Monday, June 29, 2009

The Handsell: The Good Thief

Shop Indie Bookstores

The Good Thief
by Hannah Tinti (Random House, $25.00)
This novel contains an orphan, a con man, a giant zombie, a mad doctor, a dwarf, and a sinister factory. If that laundry list excites you with prospects of strange and uncanny adventure, or reminds you of childhood afternoons curled up with Robert Louis Stevenson, this is the book for you. For me, it's a reminder of when I was very young and my mom used to read "chapter books" to me before bedtime, chapter by excruciatingly suspenseful chapter. Now, my husband and I have been reading The Good Thief aloud to each other. It's the first time as an adult I can recall saying "please, just one more chapter."

It takes a pretty incredible writer to write a 19th century boy's adventure story with a wry 21st century sensibility. Hannah Tinti gets everything right, sketching scenes with the smallest of telling details, letting the character's moral evolution reveal itself in their actions. The orphan Ren is a conflicted hero for all time, and Benjamin Nab is a confidence man whose stories are as satisfying as they are implausible. Highly recommended for smart, suspenseful summer reading for all ages, and especially for sharing with like-minded adventurers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Linguistical musings: Bookish, Bibliophilic, Literary

It's sometimes illuminating to work in a neighborhood where a large percentage of our customers speak languages other than English -- that is, SoHo, a major shopping destination for European tourists. (Why they buy books in English when they don't seem to speak it fluently is something I've always wondered -- but we're not complaining.)

Recently I noted, not for the first time, the tendency for Spanish speakers to call the bookstore a "library" (leading to a certain amount of confusion since there is a New York Public Library around the corner). This makes sense, though, since the Spanish word for bookstore is libreria. The word for book is libro, and -eria is where an item is sold (zapateria for shoes, tabaqueria for smokes, etc.) The Spanish word for library, on the other hand, is biblioteca -- which also sounds familiar and logically related to books, for its similarity to bibliophile or bibliography.

So what, I asked the ALP (Adorably Literate Partner), is up with the split between libro and biblio? And where does the word "book" itself come into all of this? Surprisingly, he didn't know the answer off the top of his head (he often does), but the trusty internet revealed a backstory both logical and suggestive.

Liber, we find, is a Latin root word meaning "to peel." The reference is to the tree bark first used as a writing surface -- the pages which made up the first scrolls and books. Literary is also Latin, from littera, meaning a letter of the alphabet.

Biblio, on the other hand, is the Greek word for book (hence Bible, etc.) If you want to go even further down the wormhole, one online etymology dictionary suggests the word is

originally a dim. of byblos "Egyptian papyrus," possibly so called from the name of the Phoenician port from which Egyptian papyrus was exported to Greece. The port's name is a Gk. corruption of Phoenician Gebhal (modern Jbeil, Lebanon), said to mean lit. "frontier town" (cf. Heb. gebhul "frontier, boundary," Arabic jabal "mountain")

Book, on the other hand, is pure barbarian Old English. It's also from a tree word, "bōc", which is similar to the Slavic words for "beech" -- probably the kind of tree most often used as a surface to carve or write words. I feel you can hear Old English it in the sound of the word -- the blunt beginning and hard ending, the weird two letters to make one sound in the middle. It's not as elegant as the Greek and Latin, but perhaps more down-to-earth.

So when we talk about literati, bibliophiles, and booklovers, or libraries, bibliographies, and bookstores, we're drawing on the entire rich mongrel history of the English language and its Latin, Greek, and Germanic ancestors. We're talking about trees, ports, and mountains; peeled bark and carved codex.

For some reason, I love this so much it almost makes me choke up. Think how long we've been talking about books, in how many languages, and how many different things writing and reading have meant and been to us. Think of all the weird unlikely clashes and interminglings of culture that gave us these many options to talk about these items and how they work and how we interact with them. Think of the roots of abstract ideas in the ancient, physical world.

What a story (Latin) there is in words (Old English).

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Handsell: Lake Overturn

Shop Indie Bookstores

Lake Overturn
by Vestal McIntyre (HarperCollins, $24.99)

This book was put into my hands by one of my mentors and favorite booksellers, Toby Cox at Three Lives & Co. It took me a couple of weeks to get to it, but when I did it proved the rule that you should always trust your local indie bookseller when they tell you you're going to love something. This is the best straight-up novel I've read in a long time. No fantasy, nothing meta, no structural trickery or experimentation -- just character, story, place, metaphor, incredibly well-observed and perfectly described, so that you sink deeper and deeper into the author's world, and your heart aches for the story's people long after you've left them.

Vestal McIntyre is a contemporary George Eliot (this book reminded me more than once of Middlemarch), capable of capturing the truths about a community and an entire society in individual moments and interactions. McIntyre understands each of the characters that populate Eula, Idaho so intimately it's sometimes startling to get so close. Adultery, race and class relations, infertility, drug addiction, child abuse, autism, homosexuality, fundamentalist religion -- there's hardly a contemporary issue that isn't seething underneath the surface of this small place. But somehow, it all feels universal and brand-new and quietly powerful. This is the kind of book that makes you look at your fellow human beings with new interest, and new compassion.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Handsell: Chicken With Plums

I have two reasons for starting a new series of The Handsell today.

1) I have less than a month left as an employee at McNally Jackson, so I feel I ought to poach my own staff picks from the store website before I'm no longer a MacJack (as we call ourselves in uninhibited moments).

2) If you're like me, the situation in Iran at the moment is incredibly compelling, filling us with hope and fear. Marjane Satrapi is, I'll admit, the one Iranian writer I really know, and she's been involved in speaking out for the opposition movement. It seems like a good time to revisit her work.

Shop Indie Bookstores

Chicken With Plums

by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon, $12.95)

I waited a long time before picking up the newest work by the author of Persepolis, fearing she was just cashing in on her fame with a fluff followup. But it's wonderful, of course; I actually think this book is even more nuanced, moving and illuminating about Iranian life than Marjane Satrapi's original memoir. It's the half-mythologized story of Satrapi's uncle Nasser, a musician who decides to die for reasons that are simpler and more complex than they seem. It moves quietly, but it will break your heart.

The images are simple but eloquent, in Satrapi's heavy-line style, and evoke both the absurdity and pathos of the situation. I don't want to say more about just what happens, because the small revelations, circling backward and forward through time and perceptions, are what give this book (novel?) its power. It's now out in paperback, and highly recommended if you feel like immersing yourself in Iranian culture on a small scale, or or if you appreciate stories of the strange specifics and inescapable universality of human romantic and family life. I'm thankful for these kinds of stories.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

New Audio Awesomeness!

I don' t often use this blog to plug stuff going on at McNally Jackson, but sometimes it's just too good. Thanks to the diligent efforts of mixmaster Steve and blogmaster Dustin (who, incidentally, will be ably taking over my job as McJ events coordinator as I move on to Greenlight), the McNally Jackson blog is now a talkie.

It's our inaugural event podcast!

We've been sound recording author events for months now, hoping to preserve some of the great live conversations for posterity. At last, we've edited and hosted one of the best -- the star-studded March 30 poetry event with Robert Pinsky, Sharon Olds, Mark Strand, and Philip Schultz.

Click over to the McNally Jackson blog -- if only to see the awesome picture of Dustin attempting to stuff a book into his ear. The audio sounds great -- all those resonant poet voices! Leave lots of comments so we know you're listening, and we'll feel all motivated to do some more.

Friday, June 05, 2009

One Bookseller's BEA

Maybe I'm just lucky.

But this was the best BEA I've ever attended.

I was lucky, in a way, that it was in New York this year, which made it easy for me to attend on my own dime as the new owner of Greenlight Bookstore... but that did mean I had to work some shifts at my day job at McNally Jackson so that other booksellers could make the show. So keep in mind that there's a lot of stuff that I missed.

On Wednesday I was lucky to attend my last Emerging Leaders Council meeting. The national council representing frontline booksellers under 40 has finally gotten a rep from each of the 9 bookselling regions, and there's a lot of talent there. Perhaps we toot our own horn, but we like to think that some of the education the ABA offered this year was partly at our instigation (and there were EL booksellers on a large percentage of the panels), and that the increasing presence and visibility of young frontline booksellers at Winter Institute and regional shows can be traced back partially to our efforts as well. We met with folks from Unbridled Press and Ingram Book Distributors, both of whom are interested in supporting our work of mentoring and networking for younger frontline booksellers. This not only creates the professional booksellers of the future (I know my first sponsored visit to the NAIBA regional show is probably what made me choose this as my career), but it gives publishers the opportunity to put their books in front of the kids who actually hand books to customers on the sales floor.

That night I was lucky to attend the Emerging Leaders Party, sponsored again by Book Expo itself, at the behest of the wonderful, inimitable BEA events director (and former indie bookseller) Lance Fensterman -- who was instrumental, obviously, in everything that made this show great. There were 250 RSVPs, both publishers and booksellers, and Last Exit Bar was packed. Dennis Johnson, the publisher of Brooklyn indie Melville House, attended along with his author, and wrote to me afterward "Who sez the book biz is dead? It was really energizing, so my thanks to you." Being a room full of young career booksellers has a way of making the future seem possible.

I know galleys were missed at the rest of the show, but we had no shortage of book giveaways to accompany the featured authors. That list read like a who's who of up and coming talent: Margot Berwin (Pantheon), Ben Greenman (Melville House), Phil Gelatt & Rick Lacy (Oni Press), Hillary Jordan (Algonquin), Maaza Mengiste (W. W. Norton), and Peter Terzian (HarperCollins). When I got up to say thanks to the assembled youngsters, I told them about my new bookstore plans (the luckiest break of them all), and emphasized how much this network had been instrumental in making that happen: teaching me, supporting me, providing resources. I'm glad to move on to the next (emerged?) part of my career (and happy to hand my Council badge over to Stephanie Anderson), but it's been great to help to foster the future of bookselling, and great to know there are lots more book nerds still coming up through the ranks.

I was lucky on Thursday to attend a couple of fantastic panels at the ABA Day of Education, one on book clubs and one on "the bookstore as a third place." I was speaking on the latter, but I took way more notes than I offered information. The ABA education staff seems to have mastered both curation and crowd sourcing: both panels had smart speakers up front to establish some best practices and set the tone, and then tapped into the collective wisdom in the room as booksellers offered their own good ideas and answered each others' questions. I came away with a notebook full of ideas to implement in Greenlight Bookstore and renewed respect, as always, for my bookselling colleagues. As an ABA staffer and I discussed in the booksellers' lounge later, indie booksellers are used to operating on a shoestring and turning on a dime -- some of us are struggling, but there's no end to the creativity and resourcefulness of these business people, and in some ways it's our moment to shine. Consumers understand the value of shopping local more than ever, and indie booksellers have lots of resources at our disposal to offer them the best bookstore experience possible.

On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I considered myself lucky that this year, when it was really important for my partner Rebecca and I to focus on business and not get distracted by partying, that this was a show where partying had been scaled back, and everyone was serious about the business. We talked to point of sale vendors, wholesale distributors, and lots of publishers, getting the information and contacts we'll need to open our store in the fall. We have a lot of work ahead of us, and the timing couldn't have been better: right now is exactly when we needed to see all of these vendors to get the ball rolling.

(An aside: though commentary has lamented the lack of free books at the show, I was impressed by publishers like W. W. Norton, who focused on one or two great fall releases -- in their case, David Small's amazing graphic novel Stitches -- and promoted the heck out of it. This kind of focused marketing is what we've been encouraging publishers to do at the NAIBA regional trade show, and it makes for a less overwhelming, more productive show experience in terms of the upcoming books themselves. I was a little disappointed that more publishers didn't do this -- there is a lot of gold in the fall list and I would have loved to have gathered up a few more nuggets -- but some, like Norton, clearly are turning the smaller/focused model to their advantage.)

Speaking of timing, we are lucky that the American Booksellers Association has made such great strides with their e-commerce platform, and that it looks like it will be in shape to sell e-books by the time Rebecca and I open Greenlight Bookstore in the fall. We sat down with Ricky of the ABA to have him walk us through the website platform (Rebecca also attended a couple of the e-content panels as well and came away impressed), and felt like we were in good hands and we have good options. While many are throwing up their hands about online sales and electronic books, the ABA is working overtime to make sure indie booksellers have the tools they need to make e-commerce of print books and downloadable e-books another part of our revenue stream. As Rebecca and I agreed, we're not paper sellers, we're booksellers, and we're glad for the opportunity we will have to sell books in many forms and many places.

I was lucky to be invited to a dinner on Saturday night with Diamond Comics Distributors and Image Comics, for a couple of reasons. First, it's always a treat for me to talk comics with fellow geeks (it's kind of especially fun when I'm the only girl), and I learned a great deal about Image, a creator-owned press that publishes some of the best and most innovative comics out there. And I was reminded once again that I can't afford to blindly demonize anyone in this industry, because there are smart and professional and good people working in every corner of it. I spent half the night talking to a vendor manager from the Amazon Kindle store, and despite my intention to be icily polite (proprietary platform! anti-competitive practices! the death of the print book!), found myself talking animatedly and with a surprising amount of agreement about electronic formats, consumer interest in digital content, and the Amazon guy's insistence that there is, and should be, room for multiple channels for buying electronic books. Along with the Barnes and Noble buyer and the Hudson News guy, he couldn't get enough of the news about my new bookstore opening in Brooklyn, and they all gave me their cards to be put on the mailing list. I learned once again that pretty much all of us just love books and bookstores, and the sinister motives we imagine for our competitors are almost always oversimplified and don't take into account that we're all just trying to make an honest living getting books in people's hands (or electronic devices.)

I was incredibly lucky to be walking the floor all three days with a fantastic business partner, with whom I see so eye-to-eye that we can almost finish each other's sentences at this point (except when she's teaching me something new). "Do you think...?" "Yeah, totally," seemed to be the refrain as Rebecca and I navigated the riches of the publishing world. And as we got to introduce each other to all of the people we respectively know, the refrain became, "I've heard so much about you!" How lucky to work in a business of such cameraderie and enthusiasm, and with someone who has the same passion for books and readers, as well as good instincts about nearly everything. I seriously couldn't have handled this show -- or the entire bookstore startup process -- without Rebecca.

I felt almost guiltily lucky every time I had my badge scanned to come into the exclusive-to-booksellers ABA lounge. We may be the lowest-paid segment of the industry, but we booksellers had free coffee, lemonade, snacks, internet access, and comfy couches to retreat to whenever we needed. And whenever I stopped in I was sure to run into a colleague I knew and loved, and especially my core group of bookfriends: Amanda, Steve, Kelly, Stephanie, Christine, Dustin, Sarah, Toby, Emily, Sweet Pea, Jenn, among others. These are people who are passionate about what they do, creative and energetic beyond belief, and awfully fun to be around. I have a sense that they're the ones I'll still be talking to in twenty years, through all the changes of our industry and our careers. Maybe we'll look back on this BEA as one of the last good ones, or as a quiet moment before things got big again, or as the beginning of a long-term change for the better.

All I know now is that it was a hell of a show.

P.S. Okay, one last geeky lucky break: as I trolled the aisles on my last day looking for last-minute book swag, someone at the Dark Horse booth took pity on me and handed me possibly the Best. Giveaway. Ever. So along with a handful of books, a ton of information and contacts, and a renewed appreciation for book people, here's what I took home from BEA:

If you haven't read Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba's trippy, funny dysfunctional superhero family graphic novel The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, it's highly recommended. Dude, I have the action figures.