Friday, January 29, 2010

Books on Books

I'm a big fan of reading books by subject. I like to go on mini reading sprees by topic or author. In the last couple years there have been a significant number of books published about books and their readers. Here is a small grouping of them.

"So Many Books" by Gabriel Zaid $12.00 This is a phrase we hear frequently at the store most often followed by, "so little time." Zaid does a great job of distilling the many aspects of the book world--publication, distribution, sales, returns, etc. It has a fairly academic style without becoming too obtuse. It is used as a primer in lots of classes and I found it incredibly informative.

"The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop" by Lewis Buzbee $14 This is another favorite from Graywolf Press. Buzbee has worked in the book industry in a number of capacities. One portion of the back jacket of the book reads, "As much a history of bookstores as a meditation on the reading life, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop speaks to the book lover in all of us." Indeed.

City Secrets is a small off-shoot that, until recently, has published mostly small travel guides to a select few cities. Their most recent book is entitled, "Books: The Essential Insider's Guide"$19.95 It is edited by the poet Mark Strand and contains a cornicopia of great book selections. This is perfect for book clubs or the individual reader who is stuck on what to read next. It is filled with long-forgotten gems and I love this book dearly.

To finish we have "The Book Shopper" by Murray Browne $14.95 which is exactly what it sounds like. This is about the hunting, searching and sometimes finding of books for true book nuts.

The first and last of these four books are published by Paul Dry Books which is a small place out of Philadelphia. All four offer different things to the book crazy reader. All four worthwhile from places that care about books in very serious ways.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The good people at W.W. Norton

Norton is by no means a really small publisher. But they do have a unique history and continue to publish books that have a real independent streak. When buying with Norton I take a few more chances on books because I trust our sales rep.(Take a bow, Johanna) and I know they publish solid stuff across the board. It's rare to find a publisher that does history, poetry, academic stuff, cookbooks and fiction equally well.

Among my stack of books being read/to be read there is almost always at least one of their titles. Just yesterday I got an advance copy of Brady Udall's "The Lonely Polygamist" which will release May, 2010. I loved his last novel, "The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint" and am looking forward to more of his bizarre and epic storytelling. Last week I finished John D'Agata's "About a Mountain" which is a book I want to succeed dearly. It's one of those that is difficult to give a nutshell description of. Customer could say: "So, it's a ecology story about a mountain and disposing of nuclear energy waste?"Well, yes it is. But it's also about how specific locations impact us in both a collective and individual way. It's about a young man who, in helping his mother move to a new city, becomes wrapped up in the city of Las Vegas. And not the Vegas of what happens there stays there. D'Agata goes deeper and does better than that. Alongside all of this is the story of his possible involvement in a young man's death. I don't want to spoil anything so I'll leave it at that. Except to say that, by involvement, I do not mean he committed a crime. Slander and libel suits are expensive, I've been told. It would be remiss of me not to mention that he has edited two anthologies of essays for Graywolf Press. Both are absolute keepers.

Later this week a Norton-published first-time novelist named Maaza Mengiste will read from her book "Beneath the Lion's Gaze" at Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis. Details are here. It's a great novel of Ethiopia starting in the mid-1970's and she brings her characters and Addis Ababa fully to life. Labels like "global" and "world" fiction bother me. Fiction is fiction. But the reality is that there are lots of novels being published right now by authors whose names don't roll off the tongues of most Midwesterners. How to choose? Where to start? Anything published by Norton isn't a bad place. And whether it's Brady Udall or Maaza Mengiste you can be sure it is quality work.

Sometimes tomorrow slips to today

So, like I was saying, I(we) constantly try to come up with ways to better sell and promote books and authors and presses that we find important. We do displays. We have quarterly, or thereabouts, book chats where all the booksellers of Micawber's discuss three books they love. We talk about them in our monthly e-mail. Mostly, though, we do it the old-fashioned way. We handsell them. That's what bookselling in a store like ours is really about. We get the chance to talk to people about books and recommend things to them. It is one of the greatest and most challenging parts of the job.

Yesterday, I had a serendipitous encounter related to the subject at hand. A 30-ish man was in the store and he told me he mostly bought books on Amazon. He asked me to name the one or two most important books in my life. Sheesh. Sensing the difficulty of his question he said, "How about some books you think are really ignored?" So I rattled off a few names: Amy Hempel, J.F. Powers, Marie Howe, Major Jackson, Hwang Sok-Yong. I had to laugh a little as two of them were poets and the easy joke being 'Isn't almost all poetry ignored by the public?' We talked books for a little bit. He had found $40 in the wash and decided to spend it at a local store. I was happy he'd found us and he left with "Ulysses" and "The Missing Piece" by Shel Silverstein. But no matter. You have to get used to customers ignoring suggestions pretty quickly in this business or you'd go home crying an awful lot. The discussion was fun and it kept me thinking about this. How we can turn one customer onto a book and then, well, who knows where that goes? It might never get read. It might get passed around. It could become a family favorite.

I've decided one small thing I can do to keep this theme rolling is to do a weekly focus on an author/publisher/book that could use a little light shined on them. I'll start today in another post just to break it up a little bit.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Some failure(s)

Since putting my Top 10's up I've thought a little about this kind of activity. What does it serve? Who is it, really, for: the writer or the readers? Any list is a kind of large omission. A small litany of just didn't make it's or should've but I just forgot. Looking back, it is easy to say "Let me try again. I can do better." But it's instructive, to myself if nobody else, that these lists are not blood oaths and they are made in one small moment in time. Should I have included the saintly Alice Munro? Maybe so.

Yet that is only a tiny blot on my brain. What's harder to deal with is to see returns going out. You see these books you selected because they were funky/important/smart/good ol' fun and scores of customers did not agree. So away they go--packed back into boxes and moved by large automobiles to be packed back into warehouses to be moved by other large automobiles to other stores or else sit there until deemed unnecessary. That's the facts. Certainly there are many reasons why any specific book doesn't work in a store. Did it get bad placement? Could it have been shelved by the fates of the alphabet to a bottom shelf(very bad) or in a corner of the store with bad lighting(just as bad). Or was the cover ugly? Did a sales rep oversell it? Did we simply make a mistake? All equal chances.

It is a little sad, though, to see these books piled together. The not-worth-enough's of our little world. Some I can even remember seeing in the catalog and thinking: "Surely there is someone, one someone, who wants this book, right?" That's not always the case. So we get to see some of our mistakes as they go off to different places. It's a danger for small stores not to do returns. Either because they don't have the staff to do it or can't bear the reality of it. So we do it(or more accurately, Tom Steingraeber jack of all book trades, does it). It's good to see what doesn't work despite the minor ego bruising. Anguish can be a good teacher.

So I'll try to do what my dad's business card read for some time. "Fail. Fail again. Fail better." That's from Samuel Beckett and I'm paraphrasing. Tomorrow I'll discuss a few things we try to do to counter these mistakes. Who can we better sell? What authors do we feel a need to champion?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Top fiction 2000-2009

Same thing as the non-fiction--not a strict Top 10. Just in order of when I read them.

1.) The Brothers K by David James Duncan. I'm a huge baseball nut and when an old co-worker told me this was the best baseball novel she'd ever read I was skeptical. The true shocker, however, was that baseball is the over-riding theme in the novel. A fantastic look at brotherhood and siblings and family in general. How choices impact those around us.

2.) In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. This is basically the prequel to the much more famous "The English Patient." Three characters pop back up in EP and much of their stories are resolved. Yet I love this book more for its usage of voice and narrator. You are swept through Toronto in the 1920's and the people who helped to build it. Carravagio, to my mind, is a near perfect character.

3.) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by AleksandrSolzhenitsyn. I tend to really like small novels with very exacting prose or larger, more sprawling works. This is one of the best examples of the former in both length and scope. Of course, it is literally one day in a life of extreme hardship in a work camp. But the feeling echoes much larger than a day.

4.) Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. A funny and imaginative novel based on a crackpot personal investigation team. Some people say they don't like detective fiction or postmodern novels. Well, this book breaks out of those stereotypes. Lionel Essrog, in particular, our main character with Tourette's is lovable and determined and fun to spend some time with.

5.) Miniatures by Norah Labiner. This book really did change the way I viewed fiction. What are chapter titles for? Who gets to tell the story? Who do we trust? It is also a book that is great fun to re-read in the same way that beloved movies get better over time. There is always a sentence I somehow missed. Some humor or insight I didn't really get. Coffee House Press provided the world with a stunner here.

6.) The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. This was her first novel in more than 20 years and you can see in its style what the waiting was for. Her language is classic and nuanced. But she also will tip sentences on their heads or work them backwards in a way that takes a little getting used to. Once you get your footing, it is a wonderful ride. Good characters are involved but this prose is so of its own time and style that it, the words themselves, steal the show.

7.) The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. It's almost blasphemous to say but I think this book has as much to say about race in America as anything Baldwin or Ellison ever did. Two brothers, of mixed race, are classically trained singers. All kinds of preconceived thoughts must get tossed aside. Powers shows his rare gifts for creating characters of varying temperments and ideas. A long book that I never wanted to end.

8.) The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy. This is a fragmented novel told in portions that I fight to handsell whenever possible. It's about a mother, father and daughter who have come by boat to the United States. So it's about family and water. It's also about war and assimilation and what gets left behind. It's about generations having to change and children teaching parents. I wait and wait for this young woman to publish another book.

9.) Brief Encounters With Che Guevara by Ben Fountain. I hear all the complaints about stories. They don't mean anything. Nothing happens. It's all smoke and mirrors. There is no plot development. The characters aren't fully formed. And I learned long ago that you cannot change some people's minds about things they won't try. This guy's stories are the real deal. They visit such a broad range of locations both mentally and geographically. Malcolm Gladwell did a great profile on him and his long road to publication.

10.) Zoli by Colum McCann. I'm very happy that his most recent book, "Let the Great World Spin" won the National Book Award. And it's hard for me to pick a favorite of his works. But this one kept me from answering the phone or wanting to sleep. I don't even want to talk about it too much. Just do yourself a favor and read it.