Thursday, October 31, 2013

The local show 11-22-13

We are very happy to be hosting this event with local authors and moderator Stephanie Curtis of MPR.

Tales of Loss in Life and Literature
Stephanie Curtis Leads Local Author Panel Discussion

How do personal losses shape ourselves and the stories we tell? Stephanie Curtis of Minnesota Public Radio will discuss this topic on November 22 with local authors Charlie Quimby, Peter Geye, and Scott Dominic Carpenter, whose novels deal with different aspects of loss. In Carpenter’s Theory of Remainders, the disappearance of a child triggers a family drama within the rich landscapes of rural France; Quimby’s Monument Road, set in the rugged terrain of western Colorado, portrays a husband grappling with the death of his beloved wife; Geye’s The Lighthouse Road traces the saga of a misbegotten immigrant family struggling in early settlements along the Minnesota North Shore.

Friday, November 22 at 7:00 p.m.
Micawber’s Books
2238 Carter Avenue
St. Paul, MN

Stephanie Curtis produces online content for The Daily Circuit program on MPR News. She has produced events, daily news shows, documentaries, conferences and call-ins for MPR News. She also was among the pioneering producers who launched 89.3 The Current. You can hear her discuss movies every Thursday on The Cube Critics.

Peter Geye was born and raised in Minneapolis, where he continues to live with his wife and three kids. He received his BA from the University of New Orleans, and his PhD from Western Michigan University, where he taught creative writing and was editor of Third Coast. He has also been a bartender, bookseller, banker, copywriter, and cook.

“The echoes of the characters’ heartbreak through the generations are as haunting as the howling of the wolves on the wind.”
—Booklist, starred review of The Lighthouse Road

Scott Dominic Carpenter was raised in the UK and the US. After grim jobs in agriculture, uranium mining, and every conceivable aspect of the restaurant business, he decided to try his
hand at teaching and writing. Now a professor at Carleton College, he divides his time between Minnesota and Paris. When not writing (or in the classroom), you can often find him on some rural road astride his bicycle.

“Fully realized characters, a remarkable fluency of language, wit, and an extensive
comprehension of French culture and history, make this literary novel a stellar achievement.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review of Theory of Remainders

Charlie Quimby’s writing life has always crossed divides. A playwright turned critic. A protest songwriter who worked for a defense contractor. A blogger about taxpaying and homelessness. He wrote award-winning words for others in Harvard Business Review, Financial World magazine and the NFL Hall of Fame. Naturally, he splits his time between Minneapolis and his native western Colorado.

“Part modern western, part mystery, this first novel will appeal to fans of Louise Erdrich and
Kent Haruf. Quimby’s prose reads so true, it breaks the heart.”
—Booklist, starred review of Monument Road

Friday, October 18, 2013

What is Wrong With Poetry?(#5) I attempt to tackle it.

I should start by thanking the four good souls who helped me start this thing. Thoughtful people, no surprise, led to thoughtful responses. I also should note that I sent this question to a few other people I termed the 'poetry mafia.' More responses could very well still appear here. If anyone out there in Internet land wants to contribute please let me know.

This project, if you will, began with my own general curiosity. Why do so many people fear poetry? How can I better change that sad fact? I come at this topic from two vantage points--one as an amateur lover of poetry and the written word. Second, as a bookseller.

Some poets I love are: Rebecca Lindenberg, Frank Bidart, Ruth Stone, Tracy K. Smith, Jack Gilbert, C.K. Williams, Maurice Manning, Jeffrey Yang(as writer and editor), Barbara Ras, James Wright, Natasha Tretheway, Yehuda Amichai, Major Jackson, Thomas McGrath, Louise Gluck, Yusef Komunyakaa, Brian Turner, James Dickey, Li-Young Lee and Marie Howe. That isn't a list anyone should adhere to. Much like wine or music or style, I strongly believe that all of our tastes change and evolve. So it should go with poetry.

Poetry and short stories are the two oft maligned categories that I fight for. Many readers will say, "oh, I don't read poetry/short stories." It is very much like children who are unwilling to eat certain vegetables. They do not know what they are missing.

As far as poetry goes, I am of the simple opinion that one should try lots of different things and see what you like. Liking something does not equate to relativism.

I see poetry everywhere. In church and fast food joint signs. I like about 10% of spoken word and graffiti. Good books of poems are like a record. No single covers what it can be. What I love about poetry is that it makes me pay attention to the line, to a detail, to a word. It demands and deserves ones time.

Yet what is wrong with poetry? It can be insular. It can be obtuse. It can mirror the problems any other form of art must combat. And this one simple fact: it doesn't sell well enough to carry it's weight in almost every single bookstore in the world. Maybe that is okay in the eyes of many. It can be a labor of love. Bookstores, however, cannot be museums of words. The books must actually be bought by customers. Or else the entire thing is a failure.

I love you, poetry. I do truly and wholeheartedly. But we have some shit to get through. Mary Oliver and Billy Collins might not be adored by the poetry cognoscenti. They may, in fact, be looked down upon. But I feel that is the wrong angle to take. Reading them could lead to other poems. Reading them could to something else. Or not.Either way, I'm good with it

To close, I give you a prose poem that I adore. I carried a copy of it in my wallet for many years. Now I have a copy on my desk. I know it by heart.

"Part of Eve's Discussion"
It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin, like
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.

--Marie Howe

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What is Wrong With Poetry(#4)

Dobby Gibson will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Micawber's. He did the first piece on Micawber's after we bought the store and he made us look good.

He is the author of "Polar", "Skirmish" and "It Becomes You." I would also vote for him as most dapper male author in MN(Marlon James is 1b).

His response to my question was, "Is something wrong with poetry? Serious question. I have no idea how to answer that. I feel like I'm being asked: 'What's wrong with the sky?'."

Here is a film about Dobby and poetry that I just saw for the first time this past weekend.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What is Wrong With Poetry(#3)

Éireann Lorsung is a woman of many talents. She is a poet. She runs a small publishing house and creates amazing small press books(among other things of wonder). Check out her myriad talents here. Her two books of poems have both been published by Milkweed Editions.

Here is what she sent to me--

What is Wrong with Poetry?
Three problems, to begin with; not with Poetry, but with this Interlocutor:
1. I do not like confict, and I doubly dislike confict as it takes place on the internet. Even staking a claim (or stating a strong opinion) often makes me feel dangerously close to an invisible horde of strangers who at their best will demonstrate shortcomings in my thought, and at their worst will threaten to fnd my house and burn it down with me in it.

2. When I am asked to defend or take a position on a statement, I almost immediately
see how the reverse of the statement is true, even if I already agree with the original idea—and this is generally true for me, not exclusive to assignments like “write an essay about—”; it happens even in ordinary moments, like the habitual consensusmaking utterances English people follow their sentences with (don't they). An easier way to put this is that I'm contrary. The high-falutin' explanation probably has to do with having studied deconstruction for too long.

3. A congenital unwillingness to be pinned down, a desire to remain elusive (even to
myself), and a taste for the contradictory or the in-between means I have not
necessarily developed my skills in arguing something for the sake of arguing it. This
is certainly complicated by the fact that [see 1. and 2.].
So, reader, with those caveats I'll begin. And begin by saying that Poetry, like Granite or Wheat or Water or Nitrogen or Sailboats, is a category which does not, in itself exist; it exists in its exemplars. I suppose it might be possible to
judge each exemplar individually to fnd out what precisely is wrong with it and to make a graph of these wrongs in order to arrive at a general or cumulative idea of what is wrong with poems, but that would (a) take a long time, and (b) require some sort of scale by which to judge. The scale that has been used in the place I come from (which begins with the Romans and ends with the Moderns, pretty much, although that's a chronological expression of it, rather than an evaluative one) doesn't
work for me, in part because it has tended to leave out poems that do things it's unconcerned with, including feel. And those things matter to me. But in any case, that scale, like any other I or anyone could devise, is about measuring the poem in its singular instance, rather than the category Poetry, and so I'll leave it for another time, and likely someone else. Yes: Poetry as category. As a category, Poetry does not exist. It is impossible to touch Poetry, just as it is impossible to touch Sailboats, even though at this very moment I am within arm's reach of many
poems (even collected into books of poetry) and once, many summers ago, I sat in a tiny and imperfect sailboat painted yellow on the inside, with the name The Old Took in scrolling print on its dark blue hull. The poem is not Poetry; the sailboat is not Sailboats. Poetry is perfect in its nonexistence: it's a Platonic form of itself. The problem, then, is when it becomes real, singular,touchable. In short, what's wrong with Poetry is the moment it becomes human.The human touching Poetry, making a poem at her desk or on the subway, walking down the street,sitting at a tacky table in a cheap restaurant somewhere, that's what's wrong with Poetry. The human, introducer of contaminants and biases, of polemic and perspective. The human, active carrier of the virus we call Flaw, which marks all she touches with her mark and makes it no longer
the form of itself—perfect and nonexistent—but an instance of itself, individual, real, and intimately broken.

There is nothing really wrong with Poetry itself; it is a fairly neutral and uninteresting substance, the way perfect things mostly are. It exists as a distraction from what is happening on the ground—from the making of poems and from the interaction between time and the poem, which we can't witness but have to trust. Griping about Poetry (about its exclusivity/its accessibility; its banality/its remove
from everyday life; its uselessness/its appropriation by those who use it for ends of which we don't approve), we neglect the fact that the poem, despite its problems, is going on. Which is the important thing. The fawed and singular poem, which cannot stand for much beyond itself and certainly is not a perfect form—not a banner under which the gilded armies of Art can gather—which happens at the point that the element Poetry meets the crucible of the person: that is the important thing.

Often Poetry is used as a stand-in for 'access to education in the arts' or 'access to publishing and recognition'; it represents the division of people who make one kind of work from those who make another. Poetry as an impenetrable category, a fortress of concealed meanings to which you probably don't have the key; Poetry as What I Do but Not What You Do—these positions, adopted for who knows what reason by perhaps each of us at some point, primarily serve to batten down our hatches, create some illusion of capability or assurance about whatever it is that we're working on.
Their effect is the establishment of a brittle territory fought over by those whose work would be better served by making the work and, in so doing, broadening the territory itself, rather than making space for themselves by barring others from the land they think they own. But again, this is not something wrong with Poetry the category; it is the point of contact between the human and the work of writing and the way we imagine Poetry.

Imagining Poetry I think of a man in ballooning tights, carrying a lute and wearing a funny hat. It is impossible to contain the history and the future and the extant corpus of work and the potential corpus of work and the billions of personal and cultural defnitions and uses that defne this thing—Poetry; it is impossible to touch them with a fnger, to stick a fagpole in the land and descend the mountain with a claim to know What Is. Which is, I acknowledge, diffcult. It is always easier, given
our puny human brains, to encounter things we can encapsulate and know and fgure out. That way,we can trust ourselves to say what's wrong with them, and maybe to fx them. Or at least to become good critics of them, which seems to have worth—if only in getting rid of things that function poorly or have no use-value.
Poetry is used when people mean writing or what has been or is being written, as in

What Is Wrong With Poetry Is That It Makes Nothing Happen, as though visible, quantitative results are the only things to be aimed for in this life, and the only worthwhile occupations are those that fll the time with fnancially rewarding, demonstrably valuable pursuits. Making Nothing happen is a shorthand dismissal of something for ineffectiveness or invisibility—which depends on the assumption that
productivity, effectiveness, effciency, visibility, and non-exorbitance are absolute goods. Poetry making Nothing happen pokes a small hole in the fabric of that assumption; despite its exorbitance,the frivolity of something existing only to make Nothing happen, it does exist. As a writer I am happy with the Nothing that happens in and on the body of the reader, including my body when I read, and if Poetry as a category can make that Nothing happen, then from my perspective this is not something that is Wrong With It but something actually quite Right. If I have, after all this thinking and avoiding, to say that something is wrong with Poetry, I fgure I will have to say that what is wrong with it is what's wrong with anything we cannot touch and yet have expectations of: it's bound to disappoint. It's bound to be used to keep some people out. It's bound to be made a border between what's valuable or not, a border I don't trust because the system that sets it up has values I don't agree with, values that are mostly to do with what a thing is worth in a market that makes no sense to me. But it's my tendency, too, to say In or Out with things I love and don't; insofar as Poetry stands for the little societies we build on earth and their
exclusivities and pettinesses, that's its problem. But then what's wrong with It is what is wrong with Us, and I come again to the intersection of the frail, fallible human and the poem: that point of sparks and possibility and danger and failing, the point we love in poems we love and the point that fails for us in poems we don't.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What is Wrong With Poetry(#2)

Jeff Shotts is an executive editor at Graywolf Press. I could go on and on about the fine list of authors he has worked with and the awards many of those books have won. However, Laurie Hertzel's Star Tribune piece on him does a better job.

I think of Jeff as a steward for poetry. He's a professional, certainly, but he also recognizes and values the impact poetry can have on all of us. Here is what he sent to me:


Since you asked, there is nothing wrong with poetry, with writing poetry, with reading poetry, with letting poetry move you, challenge you, influence you, define you, change you over and over.

We have always questioned poetry, what it does, what it can do, how it can lift up and suppress, how it makes shadows on the wall. It has provided our greatest forms of written or spoken expression and of written or spoken propaganda. It is so important, so vital to our collective imagination that we can ignore it and it hums on everywhere.

You can live a life without knowing who [enter name of poet] is. But it is impossible to live a life that isn’t asking the same questions that [enter name of poet] is.

Every person is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.
-Tomas Transtrómer

There is nothing wrong with poetry. It is a shame to have to write that sentence, and that our culture questions its art and artists with such skepticism, such suspicion. Questioning empowers the art. Skepticism and suspicion degrade it.

Listen. Do you hear that? The scrolling of social media. The ticker of news feeds. The permutations of search engines.

Poetry has been written for millennia, and spoken for longer. It survives whoever writes it or speaks it.

Every person is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.

A note to my sons: Hello, boys! You are five and two as I write this, but if you look hard enough, you may find this years from now, somehow. If you do, I want you to know that I was always thinking of you. It must sometimes have seemed otherwise, a father’s face turned to a screen, or to a book, or to a poem. But I saw you too, and loved you, and love you still, in these places.

Poetry has such particular uses.

Sorry, what was the question? What is wrong with poetry?

There is nothing wrong with poetry. But it does what we do. Like love or fear.

Our world is a clamor. Our poetry is a clamor. They try, but no one can pull these sounds apart.

Monday, October 14, 2013

What is wrong with poetry?(Part #1)

Awhile back I asked this question to several people who live in the world of poetry. Writers of it, editors of it, professional advocates for this praised and defamed form. The question can be looked at in a variety of ways: is it earnest or antagonistic or foolish or too difficult to answer? I got some great responses and have decided to split this post into five parts. Batting lead-off is Patricia Kirkpatrick--whose most recent book, "Odessa" from Milkweed Editions, won the MN Book Award for Poetry.


Nothing is wrong with poetry. National Poetry Month occurs in April. Garrison Keillor reads poetry daily on the radio. Poetry appears online. Poetry slams bring people who haven’t come–or been invited–to poetry before. The Poetry Foundation website–among others–offers lists of poems about gardening or getting married. College creative writing programs are burgeoning and the enrollments–and tuition payments-of students who want to study writing and become writers keep traditional English
programs afloat. Teachers complain that more people want to write poetry than
to read it, and there’s some truth to that. But poetry is alive if not always well. I sense that poetry is showing up more often and more meaningfully in the daily lives of Americans than it has for a long time. I’m guessing that the question “What is wrong with poetry?” has something to do with the fact that not a lot of people, other than poets and sometimes not even poets, want to read it. Does ‘wrong’ mean ‘difficult?’ Does ‘difficult’mean ‘inaccessible?’Does ‘inaccessible’ mean ‘wrong?’What is right about poetry is that, as Kurt Vonnegut once noted, poets extend the language and we live with, if not in, language. What is right about poetry is that,confused or grief-stricken, inspired or passionate, dreaming or melancholy, we share it when we fall in love, a child dies, or a bridge is built. And beautiful, charged, mysterious, and crafted poems are being written. Of course poetry can be difficult to read and even obscure. Sometimes a poem baffles me so completely, I change the question to ‘what is wrong with me?’

An aside. There is a current of contemporary poetry thought of as experimental or hybrid which, influenced by philosophy, other media, and science as well as literature, favors the process of writing a poem over its resolution. Such hybrid poems, according to Cole Swenson, “honor the avant-garde mandate to renew the forms and expand the boundaries of poetry—thereby increasing the expressive potential of language itself….” I went to graduate school in San Francisco when the influencial “Language Poets” were prominent, but I was influenced not converted.

Poetry is difficult because we live in difficult times. More difficult than other times? Muriel Rukeyser writes in The Life of Poetry published in 1949, years before people were multitasking with cell phones or American school children were slaughtered in classrooms, “The angry things that have been said about our poetry have also been said about our time. They are both ‘confused,’ ‘chaotic,’ ‘violent,‘obscure.’” Much that is often cited as confusing and chaotic in poetry, the unrhymed lines, the quick jumps and juxtapositions, have been qualities of poetry for hundreds of years.

Poetry is difficult because its concentrated patterns of language and silence create intersections between the visible and invisible worlds. Poetry isn’t journalism or sociology or simply anecdotes. A poem doesn’t have a right answer or mean one thing despite how many teachers have insisted to students that it does. Poetry is difficult because there’s a lot of it out there, some of it not very good, and how do you know where to begin or learn to tell the good from the bad? Poetry is difficult because to write or read it requires time, sometimes patience, often solitude or at the least quiet. People are busy; overworked, underpaid. Some people don’t read anything: novels, the newspaper, the positions of political candidates whose decisions will affect their lives.

South African playwright Athol Fugard once complained that there are so many incredible stories in America and “nobody is telling them.” I don’t take that to mean poets should write more narrative poetry. Poet Jim Moore used to ask his students what books of poetry they would take to the hospital. I ‘ve been to the hospital, where I had a baseball sized brain tumor removed from my skull, and I know what books I took. This is from “If Time is An Engine,” by Eleanor Lerman in The Mystery of Meteors.

“The sky is blue by day, blue in the evening/but I know the way of the hidden stars/and I’m still alive, I still know secrets/There is nothing I have left undone/ So my keys are on the table./ You can sell my/ clothes…”

How difficult should poetry become? Is there a tipping point at which a poetry’s difficulty overtakes its ability to be read or received by someone other than the poet?


I think poets should be concerned with those questions.If you are a poet, who do you want to read your poetry? If you are a reader, when was the last time you read a book of poetry? Gave a poem to a child? Copied a poem in your own handwriting? I love remembering what I once heard Mark Doty say: the longer you can stay underwater, the further you can see in the dark.

If you don’t respond to one poem, choose another. The poets are there: Oliver, Dickinson, Howe. Rasmussen, Clifton, Sheck. Transtromer, Sutphen, Farah. Li Ch’ing-Chao, Sayers, Yau. The poets are there, and I believe the readers are too, especially if the rest of us, writers, teachers, editors, parents, and booksellers, help us find each other.

Patricia Kirkpatrick, August 2013

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Book with planes, trains and automobiles

There was once a time in a land and era far away when one could peek at the bookcase(s) and record and/or cd collections of the person they were dating. This has now changed with the world that is much more digital. Recently I have done some travel via plane, train(MN light-rail and D.C. Metro) and automobile. My research methods are not exhaustive or solid given the sample size but there is one reality that is hard to escape--we have our noses and fingers in our iphones, smartphones, tablets and whatever else they might be called.

Flying to Washington I picked a book out of my bag. The gentleman seated next to me said: "Huh, some people still do that?" I laughed. Then it made me sad. I don't make judgements in terms of what anyone reads. Read mystery. Read literary fiction. Read poems. Read. I really don't care. Yet, over and over on that trip, people were surprised by my presence with a book made from paper.

Reading, to me, is a vehicle to other lands and ways of thought. It enables someone to learn. It can be escapist or a jumping off point for discussion. It makes us belong to a tribe.

Two nights ago Edwidge Danticat quoted Toni Morrison. She said, "Who knew that he was writing for a black girl in Ohio?

I love to people-watch. I watch them read magazines and Gillian Flynn and eveything else that is sold in an airport-bookstore. The book is dying and it is rising like a phoenix.

Whenever someone looks at me with my paper book and seems astonished I try to smile and let them know that the book is a tool against tired thinking. It is a form of rebellion. I read to inform and enjoy the world in places unknown to me.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Anatomy of Violence(with apologies to Adrian Raine)

This is one of those posts when I don't know what I'm going to say until I say(type) it. I'm also not certain if there is a coherent point. But it's something that has been bouncing around in my head recently and I need an outlet for that.

Customers frequently ask for suggestions with some clarifications or exceptions--which is helpful and totally fair. Customer x might say, "I can't handle anything where bad things happen to animals." Variations of that can include: children, women, anything other than a zombie. I'm perfectly happy with those limits and abide by them. Another customer might say, "I need something without sadness." Again, perfectly fine. We all need escapes from time to time and there are moments when real life takes its toll. However, there is sadness in life. Not to get too heavy but without darkness there is no light. And there is violence in life. All too often all too much of it. And like any art form, writing must reflect what is real in this world. So, yes, violence.

Recently I've heard two things from customers: "Oh, I liked that book but it was quite violent." And, "It looks good. Is it violent?" Of course that's a hard question to answer. Emotional violence, shooting someone point-blank and the violence of war are only a few of possible situations. Then I started to think about other popular art forms. Television, in particular. The Wire, Breaking Bad, Dexter, CSI, Law and Order and Criminal Minds are just a few shows that come to mind. These are shows that are wildly popular in spite of, or partially due to(?), their explicit violent nature. Very rarely have I heard complaints about what they portray.

So is violence the problem? I'm not sure how to answer that. Is it possible that violence that is shown to us is not as real/bad/horrifying as what we read about and therefore must only imagine? Again, I have no answer. I do think that we've become quite tolerant of images via computer/tv/film. Be it violent or crude language. It's the norm. A professor I had long ago told me that one of the reasons the Vietnam War ended was that the American public was tired of seeing body-bags on the nightly news. We don't see that now, for the most part, with Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria soon to come it seems.

I'm not a proponent of violence without reason or meaning. I'm also not averse to it being there because it needs to be. In art, I mean.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Frank Shay and the oddities

I have a tremendous respect, or odd fascination, with the bookstores of days gone by. I can't remember how I first came upon this image but it has stuck with me for some time. In 1920, Frank Shay opened a little bookstore in New York City. He had customers/authors sign a door in the store as, basically, an art installation.

Everything about this door appeals to me: its vibrant color and the combination of people both famous and forgotten. Thedore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair are just a sample of the more well-known names. Remember the time period as most of the identified signatures are men.

I know lots of bookstores who have authors sign a wall in their back room. We don't have a storage area or closed area to speak of. We have an office(closet-sized) and a small bathroom. All of the receiving of books, for us, happens on the floor of the store right by the register. So, over time, I've had authors sign odds and ends. Promo pieces from publishers or ads we've run. They always seem a bit surprised and pleased to do something quite bizarre. I have a cardboard scarp with Stephen King's name on it. Cheryl Strayed signed a posterboard for her book "Wild." Jonathan Franzen signed a sheet that says, "Mr. Franzen requests no pictures be taken." We have things signed by local luminaries Deborah Keenan, Patricia Hampl, Krista Tippett and Kao Kalia Yang. I have some older things(from my Hungry Mind days) signed by Colson Whitehead, Kurt Vonnegut and Wendell Berry. These are all authors who have been beyond pleasant and a joy to work with/for.

I was reminded of this, most recently, when we hosted a reading for Eireann Lorsung and Katrina Vandenberg--two poets who have published with Milkweed Editions. Eireann lives in Europe now and runs her own small press. At the reading she gifted me a couple beautiful hand-made little books. A friend of mine(and hers) named Ben Weaver brought me a jar of sauerkraut at the event. Yes, sauerkraut.

The point of this, I suppose, is that I feel lucky to work in an industry that is generally supportive of others working in the arts. Sometimes, a name written on a door or wall or a scrap of paper is a concrete reminder of that good.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The window that has turned into a porthole.

The lifespan of a book can be looked at in a lot of different ways. It's life in hardcover(and/or paperback). It's total life in-print. Or eternity, I suppose. Yet there is a window of time when the book needs to sell to be considered a success and that window, friends, has drastically shrunk over time. Back in the good old days--just kidding--publishers were willing or able to build an author over time or a series of books. That does still happen in some cases though it's becoming more and more rare. Emily St. John Mandel is a good example of this. Unbridled Books and Emily have worked together and her sales are building, her name getting known more widely. I'd say it's a beneficial relationship for both. However, like I said, that's no longer the norm.

Publishers get anxious quickly regarding sales numbers and while it's certainly not my place to say what's fair or unfair about how they market and handle their books it does seem, at times, like some publishers take their foot off the gas on working for some books when the sales don't pop right out of the gate. That's partially due to the river of books coming--always new ones that need to be worked on. It's due to the new way in which books are reviewed. Yes, the NYT Sunday Book Review is still big. The Rumpus and Bookslut are major players. Blogs run by individuals, professional reviewers and stores all factor in.

I'm certainly a part of the problem in some small ways. I'll move a book off the front table if it hasn't been looked at or sold much in a few weeks. That has to make authors cringe--a few weeks? they rightly could complain. I'm always harping about how the store has to look fresh, different and new constantly. Part of that is what we display changing often. That means things getting moved that aren't themselves moving. From time to time an author will ask that their book get displayed and if it's been out for 6-12 months the answer is likely no. That's not a hard and fast rule but is a general guideline.

On the other hand, we do display lots of books that aren't just out. An employee might like it, we might sell a lot, it might just have a nice cover. It might even fit into a small space we need to fill. One thing I'm proud of is that we never do paid placement and never, ever, will. Like all stores we also have some sweetheart back-list titles that continue to sell over time. Depending on the store, these titles usually have a local connection or are hand-sold by booksellers or used by book-clubs in the area. Or come from a local publisher. It is highly unusual for an old backlist title to simply sell itself over a long period of time.

Here are some of the titles we continue to sell over time. Well, first, I should say there are some outliers. People like Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson and Charles Portis continue to roll because they are who they are.

Here are a half-dozen titles from us that have become our little gems. Esi Edugyan's "Half-Blood Blues" is benefited by having a striking cover. That helps. It also has a jazz hook and has moved word-of-mouth for us over time. She has won a slew of Canadian fiction prizes and it's easy to tell why after reading her. Robert Clark's "Mr. White's Confession" is a novel that was re-issued in 2008 after being gone for about ten years. It is fantastic St. Paul 1930's era stuff. Clark once wrote for a local newspaper and people remember the name. "The Hare With Amber Eyes" by Edmund De Waal is a book both Tom and I loved when it first came out. Art history isn't our usual sweet-spot but this has great family history to go with it and is a natural for book groups and fans of strong non-fiction. Another favorite of both Tom and myself is David Benioff's "City of Thieves." This reads like a movie and it will be one at some point. The Siege of Leningrad and humor aren't something most people think about immediately. Yet here it is. I'm a Joe Mitchell fanatic and I will try to sell his "Up in the Old Hotel" to almost anyone who asks for a recommendation. It is one of the very few books I go back to and read again and again. Finally, Kao Kalia Yang's "Latehomecomer" is our overall best-selling book. Published by Coffee House Press it has strong local ties with the Hmong population and its strongest asset is that people who read often buy multiples to give out to friends, family and co-workers.

So while it can be tough for authors to keep their name and titles in the minds of readers given the intense competition it is good to remember that three weeks is not the be-all even today.

Monday, July 29, 2013

This blog begins to breathe again. Or, swimming against the big, bad, river.

Blogs are like gardens. They need care and attention or they can go feral and get out of control. Or die. So I welcome you back here with some big happenings from the book business over the weekend.

Shelf Awareness is the one thing that almost everyone in the book biz peeks at, if not daily, at least with some regularity. Yet I was surprised when I saw an e-mail from them in our inbox on Saturday morning. Here it was. Since then there has been much heated response and debate about what it means.

And it's funny because one of the main reasons I took a break from the blog is that there was this one post I wanted to get done and get it done right. Not with irony or being glib. Well-reasoned and even-handed with the right amounts of anger, resolve and uncertainty. I couldn't pull that together in a way that made sense to me. So I took a break altogether mostly out of frustration with myself. I had promised myself(and a couple regular readers) that I would get back at it in August. And I do have a yellow legal pad with a dozen or so ideas scribbled down and none of them had anything at all to do with Amazon. Yet here we are again. Here is another summary from Melville House.

If I were to take issue with anything that has been said it would be that this is 'an open declaration of war against the industry' part. Because, to me, that declaration was made a very long time ago. To my mind this is a very specific battle within that war. It might be to go after in part. Mainly, this is Amazon attempting to land the last blows against B&N. Amazon is going big-game hunting and to rid themselves of Borders and B&N in a relatively short period of time would be a major victory for them. Everyone else? Well, I feel the same now as I did then only knowing that this would be much worse for everyone besides Amazon(of course). Because this is about totally securing the sales of the blockbusters to the price-chasers and'ers and smart-phone zappers. It is about getting loyalty from a kind of consumer that has been hard to pin down. It is about nailing the coffin.

There are things that come to mind like: why don't some indies band together and buy these books at outrageous discounts(at least 20% higher than what we get)to resell? The John Green book, in particular, is one that would make the biggest difference for us. Yet that's a simple and not real solution for me. The larger questions are:why did we let Amazon do this to our industry? Enticed by their sales numbers and all-powerful website that could sell anyone anything at anytime of the day or night. So easy to not be bothered with actual store hours--we are now facing the windows being boarded at the two major chains. Here again is the irony--who are some of the biggest supporters of the online sales tax initiatives? Not just mom and pops--but Target and Best Buy. Nearly everyone is trying to stay afloat.

Now, much like the NY Yankees, we're seeing what happens when too many eggs get placed in one basket. Amazon will likely end up being our Alex Rodriguez--once considered the savior, once so young and pretty only to become a broken and overpaid nightmare. And in A Rod's case: a total cheater.

Adding insult to all of this was the news that President Obama would be speaking this week in Chattanooga at an Amazon fulfillment center.

And am I disappointed in Obama? Yes, of course. I'm not sure what adjective to use but his decision or the decision made by his handlers/decision makers shows so little effort or thought about how our current economy does and does not work. And what is and what is not good for small business that it's shocking. Or appalling. Or disappointing. So there are a few to choose from.

A customer asked me over the weekend what I thought the biggest disservice that Amazon had done to the book industry. I said, at the time, that I wasn't sure. After giving it some thought I would have to say that it is the idea that retail is 'way too expensive.' Standard retail price isn't a dirty thing. We're not marking up handbags or watches to make couture items. It's a price that has been decided. Yes, I understand free-market economics and the idea that people can sell items for what they choose. Yet when one group decides to undercut the industry standard in such blatant and far-reaching ways it makes it quite difficult for anyone else to play the same game.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Read it first--then see it. Or the other way around.

Because, in this case, it doesn't matter. I was lucky catch a documentary called Sign Painters last night at local gem Trylon Microcinema.

The film was done by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon and it features three Minnesota artists. One, Mike Meyer of Mazeppa and two guys from South Minneapolis. Following image is from Meyer's personal collection and is from the 1930's at a theater in Mankato.

Levine and Macon also put together a great book from this project. Princeton Architectural Press packaged it beautifully and, at $24.95, it is well-priced. Levine, in the preface to the book notes that her own love of these signs began in the 1990's when she lived here and frequented the West Bank(where much old and new sign-art exists).

One idea I took from the film is that when a sign-painter tells others what their occupation is they often get a confused look. We all see signs everywhere yet we often don't think about who put them there. The how and why are abstractions to almost everyone. Both the book and film show these artists and their varied skills. It is hand-painting. But it is also goldleaf, lettering and font-work. Many of the younger ones come from the world of graphic design. The older ones got into the trade directly or from tattoo work.

Here is an interview with the two local artists whose work adorns so many local haunts. The huge Fitzgerald mural at the Fitz Theater. That's them. And smaller pieces all over town. You can see more of their work at the bottom of that interview. I love the detail and character each piece brings to a business. It's an art that took a nosedive in the late 80's and 90's but is making in a comeback. And that's a good thing for public art and design.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

An update from some of the Read This booksellers

One question I've been asked at nearly every event I've participated in for Read This! is: "What is one book you've read since publication that you would add to the list?"

So I asked the contributors for one thing they've read recently and really enjoyed. Per usual with this fun cast of characters, we got some great responses.

Flora by Gail Godwin (Bloomsbury, May 2013, 26.00)

The narrator of Gail Godwin's brilliant new novel is a older woman looking back upon her life
as a ten year-old in the summer of 1945. Helen's mother died when she was three and Helen
lives with her father and her wise, dear grandmother, Nonie. Her father is called "to the other
side of the mountain" to work at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on something called the Manhattan
Project, and when Nonie suddenly dies, her father summons Helen's mother's 22 year-old
sister, Flora, to take care of the girl for the summer. Helen has cynical tendencies and is very
precocious, while Flora, occasionally stunned by the girl's sharpness, is cheerful and dutiful.
A polio quarantine forces the two into a rather unwanted constant companionship, and when
Finn, the appealing but mysteriously discharged veteran, appears as their grocery delivery man,
a rivalry is exacerbated. Gail Godwin's masterful plot tension (not to be spoiled here) and her
power to create characters with remarkable depth, as well as her gift for prose, elevate the whole
into entirely successful literature and reading of high pleasure. If you think there is no one
today who can write with the skill of a Peter Taylor or, for that matter, George Eliot, read Flora.(Richard Howorth, Square Books)

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

Follows the insane exploits of Egon Loeser in the 1930s, from Berlin, where he falls for a girl named Adele Hitler (no relation,) to Paris and Los Angeles, where he pursues Adele and also manages to get himself involved in the craziest of capers. On top of being uber-smart and hilarious, the ending will make you take your eyeballs out, rinse them off, and put them back in, just to be sure you read the last few pages correctly. You did. MIND=BLOWN. (Liberty Hardy, RiverRun)

John Le Carre's A Delicate Truth (Viking, May) reminds us why we're fond of him in the first place. It's genre writing but with the literature thrown in, as he tells a story of a counter-terrorist operation gone badly wrong not with through the pop-pop pyrotechnics of a Tom Clancy but with an economy of style and understatement, with crackling wit and a strong sense of morality and characters fully drawn. Proof that good writing doesn't have to be inaccessible. (Matt Lage, Iowa Book)

by Anthony Marra
(Hogarth, hd., $26)
May 7, 2013

Every few years there comes along a debut novel that just steals my heart because the work is so transcendent and such an unexpected joy to read. I'm thinking of Tea Obreht with The Tiger's Wife or Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated for example. Well, now it's Anthony Marra with his remarkable A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Set in contemporary Chechnya against a back drop of war and insurgency, it is a testament to Marra's skill that the novel is heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting. It even made me want to read up on Chechen history and that's something that I never thought I would say. Do yourself a favor and check out this splendid new writer of whom Ann Patchett says, "If this is where Anthony Marra begins his career, I can't imagine how far he will go." (Cody Morrison, Square Books)

by Jill McCorkle
(Algonquin, hd. $24.95)
March 26,2013

Is there some sort of energy used by novelists that when not used builds up and when finally sent out in a book is like a dam breaking with torrents of emotion and story so powerful that the reader is helplessly swept away? After reading Jill McCorkle's first novel in 17 years, one has to wonder. Set in a retirement home where some have come to die, but there is so much life to live as well. Joanna, who has had her own troubles in life, now volunteers for hospice care, gently guiding those who are leaving this life. Sadie, a retired school teacher and the boddi satva of the home, is compassionate to all as she wields her scissors and glue to create photos of residents in places all over the world. Rachel Silverman, a lawyer, who, while knowing no one in town, has come to live there from her home in Massachusets. C.J., rebellious, pierced and tattooed, but trying to be the best mother to her young son that she can. Stanley, faking dementia to encourage his son to move on, and Abby, a young girl seeking the positive reinforcement she can't get from her mother, all make their place here. A novel to remind one that everyone has a story. (Lyn Roberts, Square Books)

Dust to Dust by Benjamin Busch. Here's what I said about the hardcover, and I stand by this strong recommendation a year later: In this completely original memoir, Busch meditates on materials such as water, soil, blood, stone, and wood, telling his life story from childhood curiosity to wartime high alert with breathtakingly detailed observations. There is very little of the usual memories of relationships, but instead this is a journey into the mind of a boy and man who sees differently, and has the words to beautifully describe his experiences and thoughts. This is a profound book, with lasting impact that I want to press this into the hands of everyone I know.(Carla Jimenez, Inkwood Books )

Wise Men, by Stuart Nadler

Oh, so you like Great American Novels, huh? But you think that none have been published in a few decades? You poor soul! You're wrong! Stuart Nadler's debut novel has it all: love, money, race, airplanes, baseball, beach houses. It's a book to read now or in fifty years. Delicious and satisfying.(Emma Straub)

Most of my reading attention lately was focused on Hugh Howey's Wool. It's a book that, like the 50 Shades series, started as a self-published phenomenon but ended up at a major publishing house. Unlike EL James' books, Wool is really freakin' good. (Hey, I can say this. I subjected myself to 50 Shades of Grey. Sacrifice!) Set in a future US where the environment is toxic and mankind has retreaded to underground silos, the world of Wool is brilliantly realized. There's a satisfying undercurrent of menace from the very first page, as is the wont of all good dystopias. And it's got a kick-ass female protagonist! The ending is a bit too tidy, and I have a few quibbles with Howey's writing in the early chapters, but neither issue is big enough to stop me from recommending the book. In fact, it's probably my favorite dystopian novel since Justin Cronin's The Passage.
(Josh Christie. Sherman's Books)

Benediction, Kent Haruf, , Knopf, $25.95

Without ever slipping into sentimentality Kent Haruf has laid bare the hearts of a dying man, Dad Lewis, a sort of Everyman, and the family and friends of his present life, along with the memories and ghosts from his past. A more painfully “human” character than Dad Lewis is hard to imagine—someone whose refusal to bend results in tragedy for more than one person; someone chary of open emotion; someone who, paradoxically, is capable of the deepest kind of love. The rest of the cast consists of his wife of many years; the daughter who has come home to help care for him; an estranged son who visits him in memory and in dying dreams; assorted neighbors, children and adult alike; the Pastor and his family—all with troubles of their own. For all its rural grace, the high plains town of Holt, Colorado, is no Eden. Bigotry and violence are as much a reality there as they are everywhere. But there is also a wealth of caring that seems to be part of Holt’s rural character—or more accurately, part of the character of humanity as Haruf sees it, sees us. He seems to see in each of us the capability for hope as well as pain, the capacity for redemption as well as sin. Kent Haruf has crafted a tale that is as riveting, as shot with joy, anger, fear, love, regret, as life itself—and one that, in its compassionate and profoundly honest view of humanity, really does feel like a kind of benediction. – Betsy Burton, The King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah

In the spirit of Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road, Caroline Leavitt peels back the neat façade of suburban life in the 1950s to uncover the ways in which the demands of conformity leave a trail of loneliness and pain for those who lie outside its bounds. Ava Lark, the divorced Jewish mother of twelve-year-old Lewis, struggles against the judgment of neighbors as she and her son befriend the only other fatherless children around, Jimmy and Rose. Jimmy’s sudden, unexplained disappearance taps into every parent’s worst nightmare. Blending taut suspense with deeply moving portrayals of fierce parental love, childhood friendships and first crushes, Leavitt has created a novel with haunting characters and much to say about how we move through tragedy. (Libby Cowles, Maria's)

The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy (Harper Collins, June 2013, $24.99, 9780062112248)
The incandescent prose of this slender novel transfixed me until my heart shattered. Each character I met—with such deep longing in their souls and generosity of their spirits—seemed to be painstakingly carved from the granite of profound emotional truths, and I quite literally collapsed under the weight of it all. Moving backwards and forwards in time, we follow a starburst of people, from France to Los Angeles, whose smallest gestures have grand, echoing reverberations over the course of 66 years. I was (and continue to be) rendered utterly speechless for the magnificence of it.

There's a lot of stuff I've read and loved since our little red book came out, but this one crippled me.(Stacie M. Williams, Boswell Books)

“Folks in a small town from ex-prisoner to preacher, outcast boys to the very old, try to get by facing what seem to them to be the imperfections of their character while pursuing their longing for connection to community—community of others and community with themselves. Rhodes masterfully paints their many layered complexity in language so vivid and kind, it nearly renders the reader breathless. This is a damn fine novel—one of the best kinds—where ordinary people living ordinary lives are drawn by the deft & lyrical touch of the author in such an achingly rich way, one quietly marvels. When you read a novel like this where you dearly wish to move in with the characters, they have already moved in with you.”
—Sheryl Cotleur, Copperfield's Books, Sebastopol, CA

"The Map and The Territory - Michel Houellebecq, long the literary bad-boy of France, has decided to move on from the prostitutes and sex dungeons that made his earlier work so infamous (if just). Consider it the literary equivalent of Woody Allen going on to make Annie Hall. Also, like Allen, Houellebecq excels at the darkly comic. His style here can best be described as "depressive lucidity," or highlighting the impoverishment of everyday life. Or even to put it more bluntly; '"fuck it. Let's go get drunk."

Houellebecq's language is his power. He wields his mighty axe both for comic aggression: there is a vicious and delightful take-down of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, or for beauty: the description of an art installation of photos of Michelin Maps is gorgeous. Even a side-plot involving the man character's father is deeply affecting and powerful.

This is an amazing novel: lucid and enlightening, comic and terrifying. Stefan loved." (Stefan Moorehead, Unabridged Bookstore)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The young Turks

I can tolerate, and understand, a lot of complaints about novels and the world of fiction. Bad endings, sloppy editing and overly done storytelling or style are all valid complaints. The two that I hear most frequently that I have no patience for: it seemed unrealistic(the headlines from CNN every single day are more implausible than any novel) and the old 'there is no good writing since year fill-in-the-blank.' I'm afraid that not much can be done to combat either statement--those people need to believe what they want to believe.

For those who don't believe the latter, or are willing to have their mind changed, I do have some promising news. In the last 4-6 weeks I have read four outstanding novels by young writers. Three, in fact, are debut novels and the other one is the authors second book.

The first is Elliott Holt's "You Are One Of Them" which is something I was made aware of by my friend Casey Peterson at Graywolf Press. Casey reads contemporary fiction like mad and I am always interested in what he likes. Holt has put together a story that I think perfectly captures the angst and worry of children witnessing the Cold War arms race. Set in both Washington, D.C. and Russia the book centers around a friendship between two young girls. As North Korea is currently trying to go off the rails and doing its peace talks with Dennis Rodman(defense item #1 of actual world events being totally nuts)this novel was a great reminder of what this kind of chatter can do to the minds of children. I read this book over the course of two or three days and immediately handed it to my wife who also cruised through it. It has a perfect balance of being a page-turner and very well-written. She will be reading at Magers&Quinn on June 4th at 7:30 p.m. I plan to be there.

The next three have become a trio that I want to discuss as a grouping. And a big part of that has to do with the marketing that is being done for them individually. All three have comparisons to Cormac McCarthy. Blurbs and marketing are a tough business. You want to say that something is completely original but also compare it to past success. Anything vaguely Southern or gothic or tough or masculine tends to get the Cormac tag which is an unfair(and mostly not correct) link. Yet I did love Bill Cheng's "Southern Cross The Dog," Philipp Meyer's "The Son," and Kent Wascom's "The Blood of Heaven." All three are set outside our current world in American frontier times. 1799, early 1800's and 1927 are each of their starting points in reverse order.

All three have some historical research and characters both real and imagined. The storylines are each their own thing but it seemed, to me, while reading them in succession that they are somehow spiritual book cousins. I'm no mastermind at interpreting trends in the book world either by color of book jackets or thematically. But I do wonder what has turned these novelists to American history(and not so recent)? There are no footnotes or traces or David Foster Wallace. There is no use of heavy irony or modern technology and its trappings. These are old-fashioned character and prose-driven works. I have tried to force myself to pick which one was my favorite and it keeps shifting.

I try to stay away from talking about too many books that are not yet published because it seems like a tease. So if you'd like to learn a little bit more about them you can find some stuff here. Bill Cheng. Philipp Meyer and Kent Wascom.

Elliott Holt can also be found here.

Always good to have some books to look forward to.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The truth? You can't handle the truth.

With thanks to a semi-young Jack and a not yet loco Tom Cruise

The book industry is currently in major limbo. None of us know what is going to happen in the next 3-5 years. Or beyond.

Big boys are in trouble. B&N is nearly done. Borders is gone already.

There is a very real chance for small places to assert their strength.

Yet, again, all of this is guess-work.

The book world quakes and shakes and re-configures.

And yet, I strongly believe, the book itself is not dead.

The e-book and the e-reader are waves of the future.

The book. The actual book. It remains and will not leave.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Looking over the shoulder at 2012

Last year I did a little write-up about my mistakes. It became clear that people love to read about other people screwing up. So it would make some sense to do the same thing this year--but I'm skipping over that as mistakes can be difficult to confront.

What I will be doing is a scatter-shot review of the year for us and, to a lesser degree, the book world at large.

After talking to a number of other stores and sales reps I feel it's pretty safe to say that 2012 was a pretty good year for most stores. Things started well for a good majority of stores and rolled along until a strong holiday season. As has been reported elsewhere, this year featured no smash-hit country wide. No Mark Twain bio. All in all, it's a positive sign for the industry that things can go well with everyone sharing a little of the success.

Last week I posted our bestsellers for the year and for the month of December. Outside of those books we were lucky to have a number of other books do quite well. "Stockholm Octavo" and "Leon and Louise" were two nice surprises. "Press Here" and "Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site" were big hits in the kids book realm. We had a number of locals do well: Peter Geye's "The Lighthouse Road" and Carrie Newman's "War on the Prairie" being the most notable.

Trying to sense any solid trend is risky business for our store. We've been here for 10 years(officially in August 2013)and that is still a small sample size. Two things I can say is that this past fall was very strong for us in terms of hardcover book sales. And cookbook sales have gone bonkers. The cookbook thing really should be its own post(note to self). It's most likely a combination of the ever increasing interest in cooking shows(Bourdain, Top Chef, Chopped, etc.) and the quality of these books getting better and better. It's also one area of the book world not easily or well replicated on a tablet/reader. A recipe is a recipe. But the pictures and other miscellany count for a lot. The hardcover sales are something I can't really put a finger on.

The last thing I'd be remiss not to note is the fact that bookstores(real, physical, spaces) had a renaissance of sorts in 2012. There were a number of books on books and bookstores. We were lucky to be involved in a couple of them. Ann Patchett, whose store in Nashville, TN has been open for just over a year, became a perfect spokesperson for us and kept us the regular media loop. I also had the great fortune to edit a book of lists from booksellers and it put me into contact with stores all over the country. What I learned, and continue to appreciate, is that we all play for the same team. In December I spoke on the phone, daily, with booksellers from Magers&Quinn, Common Good and Subtext. We called each other to find books that weren't in stock at our own stores. It was a sign of respect/admiration for one another to be sure. It was also a concerted effort to help customers find books locally if at all possible.

I've said this many times before but I feel strongly about it: the MN/Twin Cities book world is as good as, or better than, anyplace in the United States. We have a strong community of bookstores, publishers and assorted others in the biz as well as a group of readers that allows us to do what we love to do. For that I thank all of you. It was a great year and we look forward to many more.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A little trip to Stockholm(Wisco)

Sometimes we can't see the forest for the trees--isn't that how the old saying goes? The book world is large and varied like the number of creatures alive in the ocean. Bookstores are certainly not one thing. Mystery stores, kids stores, poetry stores. Used Books. Antiquarian and collectible. Remainder stores.

Locally, even, there are groups of book-lovers whose circles I never enter into. The Ampersand Club, for example. In that vein, this past Sunday, my friend Ben and I ventured over to Stockholm, WI to visit Gaylord Schanilec and his studio. I've written briefly about Gaylord and his work on this site before. I have always appreciated his taste in books and other art, his devotion to place and his work--throwback is simply the tip of the iceberg.

In any case, he's always told me I could visit his workspace and we finally made it happen. The drive alone was worth our time. Heading into roadways lined by ancient rock and more and more turkey vultures, hawks of all kinds and eagles coming into view. Maybe it's silly to say that this natural beauty paled in comparison to seeing how his work is made. But for me it's true.

To say he operates in a different part of the book world is a vast understatement. His website lists him as wood engraver and fine paper worker. It doesn't say what is quite obvious: he is a link to old world art and is absolutely a master craftsman. Watching him walk around the studio and tolerating our rapid-fire questions about his tools and machinery, I couldn't help but think: I am in the midst of real artistic genius. Such talk embarrases him but it's the truth.

It was great fun to look through his archives and the amazing library he has amassed on a wide variety of topics: paper, print-making, poetry, you name it. His most recent and ongoing project involves the great river and the studio is filled with books and maps on the topic. We looked at DNR manuals from the 1920's on the fish of MN. Books he had obtained from James J. Hill's personal library. We share a mutual love of Thomas McGrath and he was happy to show us some stuff he had done with McGrath's work. He was so willing to let us paw through all of his stuff whose worth is great in monetary value but even moreso in more ethereal ways. Several times I said, "We should get out of your way and let you work." He shrugged me off and was happy to have us as a diversion/mild annoyance.

Our conversation brought up so many names from the history and present of books in this area. I have great respect for those who have helped to form what is now our vibrant and diverse book world. Names like Pat Coleman and Will Powers and Jim Sitter and Rob Rulon-Miller. In fact, I have a Bookslinger coffee mug sitting on my shelf right now--Bookslinger being a book distributor that pre-dates both Bookmen and Consortium and that Mr. Sitter helped found.

While I am quite obviously a fanatic for his work in general it became clear to me, on this visit, that this newest work is going to be something on a new level. It's attention to detail and the amazing colors. The map that will fold out from the front of the book. To see all of the woodcuts he has and the paper on the drying racks and revision after revision. The total man hours poured into this is stupefying.

Here is one final link to another paper artist who visited the workshop and was equally impressed.

In short, buy this guys work and you will not be disappointed. We're lucky to have him in the vicinity and kicking out stellar books and prints.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 bestsellers

I'm still mulling over the end of 2012 which was supposedly bad for retail in general but mostly good for smaller stores(including us). Early next week I'll put together some thoughts on the year past. Here are our bestsellers and a mixed-category list of our top-selling titles in December.

December Top 20(Interesting to note that 13 are written by women)

Read This!--Hans Weyandt(ed.)
Round House--Louise Erdrich
Flight Behavior--Barbara Kingsolver
A Thousand Mornings--Mary Oliver
Behind The Beautiful Forevers--Katharine Boo
Help, Thanks, Wow--Anne Lamott
Goblin Secrets--William Alexander
The Signal and the Noise--Nate Silver
Dogfight--Calvin Trillin
Tiny Beautiful Things--Cheryl Strayed
War on the Prairie--Carrie Newman
Dear Life--Alice Munro
Smitten Kitchen Cookbook--Deb Perelman
Things That Are--Amy Leach
The Old Ways--Robert Macfarlane
The MN Book of Skills--Chris Niskanen
Snow Child--Eowyn Ivey
Wolf Hall--Hilary Mantel
The Paris Wife--Paula McLain
Train Dreams--Denis Johnson

Top 10 Hardcover 2012
Wild--Cheryl Strayed
Round House--Louise Erdrich
This is How You Lose Her--Junot Diaz
Things That Are--Amy Leach
Phantom--Jo Nesbo
Behind The Beautiful Forevers--Katharine Boo
Flight Behavior--Barbara Kingsolver
Rez Life--David Treuer
Quiet--Susan Cain
Bring Up The Bodies--Hilary Mantel

Top 10(or so) Paperback 2012
Read This--Weyandt(ed.)
War on the Prairie--Carrie Newman
Tiny Beautiful Things--Cheryl Strayed
Train Dreams-Denis Johnson
The Hare With Amber Eyes--Edmund DeWaal
Cutting For Stone--Abraham Verghese
Open City--Teju Cole
The Art of Fielding--Chad Harbach
Hunger Games--Suzanne Collins
Salvage The Bones--Jesmyn Ward
Sense of an Ending--Julian Barnes
The Half-Blood Blues--Esi Edugyan
The Tiger's Wife--Tea Obreht
State of Wonder--Ann Patchett

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What I Don't Read

I want to preface this by saying that what will follow will sound like jackassery--and I don't intend it to. Yet the truth of the matter is that I get asked to read a lot of books. Asked by eager authors, publicists, friends of friends of writers, other booksellers, friends and random strangers. It's often quite difficult to decide what to read(I know, tough problem).

My reading habits trend towards feast or famine. Meaning there are seven or eight things I want to read at one time or none at all. The logic--if there is any--behind what I choose to read and when is a very inexact science. In the past week two or three very perfect examples of this have taken place.

I started Thomas Maltman's "Little Wolves" several months ago. And by started I mean that I read the first two pages and decided it wasn't my thing. But the momentum kept building by word of mouth with other booksellers and writers. And I remembered hearing good things about his first novel. And Soho Press--a fine publisher of literary mystery and novels--published this one. So after much prodding I began it again this past weekend. And for the past three days its all I've wanted to do when I wasn't wrestling with my 2.5 and 5 year old boys. It has some wonderful MN angles but is equally good for people who know or care nothing about Minnesota.

The second book is entitled "Here If You Need Me" by Kate Braestrup. I heard her a few weeks back on Krista Tippet's NPR program 'On Being.' I listened to a small portion of the program while sitting on the side of the road and was totally hooked. Her ideas on love and living and death seem both faith-based and no nonsense. I must confess to an aversion to organized religion as a k-college Catholic eduacation left me dizzied by the big C Catholic organization. Yet I felt at home with Braestrup's ideas on faith and loss.

In both cases I listened to others and ignored my gut instinct. First thought=best thought might be the old wisdom regarding standardized tests but it has not proven to be the smartest idea in my personal life.

Our reading paths are fragmented and non-linear. What we choose to pursue and continue on with is often only as important as what we choose to ignore. In these cases I feel lucky to have been guided to things I really enjoyed.