Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #24: Favorite book about giving

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Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles
(bonus: a smitch of Christianity for Christmas Eve)

As she'll tell you from page 1, Sara Miles is not your traditional (American) Christian. Raised by atheists (themselves raised by missionaries, and soured on the whole thing), she had a child as a single mother, came out as a lesbian, found her best mentors in restaurant kitchen work, and was deeply involved in leftist international activism. One day for no explainable reason, she walked into a church in San Francisco, and was blown away by the ritual of Communion. It's pretty strange and powerful stuff if it hits you right: Christ feeding people with his body, people feeding each other, regardless of whether they're handing the holy foodstuff to a lover or friend or enemy or stranger or beggar. "Take this bread," is the command. "Feed my sheep."

With years of experience of the power of eating together from her restaurant work, Miles saw the potential of this gesture, and made it even bigger. She talked the church into letting her turn the sanctuary into a free food kitchen, and kept on feeding the hungry, including the homeless and the violent and the insane and the lost and bewildered, and the liberal but kind of freaked-out church members who took her in and learned from her. She created an incredible community through the literal act of breaking bread together, and her work goes on and grows.

Sara Miles is one of the most honest and original voices on the subjects of faith and activism that I've ever read. Her book is utterly compelling as a memoir of a spiritual life and as an inspiration to translate elation into action, to do the good you know is there to be done with the tools that you have. She seems to me part of a moment in literary and political circles, where there's the potential for a spirit of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King (rather than, sorry Mom, Dr. Dobson), where we can understand that the Kingdom of God is a real/metaphorical place, where there is a lot less of the demand for doctrinal agreement and personal moral perfection and a lot more of the compassion and redemption and transcendence and giving and justice and peace.

Tonight I'll be at the Christmas Eve services at Old First in Brooklyn. I'll be far from my family, because we can't afford to travel this year. My bookstore remains a dream in a dark economy. And I expect I will probably cry (much to the ALP's dismay) at the beauty of it all -- the dark sanctuary full of people longing for mystery, the little lights in the darkness, the sense of something impossibly big and good coming into the world in the body of a Middle Eastern refugee's baby. I'm so grateful for the gifts I've been given this year: for books and community and love and home and good work to do and faith and peace. I'm so grateful for what I've been allowed to give. This next year, I want to learn how to give more.

After this I'm taking a little vacation until after the new year. I wish you and yours a beautiful, wonderful holiday, and a happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #23: Favorite Place-Based Anthology

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Brooklyn Was Mine edited by by Valerie Steiker and Chris Knutsen (Riverhead)
(bonus: giving some love to the local!)

If there's anything your Book Nerd loves more than books and indie bookstores, it's my adopted home town of Brooklyn. So of course I snatched up this nonfiction anthology (which, as I mentioned here, benefits the organization Develop Don't Destroy, which opposes what I think is the worst idea in Brooklyn development history.) It could have been hit or miss -- as Colson Whitehead hilariously observed, there's a certain amount of hype around Brooklyn these days, especially as a literary Mecca.

Luckily, the mix of authors here offers views and voices beyond literary hipsterdom. The introduction by Pete Hamill offers several decades' perspective on the "sudden emergence" of Brooklyn, and opines that it will probaby remain itself whatever the condo developers or anti-gentrifiers attempt. Lara Vapnyar has an illuminating piece on the kitsch and apppeal of the neighborhood of Brighton Beach, which is "more Russian than Russia". And Brooklyn's poster boy Jonathan Lethem has an experimental multi-voiced rant on the frustrating and terrible nightmare of Brooklyn (followed by an explanation/apologia that puts it in perspective). Other authors write about the unexpected sense of neighborhood and community here, the experience of growing up here or moving from other parts of the country or the world, the geography, the history,the baseball, the race relations.

It's a fantastic collection, and cemented my love for the place -- not only my own experience of a wonderfully human-scale neighborhood, but the diversity of the place, and the fact that it can't be pinned down in a marketing slogan. The title alludes to the feeling that several of the essays get at: that one gets nostalgic and possessive about Brooklyn almost as soon as one encounters it. It's a bit laughable, sure, all of us staunchly loyal new converts, but Brooklyn is a place that gets a strong hold on people. I'm grateful for these writers for reminding me some of the reasons why.

And as borough president extraordinaire Marty Markowitz loves to remind us, one out of every four Americans has a relative from Brooklyn. So even if you're not from around here, bet you know someone who is who would love to read this book.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #22: Favorite grown-up novel about a teenager

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Goldengrove by Francine Prose (Harper)
(Bonus: Features an independent bookstore!)

This is yet another book that I was motivated to read after hearing the author speak. Francine Prose had the misfortune to be scheduled at McNally Jackson on the same evening as one of the three presidential debates, so the crowd was shockingly sparse for a nationally recognized novelist and essayist. But she was extremely gracious about the situation, and delivered an eloquent talk and reading about her book and surrounding issues.

Goldengrove is actually the name of an independent bookstore in the novel -- a sure-fire way to get me to at least pick it up! (It's also a reference to a wonderful poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins, which I actually memorized as a teenager and have returned to with deepening appreciation as an adult.) The store becomes the refuge of the 13-year-old protagonist during the summer after her adored older sister drowns -- it's owned by her parents, who are grieving in their own way, and the shop offers our heroine both social encounters and solitude. She ultimately finds herself in a dreamy Vertigo-style relationship with her sister's grieving boyfriend, and must navigate her own path out of the fog of memory.

Prose responded to a question from the audience about her 1998 Harper's article about sexism in book reviews by acknowledging that gender disparities still exist in the world of literature. For example, this novel about a 13-year-old girl is getting far less critical attention than Prose's previous one about a male holocaust denier. She attributes this in part to the contemporary sense that novels about teenagers are Young Adult literature (which would knock Huckleberry Finn and Catcher In The Rye and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and Maggie, Girl of the Streets out of the Real Literature realm), and in part to the adage (which booksellers know) that "girls will read books about boys, but boys won't read books about girls."

Whether or how widely this is true, it would be a terrible shame if it kept readers, adult or teen, away from this novel, which is a highly allusive and sophisticated work of ventriloquism, examining the horrors of loss and misplaced identity through the eyes of a character utterly unlike Prose herself. (Though, as she opines, "we've all been a 13-year-old girl at some point in our lives.) My coworkers agree with the books irresistible merit, and I hope many readers will discover the universal appeal of Prose's most recent work.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #21: Favorite classic revisited

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The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
(bonus: great Christmas vacation reading!)

Okay, I'm totally cheating on this one: not only was it not published this year, but it wasn't even on my original list of favorites. I realized I miscounted and needed one more to push it up to a full Advent calendar 24. Reading Laura Miller's appreciation of Lewis, and especially his association with Christmas, convinced me that it's not totally out of bounds to declare my love for this many-times-read series, especially at this particular season.

On a visit to my family in California this summer, I joined them at a Ventura movie theater for a viewing of Prince Caspian, since all of us grew up having the Chronicles read to us until we could read them ourselves. The movie was pretty terrible, at least for us purists -- the directors added a nasty power struggle and an unbelievable romance that are entirely absent from Lewis' pre-adolescent adventures -- but on returning to my childhood home afterward I was moved to pick up the barely-hanging-together paperbacks of our old boxed set. I read Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader in quick succession, and with great, great pleasure.

Like Miller (whose Magician's Book I look forward to reading) my relationship with Lewis has changed over the years. Like Tolkien, Lewis's English-white-man-of-the-early-20th-century prejudices become more clear as one grows up and learns of things like post-colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and gender studies. It's unfortunate that the bad guys are vaguely Arabic, that unattractive or fat people tend to be unpleasant or stupid, and that gender roles are pretty narrowly defined.

But that's hardly the point. They are stories doing what stories are supposed to do: entertaining, inspiring, sparking imagination, instilling values (of courage and compassion and loyalty, if not all the more modern virtues). And they defined my childhood, as they did that of many. My love of Michael Chabon and Susanna Clarke and David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman can hardly be separated from those evenings of "one more chapter" about Eustace and the dragon or the Lord Rhoop. And even with a more cosmopolitan reader's eye, those stories hold up and bring the thrills and chuckles as they always have (the humor I'd almost forgotten).

Now is a great time to revisit Narnia, in the quiet lull around Christmas dinner or while waiting for guests to arrive. And even if you don't do the Christmas thing and you share Miller's distaste for Lewis's Christian themes, his skill as a storyteller is consummate, and reading him is a pleasure all the sharper for being able to see him as a human.

(A side note: I noticed that the contemporary HarperCollins edition of Dawn Treader has significant textual differences from the one I first read, particularly in the passage about the horrific Island Where Dreams Come True. No mention is made that I can see of these content changes, and I wonder who made the decision to alter the original. Anyone with inside information, step forth -- I'd be very curious to know.)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #20: Favorite Novel of New York

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Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
(bonus: most likely to become a classic)

You probably don't need me to tell you about this book -- it's made every shortlist and Top 10 list it was eligible for. Critics are comparing it to The Great Gatsby -- which it certainly references -- and its sales show that readers think highly of it as well. As my "bonus" indicates, I'm inclined to the camp that thinks this is a book that will be read for years to come.

It's not a perfect book. If you like cricket you probably won't get enough of it, and if you don't care about cricket you'll probably think there's too much, and as a lifetime Brooklynite recently pointed out to me, O'Neill gets some of his geography wrong. And you might feel like you never get to know Chuck, one of the two central characters (though not the narrator). But like Gatsby, Chuck is somewhat inscrutable, and something of an iconic figure of the American dream -- a darker-skinned, poorer one for the 21st century, but no less ambitious or driven by great longing. O'Neill's skill is to draw him through the eyes of a man without noticable drives of any kind, who lives primarily in his mind and in the past, whose observations drift from a New York street in spring to the Netherlands of his childhood. I found myself drifting in my own reveries of New Yorks I have known, my own defining moments, and the wealth of landscape and literature and texture and humanity that makes up our experience.

O'Neill's writing consciousness and memory reminded me a lot of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway -- though when I met O'Neill he admitted he'd never read Woolf. (I gave him a copy of Mrs. Dalloway for research purposes.) Still, I think O'Neill's achievement is both a pleasure and a challenge for the reader, interlaced with themes worth pursuing, and providing a great deal of the pure joys of reading.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #19: Favorite Contemporary Poetry Collection

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The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe (W. W. Norton)
(bonus: star power to make you weepy!)

Despite being an English/creative writing major and getting my fair share of poems published in my high school and college literary magazines, I don't write or read poetry much these days. It takes something out of the ordinary to commit to the complex, contemplative pleasures of a poetry collection instead of the narrative through line of fiction. And like most of us, I'm sometimes a little intimidated by the whole thing, and subconsciously avoid revealing my ignorance about the world of poetry by staying out of it.

This may be why when Marie Howe read at McNally Jackson earlier this year, I was stunned by the huge crowd that turned out. We do a lot of poetry readings, but mostly with smaller authors who perform their art for friends, family, and a few die-hards -- but Howe packed the house. And she has a presence like an opera diva in the best sense: gracious, majestic, with a speaking voice to match the immensity and humanity of her poems. So that was something out of the ordinary enough to make me buy a book of poetry, which turned out to be one of the books I've gone back to again and again this year.

Howe used the language and symbolism of the Christian liturgy as an illuminating conceit. "Ordinary time" is basically the part of the church calendar that's not Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, or Pentacost -- just everything else. The title poem sketches the characters from Biblical miracles as they find themselves back in the workaday world, with some weird stories to tell and mundane details to navigate. Elsewhere Howe sees lepers in the supermarket, gets a sermon from a bratty kid on the playground, and writes persona poems as Mary (yeah, the mother of God) contemplating the moonlight in a well. Her point is often the longing for transcendence intertwined with a love for the usual and familiar, in plain but freighted language that does the de-familiarizing trick -- making that which we already know seem new, beautiful, strange -- that the best poetry pulls off. Even if you're not well-versed in the liturgical stuff, it's good poetry that helps you in contemplating the ordinary world, even if sometimes you don't feel you're worthy of it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #18: Favorite graphic novel completed series

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Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra (Vertigo, $12.99)
(shown here: Volume 1: Unmanned -- I'll spare you all 10 book covers)
(bonus: great conversation/argument starter!)

Now that the tenth and final book in Vaughan's graphic novel epic has been released in paperback, it's a great time to start with number one. An unknown plague wipes out the male half of humankind, except for escape artist Yorick and his pet monkey, who quickly become hot commodities -- but it's not as fun (for him) as it sounds.

I've been working my way through the journey that is Y this year, and it's as worthwhile as I was told. Vaughan is my favorite writer of mainstream/adventure/hero comics, and he knows how to write snappy dialogue as well as a heck of a road trip story. Yes, he is a man writing a world of women (drawn by excellent female artist Pia Guerra), but he does a fair enough job that it's food for thought, even if you take issue with his vision. Read it for the satisfying action, the clever plot twists, the Shakespearean allusions. Then start conversations about what it would mean for politics (or the justice system, or music, or literature) if the only participants left were women.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #17: Favorite novel in verse about werewolves

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Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow (Harper)
(bonus: great literary genre writing!)

Today is the ALP' s birthday! In honor of the occasion, I'm posting the one book that he and I both read this year, which we also both loved. As I noted here:

"My enthusiasm for the book led to a paragraph-long staff pick [the link now busted since we switched names and websites].

The ALP was inspired to write an exploration of experimentation in genre fiction using metaphors from evolutionary theory. I kid you not."

I can't find my original staff pick at the moment, but I encourage you to read the ALP's review if you're interested in a meditation on the place of this book in the surging battle lines of literary and genre fiction.

Or, you could just read Sharp Teeth. You won't find a more engaging, suspenseful, character-driven novel in verse about werewolf tribes in Los Angeles published this year. Seriously, it's a form perfectly suited to its content, and surprisingly accessible both for those who think they don't like poetry (think teenage boys) and those who think they don't like werewolves (think adult women). Barlow read at McNally, slightly stunned by the book's success, but it's well-deserved. Along with Chabon, Lethem, Kelly Link, and others, I salute Toby Barlow as one of the great new writers of "interstitial" fiction, blurring the lines between fantastical entertainments and serious literature. Enjoy!

(And pop over to the ALP's blog and say happy birthday, while you're at it...)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #16: Favorite non-annoying novel about annoying hipsters

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You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem (Random House)
(bonus: perfect for winter doldrums!)

I pitched this book when it came out in paperback this summer as "the perfect intellectual summer read", but it's also great for a dose of L.A. sunshine in the midst of winter. Sexy, topical, thought-provoking, plot-driven, and light enough to read in a weekend, Lethem's story of aspiring musicians in Los Angeles grapples with the ownership of ideas and the fine line between artistic and pretentious -- but you'll gobble it up for the great party scenes, sexual shenanigans, and sun-soaked hipness.

I wrote about the awesome event we did with Lethem and DJ Spooky (and my fan-girl geekout) here -- I bought the book at the event (which is rare), and had the even rarer experience of having the entire book live up to the brief passage the author read. It does engage with some serious issues of creative copyright and authorship, but through the vehicle of some truly self-absorbed and pretentious characters. It helps that Lethem has admitted that the book was based on his own "posturing" phase as a musician in the early '90s -- the characters have that loved but laughable intensity that can only be applied to oneself and one's friends when you were all young and stupid.

But I'm not gonna lie: it also has some pretty hot bedroom (and car and warehouse) scenes. And you can almost taste the tacos of a very late California city brunch. It's good for thinking a bit about creative commons and all that implies, and also good for little bit of sunshine you've been needing. I'll be listening to my Monster Eyes CD while you're reading...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #15: Favorite new comics discovery

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The Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press):
Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness
Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together

Thank goodness for the panelists at Book Expo who insisted I read him, and the Bakersfield bookstore that had a copy of Volume 1. I am now totally in love with Scott Pilgrim (as is every girl in Toronto, inexplicably). Bryan Lee O'Malley has metabolized manga, video games, and kung fu movies and created a completely unique comic series about the eponymous hapless, happy-go-lucky Canadian hero, who plays in a band, hangs out with his friends, and falls for the mysterious delivery girl Ramona Flowers -- but to date her he'll have to battle her seven evil ex-boyfriends. What ensues includes (but is not limited to) sword fights, navigating love and friendships, travels through subspace, vegan recipes, getting over your romantic past (and your sweetie's romantic past), possibly evil ninjas, and especially growing up, through slackerdom and into a kind of selfhood.

But the series is most lovable because it's full of the kind of twenty-something inside jokes and randomness that you love your own friends for, and the sweetness and surreality seem perfectly complementary. It's the kind of thing that those who have read it quote to each other endlessly -- it had been a long time since I came across that kind of obsessively great pop creation. I read Volumes 1 through 4 TWICE all the way through (the ALP started reading them months after I did so I had to go back and remember all the good parts). I'm giving them for Christmas to my favorite quirky lovable people. I don't know how I'm going to wait for Volume 5 in February...

* see, this is why the numbers didn't come out to 24 on my complete list: I'm counting this series as one. It's like Proust... kinda.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #14: Favorite novel of family, race, and religion

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Home by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
(Bonus: favorite serious reading)

This novel is big like an empty church, and intimate like the moment you and your sibling look at each other behind your parent's back. It tells the other side of the story of Robinson's luminous novel Gilead, and lays bare the limitations of good-hearted religious men and the inarguable illogic of despair, through a pair of oddball siblings trying so hard to be kind to each other that they break their own hearts. It's also about racism and alcoholism and America, from way inside. Robinson has a deep, compassionate understanding of those who will never be normal, and her beautiful, sad book is also infused with a kind of hope.

I loved Gilead fervently, and found Home a much sadder take on Robinson's themes -- redemption seems like more of a longshot here, when perceived from the perspective of the lonely, odd, and badly behaved, rather than the earnest but conflicted faithful. But it's another illuminating angle on the problems of humanity and faith, and well worth reading -- as I wrote about Robinson's first novel Housekeeping, the rightness of the words makes the tragedy bearable.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #13: Favorite graphic novel memoir

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Freddie and Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody by Mike Dawson (Bloomsbury)
(bonus: up-and-coming author/artist)

When Mike Dawson spoke at our store, he opined that, in an era of CGI special effects, superheroes are better on the big screen -- which leaves memoir as the form best suited to comics. Bechdel and Spiegelman prove his point, and Dawson adds a doozy to the ranks of graphic memoir with his dreamy, episodic, gently self-deprecating story of a British kid in America obsessed with the band Queen. It's really a meditation on what we remember from our lives and why. It's also lovely and funny for anyone who was ever a self-dramatizing adolescent (Dawson confessed that much of the dialogue and narration was taken from his own terribly moody teenage diaries), or for anyone who loved a band so much they found it told the narrative of their lives. A great gift for fans of comics, music, or memoir.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #12: Favorite multigenerational family saga

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The End of the Jews by Adam Mansbach (Spiegel & Grau)
(Bonus: great book design!)

This book made me antisocial, keeping me breathless at home in my pajamas for days. I don’t know if it was the energy of a Jewish kid from the Bronx in the 1930s; the master-class descriptions of hip hop, photography and Harlem jazz; the drama and suspense of 1990s Eastern Europe; the compassionate depiction of an overshadowed female artist as well as her Great Man husband; or the best party scene I’ve ever read (start on page 19). Adam Mansbach is a whirlwind, epic talent, not perfect, but full of a cross-pollinated American energy that is well-nigh irresistible. And the cover Spiegel & Grau decided on is even better than the one on the galley I originally read. Great for those with a taste for the epic, the energetic, the cross cultural, the ambitious, the pure story. Buy it, already!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Best-loved Books of 2008, #11: Favorite collection of a long-running work

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Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Allison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin)
(Bonus: mad hipster queer indie cred!)

Before she became a literary hero with her memoir Fun Home, Allison Bechdel spent a couple of decades writing a comic strip. But in the hands of someone so talented, a comic strip became a combination of an astute weekly political column and an endless Victorian novel. I spent weeks obsessed with the fates of the hilarious, smart-mouthed queer women and men of all stripes in the world of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For -- it's a juicy soap opera, smart social commentary, and insight into the mind of a writer. Worth spending some time with, whatever you're watching out for.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Best-loved Books of 2008, #10: Favorite Science Writing

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Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day In the Life of Your Body by Jennifer Ackerman (Mariner)
(Bonus: killer at cocktail parties!)

Did you know that you probably have a single neuron in your brain that corresponds to the face of your grandmother, and one for Jennifer Anniston? Did you know that you're slightly taller when you wake up, or that your alcohol tolerance is highest during happy hour? Ackerman's accessible, irresistible book is chock-full of such fun facts to know and tell, as she outlines human biology and psychology over the course of a single day, and the effect that daily circadian rhythms have on almost everything we do. I don't read a lot of informational nonfiction, so it takes something truly special to pull me in -- this one did it so effectively I was peppering my conversation with tidbits of science for weeks. Read it for sure-fire cocktail party chatter, or if you want to know how to get the biggest kick out of your morning coffee.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #9: Favorite humorous familiar essays:

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I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley (Riverhead/Penguin)
(Bonus: Cake! Er, I mean another author who's a really decent human being!)

In observation of my birthday, I'm highlighting fellow befuddled but well-meaning white girl Sloane Crosley; I feel she would understand both the bittersweet moment of growing up (I'm 30 today), and my ravenous need for cake. Ms. Crosley, a publicist at Vintage (whom I've had the pleasure of working with as publicist and as author), has inspired a certain amount of backlash for the crime of having it all: a professional career, a writing career, A-listers like Jonathan Lethem in her Rolodex, and she's cute, too. Strangely enough, she seems to have these things because she actually deserves them: she's talented, professional, and a really nice person. And her essays even deserve the Lethem blurb they bear. From the story of locking herself out of two different apartments in the same day while moving, to the explanation for her collection of plastic ponies, to the cookie that ended her first (terrible) job, her stories are both bizarre and familiar to those of us who moved to the big city to grow up. Laugh-out-loud reading that doesn't fail to learn something serious, this is a legit (albeit light) literary effort.

And now I'll out my own little Sloane story: my one and only publication in the Village Voice was in response to an essay she wrote in 2004. Read it to see why I did not add it to my professional clips, nor show it to my mother. The ALP's parents sure got a kick out of it, though. Thanks for humiliation, Sloane. I feel we're both grown up enough to get a good laugh out of it now.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #8: Favorite Novel in Stories

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The Size of the World by Joan Silber (W. W. Norton)
(Bonus: most under-rated writer in America!)

I'll say it again: Joan Silber is one of our truly great writers, and deserves wider recognition. I fell in love with her work in Ideas of Heaven (which was shortlisted for the National Book Award), and her new work takes the novel-in-short-stories to yet another level. The Size of the World is a masterpiece both epic and intimate, quietly straightforward and ambitiously interconnected. Her characters are heartbreakingly human, and her sentences will floor you. This is a great book to read on a trip, or while contemplating the vastness of it all right at home.

And check out my lengthier rave about the book from earlier this year. This is one of my must-reads: highly recommended for any reader. And as yet another bonus, Joan is a local author and shops at McNally Jackson; it's always a thrill to see one's heroes in the flesh (and shopping indie to boot).

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #7: Favorite reissued classic

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The 13 Clocks by James Thurber (New York Review of Books)
(Bonus: great for kids, adults, and reading aloud!)

"We all have flaws," the Duke said. "Mine is being wicked." As you'd expect from James Thurber, this odd and original fairy tale is only partly for kids, and adults will find themselves cracking up at the one-liners, rooting for the cheeky Prince, shuddering at the horrifying Todal, and utterly satisfied by the reading experience. This is one for the ages, and I'm so glad NYRB had the wisdom to reissue it so I can gloat over its pleasures again.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #6: Favorite nonfiction collection by a single author

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Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon (McSweeney's)
(Bonus: Top 5 favorite Book Nerd author AND
Book design of your wildest dreams!)

Some of these essays are mere autobiographical fillips; some are semi-sinister trickster tales that mix truth and lies; some are heady considerations of the successes and failings of contemporary literature. All are written with Chabon’s unparalleled wit and richness of language, and engage his favorite themes of genre fiction and Jewishness. Buy it now, if only to posesses the astonishingly complex and beautiful book design by cartoonist Jordan Crane; once this print run is gone it’ll be a plain old book again, like magic ending after the stroke of midnight.

Also, if you're looking to gift (or for some winter vacation reading of your own), one of my favorite books of last year is a Chabon novel now out in paperback. Gentlemen of the Road is the quintessential boys' adventure tale: mysterious strangers, pitched odds, sword battles, captures, rescues, romance (but not too much), and the fate of an empire. Because it's Chabon, the subtext is also rich and freighted, and the characterization far better than it need be. And the afterword, about home, adventure, and storytelling, is one of my favorite pieces of nonfiction of the past few years -- it makes me think and cry, a killer combination. Buy it for your favorite boy, your favorite adventurer, or your favorite reader -- can't lose.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #5: Favorite satire of office life

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Personal Days by Ed Park (Random House)
(Bonus: Terrifyingly timely!)

Joshua Ferris' highly acclaimed novel Then We Came To The End demonstrated that actual literature can happen in cubicle land. The funny and charming Ed Park (co-editor of The Believer) takes it a step further with Personal Days: structural innovation, wordplay, paranoia and misdirection... applied to the realm of random firings, arbitrary protocols, dumb nicknames, and potential romance that define contemporary office life. Kafka, Nabokov, and yes, Dwight Schrute would feel right at home.

While I'm not sure which group will be publishing Personal Days after the Black Wednesday shufle in publishing, the terrors of corporate life were never more apparent, nor more in need of a dose of irreverence. Courage and good cheer to our colleagues on the publishing side -- may you be able to laugh, albeit ruefully, at the vagaries of the Company, and not wait until your laptop battery is dying in a darkened elevator to connect with the people you love.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #4: Favorite book featuring vampires and teenagers

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Life Sucks
by Jessica Abel (First Second Books)
(Bonus: not Twilight!)

Far be it from me to knock the biggest moneymaker since Harry Potter, but I guess I prefer my vampires a little less beautiful and a little more clever. Why should vampires, if they existed in the modern world, look like Gothic lotharios? Why couldn't they look like, for example, a hapless all-night convenience store clerk in California, hopelessly infatuated with a non-vampire Goth chick, who's swept away in turn by a surfer jerk (who is also a vampire)? "Buffy meets Clerks" is a pretty good description of this book, which is smart and funny enough to satisfy the smart-ass teen (with a heart of gold) in all of us. The clever Jessica Abel and the talented Warren Pleece make this one of my favorite comics of the year, and a go-to recommendation for YA readers and adults alike.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #3: Favorite enjoyable sad novel

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The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
(Bonus: super-nice author!)

This novel is the kind of classic tragic romance that immerses you in a beautiful fog, just like the San Francisco of Greer's 1953 story. It's as much about war as about love: about the consequences of opting out, as well as the conflict itself. Like Greer's masterpiece The Confessions of Max Tivoli, it keeps surprising you, with revelations like little explosions along the way. And Greer's power of language and emotional heft are literally second to none. Read this with caution-- you'll emerge as if from a black-and-white movie matinee, blinking in the light.

And here's a little book geek-out story: a few years ago I was working at Three Lives bookstore and writing reviews for Publishers Weekly for a little extra cash. One of the books that showed up at my door was The Confessions of Max Tivoli, and knowing nothing about it I fell utterly in love with the book and gave it a glowing review. Weeks or months later, the San Francisco based Greer walked into the bookstore, and I fangirled out: "You're Andrew Sean Greer! I loved your book! I reviewed it in PW!" To my delight, he responded with equal excitement: "You're that PW reviewer! I loved your review!" Our mutual admiration society established, we chatted occasionally throughout his brief stay in NYC, and when I ran into him (okay, stalked him) at BEA in Los Angeles, he still remembered me. Man, what a sweetie. You should buy his book 'cause he deserves it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #2: Favorite post-apocalyptic buddy picture with sociological subtext and Wodehouse-ian humor

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Shop Indie Bookstores

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (Knopf)
(Bonus: favorite fun reading)

I am so glad Steve and Jenn insisted I would love this book -- as you may recall, I got a little obsessed. I think the pink-and-green fuzzy cover was a poor choice, and I wish this book had had better marketing. But I suspect these mistakes occurred because no one knows quite what to do with Harkaway's genre-bending opus -- it's hard to say whether it's the next Good Omens or the next For Whom The Bell Tolls. What you need to know is that it's about the end of the world, and the terrible danger of people who allow themselves to become cogs in the machines of governments or companies, and the difficulties of growing up into yourself. It also has pirates, ninjas, explosions, young love, longing, conspiracies, politics, monsters, heroes, and British humor at its finest since P.G. Wodehouse. Normal people (not just me) who read this book are getting obsessed with it. You want to be one of those people.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #1: Favorite graphic novel mystery/suspense

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Incognegro by Mat Johnson
(Bonus: December is National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month!)

My favorite kind of book is one that both moves and challenges me, taking me on a thrill ride of story and character. Mat Johnon’s new graphic novel rides that dangerous edge between heavy issues and heavy-hitting action, with the story of a black man passing for white in the lynching-plagued 1930s South. It pulls it off in the way only a comic can (and a black and white comic at that), and manages to work gender politics, family dynamics, and some darned funny dialogue into a suspenseful mystery. An important (and enjoyable) moment in the history of literary comics.

And then there's the bonus: African American author Carleen Brice is hoping to use this month of gift giving to start a movement to get some classics and new favorites out of the "African American Literature" section and into the hands of non-black readers. And there's no shortage of great books by black authors to recommend, especially in graphic novels. In addition to Johnson's wonderful Incognegro, I'd encourage you to check out Nat Turner by Kyle Baker, a powerful and sometimes disturbing story of the 1831 slave rebellion with text from Turner's own words. It's not included on my favorites of the year list because I read the miniseries in pieces previous to 2008, but it's definitely worth buying and gifting to your favorite white (or black) reader.

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Shop Indie Bookstores

Friday, November 28, 2008

All the books I read in 2008

Ah, the Friday after Thanksgiving... lucky for me I have the day off, and no shopping to do (all my Christmas gifts come from the bookstore), and can bask in the indolence of it all. It's a good day to catch up a little and think ahead a little, and some of the best-of lists have made me want to take a look at my own reading for the year.

The New York Times has done a clever thing: in addition to their usual "official" lists of the Top 100 and the Top 10 Books of 2008, they 've had their regular book reviewers pick their favorite books of the year. Michiko Kakutani and Janet Maslin both list their own personal top 10 here -- the only thing I wish is that they'd talk about why they loved these, rather than just including clips from their Times review.

I recently took a look at various lists of my own reading (our store staff picks, my little notebook, my Goodreads page, etc.) and compiled them, and somehow I seem to have read over 75 books so far this year. And I think this might have missed some that I forgot to write down.* (This counts trade editions of comics, though not individual issues -- so if you feel strongly that comics aren't books, for you the list is shorter.) They're not all newly published, though most are.

I've been trying to figure out how to talk about my reading, in a way that would be fun for me and useful for recommendations. Reviews of every book? Just the top 10? How could I possibly choose?

So I'm compromising. I'm listing all of the books I've read this year below. And then I'm copying a page from the Times, so to speak, and giving you my own list of favorites from this year. I couldn't manage to narrow it down to 10 -- I've got two dozen. And I couldn't even say these are the best books I read -- I can only tell you what I love about them. (I've also limited my favorites of the year to books that are currently available -- I read some galleys of books that aren't out yet, but that does you no good if you're thinking of buying them for Christmas, and I'll have time to write about them when they come out.)

But 24 makes for a nice Advent calendar sort of number -- one book per day, every day in December through Christmas Eve. So each day this coming month I'll post a short yearbook-style review of a book I loved this year. Hope it will spark your interest, give you some good gift ideas, and keep you entertained in one of the busiest bookstore seasons (because I can write them in advance and schedule them, ha!)

So to start out, here's the list of my reading for this year -- in alphabetical order, not reading order. (The Favorites are highlighted, just for a sneak peak -- if the numbers don't seem like they work out, don't worry, all will be explained.) Enjoy, and happy reading!

(Anyone else up for posting a list of every book they've read in 2008? Anybody want to share their own best-loved reads of the year?)

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber
The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Aya of Yop City by Marguerite Abouet
The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner (introduction by Neil Gaiman)
The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith
Brooklyn Was Mine edited by Valerie Steiker and Chris Knutsen
The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles edited by Jeff Martin
The Dark Knight Returns
by Frank Miller
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber
The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughan with various artists
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Allison Bechdel
Fables: The Good Prince by by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham
Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Flight Explorer Vol. 1 edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Freddie and Me by Mike Dawson
Free-Range Chickens by Simon Rich
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
Goldengrove by Francine Prose
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Gus and His Gang by Chris Blain
Hellboy: Darkness Calling by Mike Mignola
Heroes Vol. 1 by Tim Sale & various artists
Heroes Vol. 2 by Tim Sale & various artists
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
In Odd We Trust by Dean Koontz
Incognegro by Mat Johnson
The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe
Laika by Nick Abadzis
Life Sucks by Jessica Abel and Warren Pleece
The Lost Colony Vol. 3 by Grady Klein
Manga Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Richard Appignanesi and Emma Vieceli
Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon
Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross
Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel
Monsieur Leotard by Eddie Campbell
Mudbound by Hilary Jordan
A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
The Night Of Your Life by Jesse Reklaw
No One Can Rescue Me by Elizabeth Daly
Personal Days by Ed Park
Poetry & Commitment by Adrienne Rich
Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
The Rabbi's Cat 2 by Joann Sfar
Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead (April 2009 publication; I'll definitely write about this later)
Scott Pilgrim vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Scott Pilgrim vol. 2: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Scott Pilgrim vol. 3: Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Scott Pilgrim vol. 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream by Jennifer Ackerman
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow (HarperCollins)
The Size of the World by Joan Silber
Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez
So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix
Starman Omnibus Vol. 1 by James Robinson and Tony Harris
The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Take This Bread by Sara Miles
Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
The End of the Jews by Adam Mansbach
Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa
Time and Again by Jack Finney
Tinkers by Paul Harding (January publication -- I'll write about this next year)
Too Cool To Be Forgotten by Alex Robinson
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
Who Can Save Us Now? edited by Owen King & John McNally
Y: The Last Man vol. 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra
Y: The Last Man vol. 2: Cycles by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra
Y: The Last Man vol. 3: One Small Step by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra
Y: The Last Man vol. 4: Safeword by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra
You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem
Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud

* note: I have edited this list since I originally posted it, adding some books I read but forgot to write down, so the total is now over 75.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Link-Mad Monday: News & Reviews

Review of an imaginary book
As I was delaying getting out of bed this morning, I had one of those weird morning dreams. I was reading a YA comic book about a boy and a girl who were left in the woods for dead. They somehow returned to civilization with a mutant superpower: if you got too near them you sickened and died. But it worked very slowly, so for most people it just manifested as a faint nausea. Then the boy and the girl became rockstars (apparently inducing nausea added to their mystique), and played a kick-ass show in which one of them played a Smashing Pumpkins song and the other simultaneously played some hip hop anthem, producing a harmonious chaos. As the kids were both either black or Latino, it was in a weird way a positive depiction of teens of color, influenced perhaps by Ivan Velez' Dead High Yearbook, and maybe by the animated comic (the ALP says "We used to just call it 'cheap animation'") in the extras of the Hellboy 2 DVD I watched last night. I specifically remember thinking in my dream, "I have to review this comic on my blog!" And now I have.

Emerging Leaders Scholarship winners
Last week, the intrepid members of the ABA Emerging Leaders Council looked long and hard at the 50 or so applicants for the Emerging Leaders Scholarship to Winter Institute. Since each of us represents a region, we shuffled things around so that we weren't judging candidates from our own region. And with very little trouble (well, except in narrowing it down among the stellar entries) we chose six awesome young booksellers to represent the Emerging Leaders generation at Winter Institute and have their travel and lodging paid for. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of Ingram Book Group, the following booksellers are going to Salt Lake City!

Alison Haimson
Carnegie Mellon University Bookstore
Book Department Manager

Kate Robinson
Brookline Booksmith

Rich Rennicks
Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe

Jess Ridout
Books Inc. Burlingame

Joe Eichman
Tattered Cover Book Store

Emily Adams
Third Place Books

Congratulations to all these winners! And thanks to my fellow council members Caroline, Megan, Sweet Pea, Emily, Jenn, and Jenn for being awesome and helping to make this all happen.

Riggio on the 4th Quarter
The Millions blog does their quarterly report on the Barnes & Noble quarterly report, which (though we indies may have mixed feelings about it) potentially offers insights on the state and future of the book industry. Steve Riggio comments thoughtfully on the decreased media coverage of books during election season, which will hopefully reverse itself now, but my favorite part is his articulation of the books=gifts strategy we've been talking about for weeks now:

"Books are fairly affordable and we hope that as consumers get into the holiday season they recognize that a purchase of $15 or $20 or $25 can give someone a fairly memorable gift."

"Fairly" used twice in the same sentence? Way to hedge your bets, Ridge old boy. But the silver lining is real enough, and it's good to hear it from the big boys.

Bookselling in hard times
Despite that silver lining -- or perhaps rather, in order to take full advantage of it -- we booksellers need to be at the top of our game right now to deal with the current and predicted hard times. Bookselling This Week has gathered all of their articles and other materials on "bookselling in hard times" - you can see them all together here. There's also an open invitation from American Booksellers Association CEO Avin Domnitz to arrange a one-on-one consultation with him. If you're having a hard time taking a hard look at your bookstore's weak spots, I highly recommend getting in touch with Avin. He's a successful bookseller from way back AND a lawyer AND a finance expert, and I've consulted with him a number of times as I've developed my business plan. I often feel a bit disheartened at first by his merciless practicality, but then I find I'm armed with the perspective and the tools I need to make necessary improvements. We can all use all the help we can get -- and talking with the ABA is free.

Obama and the book trade
Freelance book critic John Freeman (until recently president of the National Book Critics Circle, and a great friend to indie bookstores here in NYC) writes in the Guardian about how Obama's presidency will affect book sales. His prediction: we'll see bumps in the backlist titles that Obama, a great reader of history, mentions as influences, which will hopefully take the place of the anti-Bush administration books that have dominated our nonfiction shelves for years. That's not to mention the books by and about Obama, of course. The global news agency AFP has a similar story, which begins with the encouraging statement "The literati are back in charge of Washington." My fellow NAIBA board member Mark LaFramboise of Politics and Prose has a typically wry quote in the piece: after expressing gratitude that we have "a reader in the White House again", he notes "John McCain books are dead now. And we can't sell an Iraq war book now to save our souls."

At McNally Jackson, we have a display table sometimes referred to as "the Obama shrine": a dozen or more memoirs, audio books, photo retrospectives, hard policy analysis tomes, and children's picture books about the 44th president. And the shrine is selling very well, thank you. It's topped by our home-made signage using a photo of Obama and a quote from his election night speech: "Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow."

Books = Happiness
As if you didn't know this, you joyful booksellers. "A new study by sociologists at the University of Maryland concludes that unhappy people watch more TV, while people who describe themselves as 'very happy' spend more time reading and socializing." Maybe we can use this in our marketing as social proof?...

That's all for this Monday, kids. Happy reading!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Link Bonanza: Shopping Local, Buying Books for the Holidays

Okay, I'm back from zombie sick land, and not a moment too soon. There's so much going on around shopping at indie stores, AND the brilliance of buying books for the holidays, that I'm going to have to do link madness on a Friday.

Shopping Local
First, do not fail to remember that tomorrow, Saturday November 22, is America Unchained! Communities across the country will be encouraged to shop only at independent locally-owned stores -- just for one day. If you care about the economic health of your community, the statistics are persuasive: Studies in Maine and Austin, Texas demonstrate that locally-owned businesses generate 3.5 times the local economic activity as chains. A study of 10 independent businesses and 10 chains in retail, restaurant and service in Andersonville, Illinois demonstrates independent businesses generate about 70 percent greater local economic activity per square foot and slightly more sales per square foot as chains. A study in San Francisco demonstrates the immense economic benefit to the community even a modest shift in personal spending can make.

As the American Independent Business Alliance puts it, "Now imagine the impact on your community if everyone shopped locally owned. You can stop imagining and help make it a reality."

Here in New York City, the IBNYC (that's Independent Booksellers of New York City) is doing a big push to make book buyers aware of America Unchained -- and member stores are offering lots of incentives to do your book shopping locally on the 22nd. BookCulture and HousingWorks are offering 10% discounts all day long. Bonnie Slotnick is serving free chocolate chip cookies. And there are classes, author events, and all the stuff you love from your favorite indie bookstores. As I wrote on our McNally Jackson blog, "The choice of where you buy your coffee, your prescription, your books, your lightbulbs, or your dinner might seem like just a matter of convenience. But when you choose to shop at a locally owned independent business rather than a chain store, you’re making a choice for what kind of city, and what kind of world, you want to live in." So buy local on Saturday -- it's good for the local economy, it's good for your favorite bookstore, and it's good for you.

And the incentives don't stop there. The neighborhood where I live (Park Slope) and the one where I work (SoHo) are both doing a day (or two) of incentives for shopping close to home. Buy In Brooklyn hosts the second annual Snowflake Celebration after 7:00 PM December 4 and December 11, with free treats and drinks, giveaways and discounts at great stores throughout Park Slope. The list of participants is like a who's who of all of my favorite hometown Brooklyn shops! And the evening of December 11 sees the SoHo Stroll, with great discounts, deals and giveaways from the posh shops of downtown Manhattan. These discounts are yours with the purchase of a $20 bracelet, and proceeds benefit the Association for Community Employment for the Homeless, a great organization which helps get work for homeless New Yorkers (our bookstore cleaning staff came to us through ACE, and they do a great job). Shop late, shop local!

Buying Books
Though readers of this blog are probably the choir that doesn't need to be preached to, there are a number of awesome initiatives happening now to highlight the perfection of books as holiday gifts. Here's what's out there so far:

Buy Books For the Holidays says "Our goal is to promote buying books as gifts for the holidays. We hope to share information about different genres and the book publishing industry, as well as help each other find books for even the most reluctant readers!" It's a brilliant grassroots efforts, supported by bloggers and readers all over. They've got gift book recommendations every day -- you can even email them to get suggestions for books for your most hard-to-buy for loved ones! And you can get a cool button like the one I've got in my sidebar to declare your book-buying intentions.

Random House knows that Books = Gifts! This site is for consumers, with giveaways, best-of lists, and other ideas for holiday book buying. And for booksellers, the Books=Gifts DIY site lets you download their clever graphics for your website, newsletter, or store signage. The message is simple and clear -- and kudos to RH for promoting ALL books, not just their own, in such a smart way.

If you find best of the year book lists helpful in choosing gifts, the wonderful blog Largehearted Boy has a huge roundup of those that have come out so far -- a good place to start.

AuthorBuzz, the brainchild of book promo genius M.J. Rose, is doing a special holiday book campaign too. M.J. explains the campaign on her blog here; starting next week, bloggers can get .gif links for their site that highlight 24 great book gift picks -- and make a percentage on click-throughs as well. Authors, readers, gift-givers, and bloggers all win!

In an internet-age take on the advent calendar (one of my favorite traditions), has a feature called "A book is the perfect gift because...", with a daily reason why books make great gifts.

And then of course, there's what I think of as the headquarters for buying indie and buying books for the holidays: IndieBound.

When you sign in to IndieBound, you can now create your own book wishlist on IndieBound -- it's just the books, not connected to any particular store or site. (Even without signing in, you can find your friends' wishlists with the search field on the front page. You can find mine under booknerdnyc... hint, hint). AND, when you become a fan of your favorite bookstores, they show up alongside your wishlist, so your loved ones who wish to give you the books you desire can purchase them at the bookstores you most want to support. As Rebecca wrote on our Bookstore in Brooklyn blog, "Nothing is finer than having a book you crave bought for you by someone you like, at a store you love."

And if you want to take it a step further, you can become an IndieBound Affiliate. You may have noticed I've finally converted my blog over to the new Blogger template -- my blog links are cooler now, my bookstore list has been updated, and you can see followers on the bottom right. This was a little like cleaning up your house before your guests arrive for the holiday party -- I wanted the blog to look nice for my IndieBound links. If you click on the "Shop Indie Bookstores" link at the right, or on ANY of the book images I'll be posting here in the future, you'll be connected to an indie bookstore where you can purchase it. If you buy it, I get a couple of cents as a referral fee -- just like bloggers can get from the big online stores. Yeah, it takes a few more clicks than some other affiliate programs, but it's a great way for bloggers to show their support for indie bookstores, and for blog readers to be able to see all book information online quickly

Shop Indie Bookstores
For example, here's a book I'd recommend highly for holiday giving: the latest from Shaun Tan, author of the award-winning crossover graphic novel The Arrival. His new book, Tales from Outer Suburbia, is really a short story collection, illustrated with Tan's beautiful, sometimes enigmatic art. It puts the mystery back into the tame streets and houses of the suburbs, revealing the adventure, romance, and pure strangeness around us. I'd recommend it for reluctant young adults, precocious young readers, or grown-ups with a well-developed sense of wonder. Click on it to find out more, or to buy it at an indie bookstore near you. And if you have your own lit blog, consider becoming an IndieBound affiliate to spread the book love.

Happy holiday season, and happy reading!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Zombie monster bacteria.

So I'm sick. And it makes me slow. Like zombie-slow. So slow it took me like ten minutes to find the name of a story in Kelly Link's new book Pretty Monsters (it's "The Surfer") in which a worldwide flu pandemic leaves a slightly jerky kid in a quarantined warehouse in Costa Rica. It's really good science fiction, the kind where the science part is secondary to the fiction, and the characters are more interesting than the world-building exercises (though those are interesting too). And I also have stuck in my head -- and had all of a very long night long -- a line from an Ani DiFranco song (I think it's "Garden of Simple", though I could most certainly be wrong) that goes "the bacteria are coming to take us down, that's my prediction / it's the answer to this culture of the quick fix prescription..."

So apart from the mildly interesting sense that I'm at the juncture of a zombie film and a sci fi future and a dystopian pop protest song... I've not got a lot going on in my fuzzy head at the moment. Back to blogging when there's something up there besides fuzz.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What Are You Talking About?: Optimism as Social Proof

Okay, I'm foregoing my usual link madness to get a little wonky this morning. Sarah Rettger at the ABA's Omnibus blog had a great link yesterday (what are you doing working Sunday, Sarah??) (Update: while Sarah noticed the link, it's Dan Cullen who deserves credit for posting on Sunday) that I think deserves some analysis and some action.

The link is to a site called Copyblogger, which has columns and advice about how to be a better blogger or online marketer. This particular column, "How to Change the World Using Social Media," seems especially timely after an exciting presidential election that used online media and social networking to make great things happen. It also has a lot to do with my optimism schtick around here, and I think it has the potential to be an inspiration to independent booksellers.

The key term here is social proof, which Wikipedia defines as "a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed."

Translation: people are likely to do what they think other people are doing.

There are some fascinating examples of this: the Werther effect, in which a rash of suicides followed Goethe's novel of a suicidal hero The Sorrows of Young Werther in the 1700s, or the fact that if there is only one person on the scene when another person needs help, they're more likely to do something than if there are several people around, in which case they'll wait to see what other people are going to do, which is likely nothing.

The most relevant example for us, though, goes like this:

A well-intended statistic states, "42% of college graduates never read a book again.” (Dan Poynter’s ParaPublishing)

What people hear is “I don’t enjoy reading, and I’m in a lot of good company.”

This is the negative aspect of social proof: as Copyblogger puts it "it motivates people to do the opposite of what you want because you’re trying to change behavior already supported by social proof."

So, as Sarah wisely points out, "If you complain about how many books are sold through chains and online, it doesn't drive traffic to your store." In fact, it reinforces the message that "everyone" shops at chains and online, so if I do it, I'm just like everyone else.

Our first tendency as book people is probably to lament the herd mentality this represents; a lot of literature historically has been dedicated to individuals fighting against this sort of thing (remember the "Man vs. Society" segment in junior high English?) But in fairness, it's actually an effective evolutionary trait, that keeps us humans out of trouble for the most part, and gives us safety in numbers.

Our challenge is to be leaders of that herd, and to choose which way we want to steer. As my friend Susan and I say to each other, "You create the world you imagine." In terms of social proof, this may be literally true.

What if I tell you that bookstore sales rose 5.4% in August, to $2.43 billion, while the rest of the retail sector was flat in August? (It's true, right from the U.S. Census.) Even while book sales overall increased by only 0.6 percent , bookstore sales were up significantly higher! You'd think everyone must be buying books from brick and mortar bookstores, and that must be a good bet, and maybe you'd manage to get yourself to a bookstore to start your holiday shopping. There are other statistics you could quote that wouldn't be nearly as encouraging. But why would you steer people toward the trends you don't want them to follow?

This is one of the reasons why things like the NEA's depressing reports on reading habits make me so agitated. I understand that their goal is to get more funding for reading programs so they have to paint a desperate picture. But I can't help thinking that all this does is reinforce people in thinking that not reading is normal and to be imitated.

One of the best examples given in Copyblogger of effective social proof marketing is the bumpersticker slogan "Don't Mess With Texas." It was an anti-littering campaign, but it appealed to the tough guy types who would put it on their pickups, and who were then reinforcing non-littering behavior with their peers. It didn't lament the state of the highways and beg people to stop doing what they're doing -- it gave the target audience a way to reinforce positive behaviors among themselves.

I'm in no way advocating for dishonesty, for painting a falsely rosy picture. But I think we as booksellers should realize that we're not doing ourselves any favors by focusing on the negative. In fact, we're contributing to everything we worry about by reinforcing it.

Instead, let's get creative with ways to lead the herd -- to give tools for reinforcing the behaviors we want. IndieBound, with its cool-kid signage and slogans and social networking, is a brilliant example. (The ABA has done a brilliant job of making the IndieBound campaign pro-indie, rather than anti-chain.) The IBNYC's mission, focusing on the rich bookstore culture that exists instead of the perception that New York's bookstores have disappeared, is another. And we do it in our newsletters, in our store blogs, in our conversations with customers. Let them know what's going right, how many new email signups you've had lately, how many in the audience at your last great event.

Let's not talk about what people shouldn't do. Let's talk about the good stuff that they're already doing. Then watch our best instincts kick in, and let the good news go viral.

What do you think? How do you use social proof in talking to your customers? How have you seen it work in the negative? What do you think are some ways we can use social proof to help the cause of independent and local bookstores?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Afterglow, and poetry

I'm reading Francine Prose's wonderful novel Goldengrove, in which the main character's sister has died. She describes the recurrent sensation of remembering the terrible news over and over, after somehow forgetting.

The last couple of days feel like the opposite of that. I keep remembering something wonderful has happened. Zan at A Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny describes the almost silly sensation of joy: " Oranges look oranger. Sweaters feel warmer. Rain? Who cares!"

I respect Barack Obama all the more for emphasizing from the very first moment that this only the very beginning of a very long, hard road. But it's good to bask in the glow of something good for a moment. There has been dancing in the streets! I feel like my Pollyanna-ish optimism is suddenly in fashion again.

There is much good writing and reflection about all this, and one of the best (and briefest) is the New York Times' poetry op-eds. My favorite is Joshua Mehigan's, which I've taken the liberty of pasting below. It reminds me of the homely belovedness of my own polling place, PS 282 in Brooklyn, and the simple/complicated goodness/absurdity of American democracy.

The Polling Place

Same place as four years ago. The people arrive
tired by daytime. Nighttime is ten after five.

The flag is lit, and the sculpture of who knows who.
Here’s the fire door, wedged open with Voting and You.

From inside, a floor-wax smell. Shy people come after.
I walk past them into bright light and social laughter.

This could be Bingo. It could be a twelve-step meeting.
It could be a bake sale. I could be home eating.

The bathroom is closed to all but volunteers.
Democracy is slow. It can take many years.

Somebody’s take-out cancels the floor-wax smell.
I could be eating and doing laundry as well.

Suppose the will of the people was as heavy
as our bag of laundry out in the back of the Chevy.

Measured on that scale the will of the person counts
a fraction of a fraction of an ounce,

and if that’s correct my will is not very strong.
Still, if the right one wins I was right all along.

The bathroom is closed to all but the volunteers.
Three tons of dirty laundry is made in four years.

Today my will is the weight of a grain of salt.
But then if the wrong one wins it’s not my fault.

Joshua Mehigan

And then one more poem, because Prose's novel has made me think of one of my favorite poets (the title and the sister's name are allusions to his poem "Spring and Fall: To A Young Child"), and because I feel like singing a hymn. Gerard Manly Hopkins' poem below is about loving complicated things, mixed blessings. We have a responsible and intelligent and progressive leader on his way to the White House -- but the world is still scary. McNally Jackson is doing okay -- but retail sales overall have slumped. Plans for my bookstore are going forward -- but the ALP is experiencing a very frustrating job hunt. Here's a hymn to all that complication, and some of the most original language and rhythms in poetry. Enjoy, and I promise I'll come out of the afterglow and get some book news up next week.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things --
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rosemoles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced -- fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Gerard Manly Hopkins

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Oh yes.

Things are kind of teary and giddy around here today. I crashed early, hopeful but not sure, but this outside our window assured the ALP and I that hopes have been answered. Now we all get to go to work, glowing.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Link-Mad Monday, Political Edition: The Book and the Candidate

I usually try to avoid overt politicizing around here, but it's the moment where everyone can be forgiven for announcing their endorsement, just once. It probably comes as no surprise that I, like many of my fellow progressive-minded indie booksellers, support Barack Obama for president in the election tomorrow. There are lots of reasons why -- I agree with the man's policies and actions (for the most part), and he's an optimist and an idealist, as well as practical about what needs to be done -- obviously I admire that.

I want to propose another reason for voting for Obama, though, appropriate to this venue: he's a man of the book. Hence today's link madness...

First, of course, he wrote a book, then another, that have been on the bestseller lists for many months, making him a friend to bookstores everywhere. I'll admit I've only read bits and pieces, but I've heard his speeches, and the man can write.

As the New Yorker recently pointed out, some Republicans have chosen Obama's skill with words as something to criticize -- equating eloquence and articulation with the opposite of action. Obviously this makes no sense -- some of our best and most decisive presidents have also been the most eloquent (Gettysburg Address? "Nothing to fear but fear itself?" Anyone?)

Then back in May, there was a flurry of excitement among litbloggers (and the publisher W. W. Norton) about this fantastic picture from the Times, which looks like it could have been a glossy book ad in a magazine. He's holding Fareed Zakaria's challenging and thoughtful work The Post-American World -- and the best part is, he's got his finger in it to hold his place. As we book nerds know, that's usually a sign you're really hoping all of these nice people will let you get back to reading before you lose the thread.

And then there's the bit about Sarah Palin maybe, kinda, asking/suggesting the idea of censoring books in the Wasilla, Alaska library. The NY Times has the extent of what's provable in all that, which is not much. But some librarians took it pretty seriously.

More recently, the San Francisco Chronicle looked at the books the candidates have said are their favorites, and asked local authors to opine on what those choices mean. Obama chose Melville's Moby-Dick, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, and Emerson's Self Reliance; McCain's choices here are For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. My favorite comment is from Daniel Handler, who's also one of my favorite authors:

All of us polish those lists for public view, and you can't get more public than running for president. But these lists do tell us something, even if it's not the truth.

Obama's list says that he'd like to convey a willingness to face heartbreak and irony, that he's open to the new and to the experimental, but that he's serious of purpose and true of heart.

McCain's list says that sure, he reads books, but he's not a pansy boy.

Actually, both candidates have expressed admiration for Hemingway's novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom The Bell Tolls, as David Margolick discusses in the New York Times. It's one of my favorite Hemingway novels as well, and it's interesting that the admired hero Robert is, uh, a socialist. Because he's an author, not an idealogue, Hemingway takes the specific circumstances of that war and makes them into a universal meditation on ideals and self-sacrifice and disillusionment and what's really worth fighting for (and being tough and making earth-moving love to boyish, vulnerable women, okay sure). But it is telling what the actual members of the idealistic Abraham Lincoln Brigade who went to Spain think:

The few veterans of that fight still alive remain unapologetically to the left; Mr. McCain won’t find many votes among them. “He’s the very antithesis of what we stood for,” said Mark Billings, a mechanic during the Spanish Civil War who now lives in El Cerrito, Calif. (He says he is only guardedly optimistic about Mr. Obama.)

There's lots more, of course: Laura Miller in Salon has a long piece analyzing Obama through his reading, and his influences range far and wide. To me, the point of that article, and the point of Obama as a book person, is what much serious reading does to one's perspective. Obama values clarity, but he also admits and respects nuance, and even ambiguity. He puts great stock in empathy: imagining yourself in the other person's shoes, which is what good fiction allows. And he's absorbed philosophers of an idealistic pragmatism: you have to give good to get good back.

Anyway, my own articulateness is at an ebb this morning, but I hope you get the point. I'm off to put my words into action and do a couple of hours at the Brooklyn phone bank.

UPDATE: One last addition: I just discovered Jon Meacham's essay in the Times about what we can learn about the presidents (and candidates) from their reading, which discusses Hemingway and the tragic/hopeful sensibility, among other things. Fascinating stuff.