Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Year-End Roundup, and a Call for Ideas

Here are all the books I read (that I know of) in 2010, in crude alphabetical order. This doesn't include children's picture books, cookbooks, single-issue comics, magazines, or uh, the Internet. My own personal Best of the Year are highlighted in bold. And thanks to the superquick book search on (where, ahem, you can purchase any and all of these titles), you get pictures! The call for ideas is at the end.

A. D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld (reviewed)

Agents of Atlas by Jeff Parker and Leonard Kirk (reviewed)

Air, Volume 2: Flying Machine by G. Willow Wilson & M.K. Parker (reviewed)

Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly (reviewed)

Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka, J. H. Williams, and Dave Stewart (reviewed)

The Box of Delights by John Masefield: A Christmas book, quintessentially English in a Narnia kind of way, dreamy and eccentric and magical and stiff-upper-lip. Practically perfect.

Cowboy Ninja Viking Volume 1 by AJ Lieberman & Riley Rossmo (reviewed)

Folly by Marthe Jocelyn (reviewed)

Freakangels, Volume 1 by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield (reviewed)

Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel (reviewed)

A God Somewhere by John Arcudi, Peter Snejbjerg, & Bjarne Hansen (reviewed)

Half Empty by David Rakoff (reviewed)

Hellboy: The Wild Hunt by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegred0 (artist) (reviewed)

Hellcity: The Whole Damned Thing by Macon Blair & Joe Flood (reviewed)

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch (reviewed)

The Hipless Boy: Short Stories
by Sully

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (reviewed)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (reviewed)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (reviewed)

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly & JM Ken Niimura (reviewed)

I Thought My Father Was God edited by Paul Auster (reviewed)

Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan Howard (reviewed)

Kill Shakespeare Vol. 1: A Sea of Troubles By Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col, and Andy Belanger: Hamlet, Richard, Juliet, Othello and everyone else converge in one world, and everyone's trying to get at a wizard named Shakespeare. Bloody and weird, but not too heavy to be lighthearted fun.

Kraken by China Mieville (reviewed)

The Madman of Venice by Sophie Masson (reviewed)

Market Day by James Sturm (reviewed)

The Midnight Folk by John Masefield (reviewed)

The Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner (reviewed)

Moonwalking with Einstein
by Joshua Foer (reviewed)

New Orleans, Mon Amour by Andrei Codrescu (reviewed)

Octopus Pie: There Are No Stars in Brooklyn by Meredith Gran (reviewed)

Odd Is On Our Side by Dean Koontz, Fred Van Lente & Queenie Chan (reviewed)

Old Mr. Flood by Joseph Mitchell (reviewed)

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley (reviewed)

The Passage by Justin Cronin (reviewed)

Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie (reviewed)

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (reviewed)

Rasl Pocket Book One by Jeff Smith (reviewed)

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (reviewed)

Scott Pilgrim Volume 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O'Malley (reviewed)

The Sheriff of Yrnameer
by Michael Rubens (reviewed)

Superman: For Tomorrow Volume 1 and Volume 2 y Brian Azzarello (writer), Jim Lee, and Scott Williams (artists) (reviewed)

The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel (reviewed)

Summerland by Michael Chabon (reviewed)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (reviewed)

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht (reviewed)

Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham (reviewed)

Two Cents Plain by Martin Lemelman (reviewed)

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris (reviewed)

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (reviewed)

Werewolves of Montpelier by Jason (reviewed)

What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (reviewed)

When You Were A Tadpole And I Was A Fish by Martin Gardner (reviewed)

Y: The Last Man, Volume 7: Paper Dolls by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Pia Guerra (artist) (reviewed)

You Were Wrong by Matthew Sharpe (reviewed)

(plus rereads, not reviewed: Scott Pilgrim 1-5 by Bryan Lee O'Malley, The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright, Take This Bread by Sara Miles)

That's... 55 I think, plus the rereads? Measly. And a ridiculous percentage of those are comics, which while I will continue to insist on their status as literature, do tend to be much quicker reads. Goal for 2011: read more, especially frontlist fiction/nonfiction, so as to be a better bookseller, and to dig deeper into the world of words.

Unlike some years past, I'm refreshed to find I don't feel the need for a soul-searching post about the bookstore project. Greenlight is a solid reality -- as I reflected with a bookseller friend, I'm in the happily ever after. Rebecca and I have plans for growing and making things better, so it's not about to get boring. But it's been a happy year, chronicled mostly elsewhere, and I'm contented to stick to the book talk on this site -- it's still true that "sometimes the best relief from the stresses of working in the book industry is the books themselves."

And now my request for your ideas: not for what to read next (I've already got teetering stacks on my nightstand that should take me through the next six months at least), but about how to keep track of reading. I'd like a better way to note what I'm reading now and write about it when I finish, and have it show up on the various book sites (GoodReads, Shelfari, etc.), and on this blog, and on Facebook/Twitter, etc. Does anyone have a good system, easy enough that you don't get bogged down? Is there an app that works (I do have an iPhone now!)? Does one of the sites push out to all the others? Or would I be better off with pencil and paper this year?

In any case, it was a good year in books, and 2011 promises old friends returning and new surprises awaiting. Thanks to all of you who read and talk about books -- a very happy new year, and happy reading!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

All the Rest of the Books I Read This Year

Okay, so perhaps I was slightly overambitious, or just unorganized, thinking I would write about every book I read this year in order. Even though I felt like I didn't read nearly as much as I wanted to / ought to this year, the pile of read books grew much faster than my time to write about them (or inspiration to do so). So here's what I didn't get to write about before, but did read -- I can't remember any longer which order they went in, and the shortness that this last-minute approach will require does a disservice to some truly wonderful works, but there you go.

To save time and space, instead of including pictures I've added links to the book detail page on whenever available, if you want to see a picture or read more about the book.

Before the end of this month, I'll post the complete list of what I read this year, highlighting my own personal best-ofs, with links to where I wrote about them. Here goes the last round!

A. D.: New Orleans After the Deluge

by Josh Neufeld

This falls in the "why did it take so long for me to listen when everyone I respect raved about this book" category. Neufeld's research is amazing, his characters compelling, his pictures of New Orleans before, during and after Katrina are cleanly, simply drawn but dead-on accurate (the ALP and I did some real-life comparisons to a couple of French Quarter bars), and I came out of this with a better understanding of the events of 2005 than I'd ever had before.

Agents of Atlas
by Jeff Parker and Leonard Kirk

The ALP tossed this one on my lap recently when I needed bedtime reading. A great little "superhero team" adventure comic, with some unexpected twists and an Asian American hero -- great fun, especially if you're familiar with the Marvel Universe.

Cowboy Ninja Viking Volume 1
by AJ Lieberman & Riley Rossmo
The premise is high concept ridiculous; the plot is nigh incomprehensible. But you cannot resist. One man; three personalities; three fighting styles; an evil corporation that trained him to kill; endless silly banter; crazy (literally) fight scenes. Awe. Some.

Half Empty
by David Rakoff

I felt as though my brain were getting sharper taking in Rakoff's wit and insight, at the same time I was melting with laughter. One of my favorite nonfiction books of the year, with Rakoff's cutting yet deeply compassionate take on everything from Rent to the Disney "Innoventions" house to his own cancer. And he is the nicest man in the world in real life. Read it!

Hellcity: The Whole Damned Thing
by Macon Blair & Joe Flood

I've been waiting for this since the first half was published years ago by an itty bitty indie comics company. It's a noir set in Hellcity (which resembles New York in August, except with more demons) and Heaventown (which resembles Bedford Falls or some other imagination of Upstate New York in the spring). It's got rock and roll, battles between good and evil, love, redemption, and getting slapped with fishes. It is one of the best undiscovered comic books I know.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword
by Barry Deutsch

Hooray for this book! I've never read fiction set among Orthodox Jews so insightful and entertaining. Eleven-year-old Mirka's troubles with boring chores and conflicts with her (ultimately nurturing and wise) stempother, as well as her epic knitting battle with a troll and the trickster move she learns to defeat it, feel both universal and unique. Great stuff in the world of appropriate-for-kids comics.

The Hipless Boy: Short Stories
by Sully

I thought I understood this book when I thought it was autobiographical short cartoon pieces; upon finding out it's fiction I find it kind of rambling and unfocused, and frankly odd. Clever and sometimes poignant, but not exactly my thing. (And I find it kind of annoying when characters who have art-star friends and hang out in lofts complain of their lack of hipness. Like whatever.)

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Holy cow.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
by Suzanne Collins

Oh my gosh it gets better/worse.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
by Suzanne Collins

Do not read this entire series in a weekend, like I did, unless you want to be utterly wrecked by the end. The "kill or be killed" games of children against children are a great metaphor for adolescence, but this is also about war and freedom and truth and propaganda and compromise and survival and the horror of violence, even if it's necessary, even if you win. Deserves every iota of hype it got, and more; reminded me of Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy in the amount of big philosophical stuff going in a completely addicting fantasy.

I Kill Giants
by Joe Kelly & JM Ken Niimura

So darn good. This is a kids' comic, but it's dark -- the darkness at the center of it isn't revealed right away, so I won't spoil it. It's about a weird little girl who is a D&D dungeonmaster, and has a powerful named weapon that lives in her purse, a brutal wit, and a hard time making friends. It's about the friend she makes and the giant she encounters. The drawing is wild and sketchy and perfect, and makes for a wonderfully odd and satisfying story.

I Thought My Father Was God

edited by Paul Auster

A collection of the real-life stories Auster collected as part of an NPR project, this is part StoryCorps, part Moth Story Slam, part very weird Chicken Soup for the Soul. Because the things that happen to people that they remember are very, very weird. Many are tragic in the grandest and awfullest sense of the word. Some are funny or romantic or delightful. A lot are just coincidences. At their best they are like the kind of story someone tells you in a bar, or at a family Christmas party, and you never forget.

Johannes Cabal the Detective
by Jonathan Howard

I loved the steampunk-supernatural-carnival-serial oddity of Johannes Cabal Necromancer, so of course I was going to read the sequel. This one finds our misanthropic but oddly appealing hero fleeing angry folks again (necromancy doesn't make you popular), and pulled unwillingly into applying his weird-science-attuned brain to solving a murder mystery, alongside the antagonistically ethical girl from the first book. And it's mostly on a blimp. If you are a genre lover like me, what's not to like?

by China Mieville

Ooh Kraken. The titular sea-beast, literally disappeared from the museum, is about the least weird thing in this very Mieville-y weird book. Imagine a London full of religions and magic cults, each predicting a slightly different apocalypse, any or all of which might occur. There is a hapless hero, a villain who is a living tattoo and one who is made of ink, a protective imp in an iPod, a sort of board of magicians and the coppers who police them, and Goss and Subby, two of the most truly terrifying villains in ages. It's hard to keep up, but the scenery is never boring. If you have a long plane ride ahead of you, this would be a good bet for a book you will not look up from the entire time.

by John Masefield
This is a very old-school English children's adventure story, in the vein of Narnia or the Wind in the Willows or Five Children and It. Young Kay has a nasty governess and an sea captain ancestor who lost a treasure; how these things get solved involves a lot of people coming out of pictures on the wall, talking animals, seven-league boots, and other strange doings. It is dreamlike the way that an imaginative childhood is, and often funny, and quite uniquely wonderful. It would be great to read aloud, if you are the kind of family who does that sort of thing. I'm now reading Masefield's other book about Kay, The Box of Delights, which is a Christmas book and completely delightful.

Moonwalking with Einstein
by Joshua Foer
I picked this galley up because we're hosting the author in the spring when the book comes out (and yes, he is the brother of Jonathan Safran). Secretly, I was hoping to get some tips on how to remember the names of customers and publishing industry acquaintances who always seem to remember my name; it's a horrible failing that I seem to forget names as soon as I've been introduced. Foer's book has some tips for name remembering, though not a fix-all; most of the venerated tricks of memory he learns from "memory championship" circuits -- which they learned from the ancient Greeks -- involve really paying attention when the information is first presented. But there are lots of other tricks involved too -- as my bookseller friend Carol says "fun facts to know and tell on every page" -- including the fact that our highly evolved visual/spatial memories can be put to use in remembering more abstract data by using the elegant and ancient technique of the Memory Palace (and often, inventing some absurd or dirty associations, since we're also really good at remembering jokes and sex). I had a great time with the eccentric characters Foer encounters and his reflections on the evolution of memory in human history, from the Memory Palace to the codex to the internet. Good stuff.

New Orleans, Mon Amour
by Andrei Codrescu
I bought this in a tiny bookstore in Pirate's Alley, and read it listening to a trumpet player in Jackson Square, and eating rabbit jambalaya, and wandering through cemetery cities. I fell completely in love with New Orleans myself, so it was wonderful to have a fellow outsider as pithy and eloquent as Codrescu describing the city's morbidly festive charms. Reading essays written over 20 years all at once, they do start to become a bit predictable, and Codrescu is a bit of a dirty old man; still, these pieces were evocative and illuminating, highly recommended for anyone who knows what it means to miss NOLA.

Odd Is On Our Side
by Dean Koontz, Fred Van Lente & Queenie Chan

Why do I read these Dean Koontz manga adaptations? The art is generic, the plot unbelievable, the characters and morality simplistic. I simply cannot help myself, and I eat them like particularly artificial-tasting candy.

Parnassus on Wheels
by Christopher Morley

I love books, bookselling, and Brooklyn. I am the target audience for this book. I was so delighted to discover Melville House had reissued it, years after I read the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop. I was also delighted to discover that this 1917 novel has a bit of feminism in it: though the fiery bookseller Roger Mifflin is in some ways the hero, the narrator is a 40-year-old "angel in the house" who strikes out on her own as a bookselling entrepreneur after years of unappreciated baking. Immensely fun, with some very quotable quotes, especially for those of a bookselling persuasion.

Postern of Fate
by Agatha Christie

Weird -- a sort of bad Agatha Christie novel. It not only has my least favorite detectives (the fussy bourgeois couple Tommy and Tuppence), it was written near the end of Christie's life and career, and feels oddly circular and repetitive. I guess it's good to know that even the master didn't knock 'em out of the park every time.

Rasl Pocket Book One
by Jeff Smith

Remember Bone? This is like that except kinda the opposite. The sexy, morally messed-up hero, the science (time travel, parallel universes, etc.), the difficult-to-follow plot, the mysticism... did I mention the sex and the science? It's fascinating and gorgeously drawn, but definitely NOT for kids. I'm intrigued by where he's going with this... it may be years before we find out, but it's worth it.


by Jennifer Donnelly

A rich feast of a YA novel -- achingly sad and authentically adolescent, chock full of local color and telling details in Brooklyn and Paris, with a French Revolution parallel plot to blow you away, plus a love story, plus some nice class/race/ethics analysis of French and Brooklyn culture. It's not perfect (the author does a sort of supernatural and/or dream thing 3/4 of the way through that I found totally uneccessary), but it is immensely satisfying and thought-provoking. And is there any better metaphor for adolescence than the French Revolution?

by Michael Chabon

This is an epic American fantasy -- a rich stew of our national mythologies from Paul Bunyan to Babe Ruth -- and a fantastic adventure story. It's Chabon's first and only YA book, and I remember it being kind of a flop in terms of Chabon novels, but I found it completely compelling -- added to my own personal pantheon of larger-than-life tales. I read it in the summertime, and finished it looking out at the Statue of Liberty from Red Hook -- one of the most perfect reading experiences of the year.

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
Deeply satisfying and yet entirely unexpected -- a universal story of outsiders, of growing up, of family secrets and cultural misunderstandings, but also a picture of a fascinating and little-known part of the world. Tea Obreht's childhood in the former Yugoslavia, among family stories and traditional legends, informs this story of a woman in an unnamed post-war country who delves into her grandfather's childhood to understand his death. The stories she uncovers -- of an escaped tiger, a man who cannot die, and the coincidences and ironies of a region almost constantly in a state of war -- make for a novel with the suspense of a thriller and the resonances of a myth. An incredible work from an incredible young writer, The Tiger's Wife marks the beginning of the career of a writer to watch.
[cribbed from my own writeup for the NAIBA holiday catalog]

Two Cents Plain by Martin Lemelman
Interestingly, Pantheon published this in a format that makes it look like a traditional book, rather than a graphic novel. It's a story that will likely have the most fans outside of comics lovers: a memoir of a childhood in a 1950s Brooklyn candy shop, with a dysfunctional family and the shadow of the Holocaust looming on one side and 1970s urban blight on the other. I like the concept slightly more than the execution -- Lemelman's drawings of people get kind of mushy and indistinguishable -- but it's an interesting addition to the world of New York nostalgia books as well as graphic memoirs.

What Was Lost
by Catherine O'Flynn

How am I NOT going to read a book recommended by David Mitchell as one of his favorite young authors? And the connections to Mitchell's work are clear: it's a compassionate and realistic world, tinged with the supernatural in a way that enriches rather than cheapens the story. O'Flynn is the only writer I've ever encountered who has really examined the strange tragedy that is the contemporary indoor shopping mall; her evocation of the bleak lives of the employees, the artificial "shopping experience" so carefully preserved with smells, music, and security, and the very old-fashioned sacrifices made to christen the new development, is chilling and familiar. The main characters are believably, hopelessly human, and their redemption is both surprising and inevitable. Can't wait to read more by this young Welsh writer -- and I wish more authors would write about retail culture like this.

When You Were A Tadpole And I Was A Fish
by Martin Gardner

A random impulse purchase from the strand, this is a wonderfully random collection of essays on topics from God to poetry to politics -- always reasoned, never pedantic, though sometimes a little irritated at encountered stupidity. The author, an Oklahoma mathematician who writes for Scientific American, is someone I look upon with great respect, and would love to have a beer or a cup of tea with.

You Were Wrong
by Matthew Sharpe

This is the book I feel worst about failing to review earlier -- because it is an amazing, strange, and incomparable small novel, and more people should read it. It was sent to me by the author, whom I know slightly as a bookstore customer (his novel The Sleeping Father was a sleeper hit), and who enjoys a sort of indie cult following. You Were Wrong is a sort of an indie love story... and sort of a mystery... and sort of a country song... and sort of a horror/suspense novel... and sort of a comedic romp... and sort of an exploration of race and family and exploitation and class... and sort of campy... and sort of surreal... and sort of earnest... and it has the best closing paragraph I have read all year. You have to read the whole book to get to it, though, and if you think you can guess how the twists and turns of the plot will go... well, you'll be wrong.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

BBC Top 100

Aw, thanks, Russel. Now obviously the ALP and I had to test our mettle against this list. Next, I hope to post a list of this year's books.

Instructions: Copy this into your NOTES. Bold those books you've read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started but didn't finish or read an excerpt. Tag other book nerds. Tag me as well so I can see your responses...

1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen JSB, MJB
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien JSB
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte/b> JSB, MJB
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling (all)
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee JSB, MJB
6 The Bible JSB (MJB)
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte MJB
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell JSB, MJB
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman JSB
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens JSB, MJB
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott JSB
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller MJB
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare JSB, MJB
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier JSB, MJB
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien JSB
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger JSB, MJB
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot JSB, MJB
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald JSB, MJB
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens MJB
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams MJB
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh JSB
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky MJB
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck MJB
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll JSB, MJB
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame JSB, MJB
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy MJB
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens MJB
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis JSB
34 Emma – Jane Austen JSB, MJB
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen JSB, MJB
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis JSB, MJB
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere JSB
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne JSB
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell JSB, MJB
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown MJB
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins MJB
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery JSB
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood MJB
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding JSB, MJB
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan MJB
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen JSB, MJB
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon JSB
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens JSB, MJB
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley JSB, MJB
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon JSB
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez JSB
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck MJB
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov MJB
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt MJB
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold JSB
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas MJB
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac JSB, MJB
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding JSB
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville JSB, MJB
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens MJB
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker JSB, MJB
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett JSB
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath JSB
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome JSB
78 Germinal – Emile Zola MJB
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray MJB
80 Possession – AS Byatt JSB, MJB
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens JSB, MJB
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell JSB
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro MJB
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert JSB, MJB
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White JSB, MJJB
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle JSB, MJB
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad JSB, MJB
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery MJB
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks MJB
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams MJB
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas MJB
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare JSB, MJB
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl JSB, MJB
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Hey, Joe.

Joe Drabyak died on Friday. Long live Joe Drabyak.

I'm having a hard time getting my head around this. I sat next to Joe at a dinner in April. We compared notes on the appetizer. Everyone said he looked a little skinny but he brushed it off. That was only four months ago.

Forgive the maudlin bits for a moment. I can hear exactly how Joe said the phrase "Noir Bar." I can hear the way he would start a sentence hesitantly, as though it was just coming to him, and then deliver an idea so fluid and articulate it was clear he'd either just rehearsed the whole thing in his head, or he'd known exactly what he thought for a long time.

He presided over the meetings of the NAIBA board in a manner that was truly presidential: that is, he listened to everybody else. He was the voice of reason when things got heated. He wasn't afraid of new ideas, but he was a great respecter of everyone's concerns.

One of the ideas he supported was Emerging Leaders. He was a natural mentor to me and a lot of younger booksellers (as others have expressed), so the idea of providing a network for their education and support must have made sense to him. But that didn't stop him from teasing us about it. He wouldn't stop referring to himself and other over-40 booksellers as "Declining Leaders," despite my embarrassed protests.

What I'm sure he knew, despite his characteristic jokiness, was that that's not how we thought of him. He was an Established Leader. He was what we aspired to. He wasn't a store owner, he was a masterful professional bookseller, embodying everything we hoped to become.

He always joked, though. I think he joked most when things were serious. His emails after his diagnosis had us cracking up through our tears. There were a lot of groaners -- bad puns and silly costumes. That was part of the style. It must have been what made him such a good handseller on the bookstore floor -- he was like an old vaudevillian, making himself look goofy and winning everyone over.

I want him to be the Quizmaster for literary trivia again. I want him to be able to read all the book he ran out of time for. I want to ask him about the book that changed his life, about why he became a bookseller, about what he thought about on his solitary smoke breaks, about why he wasn't afraid. I didn't even know him that well.

I know what he wanted, though. He wanted to be Joe. And he is.

Someone who lives a life in books can hardly deny that some characters, some creators, live a long time after their deaths. Joe Drabyak put too much of his exuberant life in too many places for him to disappear. He helped create a new generation of booksellers. He taught us ideas and practices that will take on lives of their own. Not to mention his name lives on attached to characters in more than half a dozen mystery novels. I can imagine him twinkling about that, another great joke.

Hey, Joe. We miss you already. I hope we can live up to what you offered us.

Long live Joe.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Pitch to Booksellers: The Fall Conference

We interrupt our sporadically scheduled book reviews to bring you this highly personal pitch, from me (Jessica/Book Nerd) to the booksellers of New York City and the mid-Atlantic region.

I have to advocate for things I am passionate about -- if you're a bookseller you can probably sympathize. I wanted to make sure that you know all about the Fall Conference, this September 21 and 22, hosted by the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA). Like a mini-BEA or Winter Institute, the conference brings together booksellers and publishers from the mid-Atlantic region for professional education, networking, and book buzz to prepare us for the fall season in our stores. The cost is membership in NAIBA, which is $100 per store for a year, plus meals and hotel; discounted hotel rates are available (the conference is in Atlantic city, a cheap bus ride away). You can get all of the details about the conference here.

I went to my first NAIBA conference when I had worked in a Manhattan bookstore for a couple of years, and it literally changed my life. The experience of being a part of the professional community of booksellers, and learning the best practices of the industry, as well as encountering publishers and authors face to face, gave me a new perspective on the work that I was doing. I wasn't just a retail clerk and shelver who loved to read -- I was part of a larger profession, and I had the potential to build a career and contribute to the industry conversation. I went back full of ideas for my store, and with some new thoughts about my future career.

Not every frontline bookseller who goes to the NAIBA conference will want to go on to start their own store, but every bookseller has the potential to get something valuable out of it -- for their bookstore's success, their own career, and the future of our business. The education sessions we have lined up for this year (yes, I'm on the NAIBA board) are both inspiring and practical. And the opportunity to talk to other booksellers and publishers always leads to revelations about what we're all doing well and what we could be doing better. It's a great opportunity for store owners to get rejuvenated, and possibly an even better opportunity for staff to pick up new ideas that will make them better booksellers in the long term.

I know it's a challenge to find the time, dollars, and scheduling flexibility to go to a two-day conference (we're sending three booksellers from Greenlight, and it has been logistically kind of tough.) So I want to tell you about three things that might make it a little easier, whether you're an owner or a frontline bookseller.

1) Publishers are offering a total of 4 scholarships for frontline booksellers, which will cover all of the event/meal tickets for the conference. It's a random drawing, so drop your name (or a staffer's name) in the hat -- details here.

2) NAIBA has changed its bylaws to allow professional booksellers whose stores are not members of NAIBA to join the association with a $25 membership. If you are a bookseller who would like to be part of this professional community but your store is just not into it, you can now take things into your own hands and come to the conference on your own at a reduced rate. Email NAIBA's executive secretary Eileen Dengler to learn more.

3) If you are coming to the conference and you want to split hotel costs with someone, email me and I will try to hook you up with a fellow bookseller to share a room. No promises that things will work out, but we're all in this together and we can do our best to make it work.

Okay, pitch over. Feel free to comment here or email me if you have questions, objections, thoughts, or ideas. I hope to see many of you at the Fall Conference, as well as in our stores this fall!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

July comics roundup

There is a disturbingly large and teetering pile of books on a chair in my kitchen. They are books that I have read in the last couple of months, that I hope to one day get around to writing up for this blog. Many of them deserve lots of thought, ideally before I forget the reading experience. Also, maybe 50% of the pile is comics -- because I read them faster than straight prose, or because my reading is getting decadently image-dependent, or because it's summer and comics are my beach reading, I don't know. Anyway, despite the fact that several of these are serious books that could totally justify their own post, I'm throwing them together in a roundup, in the interest of getting them off the stack and saving the legs of my kitchen chair.

Superman: For Tomorrow
Volume 1 and Volume 2
By Brian Azzarello (writer), Jim Lee, and Scott Williams (artists)

The ALP, a much more serious comics reader than I, is of the opinion that this one-shot Superman story is about how scary Superman could get if Lois Lane wasn't around for him to care about -- which would explain why some villain hasn't actually offed her, since no one could deal with the destructive power of a Superman unhinged by grief. I'll take his word for it. While this one had some good moments (especially one mind-bending moment of moral complication when Superman admits he could cure someone's cancer, but won't) I found it whizzed by pleasantly and at the end I wasn't sure how the problem (lots of people have disappeared with no physical trace) actually got solved -- it just always does get solved when it's Superman, dunnit? It's fun to read a superhero comic with a beginning and an end, but this one was a bit forgettable for my snobby literary tastes.

A God Somewhere
by John Arcudi (writer), Peter Snejbjerg, and Bjarne Hansen (artists)

While this book is about the closest thing to a true masterpiece I have read in comics in ages, I will hesitate carefully before recommending it to readers. That's because it's also the most disturbing comic I have read in a long time -- the violence is bloody and has consequences, and the sheer existential chaos is unsettling, like reading about Columbine or Rwandan child soldiers. I actually thought about Columbine a couple of times while reading it, because the "why" of the horrors that happen is so unanswerable, in such a terribly familiar way. The premise: a happy-go-lucky, kind of slackerish dude finds that a catastrophic accident has left him with Superman-like (or God-like) powers; at first he performs some dramatic rescues, but the religious language he uses to describe his mission of good starts to sound a little crazy and he's acting kinda weird... and then he really snaps, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The narrator is the super-person's lifelong friend, an African-American journalist who covers the whole weird story; his character arc is rich and interesting too, a welcome human-scale drama running parallel to the sickening cosmic tragedy of the main story. Not for the squeamish, but I'd guess this book is going to become part of the conversation about "realistic" superheros, about the iconography of power and desire, and about the potential for what comics can do.

Octopus Pie: There Are No Stars in Brooklyn
by Meredith Gran

Hooray, comics about Brooklyn! I admit I was a leetle nervous that Octopus Pie would be too scene-y for my tastes (I think I remember picking up an earlier edition in an unbearably hip Williamsburg shop and putting it down again)... but this time around, it was funny and authentic and I was hooked. It's got that classic odd-couple charm: uptight, slightly surly Eve finds herself the housemate of superchill stoner entrepreneur Hanna (they were friends in kindergarten and their moms set them up), and wacky hijinks ensue. But, as ("Mr. Scott Pilgrim") Bryan Lee O'Malley observes about author Meredith Gran, "her jokes are actually funny," both verbally and visually. Cranky organic food buyers, the trauma of a stolen bike, a Renaissance fair (really), and a long, unpredictable storyline about ice skating are just some of the gems packed into this baby, which collects the first two years of the ongoing indie comic. It's a little "Dykes to Watch Out For," a little "Real World: Brooklyn" (okay, maybe not, I never watched it)... anyway, I kept laughing out loud and quoting parts to the ALP, which I feel is a strong indication that there's some good stuff going on here. Also, we went to the release party at Bergen Street Comics and bought the character pint glasses. So there. Even if you are not a Brooklyn booster (Meredith, sadly, has now moved to Portland), it's good cartooning and good storytelling with a compelling cast of side characters, a little foul-mouthed, a little tender, and very funny. (Look for the mantra about ducks and bread - priceless.)

Batwoman: Elegy
by Greg Rucka (writer) J. H. Williams, and Dave Stewart (artists)

So... in case you're not a hardcore DC Comics reader: the new Batwoman is a lesbian. A very lipstick lesbian, as you'll notice if you can make out this cover, and there are all kinds of debates, especially among female comics fans, about whether this is liberating or exploitative or what. I saw what I felt were examples of both in this particular comic, though what's almost more ridiculous is that crazy flowing red hair -- is that practical, when you're fighting crime with a secret identity, seriously? (To be fair, this comes up in an exchange with Batman, and it kinda makes sense.) All that aside though, I found this an actually pretty impressive comic. The villainess is apparently under the impression that she is Alice in Wonderland, which makes for some delightfully insane dialogue amidst the kicking and punching, and the relationship between Batwoman and her dad and stepmom is interesting and touching. What's really impressive though, is how much work the art is doing in telling this story -- the visuals of the chapter headings, especially, offer huge foreshadowing clues about the story's Big Reveal, which isn't hinted at in the dialogue. It was fun to go back and see the significant details after I knew the ending; if I were a more observant... observer of comics art I might have noticed them sooner, but I thought it was an awesome way to tell the story. Slight fare, perhaps, but a very satisfactory and well-executed cape-and-cowl comic.

Market Day
by James Sturm

This book has, deservedly, already been highly praised in high-falutin' literary publications. James Sturm is one of the most serious literary writers of comics out there, and his previous stories about baseball, the frontier, and Jewish and African-American experiences constitute a body of rich, intelligent historical fictionI don't think any contemporary cartoonist has even attempted to match. And I like his visual style a lot: a thick, clean line almost reminiscent of the Tintin comics I grew up on, an old-fashioned, muted color palette, an interest in all kinds of faces and bodies. That said, I respected this book more than I actually liked it. The story is that of one day in the life of Mendleman, a rug maker -- young, married with a baby on the way -- taking his wares to sell at market, where he discovers his usual buyer is out of business and has to scramble to find some other way to unload his painstaking, artistic creations; on his way home an odd encounter with some vagabonds leaves him hungover and questioning his entire life. Now that I think about it, it works as a pretty good metaphor for an artist hewing to an old-fashioned standard in a changing world (Sturm wrote a column for Slate about giving up the internet.) But I'm not sure I understood quite what happened in our young rug maker's head at the end, and the 19th century Eastern European color palette is exhaustingly dreary, even when Mendleman is imagining his innovative designs. Maybe I'm just not a rug fancier, or I need to read more Russian novels. This may be a book I come back to later with greater appreciation, but I prefer Sturm's odd and tragic American stories to this one.

by Doug TenNapel

Doug TenNapel is not nearly as well known as his Bill Watterson-influenced art and insanely creative fantasy epic stories deserve. This may be partly because he is a Christian and somewhat right-wing, and very explicit Christian metaphors find their way into nearly all of his work; on the other hand, his humor is often scatalogical and his characters foul-mouthed, which means the Christians don't necessarily embrace him either. So I am one of a small contingent who will read anything Doug TenNapel writes, though some are more successful than others. Ghostopolis is one of the more successful, I think: the story of a sort of ghost truant officer who accidentally sends a live boy to the underworld and then tries to rescue him, while the boy meets up with his long-dead grandfather and a host of other denizens of Ghostopolis. The Christ figure in this one is a mysterious Tuskegee airman, who built Ghostopolis eons ago but is now in hiding from its tyrannical ruler. It's a world of good and evil, though not always simply divided; characters learn and grow and make mistakes, while dodging giant insects and zombies and bone animals and animate buildings. It's a romp with moments of seriousness, and even a love story, and it's the kind of thing I love Doug TenNapel for.

Werewolves of Montpelier
by Jason

Jason is like the Buster Keaton of comics. His animal/people characters have that deadpan expression most of the time, with only an occasional eyebrow wrinkle to express emotion, and yet their stories are often hilariously funny and/or heartbreaking. This one has a built-in gag that's never discussed: when dog-people turn into werewolves it's very hard to tell the difference. But everyone in the story knows one when they see one, and when our protagonist impersonates one he falls afoul of the real werewolves and adventures ensue. The power of the story, though, is in his relationship with Audrey, the girl in the apartment next door, who is doing her best Holly Golightly impression at all times; their thwarted desires and real friendship are affecting in that same deadpan way. It's not my favorite Jason comic ever (though the ALP thinks its his best in ages), but it's a great one to add to the library.

And a drumroll please...

Scott Pilgrim Volume 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour
by Bryan Lee O'Malley

You do remember how I feel about Scott Pilgrim, right? The last few weeks have been a pleasant agony of anticipation of both the release of the final volume and the movie (which I was prepared to dislike because I wasn't sure neurotic loveable loser Michael Cera could play happy-go-lucky loveable loser Scott Pilgrim; but all signs indicate that the director of Sean of the Dead isn't going to let us down. The ALP and I have plans on the evening of August 13, thank you.) So I picked up my copy at Bergen Street Comics*, and the book is... entirely, eminently satisfying. I mean, how you gonna pull all this stuff together, unless you are an O'Malley level pop art genius? The unresolved feelings for Kim, the fact that Ramona literally disappeared at the end of issue 5, and the band broke up, and Scott has no motivation, much less the skills, to face down Gideon, the Final Boss Man (in video game parlance, which is what the structure of this fight-the-seven-evil-exes story is obviously modeled upon). I, for one, am not going to spoil it for you. I'll just say that everything gets resolved by fighting -- because the whole book almost is one big fight scene, and every issue that's ever come up gets dealt with decisively. Probably I will now go back and read all six volumes just to get the whole picture, because they are that fun and it takes about a day to get through them. So just get all of them already, and enjoy!

* Note: because of the peculiar nature of comics publishing, comic shops had their Scott Pilgrims on July 20; regular ol' bookstores will get theirs on August 3.

Friday, June 18, 2010

June YA Roundup

If I wrote these things more often I wouldn't have to cram multiples into one post, but my blogging is falling so far behind my reading I need to diminish the stack a bit. And I realize I've had a number of great YA reading experiences lately -- it's a category I don't read super-often, but that I tend to enjoy (if perhaps with an occasional smirk of superiority/relief that I am no longer a teen.)

by Marthe Jocelyn
(Wendy Lamb Books, May 2010)

This book and the following one I read "on assignment" -- I was asked to take part in a YA brainstorming conference call by our inimitable Random House children's book rep Lillian Penchansky, and these two books were our homework for the call. It was kind of a delight to plunge into something that I could read in a day, and the two works, while both historical fiction, were very different. Marthe Jocelyn's Folly was the better of the two -- the story of a 19th century British servant girl who gets knocked up by a dashing soldier (when that was both common and enough to ruin your life), it's told in first person by various characters whose dialects are both defamiliarizing and believable. The backstory of the book is fascinating too: Jocelyn found out that one of her ancestors grew up in a "foundling hospital" like the one in the story, and imagined his life and his mother's from there. Reading this led to a bunch of conversations about how of course, in whatever era you're born, you're a teenager and you're filled with desire, but in this era there's no sex ed and no birth control and no safety net -- in the case of a servant far from home, not even family or friends to take you in. I loved Mary Finn, smart and kind and resourceful but still screwed over; and I loved James, the boy in the foundling hospital whose story intertwines with hers -- his internal monologue contained some meditations on the lived experience of history that I wish I could quote (I gave my galley to a certain bookseller who is said to resemble the girl on the cover -- have to remember to ask her whether she liked it too.) And even the "cad" soldier, Caden, is sympathetic -- he's just a teen as well, and totally clueless about what to do. Though it's got no creatures of the night (as way too many YA novels seems to these days), this book is dark in the way real human life is dark -- recommended for the brave reader of any age, Folly is moving and eye-opening.

The Madman of Venice
by Sophie Masson
(Delacorte Books for Young Readers, August 2010)

This book, while a charming adventure story with some resonant historical detail, reinforces my theory that YA is just where romance novels have migrated. Reading it had the slightly guilty pleasures of a historical romance: the dialogue is dramatic but not especially believable, the heroine is plucky, the hero is brave but tongue-tied about his passion for her, and it takes some life-threatening adventures to bring them together. Nevertheless, the context gives it some added weight: the British boy, girl, and chaperone are on a mission in Venice to thwart some pirates and find a missing girl, who happens to be a Jew from Venice's infamous Ghetto. There are echoes of Shakespeare's Shylock here, of course, and some not-too-heavyhanded analysis of what it meant to be a Jew in pre-Modern Europe. And yes, there are escapes by Gondola, fights in Venetian castellos, and enough twisted plots that the entire last chapter is devoted to explaining them. Great for a kid interested in this particular place and time, who doesn't mind some mushy stuff in between adventures.

The Museum of Thieves
by Lian Tanner
(Delacorte Books for Young Readers, September 2010)

This one is my favorite of the lot -- the kind of fantastic adventure I loved as a kid, that can still keep me glued to the couch on a beautiful weekend day, dead to the real world and immersed in the much more convincing world of the novel. I was invited to an author dinner for Lian Tanner -- which turned out to be a lovely affair, and Tanner the most charming New Zealander, just the kind of person you hope should make their fortune from writing a great yarn. I thought I should glance at the book before the dinner out of politeness, and ended up reading the whole thing in a day, and raving about it like a geek that evening. Set in a town where children under a certain age are kept chained, to their parents or glorified babysitters, the Blessed Guardians, "for their own good," the story's hero is the impatient and irritable Goldie Roth. When the ceremonial Separation Day -- a coming of age that involves literally cutting the cord -- is canceled because of what is essentially a terrorist attack, Goldie in despair breaks her bonds herself and becomes a fugitive. And it really is a dangerous world she lives in, though the danger is not where she has been told. Finding her way to the city's Museum, she comes under the protections of its keepers and discovers that her less-than-legal predilictions make her a perfect candidate to join the ranks of those caring for the weird contents of the building, which is bigger on the inside than on the outside (one of my favorite fantasy tropes, as it rings true metaphorically about so many things). I won't say more about the plot because I don't want to spoil too much of this splendid reading experience -- but the themes of the novel are obviously the tradeoffs of freedom and security, the claims of the official and the illicit, which resonate both politically and for every teen or pre-teen testing the boundaries of the allowable. This is the first of a trilogy (another of my favorite things about fantasy), and I can't wait to pick up the story again -- I definitely recommend this journey when the book comes out in September, whether you are under 18 or not.

The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald
(Random House Books for Young Readers, January 2010)

This inexpensive little hardcover is part of the Looking Glass Library series, which reissues classic children's books with introductions by contemporary writers. I'd always meant to read George MacDonald, who I knew was a huge influence on C. S. Lewis -- and his story inspires the same kind of slightly mixed affection for me as an adult reader that The Chronicles of Narnia or even Tolkien's Middle Earth does now. The story of the child princess who is targeted by the kingdom's enemy goblins, and the miner's son who helps to save her, is a masterfully written fable, and also a theological metaphor, masquerading as a children's story. It's all about doing what you know is right, believing in what you know is true even if you can't see it or others don't believe you. The Princess' mysterious grandmother is a God-like figure, and MacDonald's theology of selflessness and a calm faith in the good is one that resonates for me. But his depictions of the goblins can seem kind of... racist. Yes, they are mythical creatures, and so you can make them as nasty and stupid as you want -- but sometimes it seems their very ugliness is held against them, as if having a weird face means that you're a bad thing. In a book clearly intended as allegory and instruction as well as delightful adventure, the lesson of disdain for the ugly and odd is absorbed right along with the lesson of devotion to duty and truth. It's a complicated little morality tale, much like the Victorian era from whence it comes -- in craft and sweetness definitely worth reading, but perhaps with a grain of salt for a modern ethical sensibility.

Whew -- now to get my nose out of the books and go play outside...

Monday, June 07, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
(Knopf, June 9, 2010)

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Reading this book was a little like starting a conversation out of general politeness, and discovering that you're talking to someone you passionately want for a best friend.

Jennifer Egan -- full disclosure -- is a friend and customer of Greenlight Bookstore. I'd hosted her before for events at other stores, and chatted with her and her kids at Greenlight, but to my own detriment I had never actually read any of her fiction. (Even though, as often seems to happen, it seems in retrospect like obviously the sort of thing I would like: the smart but not overtly political feminism of Look At Me, the Gothic nested stories of The Keep, etc. -- good storytelling in the service of big ideas, or vice versa, without sacrificing the one for the other.) It seemed like now would be the time to pick her up, though, since we're hosting her launch party for the book on Wednesday. So I opened the intriguingly titled A Visit From the Goon Squad earlier this spring.

And found a new addition to my personal author pantheon.

As I wrote for our recent staff picks email, A Visit From the Goon Squad is ostensibly (and quite effectively) about the world of rock music, and the intersections of the realms of commerce and creativity (and the dysfunctional folks who inhabit both). But it's really about life on Earth, in all its heartbreaking and maddening and rich and loveable complexity. It's about the mistakes of each generation, about being young and growing up, about adventure and domesticity, about interconnectivity and isolation, and (especially) about the brutality and kindnesses of time.

And it doesn't hurt that it is structured in my favorite form: the novel as interlinked stories (cf. my pantheon authors David Mitchell, Charles Baxter, Joan Silber, and others). Some of those were published in the New Yorker -- trust me that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, though each story has its own poignant and complete miniature arc. One of them perfectly evokes being a young and foolish professional woman in New York City (ahem). One is written flawlessly from the perspective of a very young gay man, one about a record exec, several about the intersections of children who have grown up too fast and adults who are not very grown-up at all. One is composed of a series of PowerPoint slides and is alarmingly literate and moving. San Francisco, Italy, and Arizona make appearances, as do the 1970s, the 1990s, and a near-future that is the most believable I think I've ever read (wait till you learn what a "pointer" is). The meaning of the title is illusive, but when it hit me it hit hard, and shaped my understanding of the project of the novel in the way the best titles can do.

And did I mention the damn thing is funny, too? Apparently Jennifer Egan is one of those rare authors who can quite literally do anything.

I have already seen Jennifer post-Goon Squad reading, and gotten out of the way my mumbled fangirl admiration. Luckily she seems as delighted at how it came out as her readers will, and is in fact the sort of kind and smart and idealistic and charming author that you hope to find at the other end of your favorite novels.

So, obviously, go out first thing tomorrow morning when it goes on sale and get yourself a copy of A Visit From the Goon Squad. Then, come out on Wednesday night and drink wine with the author. If these heights of happiness are not feasible for you, just get your hands on the book as soon as you can, and then find me so we can talk about it. In the meantime, I'm going to need to go back and read everything Jennifer Egan has ever written.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel

The Singer's Gun
by Emily St. John Mandel
(Unbridled Books, May 2010)

Full disclosure: Emily St. John Mandel lives in Brooklyn and I often run into her at literary events; she is an extremely likeable person and has been wonderfully supportive of Greenlight. And Unbridled Books is, in my opinion, one of the best of the crop of new independent publishers who are figuring out the best way to make this old-fashioned book thing work in a new economy, on a sustainable scale, building on the relationships between customers, booksellers, and publishers. So I was predisposed to like Emily's second novel, especially given the embarrassment of riches of bookseller quotes included in my galley.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, like it I did -- but that doesn't mean the book itself is not an astonishing surprise. I read it one day when I was so sick I actually did have to spend most of the day in bed, so my memory of the reading experience is a little like a fever dream -- though that may not be entirely due to my state of health. Mandel has managed a heady, indeed dreamlike mixing of a sort of literary soul-searching amidst the ennui of modern Everyman life, and a rich and strange, violent and dangerous and globe-spanning storyline. If the tone is reminiscent of the post-Franzen and McSweeney's school of alienation and drift, the story is almost a boy's adventure novel, or one of the darker practitioners of thriller writing (Vachs or Connelly). It's disorienting and haunting, addictive and thought-provoking, and it doesn't go away when you're done reading.

I like the way I summarized the plot on the Greenlight website, so I'll repeat it here: "From the sinister warehouses of Williamsburg to the soulless shining office towers of Manhattan to the sun-kissed ennui of the island of Ischia, Emily St. John Mandel traces the fortunes of would-be ex-criminal Anton and his associates through moving and astonishing interludes." Anton is one of those anti-heroes you find yourself almost unwillingly drawn to, in spite of his seeming inability to actually do what he wants or care for those he cares about. The fact that he finds something resembling a happy ending is perhaps the novel's biggest surprise, and it's not without its own attendant complications.

But for me the most powerful thing about Mandel's second novel are the odd, very dreamlike images that have stayed with me. A shipping container full of scared Russian girls sitting in a circle, waiting for someone to let them out. A basketball on a dirty, glass-strewn Manhattan roof, surrounded by those shining office buildings. A white hotel looking out on the beach at Ischia. A warehouse in Williamsburg full of salvaged treasures. And of course, the image in the title, which is such a huge and weird and unexpected plot point that I didn't realize its significance until I finished the book and turned it over to look at the front again. I'm not going to steal from you the shock of that discovery -- you'll just have to get deep into Mandel's strange and haunting and very real world and find out for yourself.

Note: Emily St. John Mandel reads at Greenlight Bookstore tonight, May 16, at 7:30 PM. You can RSVP on Facebook, or just show up.

Friday, April 30, 2010

April Comics Post

Tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day, when fine comic shops nationwide will be giving out samples of the good stuff to all comers. In its honor, today's post is a flying tour of the comics/graphic novels I've been reading in the last few weeks and months.

Y: The Last Man, Volume 7: Paper Dolls
by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Pia Guerra (artist)
I've been working my way through Vaughan's magnum opus slowly for a while now. By Volume 7 the plague that killed (almost) every male mammal on earth is old news, and the implications of a women-only society are playing out in unpredictable ways, while Our Hero Yorick Brown tries to find his girlfriend and help find out how to bring back the other half of the species. Despite the occasionally annoying fact that in an all-women world the hero of the comic is still a dude, Vaughan's writing and Guerra's art always make for good adventure storytelling, and a bit of food for thought afterward. Imagine the implications for Israel, for example (women soldiers) or the Republican party (few women leaders but lots of political wives) or the Catholic church (no women in power but lots and lots of nuns). I'll add my voice to the chorus that says this is one of the seminal graphic novel series of our time. And it's often funny, too.

Air, Volume 2: Flying Machine
by G. Willow Wilson (writer) and M.K. Parker (artist)
This series was hand-sold to me by Amy at my great local, Bergen Street Comics, and it's a winner. With a unique premise (the technology for flight powered by thought, developed by the ancient Mayans and sought after by all kinds of powers) and a cool heroine (Blythe, perky enough to be a believable stewardess despite her fear of heights, and brave and bewildered enough to be a believable heroine), not to mention an affecting romance/mystery and a resonance for anyone who's ever been nervous on an airplane, it's got a lot of cool, original stuff going for it. I liked the first volume a bit better than the second (as the concept of "hyperpraxis" flight gets explained it becomes a bit less believable), but I'm on board (get it?!) for this series, and delighted to find a new creative team with such great storytelling mojo.

Freakangels, Volume 1
by Warren Ellis (writer) and Paul Duffield (artist)
Another Bergen Street Comics purchase, this one was actually a result of reading Ellis' comic serialized for free online. There are superpowers, yes, but the kids holding them are unlikeable and screwed up to varying degrees, and they seem to have brought about the end of the world and also be preventing it somehow. The British dialogue is cheeky and evocative, and while the Freakangels are sometimes kind of scary like a group of teenagers on the sidewalk, I'm intrigued by the post-apocalyptic Steampunk vibe and the potential for this story. (And yeah, I prefer reading it in book form.)

Hellboy: The Wild Hunt
by Mike Mignola (writer) and Duncan Fegred0 (artist)

I love Hellboy. (So much so that I always stock Mignola's comics in the bookstore, even though almost no one seems to buy them.) He's a working man's hero, doing his job well with a foul mouth and shoulders sagging with fatigue, and always trying to transcend his origins (i.e. as the son of Satan). And Mignola's depth of allusion to world mythology makes for both great, accessible storytelling and something you could spend years mining. This stand-alone volume tells a couple of stories related to the recurring legend of the hunt in the sky (for a stag, giants, a herd of cattle, whatever) and how Hellboy gets mixed up in them, and what they may imply for the future of his world. It's dark and moody and heartpounding, and I read it twice.

Jack of Fables #44
by Matthew Sturges & Bill Willingham (writers) and various artists
My love of the original Fables series by Sturges and Willingham has extended to this spin-off, where the ne'er-do-well but lucky hero of many fables, Jack, sets off on his own and has very weird and funny adventures. The series has now left the original Jack behind for a while and is following his son, Jack Frost, a more heroic (i.e. less selfish and amoral) character, which is kind of a relief -- but it's also still silly, which is nice. I wouldn't recommend starting here -- the Jack series has started to comic out in trade paperback form -- but this is one of the few series I buy in the $2.99 single issues whenever it comes out.

Cowboy Ninja Viking #1
by AJ Lieberman (writer) and Riley Rossmo (artist)
Come on, tell me you could resist buying a comic with a title like that?! It's a ridiculous but inspired premise: a shady organization has recruited dudes with multiple personalities, and taught each of them a different martial art. The dialogue is cleverly rendered with icons for each of our hero CNV's three distinct personalities, as he wreaks havoc and tries to figure out who is on his side. I'm not sure whether it will end up paying off as a story, but I'm in at least for issue two, when CNV takes on PGO -- Pirate Gladiator Oceanographer.

That's my comics reading lately. What comics have you been reading that you'd recommend?