Thursday, January 29, 2009

Keeping Up*

Umm.... I guess I'm on Facebook now. We recently created a Facebook page for McNally Jackson -- I admit I groaned a little at first, but it's becoming a neat way to spread the word about events, extend discussion beyond the bookstore, and share the love. I had to create a personal profile to administer the store page, and well.... there are just so many cool people out there (that I do, actually know IRL**) that I now find myself friending with abandon.

I think I'd avoided Facebook for a long time for the same reason I haven't read Harry Potter -- if everyone else is doing it, why should I? (In other words, I'm a snob, and it somehow seemed like something for kids with short attention spans.) And I still have my reservations about the procrastination potential, not to mention the idea that relationships can be maintained without face-to-face contact, and that "friend" is a verb... but I think perhaps I was just being stubborn by avoiding it altogether. Hopefully I can control the addictiveness -- and hey, I've already gotten in touch with an author for a potential event, so come on, it's totally practical.

And today, I discovered via the Facebook page of Kristin Gillian Vlahos of the ABA that there's a Winter Institute Flickr page! So I'm feeding my hunger for news from Salt Lake City by perusing the pics submitted. If you're there, help a sister out and post some great book and people pictures. If you're stuck at home like me, check it out for some vicarious thrills. Hooray for the intersection of the electronic and the traditional!

* Get it? Keeping up with the Facebook Joneses, keeping up on Winter Institute happenings...

** IRL = In Real Life. Like, totally LOL.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Good bookselling, good reporting

One of my oft-lamented pet peeves is the recurrence of media stories about books and independent bookstores that tell the same old story: indie bookstores are a dying breed, reading is the victim of new technologies, etc. So I must give credit where credit is due to two pieces of journalism today that present a more nuanced picture of the world of books and bookstores.

Via Publishers Weekly, here's an LA Times piece on the uncertain future of the fabulous and venerable Hollywood bookstore Book Soup, after the too-young, too-soon death of its founder Glen Goldman. Even with this somber starting point, the LAT piece offers the most balanced and realistic picture of the actual business of bookstores that I've read in a national newspaper. Here's a sample:
In recent decades, independent bookstores have become endangered, closing as chain stores move into their neighborhoods and market share is gobbled up by online booksellers such as Amazon .com. Some, like Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, closed when the cost of real estate (usually rented, rarely owned) swamped small (though reliable) profit margins.

Yet believe it or not, independent bookstores, carefully run by those rare individuals who are both "book people" and "businesspeople," are often profitable -- meaning that you can make a living, pay a few employees and work reasonable hours.

Contrast this with the dire reports of Borders teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, or Barnes & Noble's reported $172-million loss at the end of the third quarter last year. To hear the chain executives talk, you'd think people had stopped reading altogether.

People have not stopped reading. The problem, most bookstore owners and publishers will tell you, is a distribution system that caters heavily to chains and wholesalers like Wal-Mart.

When the economy founders, big stores, with their hierarchical policies enacted miles from where the books are sold, have a harder time responding in a flexible way.

According to manager Tyson Cornell, Book Soup did "very well" last year. So did Los Feliz independent Skylight Books, which recently expanded from 2,000 to 3,100 square feet.

I suspect that Tyson and the other great booksellers at Book Soup will find a way to a future despite the terrible loss of Goldman. And it's good to see the newspaper with an open-eyed pictures of their strengths as well as their challenges.

Also today in Shelf Awareness, Robert Gray writes about the issue of technology and books. The best part is the link to his previous column, where he quotes extensively from Stephanie Anderson, inspiring Emerging Leader-type bookseller (and soon to be Brooklynite). Here's what Stephanie, who comes from a very traditional bookstore, has to say about the boogeyman of e-books:

"If there isn't a place for e-books in the indie store retail future, there isn't an indie store retail future. I like your Genius Bar example [i.e. asking whether bookstores can work with the Apple store model of expert help]. That is always what I've envisioned--you handsell the book and then the customer sets their e-reader into the dock, pays you, downloads the book, and leaves. It's important for indie booksellers to look at this as an opportunity, not, groan, another thing to add to an already busy day. As I see it, once most books are available in e-book form, and presumably stored on someone else's server and accessible through the Internet, the so-called advantage that chain and online bookstores have in terms of number of titles available just disappears. Everyone is on a level field now--except that we still have the advantages we've always had, like solid customer service/hospitality, staff who read books and handsell well, etc."

Kudos to Robert and Stephanie for thinking forward on this one, rather than trying to resist the developments that are coming.

And in what turned out to be her last online column for Publishers Weekly, editor in chief Sara Nelson expressed her trademark responsible optimism about the industry to which she's devoted herself. For example:

In other words, while everything suggests that the road ahead is going to be rocky, like many others in BookLand, we're still on our feet—and moving forward—because we're still passionate about what we do. We're real readers, we care, and even though many of us have spent our lives swimming around in the publishing pond, we still get excited at the sight of a mail delivery that contains padded envelopes filled with books. And publishing is all about passion: in the people that make books and the people who will still, always, continue to read them.
I was saddened to hear that Nelson had been let go from PW, as she's been a very visible face and voice for the book industry, someone who paid attention and listened and expressed well-informed opinions in the magazine as well as in panels, news sound bytes, and anywhere else there was something to be said about books. I hope she'll find another platform to speak from, and I'm grateful for her words.

Let's hear it for "those rare individuals who are both "book people" and "businesspeople,"" the ones who make books and bookstores viable now and in the future.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Link-Mad Monday: Watch out when we get together...

* As the world of indie booksellers knows, this coming weekend is the eagerly awaited Fourth Annual Winter Institute! Due to the uncertainty of my own plans months ago during registration, I won't be there in person... but I'll be jealously following the schedule of every educational session, party and rep picks meal throughout the weekend. If anyone is live blogging, let me know...

* And if you're at WI and of the under-40 persuasion, don't miss the Emerging Leaders Reception, Friday night at 9 PM in the charmingly titled Deer Valley room. Your intrepid Emerging Leaders Council will be meeting throughout the weekend to plan upcoming projects and programming, but on Friday night they'll do what they do best: drinking. I mean, networking with fellow booksellers, of course. The event is hosted by Unbridled Books, an emerging up-and-coming publisher itself, and will feature two of their promising new authors. The winners of the Emerging Leaders scholarships from Ingram and the ABA will also be recognized and cheered, and I expect a good time will be had by all. Toss one back for me!

* The NEXT weekend, already, is the also eagerly awaited New York Comic Con! I managed to score the highest prize for a comics geek: a press pass to the Con, courtesy of Shelf Awareness (where I'll be reporting on the festivities) and the illustrious Lance Fensterman and his crack convention staffers. The ALP and I will be wandering the show floor, snapping pictures and reporting on the madness and excitement from the bookseller's perspective. I'm also going to try to catch some of the programming for Thursday's ICV2 conference, in between my bookstore work schedule. Let me know if you'll be there too -- maybe we can meet up and share stories of our favorite costume sightings.

* And on Saturday at 11:00 at NYCC, in Room 1A18 at the Javitz Center, I have the additional awesome privilege of moderating a panel of heroes of the medium, discussing nonfiction in comics. Here's the actual panel description from the NYCC website:

"Telling A Story With Imagined Pictures: How can there be non-fiction comics when every image drawn is representational? This panel examines the non-fiction comic, looking at photographs, non-fiction prose works, and non-fiction comics as each is uniquely able to portray different aspects of non-fiction. Four creators will discuss how the element of representation and construction continually present in non-fiction comics work impact the stories they tell."
The illustrious panelists are Mike Dawson, creator of the fantastic memoir of Queen and adolescence Freddie and Me; Sabrina Jones, creator of the forthcoming biography Isadora Duncan on the groundbreaking dancer; Dan Goldman, co-author of the Iraq war satire Shooting War and the forthcoming presidential campaign memLinkoir 08 (also, his webcomic on Obama and the singularity is fantastic); and George O'Connor, creator of Journey into Mohawk Country, using a 17th century traders' journals as text for his true adventure story. It's an amazing group of folks to talk about the potential and challenges of telling true stories with the comics medium, and I can't wait to hear what we talk about. Props are due to comics girl-about-town Gina Gagliano of First Second Books for bringing us all together. Check it out, along with the rest of NYCC's fascinating programming.

* And if you're not going to any of these gatherings, despair not: the illustrious Kelly Amabile of the Independent Bookstores of New York City has compiled a list of 25 fantastic happenings at bookstores throughout our fair city this month. Most of them are free, and all of them sound intriguing (Scott Pilgrim midnight party, anyone?) Check it out, and enjoy getting together with your fellow booklovers!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Book Futures

Clearly, it's time to read Lev Grossman's article in Time about the future of books. I expect to agree, argue, and quibble in various measures. In the meantime, GalleyCat has a good summary and analysis of the piece, especially as it pertains to us snobby NYers.

In the meantime, Bookninja pointed me to an indie bookstore story from Britain that sounds like something out of a Frank Capra movie. An MP from Lancashire discovered that his beloved, homey local indie bookstore is closing because of economic pressure. So he storms into Parliament and tells everyone it's high time the government started supporting locally owned small businesses. And for good measure, he tells publishers they'd better be careful about relying too much on chains and online sellers, because "it's in their own interests to have a large number of outlets." Since when did a politician get so passionate, practical, and well-informed? Truly it is a new day in politics. Perhaps Kaydee Bookshop in Clitheroe will become our rallying cry for a new politics of supporting the local and independent.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gathering Around The Bookish President

Happy Inauguration Day! I'm psyched that at the last minute we've decided to screen the event at McNally Jackson. It's the sort of thing you want to be around other people for -- the excitement just isn't the same by oneself.

I'm also pleased that those who come to the store will get a chance to take a look at the new display some of our staff have been working hard to compile. Titled "How History Was Made: Books That Inspired A President," the display encompasses two groaning tables of political theory, fiction, history, memoir, and classics of world literature that make you wish you'd taken more cross-disciplinary critical thought-type classes in college.

The books come specifically from a period in Barack Obama's 20s when he read voraciously and when much of his political thought was formed. My coworker John McGregor has done a ton of research to put this together, and it shows. Starting with Laura Miller's Salon article "Barack By The Book" and culminating with Michiko Kakutani's piece in yesterday's Times "From Books, New President Found Voice," it's been widely observed that Obama has been shaped by his reading in unprecented ways, and that shows, too.

Contemplating this massive reading list (and dipping in oneself) is fascinating. But one of the best part about reading great books is that they spark great conversations. On February 13,
we're having a panel of distinguished guests to talk about what this reading list tells us about our president, and what we can learn from his influences. In addition to Laura Miller herself, James Baldwin scholar Colm Toibin, political writer and scholar Susan Jacoby, journalist and novelist David Samuels, and Spiegel & Grau editor Chris Jackson will each bring a unique perspective to this discussion of the books that shaped a president.

I'll be mentioning this panel again as it gets closer, but it seemed that today was the perfect day to let you know about the ongoing conversation of books and politics we've got going on. Along with, I suspect, many in the world of books, I'm full of joy and hope to have a real "book person" in the White House, and I can't wait to see what it does for our national conversation. Having books at the center of things might be part of the change we want to see.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Guest Blogger: The ALP

Greetings literature lovers. The ALP here with some dispatches from that other pile of books on the purely metaphorical nightstand. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that Book Nerd, within her "About Me" sidebar section, claims that I read everything she doesn't. Here's what Book Nerd hasn't read recently.

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Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race, by Richard Rhodes

With his Pulitzer-winning 1986 book The Making of the Atomic Bomb and his 1995 follow up, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Rhodes pretty much staked out the nuclear era as his personal stomping ground. In his latest, Arsenals of Folly, he moves from the dawn of the Cold War Era into the lingering last days of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the end of the arms race. Where Atomic played like a tragic Promethean foundation myth and Dark Sun was steeped in the shadowy cloak and dagger paranoia of the early Cold War, Arsenals reads like a grotesque farce. Late in the Eisenhower administration, it became abundantly clear that existing nuclear stockpiles were more than enough to deal fatal amounts of damage to the United States and the USSR (if not the whole planet). And yet, in the face of hard data and common sense, a moronic cabal of American hardline militarists managed to influence administration after administration, convincing them that a nuclear war was not only winnable, but that the secret to success was to simply keep developing and stockpiling more and more destructive nuclear weapons. Rhodes diligently and forcefully makes the case that this potentially suicidal and astoundingly wasteful strategy was neither wise nor inevitable. The cast of this particular comedy of errors includes notable military leaders, neo-Stalinists, leading lights from what would later be dubbed the "neoconservative" movement, a handful of now iconic presidents, and even some favorites from the Bush administration (Cheney is truly the bad penny of American politics). Rhodes makes no attempt to hide his contempt for this crowd of wannabe tough-guy bureaucrats who nearly led the word down the road to utter annihilation, and critics will certainly cite this overt hostility as proof that Rhodes's book is little more than a hatchet job of Reagan and his cronies. Still, if Rhodes is even half right, then these men fully deserve the scorn history will, one hopes, heap upon them. Arsenals is out now and I'm certain it is available at your finer independent book vendors.

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Castle, by J. Robert Lennon

There's a neat-o Deliverance by way of Kafka premise at the base of Lennon's up-coming Castle: Eric Loesch, an Iraq War vet with a tangled family history and nasty scandal hanging over his military record, returns to his hometown in upstate New York. He purchases a secluded house out where he plans to live out his remaining days in hermit-like isolation. This plan hits a surreal snag when Loesch discovers that there a small castle, complete with turrets and everything, smack dab in the middle of his property. This bizarre turn of events takes on a more sinister aspect when it becomes clear that the castle and its mysterious occupant are connected to Eric's guilt-haunted past. Lennon expertly shifts between exacting detail and fantastic horror, giving his tale the crisp realism of a well-remembered nightmare. The end result is somewhat marred by an awkward attempt to create a metaphorical parallel to the prisoner torture scandals of the War on Terror, the results of which are neither insightful or illuminating. Still, aside from that one misstep, Lennon's curious thriller is a refreshingly odd slice of genre fiction and it is bound to please fans of "new weird" horror and genre bending mysteries. Castles is published by Greywolf Press and streets in April. Go hassle your favorite indie bookseller about it now. Just keep telling 'em it is about a guy and this castle with no road to it. They'll keep saying, "It's Kafka's The Castle." And you'll keep going, "No. It's not that." You can probably keep 'em going for hours like that.

Book Nerd here: Give him a hand, folks! You can read the ALP's regular commentary on books, movies, comics, and other stuff horror-related on his own blog, And Now The Screaming Starts. I'm grateful to him for expanding this blog's book coverage outside my own reading. We may make this a regular feature.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Trends, Counter-Trends, and Re-Evaluations

At the PowerUp! ceremony last night, I mentioned the headline of the (otherwise lovely) New York Times article on my bookstore party, which read "A Woman Dreams of Opening a Bookstore, and Defying the Trends." I asserted that the existence of the 75 stellar business plans in this year's competition suggest that my efforts to open an indie bookstore actually embody any number of trends: toward localism, toward idealistic entrepreneurship, toward communities taking charge of their own sustainability, toward valuing books, toward the growth of vibrant, savvy independent businesses.

Thus, it was rather gratifying to read in book industry newsletter Shelf Awareness today that two major papers have been revisiting the common perception of the trends.

The Wall Street Journal article "Folks Are Flocking to the Library, a Cozy Place to Look for a Job" begins

"A few years ago, public libraries were being written off as goners. The Internet had made them irrelevant, the argument went. But libraries across the country are reporting jumps in attendance of as much as 65% over the past year..."

Business librarian Maud Andrews and I discussed this issue at the reception last night: that bookstores and libraries have certainly had to revamp their business model, to become gathering places for the sharing of information rather than warehouses of information on paper. But it's working, for both of us.

The San Francisco Chronicle's piece "Bay Area indie bookstores beat the odds" (deja vu to the Times article) begins thusly:

"As everyone knows, independent bookstores are dead. Or at least dying. Next to opening an indie video rental store, it is hard to imagine a less promising investment opportunity.....

Defying conventional wisdom, and despite what you hear every time a landmark bookstore closes - Stacey's on Market Street is the latest example - independent bookstores are thriving in San Francisco."

The article details the passion and smarts of Preveen Madan and Christin Evans, who bought the small indie store Booksmith and are succeeding in their goal to "push the boundaries of a bookstore for the 21st century," along with Pete Mulvihill, one of the three partners that runs Green Apple Books, who talks about indie bookstores curatorial role.

It feels serendipitous to hear these stories that question the negative "trends" by really observing the successes and changes that are occurring in the world of books, after going out on a limb to assert that the trends are not as they are often assumed to be. Given the wonderful plans I saw last night, and the passion and energy evident in the entrepreneurs, the future is not so bleak as it might have appeared.

(cross-posted on A Bookstore In Brooklyn)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Link-Mad Monday: The Good News

'Cause that's what we do around here.

* In the New York Times, an interesting article on how small-scale and niche manufacturing in Brooklyn is prospering even as larger concerns suffer in the economic downturn:

Many business owners interviewed said they were staying strong in this market by employing few workers and keeping their products specialized.

“They tend to be very nimble, even in the downtimes,” said Mr. Kimball. “They can make it through a difficult stretch easier than the bigger players.”

Manufacturing isn't retail, but I can't be the only one to see a parallel to the indie store which can make adjustments and cater to local clients as corporate sellers can't. We ARE all making those adjustments, right?...

* Also in the Times, an article that evokes the great urbanist Jane Jacobs in discussing how internet forums and social networking, especially in New York City neighborhoods, can strengthen local bonds, not increase isolation:

The Web was first seen as a radical alternative to the bricks-and-mortar world, but the truth, it turns out, can be more complicated.

“The original idea of the Internet was to get away from physical geography,” Steven Johnson, a 40-year-old Brooklynite and the author of several tech-related books, said as he sat in the Dumbo loft that serves as the office to, a Web site he helped to found two years ago. “The dream was that everybody would be able to telecommute from Wyoming.”

Yet, the Internet has also had the opposite effect by helping to connect people more closely to their physical and political surroundings. And for New Yorkers, whose surroundings are more complex than most, this effect can be particularly powerful, enabling them to take on the long-anonymous, too-big-to-fight city.

There's also an acknowledgement of the gentrification wars that seem to flare up on every neighborhood blog (whose side are you on?!?) -- but this is a good way to think about how a local bookstore can be a part of their online neighborhood as well as their physical one.

* Sometimes, it takes a Nobel-prize winning author to stem the spread of panic and illogic in a publishing corporation. Thanks to a letter from Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco, Amos Oz, Wislawa Szymborska, Jose Saramago and others, beloved and competent editor Drenka Willen has been re-hired at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, after being fired last month. Score one for literature over the suits. (Thanks to Levi for the link.)

* I'm still thinking about the question inherent in Jason Lutes' Berlin graphic novels about how and whether artists and writers should be engaged with politics. Pankaj Mishra has one answer: if writers are there in the shit and they write about it, listen to them. Arundhati Roy and David Grossman are certainly examples of writers whose political ideas and expressions we would be mistaken to ignore.

* The good news about the following kerfuffle is that the backlash happened so fast. To quote Sarah Retger at the ABA Omnibus:

Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse wrote a stunningly dumb article for the WSJ in which she argued that the only way for publishers to survive is by throwing lots of advance money at projects they hope will be bestsellers. Happily, people more eloquent than me have done the necessary debunking, criticizing, and introducing of logic.
My own two cents: there's nothing wrong with hoping for a blockbuster. But shelling out multi-million dollar advances (at the expense of publicity efforts for the rest of the list) ain't gonna get you one. One of the strengths of books as a medium is that they're viable on such a small scale; we're lucky for the books with print runs of 500 as well as those with 50,000, and it would be great to see publishers begin to think critically about how to work those strengths for a diverse, vibrant, long-lived list.

* Ooh, here's a nice one: the National Endowment for the Arts survey, usually a staple of doom and gloom about the state of American literacy, this year shows a substantial increase in the numbers and percentages of readers. I have yet to read through the complete findings, and it will be interesting to hear theories on why the shift occurred, but it does strike a bright note.

* This kind of counts as good news: I'll be speaking at the Brooklyn Business Library's PowerUp! awards ceremony on Wednesday night, in my capacity as past winner. An interesting opportunity to review the past year in the bookstore process. Free eats, also.

What have YOU got going on that's good?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Part 2 of What I Read On My Christmas Vacation; Or, How Books Make Things Better

Part II: Engage!

I didn't necessarily read all the escapist books first and all the inspiring/engaging books after that (and certainly most of the books I read over the 12 Days of Christmas had elements of both). But as I enjoyed the comforts of fantasy and adventure, I also found myself getting a bit fired up about interesting ideas. Since I had been a little worried that end-of-the-year letdown and disappointments would leave me lethargic and apathetic, I was willing enough to let these next books work their magic.

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Berlin, City of Stones

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Berlin: City of Smoke
by Jason Lutes

Jason Lutes' Berlin series is one of those graphic novels that the ALP has been telling me I should read for ages, while I was more interested in the flashy superhero stuff (Green Arrow, for example). During the cold, quiet days of the year's end, I finally felt inclined to pick up the first volume, and within pages was immersed in a vision of 1929 Berlin, rich with early 20th century details but eerily recognizable: the economy is very bad, violent political factions each proclaim themselves the true voice of the people, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is impossibly wide, and nightlife, the arts, journalism, and relationships can seem to offer either perspective or an escape. Lutes' story is complexly structured and peopled with dozens of well-drawn (literally and metaphorically) characters; I felt I wanted to read everything slowly and repeatedly to grasp the shape and the details of the world he created, but at the same time I had to read quickly to know what happened next -- the pleasant agony of the best books.

But perhaps the most lasting effect the books have had is an ongoing conversation, first with the ALP and spreading to others, about the responsibilities of artists to engage with politics. One of the main characters is an artist, concerned mainly with art for art's sake and drawn into the decadent nightlife of Weimer urbanity; another, a journalist, is frustrated by the artist's naivete as he struggles to articulate what is happening in his country, yet his rejection of jazz seems of a piece with his detached observer's stance. Is an intense engagement with culture a sufficient stance in itself? Is a refusal to take sides an act of cowardice, or the only honest reaction to a situation of great complexity? The issues are starker because we know that these characters are on the precipice of the Third Reich, but they illuminate (or complicate) contemporary issues as well. Lutes itself, it seems, has found a way to engage deeply while remaining true to his art; his work elevates the comics form to the most cogent cultural history, and the best fiction, which makes demands on the real world.

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Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics
by Rebecca Solnit

This essay collection is yet another work I'd been meaning to read, but picked up with a bit of reluctant crankiness: am I really in the mood to read something this serious? But Solnit, whose writing I loved in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, is on fire here, and set me burning as well, with the gorgeous and horrifying intersections of place and politics that she illuminates. Partly it was because this is the kind of writing I have done and want to do: narrative nonfiction that makes little distinction between the familiar and the formal, that incorporates place and memory and philosophy and ethics and other parts of the human experience into pieces as structured and artful as poetry and as stirring as a great speech. Partly it because she is talking about hugely important issues that I suspect but don't know much about: the poisonous fallout of large-scale corporate mining, especially for gold; the need for (and difficulty of) architecture and urban design that creates human-scale communities; the out-of-fashion but still present problems of land grabs from Native Americans and nuclear testing and waste disposal in the Nevada desert. Here is an artist engaged.

I don't always agree with her assertions -- sometimes I'm arguing with her throughout an essay, sometimes I swallow it whole and only in talking about it afterward discover that I question some of her conclusions or assumptions. (One essay about Silicon Valley, for example, written in the early '90s, is full of interesting metaphorical connections but a little embarrassing in its judgements on the internet.) Most left me with more questions than answers. Why haven't I heard about this before? Who is responsible for this? If this isn't the right way to do things, then how? But each also left me with the satisfaction of a complete work of art: the kind I'd like to make. I'm still reading this one, still wrestling with Solnit as an activist and admiring her as a writer. It's good to get set on fire again.

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Moomin, Book 3
by Tove Jansson

Moomin is a comic strip with talking animals (or creatures of some kind -- the Moomins are more like Jeff Smith's Bone creatures than like the hippos they are occasionally, scandalously mistaken for). It is also not exactly for kids. Jansson's humor is sometimes wicked, her scenes often melancholy, and her worldview rather subversively anarchic. I've been reading this series as its been re-released by Drawn & Quarterly, and feel rather proprietarily fond of the fussy Mrs. Fillyjonk, the always lovesick Mymble, the practical but mean Little My, the outlaw Stinky, and of course Moominpappa (top-hat wearing, high-mindedly silly), Moominmamma (supremely competent but not at all fussy), Moomin himself (a wistful everyman) and Snorkmaiden (his on-and-off girlfriend, moody but loveable). In this volume they encounter an encroaching jungle (the animals are quite nice given a chance), move to a lighthouse (and back) for the sake of Pappa's great novel of the sea (which becomes a great novel of the veranda), deal with the vagaries of love (a leading lady seduces Moomin) and loyalty (Moominmamma finds herself a member of both a law-upholding and a law-breaking club). It seems silly, but this book was the one that made me happy to relax and engage in the comfort and chaos of family life. The ALP and me are a bit like the Moomins, I like to think: a little silly, a little chaotic, prone to wacky ideas that don't always pan out, not quite respectable, but awfully loving, and awfully happy. As a character says in the last panel of the book:

"Indeed you are the most idiotic family I ever saw -- but you are at least living every minute of the day!!"

May the same be said of all of us. Thanks to these books for making the season bright, and here's to a new year full of magic, adventure, art, and engagement with the world.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

What I Read On My Christmas Vacation; Or, How Books Make Things Better

Part I: Escape!

I didn't actually get much Christmas vacation: one day off for Christmas, half a day off for New Year's Eve and the same for New Year's Day. I admit I was a bit jealous of my publishing friends, none of whom seemed to be anywhere near the office from the 24th to the 5th. But I made the choice to stick around the store this year, and hopefully I'll take a couple days in the dismal months of February and March to make up for it. Still, it felt like a time out from the usual working year, and I chose my reading accordingly. The books I read during the 12 Days of Christmas (that's the 25th to the 6th, as the Inklings Bookstore was humorously reminded) felt like a separate entity, separating the old year from the new year.

It's also been a time when I've been struggling a bit against hopelessness and despair (which seems to hit me around this time of year, if last year's post is any indication). It's been a great year in terms of progress toward my own store – winning the PowerUp! prize, partnering (financially and in a meeting of the minds) with the wonderful Rebecca Fitting, connecting with the Fort Greene Association, and having a wonderful party at BAM that showed how enthusiastic the neighborhood of Fort Greene is about bringing a bookstore to their neighborhood. Which makes the decision to postpone our efforts to open because of the economy even more heartbreaking. So I was asking a lot of the books I read over the holidays: distraction, inspiration, magic. And good old books – they turned out to be just what I needed.

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
I was casting about in the last days before Christmas for something sort of magical or adventurous or escapist – that's my idea of a Christmas read. I wished I hadn't yet read Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, or Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or even that I was in the mood to read about Narnia or Middle Earth again – those were just the ticket. At the last minute on Christmas Eve, I remembered I'd been wanting to read Neil Gaiman's latest, the YA novel The Graveyard Book, so I bought a copy (with actual money, not a comp copy – a Christmas indulgence) and took it on the subway with great satisfaction.

It was the first of several just-right books. Replete with Gaiman's requisite imaginative spookiness, drawn from English magical and religious traditions and informed, always, by a dark English humor, the story of Nobody "Bod" Owens and his friends and enemies among the dead and un-dead was quite satisfactory. I wished for more – scaling something down to YA level seems to involve a bit of winnowing of the complexity of say, American Gods, or maybe Neil's just been writing children's books for a while now. But it is essentially the story of a boy finding a home, growing up, defeating monsters, and finally going off to seek his fortune. I found that last bit especially appropriate, and a little inspiring.

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Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, ... With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory by Roy Blount
I adore Roy Blount: his Southernness makes me feel tenderly toward my own Southern man, and his old-fashioned erudition combined with a mischievious playfulness (always with that Southern slowness, or deliberation) has been the delight of many a weekend morning listening to "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." And, of course, he has his head on straight when it comes to supporting independent bookstores. His new book on the English language turns out to be something of a dictionary/encyclopedia of sorts, so I didn't read it all the way through – I'm working through it slowly. But his introduction is enough to make you fall in love with words all over again, especially this sentence:

"No doubt it would be superficial to liken the universal grammar theory to a virtual program wherein all the steps of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire are reduced to a flow chart, with no attention to Fred's ears of the ineffable things Ginger does with her shoulders. But I get no kick from genetics."
Allusive, witty, complex, and ultimately an argument for the irreducible magic of language. Thanks, Roy.

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The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa
Laugh if you want to, but this was probably the single most enjoyable and comforting and even inspiring book I read during the designated period. Don Rosa is building on the world created by Carl Barks, the originator of the comics about Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and Uncle Scrooge – a late addition, at first seen as a one-shot character, but one that became so popular Barks used him often. Rosa has taken all the allusions to the ways in which Uncle Scrooge amassed the ridiculous fortune in the Duckberg money bin, and created a 70-year saga of the adventures of Scrooge: from a bootblack in Edinburgh to a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi to a cowboy in Montana to a gold hunter in Australia, South Africa, and ultimately the Yukon. The thing that I loved was that it took the ultimate billionaire 20 years of failure before he found his first gold nugget: he got to the diggings too late, or his boat sank, or he had to go home to defend the family castle. But every adventure taught him to be "tougher than the toughies, and sharper than the sharpies," and to be a straight dealer (except for that one time he got greedy and burned an African village, for which an avenging zombie followed him the rest of his life – nice symbolism). If Scrooge can deal with decades of failure in pursuit of his dream, gosh darnit, so can I – and I know a bookstore is going to make me happier than that cranky old man's bin full of money. And incidentally, it's a great adventure story, far more interesting than what you probably think of when you think of Disney. Check it out.

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Green Arrow: Quiver, Book 1 by Kevin Smith, Phil Hester, and Ande Parks
One of the nice things about working retail (and being on the evening event hosting shift) is that I rarely have to leave the house in the early morning. Cold, rainy holiday mornings are made for sitting up in bed with a cup of coffee and reading comic books. This, I have discovered, is the way to total contentment. This re-introduction of the character of Green Arrow, written by Clerks' own Kevin Smith, is one I'd read before, but I felt like returning to old favorites. It's a cut above a lot of the superhero comics writing out there, but it's still a lot of costumes and monsters and secret hideouts. I like the new Green Arrow series because of the interesting contrast between the original, Oliver Queen – the fiery leftist railing against "corporate fat cats" as only a rich boy can do, who's also a chronic womanizer – and the new Green Arrow, Connor Hawke, Oliver's recently discovered illegitimate son, a Zen buddhist and all-around quiet sort, except for the ass-kicking archery. The original GA comes back from the dead, as people do in this sort of story, and has to deal with the changes in the world since his heyday in the Silver Age, along with the usual bad guys and relationship drama. It's total fun, with the occasional moral lesson for good measure. Hooray for escapism, one of the many things books can do.

Next time, Part II: Engage!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Link-Mad Monday: Back to the Future!

Happy 2009! The time for year-end lists, including mine, is past -- time to look at some interesting new stuff again. Behold, the linkage!

- New York Comic Con is a-comin' (February 6-8), and Lance Fensterman's blog is once again featuring genius lo-tech superhero promo videos.

- Coming up even faster: Winter Institute IV! (January 29 - February 1) I am so jealous of everyone who is going -- there is some good stuff going on, and I hope to participate vicariously through whatever virtual means possible...

- The Leonard Lopate Show had a call-in segment devoted to changing reading habits on New Year's Eve that's worth listening to. For a piece about the "new" world of books, there's a fair amount of the same old doom-and-gloom. But IBNYC member Bonnie Slotnik has a great remark at the bottom of the comments that reminds folks that even in changing times "bookstores are here to stay."

- I saw the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with a good friend over the holidays. It was not especially good, in our opinion, and had essentially nothing to do with the F. Scott Fitzgerald source novella. You could buy one of the two graphic novel versions we're stocking at McNally Jackson, or even download a free e-book version to check it out for yourself (it's in the public domain, after all). Personally, I could not agree more with Sara Nelson that the movie's basic plot owes far more to Andrew Sean Greer's The Confessions of Max Tivoli than to Fitzgerald. But Greer's has much, much better dialogue and more interesting surprises, and won't make you feel like you've wasted three hours of your life. I highly recommend throwing your entertainment buck to Andrew rather than Brad & Co. this time.

- Max at The Millions has an awesome post about IndieBound and concurrent initiatives by indies to improve their web presence by building on their strengths. One I'm totally gaga over: the Seminary Co-Op bookstore in Chicago (that's Obama's bookstore, y'all) reproduces its entire front table on its blog every week, by displaying cover images with links to buy of all the featured table books. So! Cool! Doing what we indies do best (curating the best books for our customers) with the tools of the internet? Priceless.

- After long hearing rumors that it was closed or going to close, I've finally read that the Librairie Française on Rockefeller Center is slated to close this fall. (No, the reason is not "e-books" or "the internet" or "no one reads..." -- the reason is their rent is going from $360K to 1 million, which is unsustainable no matter what business you're in.) This will be a real loss: as of now, the store is only reliable place to find books in French, Italian, and other European languages in NYC, and we send customers there often. I hope that as happened after the closure of several Spanish language bookshops, the general bookstores will take up the slack for our polyglot city of readers.

- Okay, maybe we still need a little retrospection. Brockman at the PowellsBooks.Blog recaps the Year in Book News, Part 1 and Part 2. (Brockman is one of the few book world snarks whose wit and general humanism redeems him in my book; another is our own bookstore blogger Dustin.) And GalleyCat ambitiously recaps the Year in Publishing News month by month, starting with romance novel plagiarism in January and winding up with Black Wednesday in December. But they've got stiff upper lips over there: my favorite post title linked is "We Want No Part of Your Death Culture." That's totally going to be the name of my band's first album.

- On the Bookstore in Brooklyn blog today, there's an announcement about our bookstore plans -- to wit, we're putting things on hold temporarily because of the economy. Obviously, I'm feeling somewhat sad about this. But I do think it's the right decision, and until we're able to move forward, my goal is to re-commit myself to the great bookstore job I have now, and the other book world projects that have been on back burners. Your thoughts and comments appreciated.

- I had some good fun with GoodReads during the last days of the holidays. I uploaded all the books I read in 2008 to my bookshelf (I'm working on adding reviews) and added a widget to this lil' blog so you can see what they are. And I started the Never-Ending Book Quiz. CAUTION: Extremely addicting. Book Nerds and booksellers especially at risk.

So there: you've got your upcomings, you've got your recaps, you've got your totally irresistible time-waster. Full stocked for the first Monday of '09! Welcome to the year, book friends -- as Dustin writes, let us enjoy the richness of books without ever taking it for granted.