Tuesday, April 26, 2011

This is just a test

And it's pretty shaky but it gives you an idea of us joining a more connected book world.

Like I say on the video, I'm just learning to use this flip recorder and I promise that the quality of footage(and less shakiness) will improve.">

Monday, April 25, 2011

Tried and True

This comes to us from the kind and wise, or wiseundkind, John Eklund who is our sales rep for Harvard, Yale and MIT Presses. He was also recently named sales rep of the year by Publisher's Weekly, our industry publication. John is a tireless friend to indies and you should read more of his book thoughts at Paper Over Board.

When I woke up the other night at 2:30, I flipped on the radio, counting on the dulcet tones of the BBC
to put me back to sleep. But on this occasion there was, as is often the case, something interesting
enough to have the opposite effect- a panel discussion on “Re-reading: good idea or bad?”

I know that lots of people swear by re-reading. If you love a book, why not go back to it? Who hasn’t
finished a great novel with a sigh, wishing it was possible to start all over again. Some people do!

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan says that she reads Pride & Prejudice once a year. With all due
respect to that wonderful book (and the Justice’s veracity), and with a nod to all the fresh nuance
one might glean with each reading- especially from the new annotated edition published by Harvard
last year, which seems made for the close reader- my reaction was really? With the mad cascade of
important books in the world clamoring for attention, spending time on one you’ve already read a
couple dozen times seems like squandering precious reading time. Maybe she’s a fast reader.

With every year that passes I’m more keenly aware of all the books that still need to be read, and
though I’m tempted to revisit old favorites, I mainly resist the impulse.

But a few months ago, out of curiosity, and because – sorry, here comes another plug- Harvard has just
published a new translation, I went back to a book I’d first encountered in college that really got under
my skin: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

The bookstore shelves are crowded with advice books these days. In fact, there’s a whole series
called “Letters to a Young fill-in-the-blank,” nice little handbooks by inspirational figures designed to
give guidance to aspiring young whatevers.

But Rilke is surely the granddaddy of the genre. In 1902, when he was only twenty-six but had already
developed a fan base, a nineteen-year old aspiring poet wrote to him asking for career advice. Rilke
responded, and a ten letter correspondence ensued.

Over a century later, these lovely exchanges speak profoundly to any twenty-first century readers
(young or old) who struggle with the creative life: solitude, distraction, self-reliance, doubt, and when to
listen to critics.

More than that, Rilke pivots to all sort of questions of living in the modern age- sex, love, religion, you
name it. The unspooling of these short missives is like eavesdropping on the blossoming of a friendship
and a mentorship.

Rilke’s admonitions are writer’s block tonic: notice and love the small, insignificant things that the world
overlooks; don’t strive so hard for answers but learn to love the questions; art is only a way of living.

Having decided to dedicate the time to re-reading the book (yes, it only took an hour, but every reading
hour is scarce), it was a great relief that, three decades later, Rilke’s letters spoke to me just as clearly
as before.

Around the time I first read them, I was also enamored of the artist M.C. Escher. My apartment was
plastered with his impossible, recursive images. Today, I can’t stand to look at an Escher drawing. They
leave me cold and wondering who the self was who once was moved to tears by them.

But I felt like I was re-reading Letters to a Young Poet with my twenty-year old eyes.

This new Mark Harman translation is wonderful in every way. Without seeming stilted, he’s restored a
sense of Rilke’s style, a really tricky accomplishment. The other main translation, by Stephen Mitchell,
leans a little too heavily on contemporary vernacular for my taste. (Think Wynona Ryder’s May Welland
in The Age of Innocence. She sounds more late twentieth-century than late nineteenth.) Harman
has managed to give the English language reader a seamless rendition while preserving a whiff of the
original German.

Finally, the package: A charming little hardcover that cries out to be given as a gift. Personally, I’ll be
working to replace all those Fountainhead’s and Atlas Shrugged’s being given to young graduates with
Letters to a Young Poet. Those smart college students who are enamored of Ayn Rand today will one
day see her as the M.C. Escher she is; but they will cherish their Rainer Maria Rilke’s.


John Eklund

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A fun list of littles from a famous author

Matt Burgess is batting lead-off in a series of weekly postings written by friends of Micawber's. We've got some authors and agents and sales reps who have agreed to lend their wit and wisdom to us. Matt's first novel "Dogfight, a Love Story" was a MN Book Award finalist. I am also including a wonderful image of him grilling a NY Yankees cap. That's class, folks.

This top five list is born out of longing. I finished Adam Levine's wonderful, 1000-page debut novel, THE INSTRUCTIONS, and then, feeling all cocky, I started, and am now chugging my way through, Henry Fielding's brick-sized TOM JONES. And so I give you five really short novels in a variety of genres.

My favorite really short sci-fi novel: Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE. A shattering, impossible novel to describe, but here's one subplot: the main character, a former WWII prisoner-of-war, is kidnapped by an alien race that appears to humans as a toilet plunger with a hand at the top. They put him in a zoo and force him to mate with a porn star.

My favorite really short western novel: Charles Portis's TRUE GRIT. The Coen Bros. movie was really great, but it doesn't have Mattie Ross's hilariously stilted narration with its bitter digressions and inexplicable use of "quotation marks." Typical passage: "Thank God for the Harrison Narcotics Law. Also the Volstead Act. I know Governor Smith is "wet" but that is because of his race and religion and he is not personally accountable for that."

My favorite really short fantasy novel: Muriel Spark's THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE. The Devil (in the form of Douglas Dougal, a.k.a Dougal Douglas) is hired to do human research into the private lives of a blue-collar town in England. It's insane. Someone gets stabbed in the neck with a corkscrew!

My favorite really short espionage novel: John Le Carre's THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Graham Greene called it the best spy story he ever read. Le Carre, like his once-in-a-lifetime character George Smiley, stays four steps ahead of you the entire time. Oh man, what an ending.

My favorite really short crime novel: Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. This was the hardest pick for me to make because crime fiction is the genre closest to my heart, but TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is so tremendously good and there's someone in your life who hasn't read it yet and you should go to a bookstore (like, say, Micawber's) and buy it and give it to them and wait for them to thank you.

If you want some more of Matt's thoughts here is a link to an interview with Bookslut.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A poem for the weekend--

Kiss of the Sun by Mary Ruefle

If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something
among people, then let this be prearranged now,
between us, while we are still peoples: that
at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry
(and wheat and evil and insects and love),
when the entire human race gathers in the flesh,
reconstituted down to the infant's tiniest fold
and littlest nail, I will be standing at the edge
of that fathomless crown with an orange for you,
reconstituted down to its innermost seed protected
by white thread, in case you are thirsty, which
does not at this time seem like such a wild guess,
and though there will be no poetry between us then,
at the end of time, the geese all gone with the seas,
I hope you will take it, and remember on earth
I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw,
as if by chance there is no edge to the crowd
or anything else so that I am of it,
I will take the orange and toss it as high as I can.

Kindly sent to us by our neighbor Jennifer who is the kind of person one can stand on the street and discuss Flannery O'Connor with. That's a good neighbor.

Next week we'll have a couple guest posts, more poems and something from me in the mix as well.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You know what happens when one assumes?

This is really a post about a larger issue and a specific author and book. A few weeks back Tom was paging through some catalogs for Spring new titles and came across a book entitled "Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence" by Bill James. There is the Bill James who basically invented the world of uber-geek baseball statisticians that is now so popular. And there is a Bill James who writes mysteries. So, naturally, I assumed the crime book was written by the latter. And, of course, I was wrong. A fine reminder on a number of levels not to make simple assumptions about books and their writers and readers.

In fact, all serious readers that I've gotten to know fairly well have an area of interest or fascination or even obsession that wouldn't be known at first glance. There was once an on-line journal, Readerville, that had an entire section called 'The Odd Shelf' where people discussed their odd areas of interest. Or, more accurately, interests that might not be odd in themselves but in terms of their other reading interests. It was always my favorite section to peruse because it allowed people to let their guard down and offered fantastic tips for books I otherwise never would have known about.

Lots of people once had hang-ups about admitting that they liked mystery novels or suspense. The quality of that genre, in general, has gotten better so the stigma(often self-imposed) isn't what it once was. Lots of folks cop to reading cookbooks but never actually cooking from them. Armchair travel is very popular. The thing is, now that I really think about it, I know readers of all kinds who feel sheepish about admitting to liking almost any kind of book. "Oh, it's crazy, but I like architecture/urban planning books." I heard that one yesterday. Why is it crazy?

For me it's the greatest power of books. It affords all of us the chance to learn about whatever we want. Or enjoy whatever we want. I can't change the oil on my car--but I could learn to do it and that would shock my friends. Yet, ten years ago, I couldn't cook at all. Nothing beyond toast or noodles with butter and black pepper. Now I can. I was a horrible science student but I love animal biology. I have shelves of books on wolves, grizzly bears and pumas. Tigers have been the latest added into the mix. Even I can't remember how that started. I also do enjoy true crime and gangster history especially in relation to Minnesota. So this new Bill James book is right in my wheelhouse.

"Popular Crime will remind you of just how wonderful a writer Mr. James is. Incisive analysis and encyclopedic knowledge tempered by a sometimes morbid, but never jaded, dose of Americana: it's sabermetrics meets the Coen Brothers."
-- Nate Silver

That quote hooked me. What's on your Odd Shelf?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Today is a good day for hope--

Hope Says

Hope says: Someday you will
see her, if you know how to wait.
Despair says:
She is only your bitterness now.
Beat, heart ... The earth
has not swallowed everything.
-- Antonio Machado

Sent to us by friend of the store and high-school teacher Jacey. She is also a great fan of "Three Lives" in NYC.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Some Levine

This was sent by friend and customer Ann A., who works in wine distribution and has read an awful lot about bees. Thanks, Ann.


~ Philip Levine

The new grass rising in the hills,
the cows loitering in the morning chill,
a dozen or more old browns hidden
in the shadows of the cottonwoods
beside the streambed. I go higher
to where the road gives up and there's
only a faint path strewn with lupine
between the mountain oaks. I don't
ask myself what I'm looking for.
I didn't come for answers
to a place like this, I came to walk
on the earth, still cold, still silent.
Still ungiving, I've said to myself,
although it greets me with last year's
dead thistles and this year's
hard spines, early blooming
wild onions, the curling remains
of spider's cloth. What did I bring
to the dance? In my back pocket
a crushed letter from a woman
I've never met bearing bad news
I can do nothing about. So I wander
these woods half sightless while
a west wind picks up in the trees
clustered above. The pines make
a music like no other, rising and
falling like a distant surf at night
that calms the darkness before
first light. "Soughing" we call it, from
Old English, no less. How weightless
words are when nothing will do.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On Swimming by Adam Zagajewski

This was sent by our good friend Johanna who sells books to us and many other indie stores across the land. She lives in Louisville and I suppose she is busy shopping for a derby hat.

On Swimming

The rivers of this country are sweet
as a troubadour's song,
the heavy sun wander westward
on yellow circus wagons.
Little village churches
hold a fabric of silence so fine
and old that even a breath
could tear it.
I love to swim in the sea, which keeps
talking to itself
in the monotone of a vagabond
who no longer recalls
exactly how long he's been on the road.
Swimming is like prayer:
palms join and part,
join and part,
almost without end.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Pale King

So again actual bookstores are upset with Amazon over perceived or real advantages the behemoth gets. Now? Now it is this.

What to do? Be outraged? Boycott Hachette(the publisher who knowingly made this deal with the devil)? Or shrug?

I mostly opt with option three. Outrage won't change this. Boycotting Hachette will only hurt the quality of our store and the choice in books our customers have. The reality is that we are long past a time when anyone was on equal footing in this business. Overall sales to indies across the land are a mere drop in the overall bucket of sales. That is real. And publishers are scrambling to save themselves. They'll take any kind of revenue they can get because they are desperate.

The only piece of this puzzle that is a little disturbing to me is this quote: “I don’t really understand the confusion,” Ms. Dewey said. “This happens all the time. There’s nothing unusual about it.” That's apparently from one of their publicists(Nicole Dewey). And it's pretty pathetic aside from her willingness to toe the company line. Sure, no one should be upset about the fact that they can't sell a book customers are asking about and others are selling.

Here's my bottom line--on-sale dates are pointless at this point. Outside of Harry Potter, where Scholastic basically made booksellers promise their eternal souls not to sell the book before a specific date, I'll sell any book that comes into the store. Before the date or not. Because I know other stores are doing the same. When I've complained to publishers about this fact I have never, not once, heard back from them. They won't punish the chains or Amazon because they can't afford to. So if they decide to punish us or some other small store so be it.