Friday, November 30, 2007

Friday Odds & Ends

I love that people send me articles about books, bookstores, book technology, and other stuff they know I might be interested in for the blog. My friend Steve sends me the best of the gazillion articles he reads about ebooks. The ALP sends me articles about comics. And sometimes my mom sends me articles about bookstores. Thanks, guys -- I read them all, though I don't always have time to talk about them.

Speaking of time, if you've got any this Saturday and Sunday, check out the Indie & Small Press Book Fair at the New York Center for Independent Publishing. As the Times notes, the sessions include musicians as well as authors and publishers, and the conversations should be as wide-ranging as the books on offer.

And speaking of a wide range of great books, check out the new project of the National Book Critics Circle: a monthly Best Recommended list, compiled from the favorites of lots of great authors and critics. It's sure to be an extremely well-curated list -- like an NBCC award shortlist for every month. We're planning on featuring a display in the bookstore, and I think the list will prove useful in lots of other venues for finding out the best books of the moment. Here's the current list:


But that display will have to wait until January, because the bookstore is currently crammed to the gills with Christmas books. In terms of the War on Christmas (thanks Noelle for the link to weirdness), I think "Happy Holidays" is a more thoughtful and kind greeting in a diverse city, and the one I use with customers; but myself, I love Christmas, and all the wrapping paper and cards and festive gifty books are making me a bit giddy. The ALP surprised me this morning with a brand-new stocking for our first Christmas together, and a gingerbread house kit. I'm reserving all of my favorite Christmas books at the library, and compiling my mental list of recommendations for customers and book gifts for my own loved ones.

And in what feels like a very nice pre-Christmas gift, my presentation of my bookstore business plan to the judges at the Brooklyn Business Library went extremely well on Wednesday. Since I spend a lot my time thinking and talking about the viability of indie bookstores and the great opportunities in Brooklyn, answering their questions was pretty easy, and I felt especially confident and articulate -- of course, it was a book-loving crowd, so they were on my side. Thanks to all of you who were mentally supporting me! Now I just have to wait until the end of January to find out what they really thought. Good thing there's plenty to think about in the meantime.

And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention our fabulous ELNO at HousingWorks on Wednesday night. About 30 booksellers, publishing folks, and authors were in attendance, publishers generously donated reading copies (the remainders went to HousingWorks, of course), and good bookish conversation was had by all. Thanks to all who attended -- see you again soon.

Happy Friday -- enjoy your weekend, and happy reading!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Mini-Review: Gentlemen of the Road

I've resolved to do more book reviewing around here, if in smaller snippets.

Gentlemen of the Road
by Michael Chabon
(Del Rey, October 2007)
I spent the holiday weekend with Michael Chabon's brief novel Gentlemen of the Road, and it was the perfect curl-up-in-bad-weather sort of book: bloody and daring adventures in exotic lands are immensely appealing when you are avoiding bad weather and extremely comfortable and cozy yourself. Though I'm one of those few odd souls who has never read the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I've been a fan of Mr. Chabon since he edited the McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and asserted that there's no shame and indeed some honor in literary writers working with genre fiction -- that is, with plot and action, as well as realism and character and all that stuff. He's also one of the few authors whose blurbs I trust -- every book he has bothered to endorse has become a favorite of mine (AND he gets David Mitchell, so he can't go wrong.)

As with all of my favorite books, this is one of those that totally absorbs you into the plot during the reading of it, but leaves you with a great deal to ponder afterward. The two heroes of the plot are an African Jew and a Frankish Jew, in the messy period between the Roman Empire and the late Middle Ages, in the messy region between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, in the messy (but classic!) position of being cheerfully self-serving con men who find themselves in the midst of an epic and moral struggle. At stake is Khazaria, a real-life Jewish kingdom that lasted 400 years -- and there are a lot of disguises, swordplay, grand speeches, bittersweet romance, elephants, surprising turns of fortune, blood and fire, colorful bit players, and witty remarks before it's all sorted out.

Much of my after-musing on this book has been about the overlaps and mixing of cultures we think of as separate, and about the great stretches of history before, say, the year 1500 that we almost never think about. Along with spending Thursday morning reorganizing the literature section at the bookstore, reading this irresistible story stoked an appetite for thinking about nationality, ethnicity, history, geography, and how infinitely complex the world is.

The book was serialized in the New York Times magazine all last year, and somehow I missed it -- it seems totally appropriate that it would come together in the same way as a Dickens novel. But I'm glad to have encountered it in book form, because it means I also got Chabon's afterword, which had some great meditations on Jewishness (as usual for him) and about the nature of adventure. Here's my favorite bit:

"Adventures are a logical and reliable result -- and have been since at least the time of Odysseus -- of the fatal act of leaving one's home, or trying to return to it again. All adventure happens in that damned and magical space, wherever it may be found or chanced upon, which least resembles one's home. As soon as you have crossed your doorstep or the county line, into that place where the structures, laws, and conventions of your upbringing no longer apply, where the support and approval (but also the disapproval and repression) of your family and neighbors are not to be had: then you have entered into adventure, a place of sorrow, marvels, and regret. Given a choice, I very much prefer to stay home, where I may safely encounter adventure in the pages of a book, or seek it out, as I have here, at the keyboard, in the friendly wilderness of my computer screen."

The extension of that thought, of course, is that the place to which one adventures can also become home -- for better or worse. As the ALP and I prepare to spend our first Christmas together in New York, away from our families, home and adventure and history have been on my mind. I think I might give this book to a lot of people as a Christmas gift -- everyone should have the chance to leave home so definitively as I did in traveling to Khazaria with the gentlemen of the road.

What about you, dear readers? What have you read lately that has been an adventure?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Graphic lit, gifts

My occasional column in Shelf Awareness on "graphic lit" ('cause they're not all comics, and they're not all novels... but I'm pretty okay with all terms, interchangeably) ran yesterday, with my suggestions for gift-worthy graphic lit. There's an abundance of delicious new and collected comics out there this season, and this is just a small sampling. One of the titles I didn't get to include is the first and second collection of Moomin, the comic strip by Tove Jansson featuring an endearing hippo-like creature and friends. Whimsical and surreal, childlike and socially conscious, bizarre and totally intuitive, the strip has tremendous appeal -- but since I've only read it in bits and pieces (while I probably should have been doing other things) on the sales floor, I can't say I've experienced the whole thing. It's one of the gifty new collectios that works for kids and adults, so I thought I'd throw it in as a bonus for you blog readers.

Speaking of brilliant gift books -- I was gifted the new Poetry Speaks Expanded by a pal at SourceBooks, and the ALP and I spent a lovely evening trolling through the CDs and the book listening to our favorite serious and silly poets reading their work. There's a lot of overlap with the original Poetry Speaks (which was one of the ALP's first gifts to me, back in 2001), but the new edition has a lot more poems printed and recorded. What an incredible gift for a poetry lover, I think.

Off to work, for tomorrow we feast! A very happy Thanksgiving to everyone -- and here's hoping Friday is very black indeed in all indie bookstores.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Good News, and An ELNO Invitation

So maybe you remember me mentioning the Brooklyn Business Library's business plan competition, which I entered with a crazy plan for an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. The winner of the competition gets $15,000 to use toward starting up their business, and runners-up get lesser financial prizes or service packages from local vendors.

Well, late last week I got a call to tell me I'm a finalist. (!!!)

I still have a presentation to make to a panel of judges on the 28th (which sounds like a cross between a dissertation defense and those prepared speeches I did in junior high), and there's no guarantee I'll take home the prize or even a secondary one. But what an incredible confidence booster it has been to realize that it's not just fellow book nerds who are enthusiastic about this idea. There are some Brooklynites out there who don't think I'm completely nuts, too, and allow for the possibility that I might have something to bring to our community. I'm grateful, and newly excited about the future.

Speaking of community, I'd like to officially invite all you younger booksellers and publishing folks to our fourth (or fifth?) quarterly ELNO - Emerging Leaders Night Out. This is your chance to meet others of your age and outlook who work in the field of books. Network, mingle, throw your head back and laugh engagingly, or just look around and realize that you're not alone. The shindig will be held Wednesday, November 28, from 7 to 9 PM at the beautiful HousingWorks Used Book Cafe on Crosby Street; visit HousingWorks' website for directions. It costs nothing to get in, and HousingWorks is offering happy hour prices on beer from its cafe all evening. And rumor has it there will also be some comp copies of books donated by publishers for young booksellers, and perhaps even some authors to class up the joint. You can email me here if you have questions or you want to RSVP. And learn more about Emerging Leaders here. Hope to see you at the bookstore!

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Kindle, and all that that implies

Thanks to Shelf Awareness (a great electronic resource for those of us in the print industry, as many of you know), I spent all morning reading this article in Newsweek about the Kindle, the new e-reader just released by the same company that runs Amazon. I know that name -- and often, the concept of internet book sales and digital books -- is likely to incur hisses from the bricks and mortar booksellers. I admit to feeling some stirrings of indignation myself at the sometimes smug sense of inevitability with which the author (as most journalists, seemingly) wrote about the increasing viability of digital tools for reading. But, as is my habit, I'm trying not to make this an us-vs.-them thing (i.e., those vapid digital people vs. us serious print people, or those hopelessly old-fashioned meatspace people vs. us progressive connected people). Because as usual, I don't think a viable e-reader and a healthy book market are necessarily mutually exclusive. (For example, I used Google to research the article's claim that "studies show that heavy Internet users read many more books than do those not on the Net", and despite many of my colleagues' assertions it seems to be true, at least according to this report from Statistics Canada.)

The Newsweek article also led me to two new blogs about the intersection of books and technology: if:book, a project of the Institute for the Future of the Book, based right here in Brooklyn; and Teleread, "News & views on e-books, libraries, publishing and related topics". Now I've got lots more perspectives on this revolution/evolution/intersection/ flash-in-the-pan, or whatever it is, to absorb and use to create my own opinion. Not bad.

If only my eyes weren't so tired from reading words on a screen all morning. Hmmm...

What do you think, intelligent and bookish readers? Have you thoughts on whether the Kindle will indeed make e-books viable, and if so what that means? I would love to interact with you in this digital forum. Or if you'd prefer to engage in real-life conversation, I'll be talking to customers at the bookstore later today -- you could drop by.

Update: Before you make a decision, I recommend perusing the E-Book Report, a column for Publishers Weekly by the editor/publisher of Teleread. He calls the Newsweek article a "puff piece" and points out several major problems with the Kindle that will probably be familiar to those following the e-book saga.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Brooklyn Lit Life: Edwidge Danticat

Haitian novelist and memoirist extraordinaire Edwidge Danticat was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award for her most recent book Brother, I'm Dying; you can read an interview about her book and the nomination here. A few weeks before the awards, however, Danticat was gracious enough to talk a bit about her childhood in Brooklyn. Though Danticat no longer lives here, the borough's literary culture is a little bit richer for having her.

Brooklyn Lit Life
Edwidge Danticat

Describe your particular literary project, and your role in it.
It’s a book called Brother, I’m Dying, a family memoir.

Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?
My father moved here when I was 2 and my mother when I was 4. They left me in Haiti with my aunt and uncle while getting settled here. With immigration red tape it took us 8 years to be reunited in Brooklyn when I was twelve years old.

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?
Brooklyn is like a microcosm in the world. So many people from Brooklyn come from somewhere else, even somewhere else in the United States. Brooklynites are feisty and strong and proud. I meet people all the time from all over the world who have some type of connection to Brooklyn and they are always very proud of it.

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 grew up in East Flatbush which was a very Caribbean neighborhood. You could/can find spices and foods there that you can find in Port-au-Prince, or Kingston. That made it feel even more like home, in spite of the cold winters. Also the labor day Caribbean festival is unmatched in its scale in the States. It’s a wonderful carnival that we all participated in from my community and others.

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?
Paul Auster has it. Sapphire, Gloria Naylor Paule Marshall, Jacqueline Woodson, Jonathan Safran Sofer [sic], Jonathan Lethem of course are all emblematic Brooklyn writers. But we have wonderful writers too who even though they’re not writing about Brooklyn yet are now part of the fabric, writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and other more recent Brooklynites.

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?
Brooklyn lacks the craziness of having to be all business all the time publishing wise, plus it offers a community. I think that’s very appealing to writers.

What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world?
The Brooklyn public libraries have some great liteary events. The Brooklyn book festival is fabulous. I’ve never seen that many people at a book event in Brooklyn. BAM is a great treasure, our own Lincoln Center with edge. There are also a slew of smaller event within the different ethnic communities that are very exciting.

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?
Nkiru Books when it existed was great. It was a great independent that brought wonderful writers like that. More small independent bookstores would be great.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Events, Past & Upcoming

Thanks so much to Jay Baron Nicorvo for inviting me to participate in the CLMP/LWC this weekend (that's Council of Literary Magazines and Presses - Literary Writers Conference for you acronym buffs). I had a great time in the "Power of Blogging" panel with Ron Hogan (of Beatrice and GalleyCat) and BethAnne Patrick (of PW's BookMaven). Though I felt a bit outclassed -- I found out Ron has been blogging since the dark old days of 1995, and BethAnne actually gets paid to blog (though I wouldn't recommend anyone try to make her conform to some corporate idea of what she ought to be writing -- she's got opinions and chutzpah to spare!) I'm tickled to have had the opportunity to talk with them, and I hope we were of some help to the writers in attendance, who struggle (just like booksellers) with how to incorporate blogging into the world of the written word.

If you don't have plans for this evening, and you're in the New York area, may I recommend Between the Lines at the Brooklyn Academy of Music? It's a partnership between BAM and the great literary magazine A Public Space, and brings together innovative writers and filmmakers for a one-of-a-kind evening of collaboration and exploration. My colleague Tom Roberge helps run the series, which is a great recommendation for it -- check it out!

And speaking of upcoming events: have you heard the news that the once-moribund New York Is Book Country festival is returning next year, run by Kirkus Reviews -- and that they've scheduled it on the same day as the Brooklyn Book Festival? (It used to be held in July.) You know I try not to be snarky around here, but what the hell?!?! I can't possibly imagine the motivation for choosing this one weekend in the whole year, nor why the organizers have not responded to requests from all sides that they move the date. I suspect NYIBC, not BBF, will suffer for it, but why this strange spirit of competitiveness, rather than collaboration? Curious what you all think, and if there's something I'm missing here...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Link-slightly-wacky Monday

Greetings, fellow book nerds! I'm back from sabbatical, more or less, but I've realized the new schedule with BookStream et al. means that my blogging habits may need to change. Lucky for me this morning's Shelf Awareness led me to Booktrix, a book consulting company with a mandate as wide-ranging and hazy as mine at times, and to this post on the Booktrix blog, with the valuable advice: "Blog often, blog short, blog with pictures."

I spent half of the "Digital Tools" panel at NAIBA telling booksellers that not every blog has to be the same format, length, or frequency, and that this doesn't have to take up all of your time. So I'm taking my own advice. I'll be posting (hopefully) a bit more, but in smaller bites. I've got a couple of Brooklyn Lit Life interviews in the pipeline, and a folder full of links and ideas to post.

Today I'll pick just one. I was thrilled to get an email from Lauretta Nagel of Constellation Books in Reistertown, MD (outside of Baltimore). I chatted with her at the Emerging Leaders table at the NAIBA convention (her store is less than a year old). She attended the Digital Tools panel, and says that thanks to that she finally did it: she started a Constellation Books blog! It looks to me like everything a bookstore blog should be: timely, local, and personal. Congrats to Lauretta, and hooray for another addition to the ranks of bookseller bloggers!