29 January 2011

Book Blogger Hop: Most Anticipated Book of 2011

Book Blogger Hop
I have been debating whether to answer this week's Book Blogger Hop question, sponsored by Crazy for Books: what book are you most looking forward to seeing published in 2011?  Why are you anticipating that book?

As a bookseller, and more particularly as a buyer at my particular bookstore, I have access to a lot of pre-pub information that the general public doesn't have, but even so, I don't know most of the books being pubbed later than mid-summer or so.  I only work about 5-6 months ahead, so I don't know at this point what is coming down the pike for the fall, when most publishers release their heaviest hitters.  So on the one hand, it's kind of hard to say what I'm most anticipating when I only know the books from the first half of the year--it seems so unfair to eliminate the fall list from consideration!

On the other hand, I started reading 2011 books back in August and September of 2010, so while I *was* anticipating them, I can hardly say that I am still anticipating them after having read them.

And if I had a third hand, I'd probably just say that I should answer the damn question in the spirit it was meant and not sit here and agonize over my answer all day.  It's not like world peace is riding on my correct response here.  So the Anticipation Award goes to...

Ann Patchett is a beautiful writer, in that she is both a writer who is beautiful and someone who writes beautifully.  I'm not quite a completist when it comes to her work (I skipped Taft), but I've read the remainder of her novels, her memoir, her commencement address, and several magazine articles.  She is intelligent and worldly and fiercely loyal and deeply compassionate (particularly towards dogs), and she brings all of these things to bear in her writing. If this seems like a somewhat personal evaluation of her, I suppose it is.  I first met Patchett when I was a bookseller at Lemuria in Jackson, MS, and my boss had asked me to read The Magician's Assistant to see if it would be a good selection for the store's first edition club.  I did, and it was, and I got to spend a lovely afternoon in her company.  Our paths crossed a few times over the years I worked at that store, and later on, I fell in love with a man who has been her longtime friend.   

State of Wonder is slated for a June 2011 publication from Harper Collins, and I happen to be roughly three-quarters of the way through my advance reading copy.  In a word, it's stupendous.  I said it before about one of her novels, and I'll say it again: it hits the literary trifecta of gorgeous prose, compelling characters, and a well-paced plot.  Even now, I'm spacing out and shortening my reading intervals because I can't bear to let go of it.  My long-suffering husband keeps pestering me to finish it so he can have a go at it. After all, it does seem unfair that I get to read it first when she is his friend, and I can just see the mental foot stompings he must be doing over not getting his way.  

I'll end this post with the first few sentences of State of Wonder, just to tempt y'all:

The news of Anders Eckman's death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. 

28 January 2011

Book review in brief: House Arrest by Ellen Meeropol

This is an exciting blog post for me because it's the first time that somebody I currently work with has written a book. (I have a former coworker, Dayn Perry, who has written a few sports titles, and currently writes baseball news for Foxsports.com, but as I'm not sure I could read baseball books in their entirety and review them here, I just remember him with fondness from our good ol' days at Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, MS, and wish him well.)

House Arrest by Ellen Meeropol, published by Red Hen Press.  

On the surface, you would not think that Pippa and Emily have much in common--Pippa is a young, pregnant cult member from the Deep South, on trial for negligence concerning the accidental death of her infant; Emily is the reserved New England-born nurse charged with overseeing Pippa's pre-natal care. Beneath their facades, however, the reader gradually comes to realize a key similarity running soul-deep in both.  Orphaned either figuratively or literally, each woman is haunted by a childhood shaped by loneliness and guilt and left  on her own to grapple with the deeds (and misdeeds) of her parents. It's a testament to Meeropol's skill that the parallel stories of Emily and Pippa unfold layer by layer as their lives become inexorably more entwined with each other, holding the reader in thrall until the very end.

Ellen and I have worked together at the Odyssey Bookshop for four years, and I count it a great privilege that she gave me the book in manuscript form to read many long months ago.  When her advanced reading copies became available, I was first in line to get one inscribed (literally--it was the very first book she signed to anyone!).  It's been fun being along for the ride and sharing in her enthusiasm during the whole process, from getting the book contract to being interviewed and getting a starred review in Publisher's Weekly.  And just a few days ago on one of the book blogs I subscribe to, I read my first full online review, bringing the process full circle.  

25 January 2011

Three hours, three museums? No problem!

It is to my everlasting sorrow that the two times I've visited Washington, DC, for work that I did not have enough time to explore the amazing, free, cultural attractions that our nation's capital offers.  This trip to Winter Institute wasn't much different, but my roommate, Nieves, is a take-charge kind of gal, and when we discovered that we had roughly three hours to explore (plus transit time on the Metro) between checking out of our hotel and having to be at the airport, we made A PLAN, aka: Operation Hide/Seek or Bust.

Smithsonian Castle
8:00 am--We're up and out of our hotel, the Crystal Gateway Marriott, which is conveniently connected to the Metro, and make our way to the Smithsonian Castle, the *only* museum that opens at 8:30 am.  we have breakfast in the cafe there and bide our time reading The Onion before wandering around.  It was astonishingly small--I had no idea that basically only two rooms were open to the general public--but had samplings from all of the other Smithsonian locations to whet the appetite.

One room of the Castle
Nieves gives this exhibit the thumbs-up!

9:55 am -- We depart the Castle and head straight across the Mall to the Museum of Natural History, whose doors all mysteriously swung open at 10:00.  After pausing briefly for a few photos ops with the elephant and the sealife exhibits, we head straight for the gem & mineral exhibition.  Growing up, I was a total rock hound, and to this day I'm fascinated with anything pretty and shiny (apropos of my surname)--turns out that Nieves is, too, so it worked out well!  The Hope Diamond is now in its new (temporary) setting, and I also really liked the large quartz crystal sphere on display--the largest of its kind in the world.  


10:45 am -- We dash away again, this time heading towards the National Archives to meet Nieves' friend, Andrew.  We have just enough time to duck into a cozy little tearoom called Teaism, to warm up with some World Peace.  Or, if you're just a little bit insane like me, with a nice glass of iced Moroccan mint tea.  Of course, it was so cold earlier that morning that my eyes watered and then my tears froze to my cheeks, but I'm a fool for Moroccan mint.  And apparently a fool in other ways as well!

11:30 am -- We hit the National Portrait Gallery right as it opens and head straight for the exhibit that Nieves was dying to see, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," which has gained some notoriety for caving in to (minority) public opinion and removed a video display from the installation.  I'm so glad that Nieves told me about this, as I might never have heard of it otherwise.  The entire exhibit comprises works either by gay artists or featuring homoerotic content.  Sadly (but understandably) the National Portrait Gallery  does not allow any kind of photography in the temporary exhibits, so all I have to show from this museum are a couple of snaps I made when I had to, umm, skip to the loo. 

I really like the heart shape created by her breast and her embrace.
If I hadn't been trying to shoot this sculpture without interference
from other works of art, I might never have noticed it. 

12:30 pm -- We hit the museum gift shop, bid adieu to Andrew (and you, and you, and you!), and descended to the Metro once more, with plenty of time to stop for a pretzel before catching the shuttle to the airport.  

Would I choose to have a whirlwind tour of DC like that if I had my druthers? Well, heck no!  But I'm pleased nonetheless that Nieves and I had such a productive time with the few hours that we had.  Imagine what kind of itinerary we could plan if we'd had the entire weekend free to see what we liked...we could take that town by storm.  Eighteen-year-old interns, hold on to your hats! (inside joke--you'd have to be there)

23 January 2011

Winter Institute #6: Washington, D. C. Part Deux

It was only fitting that our first morning lecture series in DC (minor correction: the first one I woke up in time to attend) was actually a conversation between Karen Mills, the head of the Small Business Administration (SBA) and Jim Lehrer (whom you probably know by name already), discussing trends in small businesses and how the SBA is there as a resource, even for tiny businesses like most of ours.  I didn't know that the SBA can be guarantors on loans, for example, or that they negotiated substantial tax breaks (including credits for paying employee health insurance) for small businesses.

Lehrer and Mills

The next day we got interactive with the Retail Doctor, Bob Phibbs, who coached us on how to give our customers what they want, with the use of chocolate cake, paper airplanes, and red balloons as props.  Sounds bizarre but it was an engaging session and a good one to keep us awake in the morning after the Workman party the night before.  And one lucky sumbitch even found some titty beads taped to the underside of his chair and thus won a trip to Winter Institute in New Orleans for 2012.  (As it's extremely unlikely that I will win another scholarship and somewhat unlikely that my store will pay for me to go to Wi7, I'm already saving up to pay my way for next year!)

Educational sessions in the mornings and afternoons framed our Rep Pick lunches on Thursday and Friday.  Although both the sessions and the Rep Picks were a little too long, in my opinion, they were overall quite helpful.  Each day then closed with an author reception, where we can stand in line to meet the authors who most interest us and get them to sign our books that the publishers donate--it's always a fun time, and this year the food at the reception was better than I ever remember.  

Here's a shot of Nieves and me after meeting
Ralph Nader (yes, that Ralph Nader)
But the piece de resistance for me on this trip was the author dinner sponsored by Harper Collins on Thursday evening.  Six authors, 30 booksellers, and a large time was had by all.  Since a rather nasty snowstorm had canceled my dinner plans in Boston earlier this month with Hannah Pittard, I had requested being seated at her table, and I had the astonishing good luck to be seated right next to her.  Also at my end of the table were Rebecca and Jenn, two dynamo booksellers from two of the hottest indie bookstores right now: Greenlight and WORD, respectively.  Booksellers from DC and Buffalo and  author Jennifer McMahon rounded out the people within easy speaking distance.  

Though I'd never heard of Pittard before September, I now number myself among her fans.  Her first book is amazing (you can read about it here), but no author dinner could have prepared me for the fun I had that night.  First of all, Hannah is an exact cross between the actress Parker Posey and a friend of mine named Jessica (who is a total ham).  Her voice sounds like she's swallowed a Buick, and she's smart, quick-witted, and extremely well read.  And, as she informed us, her publicist laments her lack of filter.  We, her dinner mates, however, were quite pleased to discover this about her and we egged each other on with lots of inappropriate stories throughout the meal.  I've only ever been to one other author dinner that can even stand in the shadow of this one in terms of sheer awesomeness (incidentally a previous Winter Institute), so this one stands out as the Best Author Dinner EVER. And on top of all that, I've got four words for you: Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding.

Book Review in Brief: The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard

 The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard is so wholly fresh and inventive that I read it start to finish in practically one sitting.  From the uncommon point of view (a group of boys collectively acts as a first-person-plural narrator) to the plot ambiguities that keep the reader constantly guessing what is true and what is supposition, this book is more than just the story of a 16 year old girl who goes missing and the effect her disappearance has on her family, her classmates, and her small town. It is a story of unintended consequences, a tale of imagination and self-reflection,  a multi-generational coming of age narrative, and above all, it proves that the most haunting words in our language are "what if?"

Though the book goes on sale Tuesday, I read this book several months ago when my sales rep from Harper, Anne DeCourcey, pressed an advance readers copy of this book into my hands and assured me that it was worth my time.  Boy, was it! I took it home and read it that weekend, then came back to the store to make other people read it, too.  We unanimously decided to choose Fates for our First Editions Club selection for January, so she'll be at our store very soon.  I also had the unrivaled pleasure of meeting Hannah last week in Washington, DC, at a bookseller dinner hosted by HarperCollins, which you can read about in my previous post.  If you like innovative fiction and are on the lookout for the next big literary thing, do yourself a favor and pick up Hannah's book!

22 January 2011

Winter Institute #6: Washington, D. C. Part One

There is a wonderful convention for independent booksellers, capped at a 500 person attendance, called Winter Institute, created by the American Booksellers Association.  This year I was unbelievably fortunate enough to win the inaugural Joe Drabyak Fellowship,  sponsored by Workman Publishing (including Algonquin, one of my VERY favorite publishers), that paid all expenses, and I am happy to report that I had an absolute blast!

It's a chance for booksellers from all over the US (and this year, from Norway, Canada, the UK, and New Zealand, too) to attend educational sessions, exchange ideas, drink, learn about the state of the industry, meet authors, drink, get free books, network with other booksellers, drink...well, you get the idea.  This year, since we met in Washington, DC, we also had the chance to lobby politicians from our state (or in reality, lobbying the interns for the politicians from our state).

The good folks at Workman sponsored a party on the first night, so I made my way there with Nieves and Joan, my two co-workers from the Odyssey who were also in attendance.  My first action was to redeem a drink coupon at the bar for a Maker's Mark on the rocks, but very shortly thereafter my second action was to seek out Steven Pace and Craig Popelars, from Workman and Algonquin, respectively, to say thank you in person for my wonderful scholarship.  My third course of action was then to search the room for another Emily I'd never met before--Emily from my old alma mater of Lemuria Bookstore, who had also won a scholarship to Wi6.  It was all extremely gratifying to greet old friends and make new ones and to reminisce a little about Mississippi, first with Steven and then with Emily.

Coming up: the best publisher dinner party EVER!

14 January 2011

Why read fiction? Any kind of fiction?

Book Blogger Hop

This week's question on the blog hop, sponsored by Crazy for Books (click on above image to see her blog), is why do you read the genre that you do?

I'm a fiction girl, from way back.  Yes, I read narrative nonfiction, maybe up to a dozen per year, but fiction is my heart's desire.  Primarily contemporary literary fiction, but I also love the classics and I round out my reading each year with a dozen or so YA novels and I also try to include some more popular or commercial fiction in my reading, too.  Part of this is because I'm a bookseller and thus must read some books for work that I wouldn't ordinarily pick up on my own.  And if I'm being honest, part of this is because I'm trying to purge myself of book snobbery.  And another part is because I don't think one can be a well-rounded reader reading within just one genre.

A character in the Shadowlands film (the one based on the life of C. S. Lewis) once said that we read to know we're not alone, and I think that sums up more succinctly than anything else the "why" part of this week's hop.

13 January 2011

Book Review: I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson

I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson.  I think I love I Think I Love You!  

Sometimes in the midst of winter, after the long fall list of heavy-hitting literary books, it's nice to relax with a lighter book.  It's even nicer when the "lighter" book surprises you with an unlooked-for depth to keep the story lingering in your mind just a little longer.  I first read Pearson several years back when she published her debut novel, I Don't Know How She Does It, the story of a woman who tries, with intermittent success, to balance her high-profile, high-finance job with being a good mother and a good wife and a good person.  Since I was not a mother or in a high-profile position at the time, nor did I feel I was ever likely to be, it was an unusual choice for me, but Pearson is a smart writer with keen insight, giving a fresh take on a well-tread trope. 

So I was curious when Ann Kingman, my sales rep for Knopf, mailed me an ARC of I Think I Love You, asserting that I would love it.  Turns out she was right.  Whether in film or novel form, romantic comedies are a dime a dozen and not my usual fodder.  I think it's much harder to write smart-funny than it is to write smart-drama (there's only one When Harry Met Sally for every hundred Maid in Manhattans), and I don't like wasting my time with dumb, so I'm fortunate that I've got sales reps who know my taste and don't try to pass off second rate stuff to me. 

In this novel, Petra is your typical 1970s schoolgirl whose love for David Cassidy overshadows everything else in her life, and Bill is the poor sod paid to write all of the bogus copy for The Essential David Cassidy Magazine. Their paths cross when two pivotal events, decades apart, draw them together.  What starts out on the surface to be simply another chronicle of mean girls and teen idol obsession in a 1970s village in South Wales turns out to be a surprisingly poignant and insightful novel about the agony of adolescence, the cult of celebrity, and the ways we become irrevocably changed by our youthful passions.

I realize now, as I'm going back to find the pages I dog-eared, that the passages I noted tend toward the un-funny, but they are pretty representative of the insights that Petra has about love and relationships.  

"It's so hard for a child to understand their parents' unhappiness. 
Mine, if I'd only known it, were infected with the virus of incompati-
bility.  Nobody died from it, but nobody lived either."  (85)

[Upon contemplating a telephone after attending her mother's funeral]
 "It's not always easy to recognize the significant moments of your
life as you're living them, but Petra realizes this is one of them.  To 
stand in that hall and to realize that neither of her parents will ever
answer the phone again...Death itself is too big to take in, she already
see that; the loss comes at you instead in an infinite number of small
instalments (sic) that can never be paid off." (195)

[On visiting her baby, born dangerously prematurely, in her incubator in hospital]
"As Petra found out, you learn a lot about yourself when you're so close
to that much vulnerability...that the unendurable is endurable, if you just 
take it a minute at a time, and when the alternative is no more minutes
ever with your precious child."

Interestingly, the cover on the finished book looks identical to the advance reading copy I read, with one major change: the publisher apparently decided to stop pretending they cared about a male audience for this book and changed the background from a bright yellow to a bright pink.  My yellow cover looks curiously like the paperback cover for Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked (cf the image above [but imagine a canary-yellow instead of the Pepto-pink that is shown] with the image at left to see what I mean). Incidentally, I would think that fans of Nick Hornby would like this book, partly because of the music connection and partly because he also writes smart-funny pretty well. Now, though, the publisher has pretty much shot itself in the foot in terms of marketing to a male audience.  But fair enough.  Not a ton of men were going to read it anyway--mostly men like my husband, who enjoy reading books that one might call "relationship-y," like Nick Hornby, and mostly prefer women's writing over men's writing.  The people who will like it are those who enjoy the works of Hornby, Jill Mansell, Helen Fielding, and other authors who write coming-of-age, women's relationships, and smart-funny well.  

12 January 2011

Book Review: Open City by Teju Cole

     Open City by Teju Cole is one of the most interesting and thoughtful books I've read in a long time.  The novel opens with our narrator Julius, a Nigerian-born psychiatrist who daily takes to wandering the streets of Manhattan, where he now lives and practices, as a means of warding off insomnia.  As his feet take him in various directions uptown or downtown, his mind freely meanders elsewhere: his military school upbringing in Nigeria, his German mother, his girlfriend who has recently left him, his visit to a local immigrant detention center, a trip to Belgium, where America stands in the current international political climate, and even the nature of New York City itself.

It is an extremely quiet book;  though the prose styles are quite dissimilar, Open City reminds me very much of Paul Harding's Tinkers, in that it's a meditation on a character's past actions and memories more than a present day narrative, where all but the most provocative actions and memories lose their edge, softened by time and distance.  Even his present day narrative is emotionally held at arm's length, never more so than with two disturbing encounters that occur at the very end of the novel that jar the reader far more than they do the narrator: one in which something happens to Julius, and one in which another character relates something that happened to her.  In fact, this lack of reaction may call Julius's narrative reliability into question for some readers, but the more I know of other people and the more I grow in self-knowledge, the more I find myself growing increasingly comfortable with ambiguity and learning to accept the fact that people are equally capable (and sometimes simultaneously so) of actions both tender and heinous.

I admit that at times it was easy for me to put this book down, but I'm certainly glad that I always picked it back up again, as the rewards in finishing it were tenfold.  This novel is definitely not for everybody; you should give it a pass if you're looking for a linear story with resolution, if you're uncomfortable with ambiguity, or if you're inclined to read predominantly plot-driven books.  If, however, you're interested in the workings of memory and its effects on storytelling,  the structure of narrative, the immigrant experience, and the quiet but erudite, politically-tinged musings of a man who may or may not be what he seems, do yourself a favor and pick up Teju Cole's Open City.  I predict that it will be on more than one shortlist for major literary awards this year.

Open City will be published by Random House in February 2011.  I received a galley copy of it from my wonderful sales rep, Michael Kindness.  Cole will be appearing at the  Odyssey Bookshop on February 11, and his book is that month's selection for our signed First Edition Club.

07 January 2011

Why I Read Literature

Literary Blog Hop

This week's Literary Blog Hop question, sponsored by The Blue Bookcase, leaves me a little baffled how to answer it: How did you find your way to reading literary fiction and nonfiction?

Because I'm just not sure.  As I mention immediately below for the other blog hop, I've been an active reader from an extremely young age and there has never been a time in my life where reading wasn't a priority for me: I read to learn, to dream, to seek new worlds, and to escape my own world.  To quote a character from the film adaptation of C. S. Lewis's life, I read to know I was not alone.  

When I was younger, my mother would do her her best to weed out the "crap", so anything that would smack of being too much like The Clique books or the Gossip Girls would have been out. (I was naturally more drawn to The Chronicles of Narnia  and Jane Eyre than I was to the Judy Blume books or Sweet Valley High books anyway.  And reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time in high school was a revelation--literature could be funny!) In college I majored in English and religious studies so that I could read as much as possible--got a great grounding in the classics there as well as the literature of my newly-adopted state of Mississippi (and if you think there's another state in the union with a richer literary tradition from the 20th century, I'll arm wrestle you 'til you see the error of your ways!). After college, it was two years pursuing a master's degree, again in English.  And since that time, I've been working in the book world, either as a bookseller or a publisher's sales rep, so I'm fortunate that any book that I think I might like, I can call up my sales reps and ask for a comp copy.  

Admittedly, I read beyond my preferred areas for work: I have to be able to speak to customers about the latest thrillers, the more commercial books that fill the NYT Bestseller lists, the newest gardening book that's all the rage, and newest in the "lite" or "relationship fiction" categories.  But modern literary fiction, particularly those novels that speak to the Southern, Caribbean, or African experience, are the books that fill and sustain me, and my passion shines through when I talk about them.  Authors like Edwidge Danticat, Abraham Verghese, Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, A. S. Byatt, Jamaica Kincaid, Thrity Umrigar (and others too many to name) are the authors populating my shelves.  Or to put another way, the ones I'm most likely to go out and spend my own money on instead of getting them for free.  

Eudora Welty, arguably America's greatest short
story writer of the 20th century.  A fabulous
writer from Mississippi.  

Book Blogger Hop: What Book Influenced You?

Book Blogger Hop

My computer died at the end of the old year and I've been visiting family in the frozen hinterlands of middle America since January 1, so I'm happy just to be getting my first blog post of the new year in by the end of the first week.  This week's hop question, sponsored at Crazy-for-Books, is what book influenced or changed your life and how did it do so?

Well, lots of books do that.  I think people who are sensitive readers come away a little bit changed from most reading experiences.  But the first book to have a marked influence on me is Madeleine L'Engle's wonderful Newbery award winning book, A Wrinkle in Time.  It was published in 1962 and very revolutionary for the time.  My sister Cathi gave it to me for my 6th Christmas in 1978 and it was pretty revolutionary then, too.

 I've been almost a life-long reader.  My mother taught me to read when I was two and I was reading chapter books on the middle grade level by the time I was four, devouring most of C. S. Lewis's Narnia books before I started first grade. The problem, as with so many precocious readers, was finding material that challenged me without being ridiculously age inappropriate.

The day I sat down with my sister's gift, I was mesmerized.  Oh, I'd read much of the day's usual suspects: Beverly Cleary, E. B. White, C. S. Lewis.  My mom took pains to introduce me to two real Wisconsin (my home state at the time) heroines: Caddie Woodlawn and Laura Ingalls.  (Not Judy Blume, though.  My family's natural midwestern conservatism deemed her too racy for me. And though Nancy Drew was encouraged, I loathed her.  Simply loathed her.)  But when I first made friends with Meg Murray and her little brother Charles Wallace, I learned for the first time that smart, awkward, and quirky girls  (i.e. girls a little bit like me) could be heroes, too, and that you don't always have to know all of the answers to life's questions.  Two pretty good lessons to learn at the tender age of six, if you ask me.

Alas! If only the precociousness of my youth carried over into my adulthood.

What about you?  What book has influenced or changed your life?