Brooklyn.
It doesn't mean I've abandoned my dream of having my own store, or that I'm selling out on my indie ideology. In fact, it's a way to get a little closer to the dream, and a way to work and learn and connect more with the indie bookstore community.

First, just in case you don't work in the book industry or you're not familiar with this particular company, let's talk about book wholesalers. In addition to ordering books directly from publishers, bookstores have the option of ordering books from "middle men" or distribution organizations: wholesalers. Since the wholesalers have to make a profit, they usually sell books at a smaller discount than you'd get from the publisher. The advantages, however, are that 1) they ship faster than publishers do, so you can get that hot title in your store sooner; 2) they carry books from publishers you may not have (or want to have) an account with, so you can minimize paperwork. Most "special order" books will be ordered through a wholesaler, so that stores can get it into customers' hands more quickly. There are a number of these guys; Ingram is the biggest, and there's also Bookazine and Baker & Taylor. (There used to be others in our region: Koen, which closed and then reopened as Koen-Levy, then closed again.) BookStream is a regional wholesaler, serving primarily New England and the mid-Atlantic region. and they're kind of the new kid on the block in this field – they opened only a couple of years ago, in late 2005.

And one of the things that I love about this company is that they opened in spite of a certain amount of naysaying – the same sad head-shaking that too often accompanies the opening of an independent bookstore – and they're making good in spite of it, too. With the collapse of Koen, the prevailing wisdom was that there was no future for another regional wholesaler. How could they possibly compete with the big guys? CEO Jack Herr's answer was: by working better with independents – in the words of the company motto, "leveling the playing field." Unlike many wholesalers, BookStream offers the same discount – 42% -- to every store, no matter how large or small the account. They've developed customer service that offers a level of personal relationships akin to the best bookstores. And they're constantly working to expand and perfect their systems, their service, their relationships, their shipping time, their efficiency – all of the stuff that makes a wholesaler valuable to booksellers. Like the successful bookstores I know, they're continually refining their business model and their operations to build on their previous successes, and to adapt to the needs of their customers.

Or, as I should say now, "our customers." Because, as Jack and Carolyn and Carol and Felice and Ken warmly tell me, I'm now a part of the BookStream project.

And what's a nerdy bookseller like me going to do there, you justifiably ask? Part of the company's efforts to do the best it can for booksellers involves expanding its web presence, creating content and connections using some of the tools I've been talking up on bookseller panels – blogs, social networking, interactive websites, etc. My job, while pretty open-ended, will involve developing some of this content, as well as potentially working on events, marketing, and other PR-ish stuff. In the words of my official employment offer:

"creating online resources for the company’s prospective bookselling customers and publishing clients… design, plan, and execute events and other marketing programs… assist BookStream to develop an integrated portfolio of programs and resources for our customers and publishing clients which simultaneously create advantage for them and set us apart from other wholesalers. "

Sounds pretty sophisticated, huh? But really what it translates to is a lot of what I'm doing now: reading and researching about developments in the book industry, connecting readers and authors, meeting booksellers and learning from them, waxing enthusiastic about the future of independent bookselling, and blogging – all of that fun good geeky stuff that I'm currently doing for free. I'll just be doing it in a somewhat more focused way, and getting paid for it.

Which is why I think I can actually do this in my spare time, around my full-time job at the bookstore. I'll be working primarily from home, and visiting the BookStream facility in Poughkeepsie once or twice a month. Sarah, the best bookstore boss in the world, tells me I may be able to make my store hours a little more flexible to accommodate this (and incidentally, believes there to be no conflict of interest in working for both a bookstore and a wholesaler, especially since I don't do the buying.)

But why?, you ask again. Aren't you busy enough? Well, yeah. And I may have to give up (or cut back on) one or two things to make this work (though I'm not abandoning Emerging Leaders, the NAIBA board, the Litblog Co-Op or anything else just yet).

Part of the reason for doing this is financial: so that the ALP and I can start to save up a little nest egg to help finance my store, and maybe even to buy our own place at some point. In terms of scheduling and pay scale, it beats the heck out of freelancing.

But I wouldn't bother to sign on if this wasn't a project I was interested in, ideologically, creatively, and practically. I'm a huge fan of BookStream's commitment to independent bookstores, and I think its forward-thinking leap into the world of Web 2.0 is both admirable and astute. I'm looking forward to learning more about the interactions of publishers, wholesalers, and bookstores, and bringing a new perspective that will help to make those interactions better. I'm excited about working with the independent bookstore community on a kind of macro scale, getting a bird's-eye view of what's going on in our region. And of course, I'm giddy to put to the test some of my ideas about how the web can serve the world of print media, and to learn, perhaps by trial and error, how providing "added value" can help a book company's bottom line.

And, probably most importantly for satisfaction in any job, I like the people. One of BookStream's selling points on its website is "Staffed by the best people in book wholesaling". Like the best bookstores (and unlike a lot of larger companies), they understand that the company is only as good and as functional and as happy as the people in it. Carolyn, of course, is one of my favorite people in the industry, a real fellow book nerd. Ken Abramson (whom we always just called "Ken from Koen" when I worked at Three Lives) is incredibly knowledgeable and hilarious. Jack Herr is one of the most optimistic, practical, smart, ambitious, and supportive people I've ever met – his enthusiasm for his project, and for the bookselling community, is infectious, and I'm looking forward to working with him. And I'm looking forward to meeting the other employees, some of whom have already sent me the nicest welcoming emails. Obviously, it's a good place to work, which to me suggest the potential for a very successful company.

I may have a little less time for this blog in the coming months, but I imagine you'll be able to find my over-enthusiasm elsewhere on the web. I'll keep you posted. I start officially as a BookStream employee the first week of November. I'm looking forward to talking to booksellers, publishers, authors, critic, and readers in my new capacity as well as the old one. I'm excited about what the future may bring.

(And I' welcome your thoughts, comments, questions, and suggestions, as always.)

Friday, October 19, 2007

NAIBA wrap-up/run-down

It seems to me that the chronicling of this past weekend's NAIBA Con in Baltimore has been done very effectively by other folks! For very good overall descriptions of the action, the vibe, and the major players (authors, publishers, and booksellers) at the Baltimore Sheraton, I recommend:

Susan L. Weis and Shannon McKenna Schmidt writing in today's Shelf Awareness. Their article "NAIBA's New Conference Format Draws Raves" does a great job of summarizing the whole show, describing some of the highlights with quotations from booksellers who were there.

Kelley Drahushuk of Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson, New York, with a piece titled "Booksellers Win Big at NAIBA Fall Conference" in Bookselling this week. I love that both pieces include as a highlight the booksellers' own "Pick of the Lists", the impromptu result of a suggestion by Carla Cohen after the sales reps' Pick of the Lists (perhaps we should officially include Bookseller Buzz next year?) And I loved reading how Kelly plans to put the ideas from the NAIBA conference into action in her own store.

Robert Gray, again in today's Shelf Awareness, with a piece called "Ain't the State of Things Cloudy Enough?" -- a quotation from HBO's Deadwood, where a character laments the arrival of the foreign new technology of the telephone. The piece is a reflection on our panel on blogs, websites, and social networking, which can seem daunting and overwhelming, but which (provided you are not a sleazy, corrupt saloon keeper) can mean great things for the potential of independent bookstores to reach their customers, and are no more impossible to fit into our schedules than the million impossible things we do already. I appreciate both Robert's compassion and his optimism -- it's great to have someone who's NOT under 40 so firmly "on our team" in looking toward the future of bookselling, and he's definitely worth listening to. I was grateful to everyone who came to the panel, asked challenging questions, and expressed their gratitude afterward. I even heard from a couple of booksellers who were so inspired they intend to start their own blogs this week -- be sure to send me the links, guys!

Since the summarizing has been done, here are a few of my own highlights:

Talking to Larry Portzline (who by the way, has a Blog of Note) about Bookstore Tourism, with all manner of inappropriate jokes and gossip in between...

Visiting breathe books (domain of the inimitable Susan Weis) and Atomic Books (where I met the amazing Rachel Whang) which alone made the trip to Baltimore worthwhile -- I hope to have pictures and bookstore visit posts soon...

Talking to some new store owners at the Emerging Leaders networking lunch, and seeing them teach each other about how to make their baby stores more viable...

"Hosting" the Moveable Feast, which really meant taking instructions from uber-competent executive secretary Eileen Dengler and fumbling through enthusiastic instructions to the assembled attendees, much like I do when I host events back at the store...

Introducing my brilliant colleague Adjua Greaves to our fellow booksellers, seeing her get as excited as I do about all this dorky book stuff, and continuing to learn from her about good design principles in book displays...

Talking to Mort Zachter, author of the much-praised memoir Dough (and a lovely human being), who got inspired himself about independent bookstores, and plugged them movingly and admirably at his event at our store on Wednesday...

As usual, talking and laughing up a storm with my fellow booksellers, especially at the Awards Dinner, where Carolyn Bennett and I got the giggles over something inexplicable and inane, and were only brought back to seriousness by the breathtaking impromptu speech of Ishmael Beah...

Late-night intense conversations in the TV-infested hotel bar, which led to exciting new professional opportunities (which I'll reveal on Monday)...

And so much more I can't remember. I hope all of you who were there had a fabulous time (and filled out those evaluation forms!) If you have thoughts on NAIBA Con you'd like to share, I'd LOVE to have you post them or email them to me. The board will be going over everything at our annual meeting the first week in November, and as we do in our bookstores, we want to keep doing more of what we do well, and fix the things we could do better. Thanks for coming -- see you all next year!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The ALP is famous!

NAIBA was a blast -- I promise plenty of write-ups and run-downs later this week.

In the meantime, though, and more importantly, I find that I am the proud wife of a published author.

The ALP has had his first story published! It's published online, not in print -- in the fiction section of a Special Report from on "The Future". But who am I to discriminate between web content and paper and ink?

Especially because he definitely got paid for it.

And it's a darn good story (witty, allusive, funny dialogue).

And it's at the top of a list of authors that includes Max Barry, Cory Doctorow, and Warren Ellis.

I'll just be basking in the reflected glory if you need me...

Friday, October 12, 2007


Killing two birds with one stone, I'm making my plans for this weekend's NAIBA-Con (also known as the NAIBA fall conference) in Baltimore and blogging as well! Ha!

Print out handouts for Internet panel and Emerging Leaders meeting

10:00 Meet my colleague Adjua at Penn Station to take the train to Baltimore.
Afternoon: visit Baltimore bookstores, including breathe books and Atomic Books. Can't wait to talk to these great booksellers and check out their stores -- honestly, this is one of the main reasons I've advocated to have the conference in Baltimore!
6:30 NAIBA board reception
8:00 Early Bird buffet supper
9:30 Quiz Bowl! This was way too much fun last year, mostly thanks to Quiz Master Joe Drabyak -- hopefully Arthur Phillips won't be there to show up all the booksellers' literary knowledge. I'm hoping to round up an Emerging Leaders team to show what the young'uns know...

8:00 (if I'm ambitious) Walk down to the harbor and stroll through the historic section of Baltimore with Susan Weis
8:30-9:30 Breakfast
9:45-12:15 Pick of the Lists -- a chance to hear publishers' reps talk about what's REALLY worth reading and selling on the fall and winter lists.
12:30-2:15 Moveable Feast -- one of the best and most unique parts of the regional trade shows, which I recently heard an author describe as "speed dating" for authors and booksellers. Authors move from table to table to talk to booksellers about their new work as we eat (they get to eat earlier, okay?) I've been tapped to Emcee the Feast, which will be a first for me.
Afternoon educational sessions:
I'd like to go to the ABA's Staff Development session at 2:30, if I can make it while getting our NAIBA table set up with sample displays -- check out our "Judge a Book / Buy its Cover" display, and the gorgeous book covers publishers have contributed, and think about how it might work in your store.
3:45 - 4:45 Making the Most of the Internet: Digital Tools for Booksellers, my panel with Bob Gray and Felicia Sullivan. I'm so excited about the ideas we have to offer and the conversation I'm hoping this will spark!
4:15-5:15 I'm going to try to catch the tail end of Getting the Most Out of Your Floor Space, hosted by my colleague (and floor display maven) Adjua Greaves. This is a continuation of the session we had in our bookstore talking about making conscious decisions about the use of space and imagery in the bookstore, and I expect to learn more from it.
5:00-6:00 If I have time, I'll stop by the Reading Room and see some authors performing their work.
6:00-7:30 The floor opens for a preview, and a chance to peruse the publisher tables and schmooze with publishers and authors.
7:30-9 Awards Banquet, including the Legacy Award, Book of the Year awardsd and the Dashiell Hammett Awards.
9 - 11 Noir Bar - drinks with mystery writers -- what could be better!?

8:00 (groan) breakfast
9:30-4:00 The show floor, the traditional centerpiece of the trade show/conference -- I'll definitely be checking out publishers' display ideas and recommendations for fall books.
12:00 Emerging Leaders networking lunch - Susan Weiss and I will host a table to chat with booksellers about Emerging Leaders over lunch.
2:47 My train back to New York, probably loaded down with luscious new books and valuable promo materials, not to mention great new ideas.
What a weekend -- hope to see you there....

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Link-Mad Wednesday

On Friday I'll be gearing up for NAIBA Con this weekend, and I'll give you the rundown on my schedule and what there is to look forward too. (Amazingly, registration is still open, so if there's any way you can make it to Baltimore Sunday or Monday -- come, come, come!) In the meantime, here are some links that just won't wait.

- Today was the first time I've ever seen a book-related blog first thing when I logged in to my Blogger account, and it makes perfect sense: it's Robert Warren's amazing PostSecret blog. The latest book, A Lifetime of Secrets, just came out, and there's a pretty well-done YouTube video about it (except for that tagline at the end -- a tad cheesy.)

- Backlash is an inevitable result of prominence, I guess. Melvin Charles Bukiet has a Brooklyn-hating article in The American Scholar, in which he accuses J.S. Foer, Myla Goldberg, and Nicole Krauss, as well as Dave Eggers and Alice Sebold (who don't actually live in Brooklyn) of writing "Brooklyn Books of Wonder" -- self-congratulatory, glorified YA novels. To me, this was the most revealing passage in Bukiet's argument:

"Unfortunately, it’s false to all human experience to find “growth” in tragedy. In fact, the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering. "

This is an imminently arguable premise (I'd argue that sometimes suffering DOES lead to growth, sometimes not), and seems to show that Bukiet's problem with the borough is just a clash of ideologies: wonder vs. what? nihilism? "authenticity"? It's seems to me that it's hardly shameful to write about the possibility of redemption, at the risk of occasionally veering into youthful sappiness, rather than sticking to an equally adolescent life-totally-sucks attitude, which is no more "truth" than its opposite. (And Bukiet gets several things wrong: it's not true, for example, that Eggers' third book What Is The What appealed less to readers of Heartbreaking Work because of its darker subject matter -- it's been a massive bestseller.) And as every single subject in the Brooklyn Lit Life series has pointed out, Brooklyn is a hugely diverse place -- it's pretty incredibly reductive to equate the entire borough with a single sensibility anyway, and it clearly doesn't work. Of course, Bukiet lives in Manhattan, where people sometimes tend to be scornful of anyone who lives anywhere else. Okay, okay, sorry for going off a bit there, and thanks to Megan for the link.

- Speaking of responses to polemics, the minister at my church in Brooklyn (and one of the most literate people I know) wrote this article in response to the anti-religion literature of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. His conclusion? God is not especially concerned.

- Meanwhile, I feel like I've somehow made it in the Brooklyn blog scene: Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn named The Written Nerd as "blog of the day" yesterday. (I can't figure out how to link directly to the post, so scroll down to see it.) I'm a huge fan of this comprehensive blog, and have met the author at several functions, and I'm flattered to be included in her roundup of things Brooklyn.

- The Literary Writers Conference, hosted by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, is coming up in New York. According to the LWC/NYC website, it's "
a three-day conference for fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction writers learning how to maneuver in the marketplace" -- an opportunity for learning, networking, and confabbing for writers. Yours truly is serving on a blogging panel, and I'm in some intimidatingly impressive company! Definitely check it out if you're in the city November 8 to 10.

- Pop culture maven Lady T of Living Read Girl is hosting her first ever blog contest, and the prize is a free copy of Alice Sebold's new book The Almost Moon! Here's the info about her jingle writing contest -- you have until October 30 to submit your brilliant ideas.

- Best new blog idea of the day, #1: James Tadd Adcox's Fiction Volante, which promises " one new story, every weekday, for one year" and has so far delivered in spades. Read it, read it!

- Best new blog idea of the day, #2: Blog A Penguin Classic. Email Penguin, they send you a randomly selected title from the massive Classics library, you read it, you blog about it on their site. Possibly there's some incentive for unfairly positive reviews, and you'll have to wait until the final batch is released to even get a chance to participate, but I think it's a cool way to get readers into the conversation. (Thanks to Steve at Norton for the link.)

- Oh, this is irresistible for us indies: according to this piece in the Wall Street Journal, "
The Wal-Mart Era... is drawing to a close." Reading the entire piece, I'm not sure if the reasons or results are all good -- more internet retail, the rise of other "niche chains" -- and Wal-Mart is far from over. But it's more evidence to point to the backlash against big box retail.

- On the other hand, check out this piece about digital song downloads at Starbucks and the implications for books. Don't be fooled by the blog name, Print Is Dead -- it's not anti-books, just actively curious about how things will develop. The author even has, yes, a print book of the same name.

Whew, that's enough for today. Time to finish compiling my notes for this weekend's "Making the Most of the Internet" panel -- it should be exciting!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Brooklyn Lit Life: Sarah Weinman

This might sound silly, but maybe not all Brooklynites live in Brooklyn. I know Sarah Weinman, subject of today's interview, from the blogging world -- she's a member emeritus of the Litblog Co-Op -- but over the past year we've had coffee at Gorilla and run into each other at various Brooklyn and Manhattan events, and had great discussions about the possibilities for literature (and bookstores) in the borough. As a crime fiction critic, I feel she's got a great sense of place and atmosphere, and I'm proud to include her in the Brooklyn Lit Life project under her moniker of choice: "Sarah Weinman, faux-Brooklynite."

Brooklyn Lit Life Interview
Sarah Weinman

Describe your particular literary project, and your role in it.

I'm a freelance writer and wear a number of hats. I co-edit GalleyCat,'s publishing industry news blog; I write monthly crime fiction columns for the LA Times Book Review and the Baltimore Sun; I contribute to a number of other publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Poets & Writers and Time Out New York; and I blog about crime and mystery fiction at my own site, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?

Here I must confess I am a Manhattanite, living in close proximity to Columbia, but I'm a frequent visitor to Brooklyn and wish I spent more time hanging out in Prospect Park on an almost daily basis.

Is there a Brooklyn sensibility or character? How would you describe it? How does it differ from the character of New York City as a whole?

Like most of New York, Brooklyn seems to be composed of a number of disparate neighborhoods. Park Slope is totally different from Boerum Hill which is totally different from Canarsie which is totally different from Williamsburg. It's easier to raise a family and live - at least by NY standards - relatively modestly. Generally Brooklyn is more bullshit-free than Manhattan, but when there's bullshit, it's at epic proportions.

What about your particular neighborhood? Does it have its own unique character? This can include the kinds of people you tend to find there, particular characters or places that epitomize the neighborhood, etc.

I spend most of my time in Prospect Lefferts Gardens if I'm out in Brooklyn and the more time I spend there the more I love it. Reminds me of my own neighborhood, Manhattan Valley, for its ethnic diversity, neighborhood vibe and complete lack of Starbucks, Bank of America or Duane Reade.

What do you think of the direction Brooklyn, or at least your neighborhood, is going? What does the future look like in terms of economics, demographics, culture, and other changes?

From what I can see of PLG, it's gentrifying but at a slower pace than the rest of the borough. That's because of housing constraints, and there are things I wish were present - okay, a sushi restaurant, sue me - but once the Big Three step in, we're in trouble.

Is there a Brooklyn literary sensibility? Which writers or works most emblematize Brooklyn for you? Which older writers set the tone? Which contemporary writers are you reading with interest?

The funny thing is, even though there are so many Brooklyn-based writers, I'm not sure what the sensibility is. More family oriented, not necessarily. More urban? Maybe. I guess Paula Fox and Jonathan Lethem best encapsulate Brooklyn, with lots in between.

Why do you think Brooklyn has such a dense population of writers? Is there something particularly literary about Brooklyn? Where and how do people read here?

I would guess it's because a) it's cheaper than Manhattan, though who knows for how long b) it feels more like a neighborhood c) where several writers are, more will follow.

What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world? What do you think would make Brooklyn better as a literary place? What does the borough still need? What are the opportunities and challenges it faces?

Well the Book Festival is a good start. A bookstore like what you imagine would be fantastic. Maybe just an increased sense of community and goodwill.

Imagine the ideal Brooklyn bookstore or literary venue, a place you'd like to read on your own or participate in literary community. What would it be like? What would it avoid?

Flippant answer: no hipsters, just genuine love of books. Real answer: Well, a sense of the genuine is important, because what should be primary in everything is the love of books. I like the idea of an airy space, where people can meet and have book clubs and discussions and there's a sense of comfort and easygoing nature. Grassroots, built from the ground up, that sort of thing.

Friday, October 05, 2007

"I guess I should stop reading this book and put some pants on."

"The story of your life," said the ALP, sympathetically.

This is the book that's taken over my life, that I'm so morose at having to put down in order to leave the house. Sorry no post today.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Wednesday Reviews: Diaz, Shepard

Two brief reviews of books that deserve much more -- links to further coverage provided.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz
(Riverhead, September 2007)
You've never heard of this book before, right? Diaz' first book since his class short story collection Drown has turned out to be a huge publishing event, inspiring everyone from Michiko Kakutani to bloggers galore to heights of praise. I can't give you much more -- just my own little story.

I read the short story that formed the foundation for BWL of OW in an anthology the ALP picked up called Rotten English -- a collection of prose and poetry written in non-standard or dialect English. Diaz was probably the most famous of the lot, but he certainly fits the bill -- Oscar Wao is studded with Spanish and Spanglish words and construction, and, my favorite, often uses the word "dude" as the subject (first example I can find in the novel, in a footnote, in parentheses: "(dude had bomber wings, for fuck's sake)"). It's electric, addicting, and like readers all over America and the Dominican Diaspora, I was hungry for more.

I finagled a copy from our kind-hearted Penguin sales rep. I started reading it in brief chunks on the subway. Then I had a day off, which I usually need as a work day, and when I took a lunch break from writing and researching I picked up Oscar Wao again. The rest of the day I spent in various positions throughout my house, book in front of my nose, unable to get away from the saga of old curses and modern dysfunction and sci-fi humor and adolescent dorkiness and tragedy masquerading as farce and the language -- oh man, the language. It's that kind of book.

I mentioned that Diaz came by the bookstore to sign stock -- I'm glad I hadn't read the book then, or I might have acted even more foolish. When I was finished I wished I was back in school so we could lit-crit the heck out of it. What does Oscar's identification with Oscar Wilde mean in terms of his outside status, his repressed sexuality, his political persecution, his lasting fame, his flamboyance or lack thereof? What are the implications of Yunior (the book's narrator and Diaz' stand-in) asserting that the troubles of the Dominican Republic stretch back to the moment Columbus used it as an entry point to the New World, his deadly serious joke that the curse (fuku) stretched all the way to the 20th century and killed Kennedy? Why does his refusal to mention Columbus' name (he is referred to as The Admiral, which it took me a bit to understand) give colonialism such a spooky power? Does his explanation of the Trujillo regime in footnotes, David Foster Wallace style, mean that these are merely "footnotes of history"? If all Dominicans are hit by fuku, is Yunior's fuku his inability to be faithful to Oscar's beautiful sister Lola, or his association with Oscar? What's with the golden mongoose, anyway?

Point is, it's a book that pulls you in to a whole world, like the best novels do, and opens your eyes to some parts of the real world you never noticed. To be honest, there were moments when the pacing or emphasis seemed weird to me -- maybe because I could perceive the bones of the short story under the novel, and the flesh didn't always fill in where I'd expect. And Oscar's life, truth be told, isn't so very wondrous, except that it existed at all, and in the wondrous telling of it, and with luck, in the significance of his ultimate act of defiance. With luck, this pulls the purposefully anti-canonical Diaz irresistibly into the canon of our greatest American writers, not least because he can't help writing powerfully about the least powerful among us: the refugees, the prisoners, the cursed, the unbeautiful, the lonely. He'd laugh to hear it, but dude is a serious force for good in the world. He has a kind of power, and he knows it. Here are his words, full of typical allusion and irreverence, erudition and pop culture and idealism and self-loathing, from another footnote about a writer who fell afoul of Trujillo:

What is it with Dictators and Writers, anyway? Since before the infamous Caesar-Ovid war they've had beef. Like the Fantastic Four and Galactus, like the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, like the Teen Titans and Deathstrike, Foreman and Ali, Morrison and Crouch, Sammy and Sergio, they seem destined to be eternally linked in the Halls of Battle. Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists, but I think that's too simple; it lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators, in my opinion, just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like.

Like You'd Understand, Anyway
by Jim Shepard
(Knopf, September 2007)
Jim Shepard is another one of those writers with a cult following -- what you call "a writer's writer." Check out the recent Bookslut interview here for more about him. I had a bookstore colleague once (hi, Ethan!) who had had Shepard as a writing teacher, and hearing him talk about Shepard filled me with respect for the man before I'd ever read a word he'd written. I read his previous short story collection, Love and Hydrogen, of which the only one I remember is the title story where two men, a couple, try to hide their relationship while working on a Nazi zeppelin, which of course goes down in flames. It's a very Shepard-esque story: he likes to work in somewhat exotic settings, which act as metaphors for the unhappy relationships they contain.

But that's reductive, and makes it sound like I don't like the man's work: I do, I do. What impressed me most about the new collection is the weird and simple fact that most of the relationships aren't romantic, or even homo-social (though most are between men). Fathers and sons, high school friends, brothers -- these loves are powerful too, and shape our actions and our perceptions just as powerfully as sex does. The title of the collection, which doesn't appear in any of the stories, is a great evocation of the singular inarticulate-ness that often characterizes such relationships: there's a longing for understanding, but an instinctive shoving away at the same time.

Okay, the stories, or at least my favorites. A Roman scribe in "Hadrian's Wall" seethes with resentment for his retired legionnaire father, and then fails to prevent an incursion by the barbarians, which leads to reciprocal slaughter by the Romans. In "Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak," two friends immerse themselves obsessively in their high school football team, while the narrator speculates on whether a guy on an opposing team could be the son of his disappeared dad, and his meat head best friend deals with his own father's constant comparison of him to his pro football older brother. "Eros 7" is one of the few stories involving a woman: two Soviet astronauts are assigned to orbit simultaneously but separately, a heartbreaking parallel to their secret and unsuccessful romance. Possibly the most powerful is the first story, "The Zero Meter Diving Team," narrated by the oldest of three brothers, a bureaucrat implicated in the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, where his two younger brothers die slowly. It's an astonishing play-by-play of the governmental unwillingness to admit the problem that resulted in the accident's horrible long-range consequences, and the brothers' various manifestations of suffering and guilt and stoicism and humor make it all too real.

The point here is that any of these stories might be maudlin, or worse, tough-guy pretentious, in the hands of a lesser writer. Shepard's enviable and compelling skill, sentence by sentence, is to expose his characters' posturing, their weaknesses and wants and failures and loving impulses, in language that not only shows compassion for them, but makes it clear that they are just like you, for better and (mostly) for worse. One of the best stories has no exotic setting: "Courtesy for Beginners" is about a kid at summer camp, with all the miserable hazing that can imply, while his possibly mentally disturbed younger brother is at home. After the sickening denouement, the narrator ends with this telling conclusion:

But what I did was the kind of thing you'd do and the kind of thing you've done: I felt bad for him and for myself and I went on with my week and then with my summer and I started telling my story to whoever would listen. And my story was: I survived camp. I survived my brother. I survived my own bad feelings. Love me for being so sad about it. Love me for knowing what I did. Love me for being in the lifeboat after everyone else went under. And my story made me feel better and it made me feel worse. And it worked.
Take their words for it: these are two books that are seriously worth reading, and worth adding to the ranks of great 21st century American literature.

(And come see Shepard read and talk with his editor, the equally cult famous Gary Fisketjon, on the 24th.)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Monday Chronicle: NEIBA Trade Show

Friday morning I boarded the Amtrak train (such a blissful way to travel!) for Providence, RI, to join the New England Independent Booksellers Association for their fall trade show. I was sorry to miss Thursday, which judging by the trade show schedule had a ton of excellent educational programming, but since my panel on bookstores and digital tools was on Friday, I was only there for Friday and Saturday morning. But as usual at the fall shows, a lot got packed in!

I stepped out of the cab and into the Providence convention center, made a beeline for the show floor. NEIBA is operating under a similar strategy to NAIBA's show this year, with a smaller, more streamlined trade show floor focused on "pick of the lists" and helping booksellers sell more books, rather than trying to showcase every title from every publisher. The show floor was therefore smallish and felt very manageable, even in the few hours I had to spare, but I still found myself coming away with a bag of super-useful materials (and, um, free books). Penguin had a great handout on top children's books for fall and the holidays -- very necessary to those of us who are children's book-impaired, though I love the ones I know. And indie distributor Bookstream had a whole slew of handouts with top-20 lists in major categories -- cookbooks, children's books, literature -- AND a mega-list of holiday gift ideas based on gift-recipient-reading-type, so you can answer all those tough customer questions (i.e. what should I get for a movie lover, my sports-obsessed uncle, my nephew who loves comics, etc.) I'm posting it in our back room so we can bone up on what's coming up. I bet if you email Carolyn Bennett she'd even send you one.

Carolyn and I made a date for lunch in the convention center cafe and talked about life in Brooklyn and Poughkeepsie. Then I had a working date with another expert, Heather Gain of Harvard Bookstore, who handles the store's incredible event series and was kind enough to give me some tips on creating partnerships with outside venues for major author events. Then it was off to our panel for the two of us.

Oh yeah, the reason I was there: "Doing Digital Right," moderated by the inimitable Len Vlahos and starring Robert Gray, Heather Gain, and yours truly. Len gave some background on Web 2.0 and the reasons booksellers should be thinking about not only e-commerce, but blogging, social networking, and other digital tools as well. He asked each of us panelists to talk a little about what we do, then let things flow into conversation and Q&A. Heather's been using Facebook with great success to publicize textbook buybacks and events at Harvard; Bob has seen the gamut of bookstore sites through his Shelf Awareness research; and you know me. The whole thing went by in something of a blur, but since I got a lot of lovely compliments afterward, apparently it went well. It felt like there was so much that we barely touched on, and so many additional things I wanted to say, but maybe that's a good sign -- it felt like the beginning of a conversation, not a complete picture, and I hope it inspires some folks to use the tools at their disposal to extend the mission of indie bookstores into the blogosphere.

After that I finally checked into my hotel room, took a breath, and came back to the convention center for the author reception. I got introduced to Geraldine Brooks (by the wonderful Steve Fischer, NEIBA's executive secretary and the one responsible for getting me there), and when I gushed how much I had loved her last book March and that I wrote the Publishers Weekly review, she actually gushed back about how much it means to a writer to see that first positive review in PW -- there was a metaphor about going down for the third time and then seeing the lights of the Coast Guard coming your way. I also met Rudolph Delson (Maynard & Jennica), Samantha Hunt (The Invention of Everything Else), both of whom I'll be hosting at the bookstore for events in the coming months; and Jennifer Boylan (I'm Looking Through You), who sadly is already booked for Halloween, though I thought her haunted house memoir would be a great addition to our Halloween party lineup. Chatted some more with Carolyn, her boss Jack Kerr of Bookstream, Megan Sullivan of Harvard Bookstore, and some other great booksellers, before leaving to have dinner with Bob Gray.

It had been a long time since Bob and I sat down and jawed a bit, and much has happened in both of our lives -- despite the difference in our ages, we seem to have very similar outlooks and experiences, and it was great to trade notes about our life and work in bookstores and blogs, and the unexpected turns things have taken and could yet take. We ate at Local 121 (Carolyn's recommendation), which focuses on locally produced foods -- delicious!

I then made my way to the official unofficial after-party at Trinity Pub, and caught up with Sean Concannon of Parson Weems and the lovely Wendy Hudson of Nantucket Bookworks. But either I'm getting old or the virus I've been fighting for a week and a half is still not vanquished, because I tired out pretty early and headed back for a bath and bed.

In the morning was the author breakfast, with three illustrious speakers: Ha Jin (A Free Life), Geraldine Brooks (People of the Book), and Paul Krugman (The Conscience of a Liberal). It was illuminating to hear them speak on writing in a second language, the challenges of voice in historical fiction, and the economic and political arcs of the 20th century, respectively. But I got just as much out of my breakfast conversation with my tablemate Lori Kaufmann, who works at Brookline Booksmith and blogs at Brookline Blogsmith, about everything from baseball to bookselling careers to bacon. I'm delighted to have another bookseller blog to read, and another bookseller friend to look out for at conferences!

All too soon, it was time to head back to the train, though it was nice to get home in the afternoon to the ALP. The trip sped by as I was totally engrossed one of the books I'd picked up, a YA fantasy from Dutton called Gods of Manhattan by Scott Mebus. I think the book owes a lot to Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, about the world of myth and legend that lives just under the surface of London, but its premise of a parallel Manhattan where Walt Whitman, Babe Ruth, Alexander Hamilton and other legends reign as gods was irresistible and I gobbled it up. My favorite god was Peter Stuyvesant; while Whitman is the God of Optimism, Dorothy Parker is the Goddess of Wit, John Jacob Astor is the God of Excess, etc., stodgy old Stuyvesant is the God of Things Were Better In The Old Days -- a concept dear to the heart of New Yorkers, and indeed sometimes of booksellers. Here's a typical rant from Stuyvesant:

"...things have gone downhill every since. Nothing is as good as it was in my day. The water, it tastes horrible! The cheese, inedible. The books, written by imbeciles. We had books in my day, real books, books with words in Latin! How can it be a book it if has no Latin in it? It just makes no sense!"

While Stuyvesant may be a vital part of the makeup of New York, I'm glad the independent booksellers of NEIBA don't agree with him. There are plenty of "real books" getting written, published, and put in readers' hands every day, and I'm grateful to have been a part of that process at the NEIBA trade show. Thanks to everyone -- publishers, distributors, administrators, booksellers -- who make it all happen.