Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best Books of the Year Lists are Everywhere!

 I absolutely love it when the New York Times publishes their Ten Best Books of 2010--it is one of the first signs of a deluge of best of lists are coming.  It also validates some of my reading choices, or just the opposite (Entertainment Weekly compiled a list called the 5 worst books of the year--I read and actually liked one their worst).  The odd thing, for me at least, is my lack of having read only one or two of the books on the list, or, the horror of the thought, none of them.  This year I was saved by The Warmth of Other Suns, the sole book I did read on the list.  I meant to read A Visit from the Goon Squad and Room, but I ran out of time.  Some of my fellow booksellers have read other books on this list as well as some other lists, that I have not--that is the beauty of working in a bookshop.  If one of us has not read it, there is a good chance another bookseller has.  Most booksellers I know mentally carry around  a working, ever-changing list of their favorite books of the year.  They are just itching to talk about them.

What did I read this year?  I went through my list of books that I read, and I was surprised at the count.  So, I thought I could easily compile my very own list. I know my list will not be the perfect list--I may not have read the book that I really would have loved, and may not till 2015, but this is the list of new books that I did read in 2010:

10. Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas--Filled with questions that everybody faces in their life--this book is filled with philosophical conundrums about relationships, the meaning of life, and the end of the universe.   A metaphysical novel that is light on action but was one of the most satisfying reads of the year. The packaging of this book is brilliant as well.
9. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein-- This book hurt my brain at first--and then I fell in love with it.  Rebecca Goldstein does not pull any punches, and I can see many reasons why people would not like this book.  Her writing is compelling and challenging, and she will make you think about the people you meet in your life, in a new way.
8. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson--Wilkerson chronicles the long migration of black citizens from the south to northern and western cities.  Compelling and excellently written--I could not put this down.
7. Antony & Cleopatra by Andrian Goldsworthy--No, I did not read Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, mostly because I had already read this one.  How many Cleopatra books can one person read in a year?  Besides I love Goldsworthy, this is good, very, very good.
6. Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer--A retelling of the tempest using Steampunk as the background.  Imprisoned in an airship above a city, Harold Winslow pens his memoirs as a disembodied voice haunts him.  A great first novel.
5.Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde--You may know Fforde from his Thursday next series, and if you love those don't skip this one.  He has created a vast complex dystopian world, where everybody is organized into a colortocracy.  This could easily be his most ambitious and accomplished series, I know I am eagerly waiting for book two.
4. How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu--Charles Yu is a time machine repair mechanic.  He lives in a tiny time machine with his non-existent but real dog, Ed and TAMMY an operating system with low self-esteem, who he has hidden feelings for. After an incident that could have a paradoxical effect on the universe, Yu attempts to travel in time to locate his father.  A mind bending read, highly recommended.
3. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand--A haunting account of Louis Zamperini's ordeal in World War Two.  Hillenbrand does an excellent job of describing Zamperini's life, from his days as an Olympic athlete to his bomber duties to his days as a prisoner of war.  This book will run you through a whole gamut of emotions--but it is well worth it as this is one amazing and exhausting read.
2. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray--Okay, Skippy Dies on page four.  Paul Murray then hits the rewind button and starts over at the beginning of the Seabrook College school year and slowly explains how the year went awry.  From crazy teacher love, spiked school punch, ten dimensional string theory, swim meets, to selling prescription drugs to other students, Murray is excellent at getting in the head of the adolescent teenagers.  The dialogue is sharp and funny with a bit of dark humor. A yet another brilliant read.
1. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer--This book is as close to perfect as it goes for me.  It takes place in the years leading up to World War Two, when Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jewish Architecture student comes to Paris. Andras succeeds in school, even though he has many obstacles, and he falls in love before being separated and returning to Hungary before war erupts. The characters are brilliant, complex and memorable--there is not a throw away character in the entire book.  I only wish I could read it for the first time again.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Greg brings you more zombie fun! Now with 5% more zombies.

Like it or not, zombies are popular right now. Look around any store today and you can probably find some sort of zombie-oriented product. Zombie food and zombie toys! Zombie movies, of course. And a slew of zombie books. Including zombie classic literature. It's all the rage. Which is, amusingly, the name of the zombifying virus that is prevalent in 28 Days Later. Personally, I'm all for zombies in popular culture. The more people are aware of the imminent disaster, the better off we'll be when the dead rise and overtake our society. But I digress.

It was only a matter of time before someone did a zombie-oriented television series. The zombie movies, while not Academy Award-winning, have done well at the box office. The Walking Dead, however, was unexpected. Originally a comic series by Robert Kirkman, on the surface, it is just another take on the zombie apocalypse scenario: world as we know it overtaken by zombies, and the surviving living have to escape the widespread undead.

The television series is only a few episodes in, so I can't say too much about it besides the fact that it's fairly true to the comic series thus far, and the additions they have made are in tune with the general feel of the comic. The comic itself, however, is fantastic. The artwork is realistic, the dialogue and plot are strong as well. You learn the personalities of the characters and you grow to either love them or hate them. And then the zombies inevitably eat them.

That's the thing about the zombie movies: once the big survivor group dwindles to a mere few, and those mere few escape, the film ends. But in truth, their story doesn't end there. The zombie population doesn't suddenly vanish after the events of a film. The comic does a great job of showing the ongoing struggles and horrors of survival. In a zombie film, the characters who survive until the end often make it there thanks to luck alone. In the Walking Dead comic, even the luckiest characters eventually get unlucky. Kirkman makes it abundantly clear that no one is safe. Including children. It's pretty intense.

The interesting part about the series is that the zombies are not really the antagonists, but rather the medium in which the true, living antagonists find themselves performing their evil. I would have to go back and review to say this with certainty, but I can safely say the ratio of zombie kills to living kills is skewed in the way of the living. Stressful situations make people do irrational and terrible things, and Kirkman does not shy away from showing that.

All that said, it's an amazing comic series. We have some of the issues in the store right now, the first being prominantly displayed on my rec shelf. How will it translate to the television screen? Well, so far, it's pretty good. Violent, dark, and thoroughly entertaining. Will the television series stay completely true to the darkest parts of the comic? Only time will tell.

The Walking Dead, both the comic and the television series, are not for everyone, and certainly not for kids. But some teens and adults will appreciate the concept of a smarter zombie series. And when the dead rise, they will be the most prepared.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Taking the Y out of YA lit.

As a kid, I was always a fairly advanced reader. Not just in terms of reading ability, mind you, but in terms of content as well. I was reading Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park before I was out of elementary school, and was into John Grisham and Stephen King by middle school. My parents had strange policies when it came to monitoring what I read. They didn't care much about profanity or violence, but they drew a hard line on sexual content. So Congo, The Client, and The Shining were all okay, but Disclosure was not. Yeah, I don't know. It didn't make any sense to me, either.

So, like all good teenagers, I rebelled. I borrowed a copy of American Psycho from my friend and read it. Cover to cover. In a day. It changed everything. My perceptions about what was acceptable for violence, sexuality, and coarse language charged off into the distance, and I haven't really seen them since.

Adult literature isn't always intended for such a young reading audience. That's what young adult (YA) and teen literature is for, right? That's what I thought, until I started reading some YA/teen literature for myself. I have to be honest: even as an adult (in physical age only, certainly not in maturity), I was somewhat taken aback by the sheer brutality of some of the content.

For example, the Hunger Games trilogy recently concluded with the much-anticipated Mockingjay. While the first book in the series, The Hunger Games, was controlled in terms of violence... Mockingjay was not. Violence, torture, and brainwashing abound. Civilians being bombed to smithereens. And bear in mind the protagonists in this series are teenagers or younger. Suzanne Collins, to her credit, does show the psychological and emotional impact of the atrocities of war on children. Not that it softens the blow any, but it certainly makes it more realistic.

These books are in the teen section. That's a pretty wide age range in terms of potential readers. Would a high school student be forever scarred by reading these books? Probably not. Would a middle school student? Unlikely. But how many kids in elementary are reading teen books? Would you want your elementary school child to read about limbs being blown off? I wouldn't. If I had kids, that is.

This isn't a solitary occurrence, either. Michael Grant's Gone series and James Dashner's The Maze Runner series are also rather violent. And those are only the ones I've read, I suspect there are plenty more with similar content. It concerns me to know that my 12-year-old cousin could very well be reading the same books I found to be rather adult in nature.

So what does this mean? Should we pitch a fit and ban the books? Should we offer a caveat to potential buyers? Should the publishers put out less violent books aimed at kids? The answer to all these questions, of course, is no. For starters, we've been in a war for as long as many of these readers can remember. Turning on the news is just as bad as reading one of these books. Offering warnings to customers is great, but every child and teenager is different... and every parenting style, for that matter. And I'm not even going to discuss banning books.

The responsibility, ultimately, falls to the parents. Know what your child is reading, and realize the level at which they can read - both in terms of reading ability as well as content. Familiarize yourself with the hot books aimed at kids and teens. If you don't want to read them, or don't have time, ask one of your friendly Boswell booksellers. Heck, ask me. Come on up to the receiving door and knock and grill me about Mockingjay. We're booksellers. We don't mind. We'd love to help.
One last thing. If a kid really wants to read something, the kid will find a way to read it. Whether or not you allow it. Do you really think I didn't find a way to read Disclosure anyway?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reader's Block

Bear with me, because this story has a happy ending.

I walked into the office last week and broke down: "Daniel, I don't know what to read. I can't seem to finish anything I start these days."

It's not that what I'm starting isn't good, it's that my interest slips away after about 25-50 pages. Maybe my expectations are too high, or maybe reading is about finding the right book at the right time. As a bookseller, I certainly have access to a lot of good literature--an overwhelming amount, at times. It shouldn't be hard to find something to read.

Part of my Reader's Block stems, I think, from the fact that I recently finished my Master's thesis, a summer-long process that involved reading lots of academic texts, then writing, rewriting, and editing. And then going back to the scholarly literature. Then, more writing. Oh, and there was that time when I deleted about 14 pages and completely rewrote them. That was fun.

During the time I worked on my thesis, all I wanted to do was read what I wanted to read, not what I had to read for the project. In fact, I spent a good deal of time procrastinating by reading books; I read Lily King's Father of the Rain (excellent!), Sara Gruen's Ape House (entertaining! and available soon), Nicole Krauss' Great House (available in October), and--because I'm a nerd--Volume I of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Selected Journals. And then I hit a rut. Right around the time I defended my thesis. I started about four books but couldn’t make it past the first fifty pages in any one of them.

The one book I managed to finish during this post-thesis time was The Outward Room by Millen Brand, a New York Review Book originally published in 1937 and soon available in a NYRB edition. This book, about a woman who escapes from a mental hospital in the 1930s (I'm just now realizing the connection), had exactly what I was looking for: a simple, linear plot, thoughtfully developed characters, and a timeless type of emotional reflection that connects readers and characters across time and space.

So, back to my meltdown in Daniel's office. Daniel immediately put on his bookseller cap (well, I suppose he never really takes it off) and analyzed the situation. He knows what I like to read--and is pretty good at determining any reader's mood--so he gave me a galley of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. With whom we just happened to have an event last night.

And, boy, am I glad he recommended that particular book at this particular time. Not only was it exactly what I needed to pull me out of my slump, but it prepared me for one of the best author readings I've ever attended. Rebecca Skloot was absolutely brilliant. She was truly engaging, and read and spoke with clarity and consideration for the audience. And the icing on the cake was the opening by her father, Floyd Skloot, who read three poems before giving his daughter a beautiful introduction. I think we were all a little choked up when he expressed his love and pride for his daughter.

Here they are together:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is shaping up to be an industry sensation. I tried to recall everything that's going on with it, so forgive me if I leave something out, but here are a few of the highlights:

  • UW Madison has adopted the book as a requirement for its incoming freshmen, and Skloot will be giving a presentation to a large audience of students and faculty
  • Oprah is interested in adapting the book for an HBO movie
  • Skloot is working on a YA version of the book for middle grade readers
  • The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which was founded by Skloot, has helped several of Henrietta's grandchildren and great-grandchildren meet education and health care costs

Ultimately, this post is about two things:

First, Rebecca Skloot has written an incredible book, and I'm sure you'll be hearing more about it from us at Boswell. Her success affirms the idea that if you work hard toward something you're passionate about, you'll achieve your goals. Even if Oprah doesn't call, you will have produced something you're proud of and which captures the public's fascination, as one audience member said last night.

Second, I am grateful for booksellers who are good at their jobs. There’s nothing like recommending a book to a customer and seeing him or her a week later, glowing about the book and thankful for your help. It’s why we read, read, read. It’s why we know each other’s strengths and interests, and can guide a customer to the best bookseller for the question. Over time, and with practice, we learn how to read our customers, as well, and understand their interests, temperaments, and preferences. Daniel knew that I read mostly fiction, but he also knew that the narrative style of Skloot’s book, along with my interests in biography and science, would be just right for me.

All this to say that it is possible to overcome Reader’s Block. Just turn to your nearest bookseller for help.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Favorite Book of the Fall is Out this Week!

And, no it is not Freedom by Jonathan Franzen but good guess. Nothing against his new book, a fellow Boswellian, Conrad really liked it and had this to say:

No one writes about dysfunctional families and individuals better than Jonathan Franzen. The struggle to achieve personal independence and identity-battling the constraints of family, friends, lovers, society, and the unrealistic expectations (both our own and other people's for us) that map our lives- is explored with hilarious results in this splendid new novel. If you liked The Corrections, you'll love this!--Conrad

While Franzen blew me away with all the frenzy and media surrounding it for yesterday's release, I was eagerly anticipating Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, which happened to come out on the same day as Franzen.

Skippy Dies starts out a bit depressing, because, well, Skippy Dies by page four. Then, Paul Murray hits the rewind button on his novel and starts the story at the beginning of a school year at Seabrook College and follows the many characters that have a hand in leading to Skippy's demise. The story revolves around Skippy and his friends, as they move through the school year, attempting to use String Theory to open up portals or to evade the local bully Carl. The conversations these kids have are often quite hilarious, and partly because I remember having pointless conversations myself back in high school. Paul Murray nails these conversations with ease, as if he is overhearing them as he writes, fluidly following the disjointed logic of youth. They have nicknames for their teachers, for instance their history teacher is Howard the Coward. Which Howard assumes is just because it rhymes, but secretly he knows that he is hiding out from real life and other secrets that tie him to Seabrook College.

Skippy Dies has many, many plot threads running throughout, and I leave you to discover them. Let's just say that the book is funny, sad, exhilarating, and exhausting all at the same time. It is a journey you will never regret, full of shocks and surprises. And, did I mention that it was long listed for the Man Booker Prize?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Books About Dogs and Books, and Books About Books

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." -Mark Twain

So what happens inside a dog picture book that's about dogs and books (and one that isn't)? Let's find out, shall we?

Our fabulous children's buyer, Amie, noticed an uncanny connection between several new children's picture books that were coming out around the same time and after checking them out, fell in love with all three. They are spritely illustrated, sweet, and clever. Plus with morals more related to today's "demise of print" soothsaying than to fables of yore, they also make perfect gifts for adult readers. Oh, and all three are currently 20% off, too.

Dog Loves Books
written and illustrated by Louise Yates
was $16.99, currently $13.59

An enterprising biblio-dog loves everything about books and decides it's high time he open his own bookstore.

The problem is that even with all his preparation and excitement, the customers are not flooding in - in fact, there aren't any at all.

Wait, what's this? A lady comes in, but. . . oh, wait. . . she's just wanting a cup of tea.

A long, quiet interlude and, oh! Look! A man comes in and asks for. . . directions.

Whatever will Dog do? Lucky for him, he's surrounded by books and can while away the time embarking on adventures and making new friends. And Dog is happily ensconced in his reading when. . . a customer comes in to ask for. . .*

(This book is so true to what life in a bookstore is like, it had all us booksellers in stitches. For more, check out Daniel's related post)

written and illustrated by Tad Hills
was $17.99, currently $14.39

From the delightful mind of Duck & Goose comes the tale of an adorable little fuzzy canine (who I want to take home right this second) who stumbles upon a little yellow bird. When this bird starts reading aloud from a book, the story becomes more and more suspenseful until right before the big reveal and - the bird disappears.

Rocket is frantic to find out how the story ends but the bird is nowhere to be found! The next day, the bird reappears and begins to teach Rocket to read so he can discover for himself the ending. As Rocket learns how to read, he begins to see his world in a whole new way.

And finally, last but most definitely not least, is the new, hilarious bookseller favorite:

It's a Book
written and illustrated by Lane Smith**
was $12.99, currently $10.39

A donkey, aka a jackass, takes a seat by a monkey with a strange device.

The jackass, curious as he is, inquires after it: "What do you have there?" The monkey replies matter-of-fact, "It's a book."

The jackass inquires further, "How do you scroll down?"
"I don't. I turn the page. It's a book."

But the jackass is still confused:
"Can it text? Blog? Scroll? Wi-Fi? Tweet?"

The answer, of course, everyone together now, is:

"'s a book."

*(to hear the rest of this story, you'll have to come buy the book!)
**Check out Lane Smith's delightful book trailer as well as a blog post on how the book came to be.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Crossing genre lines!

If you ask me to suggest a good nonfiction book to you, something very odd will happen. My eyes will glaze over and I'll stare at you, my mouth agape. A brief awkward silence may ensue, followed by a drawn-out and monotone "uhhhhhh..." And just when you think you may have to grab the largest book nearby and aim for the head (The Passage if we're up front, New Literary History of America if we're near the back) , I will break my zombie fugue and suggest you speak to one of my more nonfiction-adept coworkers. Don't get me wrong, I can suggest what's been popular, and I can tell you in general what the titles are about, but I haven't read them.

To me, books should tell stories. Fantastic, unbelievable stories. Things that wouldn't happen in real life, because real life is boring and predictable. To me, reading about things that have actually happened or are actually happening ruins the magic of the story. There is, however, one exception - true crime. For some reason, true crime has the opposite effect on me. Reading a thriller is one thing. Knowing that the events actually happened makes the story that much more potent.

Enter Priceless. A book about art theft. Something I didn't know much about, but always had a vague interest in. Not the actual thieving part, mind you. The author, Robert Wittman, was the head of the art crime division of the FBI for many years. The dust jacket reveals that he went undercover to recover priceless (well, not really priceless, but really honking expensive) artwork that had been stolen.

The book itself is an interesting blend of memoir, true crime, and art history. Right off the bat, Wittman begins setting the record straight on art theft and recovery. Not every thief is Thomas Crown, apparently. Wittman goes on undercover excursions around the globe, recovering pilfered American Civil War artifacts, stolen Picassos, and even retrieving a legitimate copy of the Bill of Rights. Wittman becomes more renowned and respected as his career progresses, leading up to his involvement in the grand-daddy of all art thefts: the Gardner heist. I'm not sure if it's considered a spoiler if I tell what happened in real life, but to be safe, I won't go into details. The Wikipedia page gives a brief overview, although the book has much more information.

Will this book change my mind on the whole about nonfiction? Probably not. But it has convinced me that I am capable of reading nonfiction. What's next? The Monster of Florence is looking mighty interesting...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Is your book suffering from PPB (Post-Publication Blues)?

Book publishing is a many-layered business. A book begins with the author, passes to an agent (or several), then advances to an editor, who in turn hands it off to a host of other folks to get it ready for printing: copy editors, assistants, fact checkers, graphic designers, copywriters, marketing folks, etc. And that’s before the book even hits the shelves!

So it’s no surprise that mistakes get made occasionally. Last month, we sent back several copies of Justin Cronin’s fabulous new novel, The Passage, due to a misprinting – four lines on page 276 were missing. How many people would notice or care? Probably not that many. But Ballantine didn’t want to take that chance, so back the copies went.

Not all those little mistakes get caught by the publisher, though. I was paging through a recent arrival, The Bumper Book of Nature. This tome is a treehugger’s dream: a plethora of seasonally-based activities for kids and adults to do outdoors no matter the weather. But it’s a good thing the author didn’t call it the Bumper Book of Geography. When advising readers to go on a city safari, Moss notes:

“Chicago, Illinois: Its location on the southern shore of Lake Erie makes Chicago...”

Hold up! Lake Erie? It’s typos like this that get us Midwesterners all salty about Coasties’ grip on basic geography. I’m happy to report, however, that the book is lovely otherwise, and well worth a look for those outdoorwardly-inclined.

Sometimes, bad grammar just happens. I got no further than the inside flap of newly-minted Daily Show correspondent Olivia Munn’s Suck It, Wonder Woman! before I found my most hated typo, the errant apostrophe (Thought’s on my First Agent’s Girlfriend’s….”) Oh, Olivia.* Actually, it was probably not Munn who wrote it, but a hapless marketing department copywriter, whose has since been sacked and is now begging for scraps outside a Le Pain Quotidien on the mean streets of Manhattan. But it just goes to show how complicated the publishing process is.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that we don’t see more little mistakes in the books we read and love. Publishing is such a big, sprawling business that frequently seems like a juggernaut about to come off at the wheels, especially if we listen too closely to the critics pronouncing the imminent death of the book. Publishing is alive and well, as the steady output of new titles demonstrates. The many, many good people behind the scenes deserve a shout-out for the work they do getting these books to print and then into the hands of readers. Typo-catching is an activity I’m happy to do – it means there are more books to read!

*Yeah, I know. I’m not really taking issue with Olivia Munn for a typo on the inside cover of her book. I will, however, take issue with her answer to question 14 on page 256. The correct answer is Firefly, dear. That’s just science.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What's scarier than a zombie or a vampire? A ZOMBIE VAMPIRE.

Before I begin, a quick update about how my life in receiving has been since you last heard from me.

My friends from around the country often ask me how cold it is in Wisconsin. In particular when there is a heat wave wherever they live. It's as if they are trying to cool off vicariously through me. I have to try and patiently explain that Wisconsin does not snow throughout the year, and we are, in fact, rather hot here too. And then we inevitably get into an argument about how our 86 degrees with 70% humidity isn't as bad as their 90 degrees and 0% humidity. Sheesh.
Long story short, it's really flipping hot in receiving, and it's only amplified when I have to keep moving boxes of The Passage around.

Flash back a few months. Jason, as usual, hands me a pile of advance reader copies, tells me that I will love all of them, and sends me on my merry way, trying my hardest not to drop them all over the floor. Amongst these was a copy of The Passage by Justin Cronin. Apparently the buzz was off the chart for a horror-esque novel. Stephen King wrote very positively about it, and a massive movie deal was signed before publication (with Ridley Scott likely directing!) to the tune of $1.75 million. It certainly seemed to be in my vein for genre. There was just one problem. It was really long.

I know, I know. That really shouldn't be the deciding factor for whether or not you're going to read something. But nearly 800 pages is a serious time commitment, and even looking at the advance reader copy made me wonder how many trees died so that it might live. It's a daunting prospect, starting a book of that size. So I didn't.

Fast forward back to about a week ago. Our event at Sugar Maple with Justin Cronin and Dan Chaon is over and done with, and all that remains are copies of The Passage. And I mean boxes. There was a slight misprint in the book (it cut out about four not-very-important-to-the-story lines), which led to Random House sending us five new boxes. Under the pressure of the glowing reviews, the forthcoming film, Jason pestering me, and about sixty copies of this massive book taunting me to read it, I finally caved.
I sat down after dinner one night and opened the book for the first time. I closed it again much later, wondering why it was so dark. I had blown through 300 pages without a second thought.

The story begins with death row convicts being rounded up and taken to a military installation. Brad Wolgast, the FBI agent in charge of contacting these convicts, doesn't give too much thought to it. Then orders come down from the top to bring in a civilian... a young girl named Amy. He decides to try and help her escape, but both end up prisoners in the military installation. Things go wrong, of course. Lots of people die, and the truth about what was happening comes out when twelve crazy zombie vampire military experiments escape. And we're talking 28 Days Later and Nosferatu zombie vampires, not Dawn of the Dead and Twilight zombie vampires.


No. >

The world (or at least the United States, the fate of other countries is unknown) falls apart. Some 80 years after the disaster, the last known remnants of humanity reside in a colony bathed in artificial light and defended by the Watch, essentially the town guards. They are self-sufficient, and can hold out as long as the engineers can keep the lights on. However, everything changes the day a young girl who seems to be uninfected appears at the gates...

I'm sort of glad I wasn't at the Sugar Maple for this event after I read the book, because I probably would have ended up trying to hug Justin Cronin and that may have been awkward. I have never read a book like this. The characters are charismatic, flawed, and believable. The descriptions of the colony and the world beyond her walls, 80 years after the world as we know it died, give us a glimpse of Cronin's genius.

You might think it difficult to take the concept of zombie vampires seriously, but let me assure you - Cronin pulls it off. I have not been this scared of a fictional creature since I read Salem's Lot in sixth grade. Truly terrifying stuff. My favorite book of 2010? With still about half a year remaining, signs point to yes.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Bookseller Abroad

I'm not sure it's possible for a book lover to return from the literary city of Edinburgh, Scotland, without a heavy suitcase. Every corner of that city offers some reference to a story or song of historical or literary importance, and, during my recent overseas excursion, I felt compelled to pick up a book at nearly every friendly shop and museum. Soon, my husband and I were struggling to find ways to repack our suitcases, which, while we had left some room for souvenirs and gifts, suddenly seemed too small.

Last winter, as I was planning this trip, I read a very short article in Scotland Magazine about The Edinburgh Bookshop, the city's new independent bookshop in the Bruntsfield neighborhood--home, it's rumored, to some of the city's most famous contemporary writers, most notably J K Rowling, Ian Rankin, and, I believe, Alexander McCall Smith. I hoped to tie in an excursion to the shop, but as we neared the end of our trip and still hadn't visited the store, I was afraid we wouldn't have time to get to it, especially since it's a bit off the beaten tourist path and we had already stopped in Blackwell (which, the clerk assured me, was at least more independent than Waterstone's, and deals more extensively in academic book sales). But when we took a bus to Rosslyn Chapel, I spotted The Edinburgh Bookshop on Bruntsfield Place, and told my travel companions that I had to stop there on our return trip into the city.

Rosslyn Chapel, by the way, was definitely worth the stop-and-start ride on city bus #15 to the outskirts of Edinburgh, and will be even more worthwhile in a few months when they remove all of the scaffolding that obscured almost our entire view of the exterior. The chapel is one of the most intricately crafted buildings in the world, and its illustrious carvings and architecture have been linked to conspiracy theories and historical mysteries, such as the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, Freemasonry, and pagan gods and icons like the Green Man. And of course, most famously of late, it was featured in Dan Brown's book and the film The Da Vinci Code.

Sadly, it fell into a state of severe disrepair over the years, and earlier efforts to restore it only exacerbated problems created by time and weather. Our guide explained that when the parish began raising money for the building's major restoration, which started in 2006, they had no idea what the book would do for the small town and their fundraising efforts. Where they had once expected about 30,000 ("tarty-tousand") visitors a year, they received that many during the month of August in 2006. She was an excellent guide, and, to our amusement, seemed both fascinated by and indignant about the attention the movie brought to their beloved chapel.

I was eager to get to the bookshop before it closed; shops close early in Scotland, usually between 4:00 and 6:00 pm during the week. Finally standing before it, I felt that I was understanding a common language when I saw the "Eat Sleep Read" IndieBound poster adorning the front door. Ah, home. We entered the small, two-room shop, and were pleasantly greeted by the clerk. I immediately spotted a few telling titles -- The Elegance of the Hedgehog, City of Thieves, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest -- and knew I was among good book people. Compared to what I'm used to at Boswell, and before that Schwartz, there wasn't a lot of inventory--perhaps a few thousand books, a very small number of journals and greeting cards, and no other gift items. I introduced myself to the manager, Andrew -- who was not the owner but, like all good booksellers, took ownership of the store -- and we talked about our bookselling backgrounds and some of the differences in titles and covers between UK and North American editions. For instance, the Hans Fallada novel Every Man Dies Alone is there titled Alone in Berlin, and has a different cover image. One of our favorites at Boswell, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, is titled The Other Hand in the UK.

I asked whether he thought publishers might do better in the UK by putting out paperback original editions (or by following the hardcovers quickly with paperback editions), but he said that lots of his customers preferred hardcover editions, especially for collecting. It might have had something to do with the neighborhood, which to me seemed more affluent and local-minded than other parts of the city.

While I browsed, I listened in on Andrew's conversations with a few regular customers. One woman came in for a book she had pre-ordered. Someone had accidentally shelved it, but he knew right where it was and retrieved it for her. There was a sweet moment when he showed off one of the new IndieBound paper bags to a customer, and I overheard him explain to another person that the store had received requests for t-shirts and other memorabilia. The store opened in September, so there was some of the familiar conversation about how the shop is doing, what to expect in the coming months, why certain titles weren't in yet, etc. I purchased a copy of Nicole Krauss' The History of Love (solely for the cover image--perhaps I'll rip the cover off and frame it...I think I just heard a collective gasp from booksellers everywhere), The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley (Virgin Books), and, despite its weight, a White's Fine Edition of Jane Eyre.

My favorite part of the experience came later that evening when I visited the bookshop's website and saw that Andrew had tweeted about our visit:

Even though we were there for a brief half hour, seeing the bookshop was a highlight of our trip. Thanks, Andrew and The Edinburgh Bookshop!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Live at the Sugar Maple, June 10th, Cronin & Chaon

Attention!! Boswell Book Company has a spectacular event this Thursday at the Sugar Maple, with two authors who have published some of the best that fiction has to offer. It starts at 7pm!

And the first author brought to you by Jocelyn:

If you missed Await Your Reply in hardcover, now is your chance to get it in paperback. And missing it would be a crime, because this novel is one of the best pieces of writing to come out in the previous year. Chaon first showed his craft as a short story writer, in the riveting collection Among the Missing. Even in the novel format, Chaon keeps that crucial attention to detail, giving us stories within stories.

Await Your Reply is rhythmic in its pacing, interweaving the strands of three main characters whose lives intersect and ricochet off the others. Even within each chapter, the story is cut down into brief passages, each one faceted and honed to its own small resolution, like little gems that make up a necklace. The result is like the cycle of breathing; every inhalation demands an exhalation. And like breathing, you absolutely can't stop, because Chaon propels the story forward relentlessly, revealing details with a maddening deliberation. The story itself is an exploration of identity, and of the importance we attach to it. What makes us who we are? Can we change? Can we become someone else? Can someone else become us? Those are the questions the characters pursue. Miles ponders them as he follows the shifting trail of his schizophrenic brother. Ryan clings to those questions as he chases down the truth of his parentage. Lucy wonders about them even as she runs away with her older lover.

As each character pursues the answers to those questions, they draw closer to each other, and to the realization of just how easily identity can be tossed off, shifted, and created…and that within that truth lays a great danger.It's tempting to call Dan Chaon a "writer's writer." After all, the attention to the craft of writing is evident throughout the novel. But that description is misleading. Chaon is a reader's writer. This is a breathtaking story that is pure enjoyment, even while it's breaking your heart. Do not miss it.

And the second author brought to you by Jason:

Coming out tomorrow is easily the most hyped about book of the year so far, The Passage by Justin Cronin. You may remember him from either Mary & O'Neil or the Pen/Hemingway award winning novel The Summer Guest. If so, then you are still not prepared for this gem of speculative fiction, as this is all new ground that Cronin is putting down for himself. I am not going to tell you too much about the book, it is mammoth at over 600 pages. Cronin outdoes himself, he keeps to his storytelling, literary roots from his earlier works and melds it together with page-turning compulsiveness of an epic story a la old-school Stephen King.

The book has two parts to it. In the first part, we meet Amy, the girl 'who lived a thousand years' and a whole cast of characters working on Project Noah. All you have to know about Project Noah, is that it ends the world. It unleashes the virals, a kind of vampire that replicates like the plague. Amy is at the center of it, the heart of it, and the key to it all. But, she is not ready for it, she is whisked away as the world comes to a violent, bloody end. In the second part, Cronin entrenches us into a self sufficient commune-like town. Where the lights never go off and the cast of characters dream of what the stars look like. They also dream of what the virals would do to them should the lights ever go out. When Amy re-enters, a mystery to all (who could survive outside without any lights at night!), the story splinters again into a long journey, where a group goes off in search of the origins of Project Noah.

This is the epic novel you should read, this is the one that everybody is talking about. Do not miss it, and do not miss Dan Chaon and Justin Cronin live at The Sugar Maple!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Yarr... there be treasure buried!

When I was a kid, I dreamed of adventures. I hoped every day that something exciting would happen. Dinosaurs coming back to life, or aliens landing on earth. Or perhaps a Boxcar Children-esque mystery for me to solve. Nothing too dangerous, just something to break the dreary monotony of my dull childhood life.

In hindsight, I realize this was an incredibly naive thing to wish. I didn't know how good I had it. I still yearn for adventure and treasure-seeking, gallavanting across the globe with an Indiana Jones style fervor. But I realize that the majority of such things are the imaginings of a bored and creative child's mind. Real treasure hunts aren't something booksellers generally get to go on.

Until now.

The Clock Without A Face is a McSweeney's production (which one could probably guess just by looking at it), and it defies any sort of genre-classification you try to pin upon it. It's a picture book, it's a mystery, it's an interactive adventure. The basic idea is that you are attempting to solve a mystery by looking at the apartments of a building's eccentric tenants. It's sort of like Where's Waldo meets interior design, but forces you to think rather abstractly to solve the mysteries. And then at the end, it is revealed that the twelve numbers off the face of the clock at the top of the building are real. Yes - tangible, real life, if-you-find-them-you-get-them real. And they are buried around the United States, with their locations encrypted within the drawings in the book.

Oh my gosh. It's a treasure hunt. A real one. I was skeptical at first, so I took a look at the website on the back of the book. It seems legit. Apparently there are a lot of people trying to figure this stuff out. Folks have been putting their heads together over the internet, trying to figure out where the numbers are buried. Here's the kicker: as of my writing of this - 7:38 PM on 5/14/10 - none of them have been found.

Come on in and take a gander at this book, since I'm really not doing it justice by my descriptions. It's in the kid's section, most likely face out and with a funky shape. Try your hand at finding the real-life treasure.

Oh, and if you do find a number, I get the assist!