Monday, April 30, 2007

Monday Hookey; Vacations

We were making rather merry yesterday (sampling 5 different kinds of bubbly to pick which one to serve at our wedding), so I'm playing hookey this morning. I'm taking an impromptu vacation from daily responsibilities, and there ain't a thing you can do about it.

So I suggest you head over to the LBC, where it's the week of The Cottagers. There's a great post up about suspense in the novel. And you can start thinking about the question of the worst vacation you ever had -- or a great bad vacation story -- for the contest later in the week. Enjoy!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Friday tidbits

Just one more PEN Festival event this morning (a last-minute add-on, as the incredible panel yesterday for high schoolers with Ishmeal Beah and Uzodinma Iweala was over capacity), and I'll be done for the week. But I'd just like to tell you:

- The New York Inquirer has published my blog post "In Defense of Author Events and the Conversation" on their website in response to Mik Awake's article against them. I wish I had time to go back and edit the piece now, as I've discovered Awake is a friend of a friend and we've emailed a bit, and I now think we're actually much more in agreement than it seems (I think we both agree that author events need to evolve from the staid read-from-the-book model, though I think in many cases they successfully have done so). In any case, you can read my piece on the Inquirer and chime in on the comments for the public record.

- The Litblog Co-Op now has all the content on Mark Binelli's SACCO AND VANZETTI MUST DIE!, including Ed Champion's exhaustive guide to historical references in the novel, Dan Wickett's print interview with Binelli, and Bat Segundo's podcast interview (which I haven't heard yet -- looking forward to playing it this afternoon). And the contest to win a copy of the book is open until the end of the day today -- don't forget to put in your entry with the best historical couple who'd make a great slapstick team for a chance to win a signed copy of the book and poster. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Wednesday Review: Paco Underhill's WHY WE BUY

Just a brief review today, though this one deserves much more.

by Paco Underhill
(Simon & Schuster, 1999)

I heard Paco Underhill speak at Book Expo last year, and my coworkers and I left the room gasping. A professional "shopping scientist," Underhill's insights into how customers actually interact with the bookstore sales floor had the astonishment of something that's been right under your nose all along. We did some serious rethinking of some of our displays and placements after that presentation, and have continued to keep his principles in mind when making changes in the physical bookstore.

But I'm lazy when it comes to reading anything other than fiction, so it took me until this past month when I found myself with a spurt of interest in practical nonfiction to finally pick up Underhill's most famous book. (The ALP had read both, and told me he preferred this one to its sequel, THE CALL OF THE MALL.) And I was utterly enthralled all the way through. As a retailer (especially one continuously designing the ideal bookstore in her head), it was especially relevant -- I turned down dozens of pages and underlined passages for future reference. But it was also fascinating from the perspective of a consumer. So THIS is why stores are set up that way, one thinks, along with, often, Do I really act like that?

Though it's often tempting to argue that MY consumer behavior doesn't follow these rules (i.e. I'm not such a sucker), Underhill's data is pretty undeniable. His company, Envirosell, has spend thousands upon thousands of hours actually observing shoppers in stores, and tabulating their behaviors (from how long they spend reading a sign to which way they turn upon entering a store to whether they pick up a shopping basket) into a complex rubric meant to help retailers work better. Did you know, for example, that most shoppers veer left when entering a store? Or that it takes everyone a few seconds to make the transition from outside to inside, so the first few feet of merchandise are often invisible? Or that the "butt brush effect" means that people (especially women) will not spend time at a table or aisle if they sense people too close behind them? Or that everyone -- everyone -- slows down when they pass a mirror but speeds up when they pass a bank?

These and a hundred dozen other observations are what make this a valuable book for retailers, and a head-shake-of-recognition inducing one for shoppers. And I felt a bit of divided loyalty reading it, especially knowing that Underhill works for some of the biggest corporate giants in the world. Is such analysis exploitative of consumers? Are retailers being encouraged to play psychological games with their customers to get them to spend money for things they don't really need? Is this contributing to our overspending, overconsuming, design-over-content Western society?

Maybe. But not necessarily. I was ultimately won over by Underhill's tireless advocacy for chairs or benches in stores: it's a sign of good faith, he says, and a gift to tired customers that he would replace many feet of selling space for. At best, this kind of analysis and response is about being good to customers -- making it easy on them, offering them the information they need effectively, giving them what they don't even know they want.

After all, books are luxury goods too -- no one "needs" them to survive, so the process of shopping for them is largely influenced by emotions, perceptions, atmosphere, etc. But I don't feel moral qualms about encouraging someone to buy one more, because I believe it's a good investment in terms of their own money and time and the culture at large. That the same principles can be applied to massive chain stores selling overpriced handbags or disposable diapers doesn't mean they don't work for indie bookstores. On the contrary, perhaps we booksellers have a responsibility to use newly discovered and evolving principles of shopping to ensure our own survival and bring customers into places of real value.

All my own internal arguing aside, Underhill's book is worth reading for anyone remotely interested in the retail world. His writing is sprightly and entertaining, and (aside from one chapter on Internet shopping that suffers from being written in 1999, before "Web 2.0", and looks a bit dated and silly now) always relevant. I enjoyed reading the book immensely, and I know that Chapter 18, an in-depth analysis of the customer-friendliness of a bookstore, is one I'll return to again and again when designing my own store.

* * *

I'm off this morning to sell books at the PEN World Voices Festival, a wonderful week of readings and panels by international authors. Check out some of the offerings if you can -- most are free. Enjoy the week -- see you Friday.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Mad Monday: Sacco & Vanzetti Week!

I've got to rush off to work early this morning, so no time for link madness. But that's just as well, because all the action this week is over at the Litblog Co-Op, where we'll be spending the entire week discussing Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! by Mark Binelli, one of my favorite books of the past year. The author will be guest blogging on Wednesday and Ed Champion will air his podcast interview on Friday, while in the meantime LBC readers will be posting on aspects of the book from anarchy to silent film to the myriad historical references. Head on over to read up on the discussion, and perhaps even enter the contest to win a free copy of the book. Here, I'll give you a head start with the contest question:

What historical "couple" would make a great slapstick comedy team, a la Sacco & Vanzetti, and why?

Best answer posted in the comments here by end of the day on Friday wins a signed copy of the book AND an original publicity poster. Best of luck -- may the best reader win, and enjoy the conversation!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday Comment: In Defense of Author Events And The Conversation

Following the example of my friend and bookselling role model Amanda Lydon of Good Yarns, I recently set up a Google Alert to send me a weekly email with internet mentions of McNally Robinson. Amanda (who is hosting a NAIBAhood Gathering this Wednesday on "Community Value" for bookstores) knows the value of knowing what people are saying about you, and it's been interesting for me to track links to our new website and instances where the store's name pops up in blogs and online periodicals. It's not a perfect tool, and the mentions aren't always relevant, but it has led to some interesting trains of thought.

I was initially pleased at a link Google turned up that contained the phrase "One of the most convivial book events I’ve ever attended occurred last month at the McNally Robinson bookstore in SoHo." But when I followed the link to this article in the New York Inquirer, it turned out to have the suprising title "Against Literary Readings (And Especially Q&As)". The author, Mik Awake, isn't kidding, either; he honestly seems disgusted with the state of American author events, and lauds the poet Rimbaud (whom I think of as the writer with so much hipster cachet he realized he didn't need to write anymore at all) who would attend readings and cough the equivalent of "bullshit" during the speaker's presentation.

Awake's objections to literary readings are myriad (and sometimes contradictory): 1) author readings are populated only with worshipful fans of the author and don't engender real conversations, 2) readings are the province of literary celebrities, 3) readings distract from the book itself and don't really sell books (that's his objection to the McNally Robinson event; more on that later), 4) readings are inevitably attended by pretentious and/or crazy patrons who monopolize the Q&A, 5) readings are a product of consumerist culture of approval, 6) readings produce awkward silences (or does he like the silence?), 7) you might as well watch author interviews on the internet, 8) readings don't reflect the essentially solitary nature of, well, reading, and books that are great on the page often aren't well served by having the author read aloud.

I actually agree with one or two of his points, or at least concur that they can sometimes occur; any statement about what "inevitably" happens inevitably gets my dander up. It's the equivalent of the ad nauseum "indie bookstores are dying" or even "nobody reads anymore" schpiels that present such a limited picture of reality. I've been thinking a lot about this article this week, especially in the context of a previous piece in the Times about Borders' new collaboration with Tom Gerace, the head of, was quoted thusly:

“Increasingly, as book readings are becoming more rare,” he said, “people are turning to social media to make those introductions.”

This is confusing when compared to Awake's opinion that book readings are inescapable, all-pervasive, and must be stopped. Could it be that a more complex scenario prevails?

Okay, enough with the snarking. Here's why I disagree with Mr. Gerace and Mr. Awake: our bookstore has a vibrant, exciting reading series, that not only promotes cultural conversation, but also helps us sell books. We host authors four nights a week, and the range is incredible: graphic novelists, political writers, first-time poets, memoirists, independent publishers, literary magazines, visual artists, and lots more. Occasionally we'll get a big name, but most of the time they're just good writers with a local audience. The format of the event varies, from straight-up reading followed by Q&A to panel discussion to video presentation to book party with nibbles straight out of the book. Sometimes the place is packed; sometimes there are a handful of people having an intimate discussion. Sometimes we sell books; sometimes we don't.

As the events coordinator in a fairly young independent bookstore, I've come to realize that attendance or book sales at an individual event aren't terribly important. The reason we do events is to provide the venue for cultural conversation; to present ourselves as a place where literary things happen; to bring in readers or fans who might never have heard of the store otherwise and create new audiences. Like our store design and our customer service, literary events are something we offer for free, because it makes our bookstore somewhere that people want to go. The book sales come as a result of that -- sometimes direct, sometimes indirect.

And more importantly, we do it because it's part of the point. Yes, reading a book is a silent, solitary experience. But as Gabriel Zaid argues, part of the purpose of books is starting conversations within the culture. Events are one of the places where those conversations happen, and they're part of the reason we're in this business.

The event Awake refers to was a party for Steve Ettlinger's nonfiction book Twinkie, Deconstructed, and it was an extremely "convivial" event. Several local chefs got involved; there was lots of eating and drinking; a video blog and Dateline were there with cameras (largely as a result of the author's efforts, not a corporate publishing publicity juggernaut). Steve read briefly from the book and answered questions that were not especially worshipful, just curious. And as Awake points out, we sold a handful of books.

However, we've since then sold about 40 copies of Twinkie -- not bad for your average pop science tome by a small imprint. Ettlinger's friends knew where to buy the book; others who couldn't make it to the event stopped in later for signed copies; the increased media surrounding the book and the event meant that someone who wandered in later probably picked it up and thought "Oh, I've heard about this. I'll give it a try."

At the risk of repeating myself, that's why we do events. From a retailer's standpoint, they create new audiences and raise the bookstore's public profile. From the standpoint of a cultural institution, they create a public forum for the experience of books, and allow authors to reach readers in real time, in person, in ways that no online experience can reproduce.

To this end, we've found the the most effective and enjoyable events are those in which the amount of time the author actually reads straight from the book is kept to a minimum. Awake is right: you can read the book in silence, on your own time. It's that dreaded Q&A that's really valued, and unreproducible in the privacy of your home. We pepper our event lineup with conversations: authors talking to editors, several authors from the same indie press talking to each other, political writers talking to political commentators. And we emphasize the conversation in typical readings too, encouraging talk between the author and audience to flow around the book itself.

Sure, there's the occasional crazy idealogue or pretentious would-be writer who threatens to throw the Q&A off course, but that's part of the drama of the evening. Sure, there's occasionally the author who's a dull reader or not a great speaker (that may be why they're a great writer), but it's still fascinating to meet the creators of words and start the conversation. Sure, there are sometimes awkward silences or crowds full of yes-men, but that's because it's real life and you can't always script it for the most productive possible hour-long experience.

Perhaps it's because I just like the experience of getting to throw a little party almost every night of the week, but I have to insist that there's something intrinsically valuable in the literary reading. Increasing our reading schedule has been a positive thing for our store's bottom line, and for our local literary culture. As an independent bookstore, I think we're privileged in our ability to create unique, quirky events that reflect our knowledge of our neighborhood and our context, in a way that central corporate offices may not be able to do.

A commenter on Mr. Awake's article directs him to the reading series at 192 Books, which always has an awesome lineup; I'd also recommend HousingWorks, Three Lives, Vox Pop, Book Court, and any number of other New York stores that are creating rich and vibrant literary event experiences, most often fueled less by celebrity than by the joint contributions of staff, authors, and customers. We may also be privileged here in New York by the dense community of local writers, but every town and village has its writers and its hosts; Joe Drabyak of Chester County Books & Music in Pennsylvania runs one of the most outstanding event lineups in the country, and half of them don't even have an author present. It can be a burden on stores to put in the time to create good events, but when it's done right (and it often is), it does lots of good for everyone.

Last week we had four events. One was three poets from out of town who read their work, drank wine and chatted happily with family and friends. One was a literary novelist who talked about her memoir with a rapt and intelligent audience. One was a first-time short story writer with a local following who unexpectedly sold 35 books. One was a reading by as yet unpublished local African-American poets, which turned into a passionate conversation on hip-hop, poetry, performance, and American culture with an audience full of writers and teachers. This last one, obviously, resulted in no direct sales (though I know we gained some new customers and friends). But when I told my boss about the animated and thoughtful conversation I had breathlessly witnessed, she nodded.

"That's why we do this," she said.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wednesday Review: Ian McEwan's ON CHESIL BEACH; LBC S&V Excitement Begins

Time for one o' them book reviews.

by Ian McEwan
(Nan A. Talese, June 2007)

I'm embarassed to say that I initially registered my opinions on this book before I'd really read it. My bookstore is signed up to be the New York City host of Powell's Out Of The Book project, a 23-minute documentary on McEwan and On Chesil Beach created by Powell's that will be shown at indie bookstores around the country in June and accompanied by panels, music, dramatic readings, and other shenanigans. That sneaky Dave Weich of Powell'swas in town filming some bits for the film at the Random House offices, and asked me if I'd like to be involved; being the ham I am (why do you think I host events??), I agreed.

I neglected to mention that I was only halfway through the book, had never read any McEwan before, and that my sole experience with this literary celebrity was an interview he did with Zadie Smith in The Believer (and if she likes him, I thought, he can't be all bad.) My comments on camera consisted of some vague speculation on the differences between McEwan and Updike, some confessions about sexual misinformation passed along by camp counselors, and a guess that probably more men than women buy McEwan's books (which I don't think is actually true). I sincerely hope that most of that ends up on the cutting room floor (though it would be fun if they could actually air my opinion that John Updike is unaware that women have thoughts).

I finished reading On Chesil Beach the day after the film shoot, and wished fervently I had done so beforehand, as I found it actually inspired any number of thoughts and desire for conversation about writing, about relationships, about cultural evolution or cycles, about how a writer earns a reader's belief, about men and women and ritual and physicality and all the stuff that a good book makes you think about. So here I am again, and hopefully I can redeem myself a tiny bit, though here time is my enemy rather than ignorance.

The plot of On Chesil Beach (which at 197 mass-market-size pages is really more of a novella than a novel) is strikingly simple, almost simplistic: on their wedding night in 1962 at their honeymoon suite in Chesil Beach, Edward and Florence have a misunderstanding about sex. All of the action takes place on that one evening, though the narrative ranges far into the characters' past and well into their future to explain its significance. Without giving too much away (though the causes and trajectory you might be able to guess), Florence is anxious and a little grossed out by the thought of consumation, while Edward is looking forward to it a great deal indeed. Oh, and they're both virgins, which in 1962 (remember Philip Larkin says sexual intercourse didn't begin until the following year) is entirely plausible.

Despite this all being laid out on the back cover, it took me a minute to get my bearing in the story; when McEwan talks about the transitional age the lovers find themselves in, for a few pages I thought we were talking about the transfer from the Victorian Age to the Edwardian, so clasically English is the setting, the conversation, even the food, and of course the issues involved. The book is in some way a long disintegration of the horrible tradition of "lie back and think of England" -- Florence finds herself unable to do so, and the reasons, while there is a hint (never confirmed) that they are primarily based in personal experience, are also cultural. Who would she talk to about sex, how to do it, how to enjoy it, how to express her thoughts and desires about it? And how would Edward (who ends up making the bigger fool of himself) know how to talk to her about it, how to respond to her, when men's and women's circles of discourse about the subject were so entirely separate?

McEwan's greatest feat in this book -- a pure expression of the novel's unique gifts -- is building up the reader's understanding of these characters even as they fail to understand each other. For we, the reader, can see under the surface of each silence and failed joke, to both the affection and the anxiety underneath. We can go back to the memories associated with each word or moment that affect their meaning in Edward's and Florence's mind, though the other cannot share that understanding. The heartbreak of the book comes from this dramatic irony, as we come to realize how hard each is trying to reach the other, and how they come to fail. These two have not married for convenience or propriety, or out of ignorance -- they love each other with idealism and sympathy and affection and a desire to do good for the other, which is why it's so awful that they can't get this one thing right. McEwan, as opposed to Updike, is very aware of women's thoughts, and (though Florence gets short shrift in the aftermath of the story, which focuses on Edward) each half of the couple is presented fully rounded, entirely present, painted so skilfully with just a few details of background and behavior that the reader, from her privileged perspective, can understand this misunderstanding.

My only disappointment was with the last ten pages, when I feel McEwan's gift of telegraphing internal life fails him, or at least he shoves it off to the side. The aftermath of the fateful night feels unearned to me -- feels like a set of unjustified assumptions and sentimental (or cynical) baloney. Because in fact many couples, in the 1960s and back to pre-history, managed to get over the horror and absurdity of the first time, of their segregated cultural experience up to that point, and make a life together, and I'm not sure why this couple should be such a dramatic exception. Maybe it's because I'm about to get married myself, but I just wasn't sure why people who did seem to care for each other in real, if imperfect ways, should let their marriage go so easily.

I've given away far too much now, but it's hard to talk about the book (or, apparently, any McEwan) without obsessing about the major plot twist that turns the story. I don't know that I'll be reading any of his others soon; this one, for all its skillfulness, left me a bit nauseated with its seemingly avoidable tragedy (you know I have a low tolerance for unhappiness) and I don't think I'll be ready for more of it for a while. But I did find McEwan's small jewel of a novella fascinating, and worth talking about, both for the questions it sparks about male and female culture surrounding marriage and for the quality of the characterization and the beauty of the writing. I'm looking forward to the conversations that the Out of the Book project will inspire, and more than willing to have anyone talk me out of my aversion to the ending. But maybe that's just because I'm a girl...

* * *

In other news (and on a book that I enjoyed all the way through), you can see my introduction to the discussion of Mark Binelli's Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! on the Litblog Co-Op today. Alan DeNiro's short story collection Skinny Dipping In The Lake Of The Dead may have won the Read This! nod (and he certainly deserves the recognition, as does the publisher, Small Beer), but I stand by my slapstick alternate histories when I can, and I'll be looking forward to conversation about comedy, anarchy, and absurdity in S&V starting next week. Hope to see you there (oh, there WILL be giveaways)...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Link-Mad Monday: Flying Links

Off to a NAIBA meeting this morning, so may I just quickly direct your attention to:

- BTW's listings of the schedule for ALL regional fall shows (including what I like to call NAIBA-Con, the show we'll be planning today). Find out when your region is meeting and get involved!

- the Litblog Co-Op, which will be announcing the Spring 2007 Read This! title sometime today! We'll be discussing all three titles over the next several weeks -- stay tuned.

- this piece in the Guardian (thanks to my London operative Sue Harris for the link) about a NEW indie bookstore making good in the land of and Waterstones. If they can do it...

Man, the circus was a treat! Did you think of good literary circus references over the weekend? Thanks to David for reminding me of Lemony Snicket's CARNIVOROUS CARNIVAL -- I didn't see the Baudelaire's at Madision Square Garden, though. I realized recent Booksense bestseller WATER FOR ELEPHANTS would certainly fit. Would love to hear more if you've got 'em. Happy Monday!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Friday Cleanup: Links, Appeals, Speculations

Friday is going to be a catch-all day on the blog: some weeks I may use it for longer musings, or for reviews, or for links if lots have accumulated since Monday.

Today I can't stop thinking about the author event we had last night with Noah Lukeman's book A Dash Of Style, and his suggestion that your use of punctuation reveals something about you as a writer. Does my excessive use of dashes mean I'm a scattered thinker (or just a quick connection maker)? Does my reliance on exclamation marks in email mean I'm a teen drama queen or hungry for attention (or just passionate)? Does my obsession with parentheses mean that I feel I need to spell it out for the reader, or that I'm secretive, or just that there's a lot that needs to be fit into every sentence? Then again, almost anything can make me question myself... but only for a minute.

More importantly, sharp-eyed reader and good friend to bookstores Miraida Morales has drawn my attention to an article in Chicago's Windy City Times about her favorite local bookstore, Women and Children First. They've been around for 28 years, but like many specialty stores (W&CF is primarily a feminist bookstore) they've struggled as the internet offers folks an easy way to buy specialized merchandise. The owners of the store aren't asking for handouts or sympathy; they're just asking folks to spend their money where they live. If you're anywhere in the Chicago area, drop in and chat with them, and buy a book, gosh darn it -- there's no other way to sustain what co-owner Ann Christopherson rightly calls "an actual place".

You know my loathing of one-sided doom-and-gloom media articles about indie bookstores, but this one from the San Francisco Chronicle is complex enough to give me pause (thanks to Ed for the link). Its merit is that it addresses readers directly, asking them to put their money where their mouth is and shop indies, rather than dreaming about their own fantasy bookstore as they shop online. It does focus on the defeats in the Bay Area rather than the victories, and doesn't acknowledge those 97 new indies open last year or the rumble of fear at chain bookstore headquarters these days, but it does drive home the point that someone's got to buy from a store if it's going to stay in business. Duh, right?

Speaking of shopping where you live, holy cow! Bookselling This Week reveals another great Brooklyn bookstore I was totally unaware of that seems to be going gangbusters: The BookMark Shoppe in Bay Ridge. You know they say that only the dead know Brooklyn, and it is a big place, but I'm ashamed I'd never heard of this bookstore that's only a few stops down the R line from me. What with Word in Greenpoint and Pranga in Cobble Hill, looks like I've got a Brooklyn bookstore tour cut out for me...

Thank goodness for Robert Gray's column in Shelf Awareness, which turns a loving but critical eye on indie bookstore websites; I've learned a lot and discovered so many great shops I'll likely never be able to visit. My favorite in his recent roundup was Milestone Books in Alabama, which has an amazing page dedicated to National Poetry Month. The best suggestion: write a poem in chalk on the sidewalk! I think I'm going to throw down some Bishop or Whitman on the sidewalks of Park Slope today.

And if it's not too gauche to be proud of my own bookstore, Sarah McNally has posted a shining new installment in her monthly series of columns. She's a passionate reader, and a writer with flashes of brilliance (and that's not just because she covers my shifts when I need it...) You can give it a read, and even post comments if her thoughts inspire some of your own.

The ALP is taking me to the circus tonight as a special post-Easter treat -- I'm giddy with little-kid excitement! I've often thought circuses, carnivals, and especially the Coney Island Freakshow lent themselves especially well to literature, or were somehow literary: all that compressed human drama and oddness, the physicality and immediacy of it, the strange symbolism and small-scale grandeur. GEEK LOVE comes immediately to mind, of course; Bakhtin's concept of the "carnivalesque" if you want to get all lit theory-ish, and poetic imagery from Hart Crane to Red Skelton.

What about you, Ladies And Gentlemen of the Blogosphere? What are your favorite literary circus adventures? You have the weekend to ponder; I'll be eating peanuts with the elephants while I anticipate your reply.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Wednesday Review: Michael Chabon, THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION

I'm going to try to make Wednesday book reviewing day around here. Even if I only get to talk about one book a week, that should more or less keep pace with my reading. I've got a bit of a backlog now, however, and only brief moments on Wednesday morning for blogging, so it may take me a little while to catch up. And today's book deserves a post all to itself.

By Michael Chabon
(HarperCollins, May 2007)

I was one of the recipients of a kind and clever push to bloggers of this book by literary dean Chabon (whose book blurbs I always agree with, but whose AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY I admit I have never read, though it sounds like exactly the kind of book I would dig). I was a latecomer to the game and only got a signed bookplate, rather than a personalized book autograph -- still, it's nice of Mr. Chabon and his publisher to notice me.

And it's nice of him to write the first great book I've read this year.

Michael Chabon, judging by previous statements, loves at least two things: genre fiction, and Jewishness. This book has both in spades. It's a detective story, set in a speculative alternate world, populated almost entirely by the Chosen People and rich with Yiddish idiom and character. You probably know the premise: in this world, the Jewish homeland in Jerusalem didn't work out so well, and the U.S. provided Alaska as a refuge for the Jewish diaspora. But the solution was temporary, and the lease has almost expired, so our hero shammes (I always thought it was shamus, but this is the Yiddish version) is trying to crack his case under the shadow of Reversion, when the land will revert back to the U.S. and the Jews may be homeless once more.

On some level, this is a pure, juicy detective story. Marlowe-esque (in the sense that he's jaded and screwed up but darn good at what he does and rather witty to boot) detective Meyer Landsman finds the body of a heroin-addicted, chess-playing former Orthodox kid in his fleabag hotel, and against the advice of his partner (his half-Indian cousin Berko) and his commanding officer (his ex-wife Bina -- long story) decides he has to get to the bottom of the murder. The search leads him on a tour of Jewish Sitka, Alaska, from the tense Jewish-Indian relations to the ultra-Orthodox mobsters to the paranoid preparations of the first generation of European concentration camp escapees. Dropped clues, bravado, guesswork and luck (with a little violence to keep things interesting) lead our hero to his goal of discovery, though by that time it's beside the point. It's a gripping subway read, and I was delighted to discover I was looking forward to moments of downtime because I could get some more reading in (a particularly onerous wait at the post office was one of the most exciting hours I've ever spent, because my nose was in this book, following Landsman's).

But (and you probably saw this coming) Chabon embraces genre to transcend it. YPU is to the average detective novel what the movie JAWS is to the average SciFi channel giant-killer-animal movie. All the suspense is there, the hooks of the traditional structure, but what's in between is unnecessary, wonderful richness -- of character, of scene, of speculation on the longing for a homeland and a savior, the irresistible pull and the unbearable pressure of family. It's the kind of book where not only did I get heart-pounding suspense in the tensest scenes, I came away with a new understanding of the pathos of the wait for the Messiah. And the weight of love and history, especially between the three principal characters (Meyer, Berko, and Bina), is palpable and moving.

The conspiracy Landsman's investigation uncovers is a little eye-roll-worthy, but this is fantasy, after all, and it's a small price to pay -- for every stereotypical American government flunkie/fanatic, there's a chess player without a voice, an uncle whose love of his people conflicts with his love of his family, a Dickensian character like the bad-ass midget lawman or the mysteriously powerful Boundary Maven. The story's wildness is given form by its genre, and given substance by Chabon's unparalleled humor, empathy, and writerly chops.

So yeah, I liked this one. I can't wait until it comes out in early May so I can press it on every one I know. Give it for Mother's Day, graduation, the random dinner party where you like the hostess. Hang it from your doorframe like a mezuzah. But mostly, read it. It will reward the effort - I promise on my homemade badge.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Link-Mad Monday; Comment: The Accidental Writer

Here ya go -- weekly linkage.

* Hey, here's a new twist on the doom-and-gloom indie bookstore closing story: Gothamist had a link to this story in the New York Post, confirming the rumors I'd been hearing that a Manhattan Barnes & Noble is actually closing (thanks to David for the tip). The end of the Astor Place branch will actually be a real loss to the New York bookstore scene; the store had an interesting and eclectic mix of books, including what several folks have told me was the largest and best poetry section of any B&N. And the comments on Gothamist indicate that it was a favorite haunt for impoverished NYU and Cooper Union students.

Several factors are involved in its demise, of course, the most prominent of which is insanely rising NYC rents, the bane of any business trying to have a long life in this overpriced city. But I wonder if B&N's emphasis on volume and discounting rather than customer service contributed to this store's role as a place to read books, not a place to buy books. In any case, at the end of this year East Village readers will just have to walk over a few blocks to the still-going-strong indie St. Marks (or up a few to the Union Square B&N) to get their book fix.

* In friendlier neighborhood NYC news, Comic Book Resources reports on the Big Apple's Spider-Man Week, April 30 to May 6. Corresponding to the release of the third movie, of course, the week's programming includes everything from spider features at the Museum of Natural History to original Spidey comics displayed at the NY Public Library to a tour of movie locations on the Grey Line tour buses. Here's the official site if you want to get in on the action. Now THIS is a book festival!

* It's now possible to find out almost exactly what's going to be going on at BEA: the ABA has posted its educational session schedule online here, and you can download the schedule for all BEA programming (including BEA-sponsored ed sessions and author events) here. Since, as the BEA website tells me, there are only 51 days and number of hours until the show, maybe you want to start drafting your show itinerary now...

In case you want to save the date, your Book Nerd will be appearing on a Graphic Novel panel on Saturday, June 1, at 2:00. I'll join a humbling group of folks in the industry -- publishers, critics, distributors -- to offer my retailer's perspective on "the graphic novel pandemic." Should be fun!

* Speaking of humblingly talented colleagues, my LBC compatriot Carolyn Kellogg (of Pinky's Paperhaus) is heading up a new literary journal, Hot Metal Bridge. Check it out -- some great writers already signed on to their first issue. Starting a lit mag is a nutty, quixotic gesture akin to starting an indie bookstore, and I'm so proud and amazed at those who are doing it. Hooray for more literature!

* And fellow LBCer Dan Wickett is rockin' his new publishing line, Dzanc Books -- check out their new title from Roy Kesey. Hot stuff!

* * *

Okay, for the non-link portion of the blog today, a funny observation that has occurred to me lately. When I was but a youthful high school Book Nerd, making my English teachers happy and working on the high school lit mag, everyone assumed I'd grow up to be a writer. I assumed it myself. Later, doing the English major thing, looking for jobs in publishing, and eventually applying to grad school, I went with that assumption, drifting between the idea of being an academic writer, a novelist, a poet, a columnist or journalist of some kind. It wasn't until that infamous epiphany with the ALP that I realized I had no great desire to be a writer at all. What made me happy was not the solitary striving for the right phrase; it was "being where literature hits the street," making a space for readers and writers in the real world, and interacting with the physical objects and human faces of literature. Being a bookseller is my calling, and I've happily put my college essays and poems in storage to pursue that dream, grateful in some ways for the escape from the pressures of literary creation.

But somehow, in becoming a bookseller-who-blogs, I've on some level become a writer after all. I discover people often who know my "work" -- my words -- but have never met me. I get quoted in print publications and linked by other blogs. I get compliments and criticism based on the content or quality of my writing. Bookseller Chick and I commiserated/exclaimed about this together when we met up in Portland: the irony that embracing our identities as booksellers had turned us into the writers we had sort of decided not to become. It feels in some ways like a secret blessing: obviously there's a part of me that's still fulfilled by stringing words together, and all I needed was to find my subject -- books and bookselling -- in order to make those words worth reading.

However, it does mean that I get back some of the pressures that come with being a writer. I'm no smash-hit first-time novelist struggling with the pressure to avoid sophomore slump, but I do feel that if I don't keep writing a couple of posts a week, the readership that I've built up may dissipate, or worse, I may disappoint someone. It's a lot to take on for someone who's not doing this for a living. But it's a joyful responsibility -- a practice, almost, like yoga or prayer -- and I'm thankful for the discipline as well as the creative freedom of this kind of writing.

So this year, I'm going to try to get into a regular Monday-Wednesday-Friday blogging routine. It's a little late for New Year's resolutions, but I feel like it's time to commit. Even if it's only a couple of words -- a link or a thought -- I'll get something done if my other obligations can possibly allow it. Sometimes the only words you see may be an apology that I don't have time to blog, but it will be something.

Thanks, in the meantime, for being the readers I'd accepted I would never have. It's great fun, and a privilege, to be writing for you.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Comment: Easter Sunday

Happy Easter!

Here's the (quite literate) Easter sermon from my church, Old First in Brooklyn. (Check out what our Rev has to say on the Atlantic Yards; it's as close as he gets to fire and brimstone.)

And here's a poem from one of my favorite poets - perfect for the month and for the day. Enjoy your eggs, family feasts, or just a day off

Easter Communion

Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast:
God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips.
You striped in secret with breath-taking whips,
Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced
To crosses meant for Jesu's; you whom the East
With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips
Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships,
You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,

God shall o'er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Flying Wednesday Links, and a Review (Klimasewiski)

Couldn't resist showing you this article (via Shelf Awareness): how cool is Book Cellar, a bar/bookstore in Chicago? Check out the store's website for photos of Studs Terkel and series of astonishing book cover cakes...

How's Harry Potter treating y'all? Here's a bookstore, the Learned Owl in Hudson, Ohio, that has tackled the "to discount or not to discount" problem by donating the extra cash to a literacy foundation. "Loss Leader" chain bookstores, take note...

And in another philanthropic gesture (via Lance Fensterman's blog), a benefit concert at BEA! No, not Bon Jovi -- it's the Rock Bottom Remainders, the literary supergroup including Stephen King, Amy Tan, Matt Groening, and some other good-natured sports. The concert and VIP reception will benefit 826NYC (aka the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store, very dear to my heart), as well as Get Caught Reading and the American Booksellers Foundatino for Free Expression.

Okay, a quick review.

The Cottagers
by Marshall N. Klimasewiski
(W. W. Norton, 2006)

I have a good reason not to tell you too much about this book, as I want to save all my cleverest remarks for the discussion on the Litblog Co-Op over the next few weeks. But, in brief: imagine a murder mystery where everyone involved actually had to deal with the aftermath. Colorful characters move in and out, we find out about the problems of the victim and the suspects, but in the end, it's a death that doesn't go away from any of the survivor's lives. Klimasewski does a number of things extremely well: omniscient first-person narration that encompasses the voices of disaffected, f-ed up teenagers as well as successful, reserved urban adults and a small-town cop with a complex relation to his troop of Boy Scouts; a moody, perfect evocation of a place that's not exactly most people's idea of a perfect vacation spot (the rainy Pacific Northwest), but has a beauty and a charm that grows even in the gloom; an original limning of that old conflict between tourists and locals, upper class and working class, where even with the best of intentions there are always some sinister undertones going on.

That's all I can say at the moment, except that COTTAGERS made me eager to read, and haunted me when I finished it. That's not bad for a subtle, gentle, unexpected and honest story of small people in a small place.

Stay tuned for reviews of the new Chabon and McEwan, soon to come...

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tip: Like a CSA for Poetry

I love National Poetry Month -- all that wealth of words flowing around and everyone remembering to love it. You all probably know about this, but for the month of April, Knopf Publishing will email you a poem a day. You can subscribe by emailing sub_knopfpoetry at info dot randomhouse dot com (see the clever spam avoidance?) To whet your appetite, here's yesterday's poem from Marge Piercy.

The streets of Detroit were lined with elms

I remember elm trees that were
the thing of beauty on grimy
smoke-bleared streets stinking of death
and garbage, but over the cramped
rotting houses, the elms arched.

They were cities of leaves.
I would lie under them
and my eyes would rise
buoyed up and surfeited
in immense rustling viridescence.

They enclosed me like a cathedral.
I entered them as into the heart
of a sanctuary in a mountain
pure and vast and safe.
I wanted to live in their boughs.

They gave no fruit, no nuts
and their fall color was weak,
but their embrace was strong.
I would stare at them, how
their powerful trunks burst

out of the dirt fully formed
and graceful, how they rushed
toward the sky and then halted
to spread out in a firmament
of green, of green, of green.

P.S. Here's what I mean by a CSA -- everyone pitches in to support the growing, and it comes to you regularly, bountifully, and for free.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Link-Mad Monday: Announcements, etc...

- Well, the final results are in, and your Book Nerd finished rock-bottom, dead-as-a-doornail last in the Office Blogger Pool of the Tournament of Books. (Have I mentioned this is why I've never gotten into sports?) Perhaps a better reading of the current literary marketplace temperature would have made me a better predictor (it seems the TOB is right on the same page as our gal Oprah in naming Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD as the must-read of the season). But as the ALP and I agreed in our own post-tournament wrap-up conversation, the only way to make it any fun is just to vote for the books you like -- that way at least you know why you're rooting for something. I'm sorry my love for Richard Powers and Brian K. Vaughan couldn't quite carry them to victory, but I admit I had a damn good time reading the reasons why. Maybe I'll actually have to pick up the McCarthy book now that it's out in paperback. Or maybe I'll wait until after I get married to have my life changed by post-apocalyptic misery. In any case, you all should read it and tell me if the judges were blind (or, in some cases, just too tired to read the whole book...)

- In the bad news category, I'd like to quote in its entirety this short piece from Bookselling This Week:

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that newspapers' book sections are becoming endangered because publishers have moved away from buying ads in standalone book-review sections "in favor of paying to stack mounds of books in the front of chain bookstores." Sometime this spring, the Los Angeles Times is expected to fold its Sunday book review section into a new section combining books with opinion pieces, WSJ noted. "That would reduce to five the number of separate book-review sections in major metropolitan newspapers still published nationwide, down from an estimated 10 to 12 a decade ago," according to the article.

WSJ explained that, "in an era of targeted marketing, publishers say the best time to reach readers is when they are in the stores with money in their pockets looking to make an immediate purchase." The only to stand out in a large chain store is to "pay for real estate in the front and pile those books up high."

This is part of the ongoing (dare I say?) scandal of the way co-op is used at chain stores. Yes, all bookstores have the opportunity to take advantage of co-op: a system by which publishers help pay for joint promotions of books with the bookstore, whether through window displays, advertisements, author events, or in-store displays. The honorable way to do this is buy what you want to sell as a store, then find out how much the publisher can help you out. When it becomes a pay-for-play system as it is now with the chains and publishers, the cultural conversation literally suffers.

While this indicates the truth of what I'm reading now in Paco Underhill's great book WHY WE BUY -- that in an age of over-pervasive advertising most buying decisions are made on the store floor -- it also indicates an increasing obsession with selling more of the bestseller, at the expense of supporting a broader literary culture (i.e. newspaper book reviews) that would lead to the overall success of our industry. I think it's a major mistake that publishers will ultimately be sorry for. But it does explain in part why more and more thoughtful readers are turning to blogs, as the best means for finding good opinions on what to read next.

- Speaking of turning to the blogging world, BEA director Lance Fensterman continues to blog like a madman, and there's lots to announce. Along with generously helping to plan an Emerging Leaders party at BEA, he's announced the BEA Bon Jovi benefit concert (bet you didn't see THAT coming) and cool BEA website features like the Book Industry Characters series, which currently features ABA President and all-around cool bookseller Russ Lawrence.

AND, importantly for us bloggers, Lance has secured the sponsorship of Shelfari for the first-ever litblog-based panel at BEA. I'll let him spill the details, but fellow litbloggers should keep an eye on that space -- it's our chance to actually affect the programming at the biggest book industry event of the year, and an indicator that the powers that be are taking note of what we do here.

- In the meantime, the Litblog Co-Op is on the brink of announcing the Spring Read This! selection; I have my favorite, but they're all awesome this round. Stay tuned for the winner...

- And in another suspenseful announcement, Bookseller Chick is planning to out herself today! Stay tuned for litblog mysteries revealed...

Have fun with it all, and happy reading!