Saturday, September 14, 2013

Brass Rooster, That Funky Rooster

I love Paris, I love France, I love ladies' pretty hats. Wait, that's not how the tune goes? Oh. Okay.

But, I do love hats.

So when a shop called The Brass Rooster opened in Bay View in 2011, I got very excited. Granted, most of what they sell is for men, but I happen to look good in a man's hat, so I'm okay with that. A quality fedora looks just as great on the gals, if not better, than on the dudes.

Skip ahead two and a half years. We book an event with Antoine Laurain, the French author of a delightful little novel. The President's Hat is about a notable politician's lost hat that changes the fates of all who come in contact with it. Daniel wants a window display to help promote the book and the event. As fate would have it, we had another Paris-based novelist the month before so it was really a matter of making one window and then tweaking it. Our tweak this time would be bringing The Brass Rooster on board as a co-sponsor for the event. Basically, that just means we ask someone if they want us to promote them in exchange for them promoting our event. It gives us a chance to reach a wider audience and also support other local businesses and nonprofits.

In getting ready to transition the window from Toby Barlow's Cold War-era Paris to 1980's Paris under Mitterand's presidency, I went to Brass Rooster to see about gathering some props from them to garnish the new display. While there, I took some time to chat with them about their shop and craft.

The first thing you need to know is that Kate and John McLaughlin are two of only twelve Master Hatters nationwide: TWO! When they first opened, they stocked their shelves with only the finest hats from the classiest names; brands that have been around for generations from milliners who have their hats constructed using quality materials, with traditional tools and equipment. John explained how much it irks him that a particularly popular hat company pitches itself as a hat maker when the reality is they copy crafted styles (their buyer's title is along the lines of "prop master"), have their product mass-produced in China, then charge fashionably high prices.

This commitment to craft and ethical business practices, instead of just selling a product, is what makes Brass Rooster stand out. John and Kate didn't want to just be a hat shop, even one that made quality products available for anyone, regardless of income level. Instead, they set themselves up as a traditional haberdashery: one that sells, repairs, and does original work in the form of custom hats, molded for your head with materials you select. They're happy to guide and advise, of course.

Custom hats range from $195-395, depending on materials used, though one thing remains standard across all the hats K&J make: materials are carefully chosen and American sourced. For example their fur felt all comes from Tennessee.
The leather sweat bands that line the hats? They are Roan goat leather from a third-generation farm. The grosgrain ribbon they use is the only thing to come from outside the U.S., usually from the U.K. because it's hard to find real grosgrain here. The default is a classic, salvage edged ribbon, though the colors and finish vary widely depending on the customer's preference. One of the hats I saw had mohair grosgrain, furred along the edges. I wanted to snuggle it.

Even with all that care, the turnaround time on a custom order is often only a day or so. After you've had your hat measured, made your style & material & color & detail selections, of course. If you're Kid Rock, though, and you call up John because you heard he does nice work, you order your hat at 2pm and it's in your dressing room by 8, in time for your appearance in front of thousands of Harley Riders, sporting a spiffy new hat made right in Harley's hometown of Milwaukee. If you're Kid Rock and you like the work, you call up the shop to thank them and tell them you'll be in touch for more.

Earlier this year, they took their custom work a step further, launching their own original hat line (already being carried in 11 shops and 9 locations across the country). They are cool, sexy, manly, slick, warm, doffable things with beautiful color combinations like black cherry & steel, navy & sienna, and loden & bonsai. The devil is in the details here, and as I turn one hat and another over in my hands, examining the differences in stitching style and color, how the ribbing on one hat runs vertical but runs diagonal on another, I realize: I WANT THEM ALL!

Kate is a magnetic presence in the store, tall with rockabilly hair and luscious red lipstick, but John is definitely the one on stage. He acts out everything as he says it, particularly while describing what happens to guys who come in their shop:

"It's remarkable. First, he'll wander around, just looking, occasionally touching a hat. Eventually, he'll pick one out and," slouching a little, John grabs a hat from the window and puts it on his head, "put it on. Right away, he stands up taller. He turns around and walks to the mirror, not noticing there's a change in his gait already." Here, John saunters towards one of the large mirrors by an organ standing against an inside wall, a skip in his step, and eyes his reflections, adjusting the hat this way and that, tipping it forward and back, angling his head a little. "The best part is when he's bought the hat, we'll offer to box it up and the answer is almost always 'no, thanks.' Then, he'll walk out the door. But," here John pauses dramatically, smiling "he will forget we can see him through these windows and after he exits, he'll stop on the sidewalk for a moment. Every single one of them does this. He'll stop, look left, right, then abruptly turn and stride off with purpose."

A woman comes in the door with her two kids. John and Kate step into swift action. They move seamlessly within this small space, Kate telling John where the customer's hat is, and also greeting the woman like an old friend, asking how she's doing, how wedding plans are going. The customer is a bride-to-be and has just come from the hairdresser who has done a beautiful pin-up style on her. We ooh and ah over it.

John brings out a box, opening it up and offering it to the woman delicately, fingertips barely brushing the edges. It's a large thing with a wide brim, the kind you'd see on a cowboy's head, except for the fact that it is white—pure white with a thick white ribbon encircling the crown. It's gorgeous, practically glows in the sunlight streaming through the big picture window. The bride beams, and says to the little boy she's got balanced on her hip, "Papa's gonna look so fly," before putting him down on the leather settee. As the remainder of the bill is settled up, Kate points out they can adjust the fit, to please let them know if it's not right, and the customer shoos away Kate's comment saying, "I trust you guys."

After chatting a while longer about the differences in wedding traditions of various Hispanic and Latino cultures, as well as talking about parenting kids who are nearly school-age while John places a hat on the head of each kid, eliciting buoyant giggles, thank-yous and goodbyes are said.

Although he spent his working years in retail and the music industry, he ultimately found his passion because of Kate. A milliner for many years, having worked for television and stage, most recently for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, she's the one who taught John much of what he knows. "Much" isn't "all" because it turns out he'd been fond of this old-school fashion statement since he was young.

"Get the picture, John," she says. He obediently heads over to a shelf and plucks something from up high. It's an older frame with a black & white photo inside. He hands it to me, challenging, "Guess which one's me."

This is no "Where's Waldo" moment. The cluster of 10-year-olds is fairly unremarkable with one exception: the boy crouched in the center wearing a too-large fedora on his head. It's John's fifth grade class photo. The hat is his granddaddy's. He kept it, repairing it many times over, until the thing fell apart. He was hooked. And then he met Kate.

A demonstration ensues of the different pieces of equipment necessary to make a hat. Large blocks of wood in various shapes and sizes adorning the back wall each have a very specific purpose. Many are hard-to-find and very old, often needing refinishing. The ones for the ladies' hats are particularly complex as they require puzzle piece disassembling in order to remove a freshly molded hat from its oddly-shaped head, which only means more complicated reassembling (Kate points out John's put one back together wrong. He insists he hasn't. She just smiles and watches as he eventually realizes she was right).

I ask if it's true that anyone can wear a hat. "Oh yes," they both reply enthusiastically. "It just has to be the right hat." They demonstrate the proper way to measure a hat fit (chin to eye equals hat height) and add, laughing, "we've told people they can't buy certain hats because we don't want them making us look bad."

"Okay. Put me in a hat," I say. They both examine me, Kate with her chin tilted up and eyes angled down towards me from many inches above my head; John with his fingers to his chin. Then, as if struck by lightning, they both move at once. "Honey, where's that camel one with the veiling? Oh! And the red & white one." (I say "one" because of course they called the hats by their proper names and I forgot to write them down) Hustling around, they pull out hat boxes from underneath a counter (wood cabinets originally meant to house guns for an outdoor sporting goods store, fronted with black cushions and buttons) and from the back room.

The hats are exquisite. One is from a set of matching cloches designed for a group of bridesmaids. One is a broad sunhat with a floppy brim, made with a rainbow-striped mesh. Except, it turns out not to be rainbow mesh, but ribbons, layered and pressed before the mesh was molded into place. Another cloche has a spray of hand-twisted red and white straw flowers adorning it. As with the men's hats, I WANT THEM ALL.1

Throughout it all, Kate and John regale me with stories. There was the day when an elderly woman came in and asked if they were the owners. When they affirmed they were, she said, "Thank you for making the men of Bay View look good." There was the day when a gentleman came in to look around and called a little while later asking if he could bring something in. He returned carrying a cane with a carved rabbit head topping it. "I went home," the man said, "and saw this on my wall. It was my grandfather's, but it really belongs to you. Every Mad Hatter needs a Hare."

We talk about Laurain's novel—about the idea of a hat moving from person to person and if such a hat would have to be magical to change each person's life or would its unique expression of its owner's personality as displayed on a different wearer? Taking into account everything I've just learned about how much artistic energy goes into hat making, and about how much a person's personality comes out in a hat, when it's carefully selected and right for him or her, it seems to me that The President's Hat isn't so much a fairy tale after all.

Before I leave, carrying a box of hat making accessories for our display, John mentions they're having a rockabilly band play in the shop the next night and that they'll be hosting a hat-making demonstration on Gallery Night. Just last night, they hosted an event featuring local photographer Jessica Kaminski of The Refinery. Whisky-tasting and music-listening accompanied hat-buying as attendees got their photographs taken, vintage mugshot style.

See, the best businesses don't just sell a product. They give you an experience you can't get anywhere else.

Speaking of which, come have an experience you can't get anywhere else: Antoine Laurain will be at Boswell doing a bilingual reading from his new novel and talking about his affinity for collections of old things (like cufflinks), as well as the allure of 1980's Paris to the French, on Tuesday September 24th at 7pm. More on The President's Hat on the Boswell and Books blog.


1Rumor has it that Kate will be opening up a ladies hat shop in the future (I selfishly hope sooner rather than later), but in the meantime, though she is busy with many aspects of running a business and assisting with the hat-making for the Brass Rooster line, as well as repairs and custom hats for the gents, if you ask nicely enough, she just might make a hat for your gal-pal.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Bookseller's Chance Encounter

An enormous Harley-Davidson rider visited the bookstore this afternoon. He looked like one of the vikings from the Capitol One Venture Card television commercials and towered over me like a grizzly bear on its hind legs.

"I'm looking for The Song of the Lark," he said, lifting his mirrored sunglasses onto his head.

I showed the hulk to the fiction section and handed him the book. I felt like I had to say, "you didn't strike me as a Willa Cather fan when you walked in."

"She's so special," he replied. He paid for the book and left. Awesome, I thought to myself. Bloody awesome.

Skip ahead a few hours. I was feeling peckish after work, so I stopped by a favorite local pizza place, Ian's, for a slice. As I exited the restaurant I heard a booming voice shout, "Hey, Boswell!" It was my au courant Harley rider friend, enjoying some pizza with his rider buddies on their bikes.

I couldn't help but notice the sidecar...

"Y'know, it's been kind of a bucket list dream of mine to ride in the sidecar of a Harley," I half-joked.

"Well, get your ass in."

So there I was, riding down North Avenue in the sidecar of a Harley-Davidson, driven by a stranger, with a box of pizza in my lap, giddy with childlike joy. Thank you Dave the Harley rider from Pittsburgh, wherever you are. Bloody awesome.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

Halley's Top Ten Books for the Year

When thinking about my imminent departure from Boswell, one of the things that made me saddest was knowing that I wouldn't have the opportunity to wax poetic on my favorite reads at the end of the year in our holiday newsletter.  Thankfully we have our blog, The Boswellians.  Here are my ten favorite books for 2013, in no particular order.  I'm sure you'll notice that all titles involve either science, history, or dogs - subjects that if you talk to me in the store you'll know I'm very fond of.

 #1. Gulp by Mary Roach
  Now I know that I claimed that I wouldn't be listing these in order, but Gulp is truly my favorite book from 2013.  The book is packed with interesting and disgusting facts and experiments around the alimentary canal, and easily tops Roach's book Bonk, a book that I was convinced would always be her best work.  Her writing remains top-notch, there are very few authors who can illicit the range of emotions that she can, I fluctuated between thrilled, awed, grossed out, and sad. This book would probably also win the "Most Times Halley Can Annoy Her Boyfriend About One Book" award, as my boyfriend and I like to sit and read together and I interrupted his reading every five minutes while reading this book to tell him something new that I learned along the way.

#2. The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

I picked up a galley for this book on a whim at one of our rep nights, I thought that perhaps my boyfriend the plant nerd would get a kick out of it.  When he didn't pick it up immediately, I decided to check it out and was instantly hooked.  It became a book that I would read out loud to Andrew while he cooked, and that got him on board the Stewart train as well.  The book opened my eyes to other books by Stewart which I subsequently gobbled up.  The Drunken Botanist is a beautiful blend of botany and history, and also of some of the social and economic repercussions that are wrapped up in certain crops. Stewart was also part of one of my favorite events that Boswell held at the Great Lakes Distillery earlier in the spring.

#3. The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan
I wrote a whole blog post about this one here.  I should add that Kiernan was a great presenter and the event at Boswell was wonderful, the crowd was filled with people who had ties to Oak Ridge, TN.

 #4. The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
I picked this book up after reading The Girls of Atomic City, knowing that I still had a historical itch to scratch.  I LOVED every single bit of this book.  I became immersed in the lives of the women standing behind the men of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo - every reading session ended with me running to Wikipedia to learn more.  Of all of the books I've read this year, this is the one that left me saddest at the end, I wasn't ready to be done.  This lead to Netflix binges of space documentaries, the search for the perfect edition of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, and my boyfriend thinking I was obsessed enough with astronauts to want a big box of astronaut ice cream.

 #5. The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson 
 This is another book mentioned alongside Kiernan's Girls of Atomic City in my earlier blog post.  The only thing I can add is that this book deserves a Pulitzer just as much as his first in the Liberation Trilogy, An Army at Dawn.

#6. My Dog: The Paradox by Matthew Inman (aka The Oatmeal)
First let me shamelessly flaunt my dog Poppy, the most perfect specimen of a dog on the planet:

 To know me is to know that I am obsessed with my little white dog.  When I first read the My Dog: The Paradox comic on The Oatmeal, I laughed, I cried, and I showed it to all of the dog lovers that I knew.  Inman captured all of the emotions and oddities involved with dog ownership perfectly.  When I got my hardcover copy of it I took it home and read it to Poppy.  That reading session ended in tears when I got to the part about dogs not being able to live forever, but it also made me appreciate the time that I do get to have with my sweet little P.

#7. Once Upon a Flock by Lauren Scheuer
When we were younger my best friend Jodi had chickens on her farm.  I hated them.  They ran around wherever they pleased and were stinkier than any cow I had ever met.  This did not seem like a book for me, but I was intrigued by the mixture of photography and illustration and decided to give it a try.  This was my most pleasantly surprising read of the year. I became engrossed in Scheuer's flock, caring about every single detail of the chickens' lives from their eating habits to egg laying.  I became so wrapped up in the bunch that I finished this book in a laundromat in tears after the death of one of my favorite chickens. This was a fun read that may make the reader obsessed with having a flock of their own.

#8. Maddie on Things by Theron Humphrey
When Stacie first introduced me to Maddie, I oohed and awed over how cute the adorable coonhound was.  After meeting Maddie at Boswell I was even more in love.  Humphrey's photographs are a nice blend of humor and art that showcase the different parts of the United States.

#9. The Inheritor's Powder by Sandra Hempel

Hempel brings together chemistry, crime, law, mystery, and history in this book on arsenic - a once popular method for poisoning.  I loved that Hempel was able to write on science and history while keeping a side plot on an actual case of arsenic poisoning.  This book is not out until October, but it is well worth the wait.

#10. Electrified Sheep by Alex Boese
I have not yet finished this book, but as I am over halfway through I can say with confidence that this is easily one of my favorite books for 2013. Boese writes on the stranger side of science, covering experiments that would probably be frowned upon by most of humanity.  The book is hilarious and crazy, two things that I can get behind.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Girls of Atomic City and Other World War II Reads

I won't lie; I am incredibly excited for today's event. The store has the great fortune of hosting Denise Kiernan, author of The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II at 2:00pm.  Anyone who is familiar with my reading interests will know that they lie heavily in the sciences. I can talk your ear off about bacteria, viruses, the Higgs Boson, astronomy, or medicine. What people may not realize is that I am also a huge fan of history, particularly World War II history. Maybe it's because my grandpa was a WWII vet, or maybe it's because I had incredible history teachers, or maybe it's because my parents enjoyed history; whatever the reason, I've always been hooked on learning as much as possible about WWII. Growing up, Saving Private Ryan was my favorite movie, the History Channel (which at the time was more or less the Nazi Channel) was my favorite channel, and HBO's miniseries Band of Brothers (based on the book by Stephen Ambrose) was a major event. As I grow older, I still have an immense interest in WWII, but now it’s because I've realized how the war itself has had such an impact on our lives today. Leaps in technology came forth, new world powers became defined, and new ideas of horror emerged. 

Me and my buddy Winston in Toronto
What I find impressive is that new material continually comes out on the matter, an event that ended 68 years ago in 1945. Over the past few years we've seen more and more books, some which are just another look at aspects already covered, and some which manage to cover topics not previously written on or covered extensively enough. Here are a few of the more recent WWII books that have come out, some which I have read and some of which I'm excited to someday read!
Kiernan’s book is an amazing read for not only lovers of history, but for fans of non-fiction that’s written in more of a story form. The book begins in 1943 and follows a group of women working in Oak Ridge Tennessee at Clinton Engineer Works. All that the women knew when they were recruited was that they were ‘helping their country win the war.’ They had no idea where they were when they arrived, and they had no idea that their work was ultimately part of the Manhattan Project. This is so far one of my favorite books of the year. It’s been receiving comparisons to Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I think is a fair comparison thanks to Kiernan and Skloot’s abilities to make history interesting to non-nerdy folks.

I have only just started this book, but the the finale of Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy” is a triumphant ending to an excellent series that followed the Allies during WWII. The first two books, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 and The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 opened my eyes up to new intricacies of the war that I didn’t even know existed. The Guns at Last Light starts off quickly and exciting with the days leading up to the Normandy invasion, and is a timely read with the 69th anniversary of D-Day being just two days ago. This is an excellent read for fans of history and I think an ace in the hole for a Father’s Day present.
Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis by Robert M. EdselI have yet to read Saving Italy, but I am a huge fan of Edsel’s 2009 book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. The Monuments Men followed an Allied group responsible for the protection of art in Europe from the Nazis, and is going to be made into a movie featuring the likes of Daniel Craig and George Clooney. Edsel’s follow-up, Saving Italy, again revolves around art and culture protection, but this time in just Italy specifically.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
Fans of the store’s blog will be sure to recognize Larson’s WWII title, as it was a frequent best-seller in both hardcover and paperback. This is a great pick again for those who loved more story-driven history and for anyone who loved Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.

The Second World War by Antony BeevorI have yet to read this, but I have been incredibly impressed with Beevor’s older works on WWII, covering such topics as the D-Day invasion, the fall of Berlin, and the battles at Stalingrad. This is a compact book that covers all aspects of the war from its beginning to V-J Day.
Here are some other great WWII picks that came out within the past two years:

Friday, May 31, 2013

Quick Question, (No Answer?)

I'm in love with John Ashbery's new collection of poems. I have to admit, I'm no poet, and I'm not very widely read in poetry (historic or contemporary...I have a very hit-or-miss knowledge of the artform generally), but there is something about this collection that's captured my imagination, and I want to share it with you.

Ashbery is a poetry of magnitude. The inside flap of "Quick Question" features the supreme blurb: a quote from Harold Bloom comparing Ashbery to Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, and Hart Crane. He's published more than 20 book previously, won a Pulitzer, etc. etc.

But that's not why I love "Quick Question." This is why I love it:

The Jacket Design & Cover

You have to see this in person, but let me attempt to describe it. The coverart: a background of crumpled paper with two uneven question marks, the second bolder than the first, creating a downward slope as you your eyes scan across the cover; the author's name and title in evenly sized, capitalized, sans-serif typeface, left-justified and moving very deliberately toward the bottom edge of the book; an absurdly decorative spine featuring floral patterns, bright colors and various textures, and the title and author's name in capitalized type-written typeface. This thing is freaking gorgeous.

The Language

From the title poem: "Here in the museum we do not invite trouble, / only establishment woes, sort of. We can bet farther / and classier with no returns. Sometimes late at night / cars droned and paled: Splurge and repent -- / wasn't that the idea? It was your initiative / that brought us here, through the difficult part / of a city. Some angels / seemed to teeter on the wooden fence. / Were we all they knew?"

This is typical of the collection; simple, colloquial language structured grammatically to give the illusion of meaningfulness; various and juxtaposed images that put you into a strange state of mind, a state where the absurd is commonplace, a place where the nonsensical becomes familiar, a dreamlike, uncanny sort of place; and references to the reader in the second person ("It was your initiative / that brought us here") -- playful, almost accusatory, like finding pointed letters directed at someone else and lacking all other context, like feeling that such a letter was somehow still "meant" for you.

For those who fear nonsense (believe me, I'm typically such a person when it comes to poetry) -- the collection does have a cumulative logic (for instance: the image of a sunset as a great wall in the sky recurs as an image of hope in the face of mortality -- who knows, perhaps there are seraphim just behind that wall, perhaps the sky is a place from which we, too, will look down on these disparate images and efforts, perhaps things will make sense then), though it only emerges upon multiple, patient rereadings.

The Tradition

Ashbery is in a long modernist poetic tradition. One that finds it's roots in T. S. Eliot and his ilk. His contemporaries include Ashbery's friend and (local) renown poet John Koethe (see Koethe's latest book of poems below). This tradition, I think, is a beautiful and complex. A bold counterpoint to the straightforward technical and analytic language of everyday American life. Plus, Ashbery is one of those poets whose body of work will give you a backlog of solid reading material.

(Koethe's most recent book of poems, available at Boswell.)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Summer Reading List for The More Metaphysically Inclined...

***This post contains some strong language (some contemporary philosophers have tended toward examinations of linguistic vulgarity lately), though nothing intentionally provocative or offensive. So, there's that. It is also intolerably esoteric. So, there's that, too.***

A good friend of mine recently related some lore about the notorious American Pragmatist Richard Rorty. According to my friend, Rorty has remarked that it's about time that we come up with a word to express a concept that already has a well established usage: the book that is perpetually on the list of things that we are going to read next summer. I'm not sure if Rorty ever took his own advice here, but I will now. Let's call a book that falls into this category a "kunftigbuch." ("Kunftig" means future in German, and "buch" means book -- I think that's true, I don't actually know German...I just looked it up in a German-English dictionary I found in the language reference section...) Nevertheless, kunftigbuch sounds like an academic enough name to coin our concept, and pronouncing it feels expressive of the frustration that we all feel whenever we talk about such books (see examples below).

Here's an example of how to use this concept in conversation:

"Moby Dick? Oh yeah, that's one of my kunftigbuchs..."

"Crime and Punishment? Uhg, a kunftigbuch to be sure."

Or how about:

"I wish it weren't so, but I think Infinite Jest is the quintessential kunftigbuch. Maybe that's the whole joke..."

Often, books become kunftigbuchs because our reading lists never properly align with our schedules (I always seem to remember my vow to read The Brothers K about two weeks into the fall semester). In order to remedy this situation, here is a list of excellent new philosophy books just in time for summer! Print out this list, circle the one's that you have to get through, and come on down to Boswell! That way you can make sure that these books never fall onto your mental list of kunftigbuchs!

The list, then (moderately annotated):

Aaron James's "Assholes: A Theory" -- This book is a hilarious guide to a type of person that we are all to familiar with, the asshole. Assholes, James argues, are not merely rude or overly assertive individuals, they are a class of humans with an identifiable trait, they are people who "allow [themselves] to enjoy special advantages in social relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes [them] against the complaints of other people." With this conceptual definition in hand, James goes on to identify essential characteristics of assholes, social circumstances that tend to produce a disproportionate number of assholes, and ask the question of what our moral response ought to be to these repugnant creatures. Despite it's title (and it's irreverent take on a familiar social phenomenon), this book is actually a philosophically sophisticated work (applied ethics in a Kantian vein). James is a UC-Irvine professor who was Harvard trained, but he walks the line between popular philosophy and analytic rigor like a pro. (Also, if you like this, check out Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit," another philosophically sophisticated popular treatise.)

Jim Holt's "Why Does the World Exist: An Existentialist Detective Story" -- As the hope that an exhaustive physical explanation of the existence of the cosmos fades into the nineteenth century, a number of cosmologists have taken up the a closer examination of historical responses to the puzzle of existence that haven't yet found their way into the contemporary debate. In this thoughtful and compelling book, Holt examines several such positions and ends up suggesting that idealist positions that have been laughed out of contention might just hold a little more weight than we've given them credit for. An excellent and informed look at some core cosmological questions.

Douglas Hofstadter's "Surfaces and Essences" -- Love him or hate him, Hofstadter has become something of an academic methodology unto himself. His latest book, co-authored with Emmanuel Sander, will please those who were taken with his wildly inventive debut "Godel, Escher, Bach," and moves along the same lines as the more recent "I am a Strange Loop." I can't say I always understand what Hofstadter is talking about, but, strangely, this never leads me to lose interest. If nothing else, this book succeeds as a object of art -- a postmodern narrative with its roots in this, the actual world. (Oddly, I don't think Hofstadter would mind that...he's not particularly keen on the distinction between analytic and literary prose...) Of course -- according to Hofstadter -- all of this is nothing more than is his is is is "as is..."... ... ...

So there you are. Some philosophical texts to read and enjoy. Pick them up early in the summer, though. It might take most of August to recover from all that abstract thinking!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Billions of Reasons Why You Should Read Carl Sagan's "Billions & Billions," a Blog Post from Halley.

If you're a frequent visitor of our store or our blog, you're probably familiar with our little St.George's Day (April 23rd) competition, I'm also going to assume that you've read Hannah and Paul's pleas for purchase of their books.  Hannah gave you ten reasons for why you should be reading The Illumination,  and Paul one upped her by listing eleven reasons why you should read Cormac McCarthy's Child of God.

I am now presenting you with the ultimate one upmanship by presenting you with ONE BILLION reasons why you need Carl Sagan's Billions & Billions. At least, that was my original plan. Based on the fact that simply counting to a billion would take a person over 31 years, I have decided to pick several of the more compelling of my one billion reasons.

#1. It's Carl freaking Sagan.

#345. The reading of Carl Sagan is a fact that is both impressive to friends and enemies alike. Wow and awe those around you with your new-found hoight-toighty sciency self.

#1224. It's good to get out of your comfort zone. I'm assuming that a lot of our customers don't read science based books for fun. If you're a fiction lover, this is the perfect gateway book to not only nonficiton, but to science writing. Billions & Billions is a collection of essays, which makes it pretty accesable if you're apprehensive of reading an entire book about science. The essay format gives you the ability to pick and choose how indepth you want to get with the book.

#90,546. It talks about important and modern issues. Even though the book is now sixteen years old, Sagan was talking about issues that are still heavily debated today. Billions & Billions covers climate change, green energy, censorship, abortion, and war, amongst other things.

#322,411. The book is humorous. This may be a bit of a shock, but Sagan was actually a funny guy. He was frequently a guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and Carson's parody of Sagan is the origin of the book's title.

#109,201,200. Even more impressive than Sagan's humor is his humility. This book was written while Sagan was battling a horrific disease that would eventually lead to his death. Sagan writes about his battle and remains to have a beautiful and inspiring outlook on life.

#847,193,645. It's fun to root for (and support!) the underdog. Billions & Billions is in a real niche when compared to my coworkers' choices for the contest. As soon as I saw what I was up against, I knew that I was in for a rough ride. Help pull of the upset of the month.

#1,000,000,000. Science is sexy, but science by a turtle-necked genius is even sexier. Show your support for eloquent science and turtle necks with the purchase of this book.

This eloquent plea for Carl Sagan's Billions and Billions brought to you by St. George's Day. Celebrate with a plush dragon, available in taupe or green.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

11 Reasons Why Cormac McCarthy's Child of God is (Actually) the Best Book You'll Read this Month

Okay, so you've read Hannah's latest post. I'll admit it, those are some pretty good reasons to buy "The Illumination." But I think there's something I have in support of my selection, Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God," that Hannah doesn't have: an extra reason. That's right, without further ado, 11 Reasons Why Child of God is the Best Book You'll Read this Month:

1. It situates itself squarely within the Southern Gothic literary tradition. While reading this book you may find yourself asking aloud: "What is this I'm reading? Is it Faulkner? Is it Flannery O'Connor? Eudora Welty?" Answer: no, it's just one of the strongest and most lyrical American writers alive today at his finest.

2. It asks big questions. If you're a fan of fiction that's not afraid to take on big subjects this book is for you. In a scant 195 pages McCarthy raises problems of grace and violence, depravity and free will, and a common human nature implicates us all in the actions of those we deem to be moral monsters. Woah.

3. Two words: cover art. Vintage has released editions of almost all McCarthy's work with parallel, gorgeous cover art. This could be the first in a magnificent collection.

4. Did you like "The Road?" Did you enjoy making your way through "The Border Trilogy"? Here's a McCarthy book that you'll like just as much, and that you can then recommend to your friends (seriously, like no one has even heard of this McCarthy book. Like it before it's cool!).

5. No one does violence or the grotesque like McCarthy, and no where is it more lyrically rendered than in this book.

6. Because I'll give you a better high-five than Hannah.

7. It's a quick read. You can do it! Sick of all those 600 page tomes that you optimistically purchased and then stopped reading after the first forty pages? This slim volume (at 195 pages, I'm telling you, you can do it!) doesn't sacrifice anything in terms of content, but it's realistic. Seriously: you can do it!

8. Because just because! (Trust me!)

9. What else are you going to spend $15 on? Hannah's book? Puh-lease! (Actually, Hannah's book is really good from what I hear, but don't let that sway you!)

10. Because who needs quotation marks? (McCarthy sensibly does away with all those frills of punctuation like quotation marks, apostrophes and basically anything other than periods.)

11. Do it for America. McCarthy is an example (like Denis Johnson or, I think, Marilynne Robinson) of how contemporary fiction writers can carry on the themes and tropes that have typically preoccupied American writers. So this book might not just be your best read this month, it could also be the most patriotic.

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier is the best book you will read this month!

We are having a "friendly" bookselling competition at the store and I want to win.  I picked the Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier as my book to champion.  To compel you to come in and buy a copy, I give you ten indisputable reasons why you should.

1. My favorite prose is that in which beautifully crafted sentences give me goosebumps.  The Illumination gave me ostrichbumps.

2. His last name is Brockmeier.  Half of my last name is Breimeier.  He knows how to spell the "meier" part of his name the right way, therefore he is great and therefore you would like his book.

3. The book is set in a world where suddenly, light emanates from physical pain.  Papercuts emit a small glow, internal bleeding blinds.  It is fun to imagine my wounds shining.  Glitter would become obsolete, which some would consider a good thing.

4. If you enjoy the Illumination, Brockmeier has other delicious writing.  You'll thank me for introducing you to your new favorite author.

5. I will give you a high five.  I am very good at giving high fives because I look at your elbow when doing them.  I can't complete a good high five, however, if you don't also bring it.

6. The cover is really cool.  There are so many bad covers out there, you should buy a book where the cover is as good as the contents and vice versa.

7. For $15 you can have a book whose characters will stay with you for a while or three beers that you'll regret the next day at work.

8. The other books in the competition are just not as good.  That is my completely unbiased opinion, I'm like a journalist!

9. I'm not the only one geeking out about the Illumination, here's Scott Hutchins' review for the New York Times.

10. If you buy it, you will help me on my path to glory.  Everyone likes the winner.  Don't let me suffer from second place depression.  There's enough sadness in the world, why add to it?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Word Nerds, B Part

Here's your second installment of the Word Nerd blog from Boswellians Hannah and Mel. Here we are, tempting you to check out the new Kobo.

Well, it's been an interesting few weeks for words. Over at Boswell, we've had remodeling words (complete with free coffee and barista face-time words), awesome-events-booked-recently words, and Mercury-finally-whipping-outta-retrograde words. With spring on the calendar and frigid temps clinging to the ol' thermometer, I'm sure you've all had an interesting past few weeks with words, too. Instead of focusing on that, let's indulge in some focused, specific word awesomeness based on the Tweets and emails we've receieved in response to our first blog post. 
Thanks for your words!

Two of Boswellian Halley's favorite words are oscillate and onomatopoeia. She's our local science-book guru, so it doesn't surprise that she likes oscillate, a word frequently found in physics texts. Yet onomatopoeia makes one wonder if she's writing science-themed poetry on the side. According to Phil Cousineau's Painted Word, which you can find in the Reference case with the writing guides, oscillate means "[t]o waver, move back and forth" (253). He identifies this as "[a]n imaginative word that is rooted in the Latin oscillum, a little mouth, most visually imagined in Virgil's Georgics when he describes a small mask of open-mouthed Bacchus swinging to and fro from a tree in a vineyard."
Really hoping this doesn't infiltrate your dreams this evening.
Upon sharing this with Boswellian Sharon, she said "Oh great--now I will never be able to unsee this." He cites the "pawky" (surely another word worth investigating) H. L. Mencken's use in the epigram, which is appropriate given our words the past few weeks: "'Life is a constant oscillation between the sharp horns of dilemmas'." Innit just.

We turn again to Cosineau's Painted Word for illumination with onomatopoeia--an unintended synesthesia, surely. As "[t]he imitation of a sound associated with the thing being named," onomatopoeia comes "from onomatopoios, from onoma, word, name, and a derivative of poiein, compose, make" (250). Here we have a word for the making-up of words. Brilliant! And it sounds exactly like a made-up-word! DOUBLE BRILLIANT! For those of you who still think the English language fixed, here's your whipakeup call and onomatopoeiatic license to ill-use perfectly good words, manipulating them to be more "sonicky," which is "Roy Blount, Jr.'s term for great-sounding words."
Not just riding a penny farthing, but tricks in a long skirt!
Eating donuts whilst trick-riding on a pennyfarthing seems like the old-timey equivalent of driving a manual transmission whilst eating a cheeseburger and smoking.
Hannah's favorite word is donut. There's no surprising origin of or definition for this word. However, a gang of delicious donut slang abounds. From the OED, we learn that donut usually refers to tires and life preservers, but really covers anything oblong in shape. In 1930, someone wrote of automobile tires: "We clout ten doughnuts an' call it a day." Here HERE. By the 1960's donut had morphed into a different kind of automotive slang. It had become not just the tire or spare tire, but a "manoeuver in which a car or other vehicle is (usually quickly) turned in a complete circle." This makes us nostalgic for summer-time frolickings, which surely are just around the bend. Fresh from the OED listing, this little gem from the New York Times Magazine circa August 1999: "A freckled friend of Sex Machine's loops around him on his bicycle, lazily doing doughnuts." One wonders what a friend of someone named Sex Machine would be named. At any rate, grab any friend (why should Sex Machine have all the fun?), grab your bicycles, and we'll brave it the local donutery, maybe doing a few donuts along the way, before clouting ten donuts an' calling it a day!
These hifalutin smokestacks are totally judging you.
And now for two of Mel's favorites: hornswoggle and hifalutin. The former means "[t]o cheat, bamboozle, hoax," (169) while the latter means Fancy-Pants. Shockingly, both are perfectly functional occupational terms. Hornswoggle is "[a]n old seafaring term, first recorded around 1829, for being tossed around the ship or into the water" (169). Hifalutin brings to mind "fancy steamboats floating" on mighty rivers, their "high fluted [see the contracted hifalutin there?] smokestacks that carried the soot and cinders well away from the passengers," a luxury not extended to the river-rafting riff raff (293). 
Boswellian Anne submitted two perfectly 'placed' words: Shenandoah and Monongahela. The first we could not find a definition for (any fellow Word Nerds out there who know, please email or tweet us!), but the second has an interesting entry in the OED: "the name of the Monongahela river, which runs from West Virginia to southern Pennsylvania, through a region which was an early centre [sic] for the production of rye whisky." The entries listed in the OED stretch from 1805 to 1998, by far the best of them from 1936: "Their drink was Monongahela rye whisky, the universal tipple of the wilderness known on the Mississippi simply as 'good old Nongela'." Quite a legacy for what one writer swore off in 1847, almost a century ealier: "May I never taste Monongahela again!" Now if you'll excuse us, Hannah has to track down some of this shine, and Mel has beg Anne to teach her how to pronounce this word. We'll make a game of it--once Hannah finds her some 'Good Old Nongela,' we'll share, and try pronouncing many different kinds of words. Good. Times. 
Speaking of games, there's an awesome one for all you Word Nerds and Words with Friends afficionados out there. It's really easy: just go to the OED online (those of you with university library subscriptions have free access to it!) and look up a random word. This very well could be the equivalent of taking "dictionary breaks" whilst studying in the library. Go ahead. Need an idea? Try "cat." It'll knock your socks off!
The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language
Seriously--read this book.
 Finally, you should really carve out some time to peruse Mark Forsyth's book, The Etymologicon, next time you stop by (it's in the Reference case with the writing guides). He has a game in there that's Super Word Nerdy and party-ready to boot! Back in the Quizzes section, you stumble upon "God loves a mud-caked, travelling wolf." It's up to you to ferret out who that famous person is, based on your etymological knowledge. How about Mr. "Courageous Cabbage?" "My Little French Lady?" "The Dwarf in the Priest's Garden?" That last one is none other than Elvis Presley ("Elvis comes from Alvis, a dwarf in Viking mythology. Presley is a variant of Priestly and means one who lives on land belonging to a priest" (266)). Amazewords!!
Regretfully, there are too many words for just two posts. This very well could be a weekly blog idea, but neither Hannah nor Mel have time to commit to a weekly Word Nerd blog post, now that they've discovered Monogahela and books in Hannah's pocket. We'd like to give a shout out to some additionally awesome words submitted by fellow Boswellians and customers: East Side icon Aaron Boyd submitted infidel; our barista neighbor Nick "Slim" King of Starbucks coffee (and Beer Magazine--see below) threw in cabal; Boswellian Nick confessed to loving chocolate; and we all agree that hullaballoo and ridiculous are the bee's knees.
Thanks for indulging our etymophilia and see you around Boswell Book Company for more witty wordplay!

We're really surprised that your favorite word isn't "beer."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Word Nerds Part One.

Hi All!

Mel here, with part one of a two-part-blog for your reading pleasure. This one's interactive, so if you want to play the game that Hannah and I came up with (rules and such to follow), please tweet us your favorite word @boswellbooks (#faveword). We're collecting your favorite words for part two, coming soon to a Boswellian blog near you.  

Spring is coming (so are book six and season three, Game of Thrones nerds!), which means bugs. This post celebrates "entymology and etymology," or: The Wonderful Peculiarities of Words and Word Origins. For example, the study of insects is "entymology," which you can distinguish from the study of words by the "n." So the old joke is that there's an "n" in the "insects" word. Unless etymology is your thing, I bet you didn't know that we have a great selection of books on the subject at Boswell Book Company. Let's take a tour, shall we?

Up first is my favorite word, "absquatulate," which I discovered in Phil Cousineau's The Painted Word: A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and their Origins (shelved in our "Reference" case with the writing guides). Go ahead. Say it out loud. Great, right? Cosineau's definition is: "To flee, abscond, or boogie. This facetious frontier slang combines the notion of speculating with squatting or camping." Who doesn't love the notion of "frontier slang" in this digital day and age? Cousineau continues: "[m]y informant, the tea maven, James Norwood Pratt, tells me that when he was growing up in North Carolina absquatulate meant to 'absent one's family and self abruptly to take up "squatting" elsewhere'" (3). Apparently folks in the 19th century liked to smash words together to come up with funny new words, just like we do today. Daniel wouldn't be happy with me posting my favorite word smash-up here, but I'll give you a few hints. The first part is simply the word "amaze--." Hint two: it's NOT "amazeblog," but it's darn close. I also like "crazement" and "wonderblusting." You should always feel free to absquatulate from the world of Webster to come up with your own slanguage!

Speaking of Webster, did you know how politically-charged the writing of dictionaries has been historically? For more on this, check out The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, by David Skinner. According to Skinner, "ain't" really upset the lexicographic apple cart. You can find this wonderful book in  our American History section. This is the same section where we keep The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, a book by Simon Winchester that blew my view of dictionaries and language as static. Did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary (or "OED," as the cool-kids call it) was written by a bunch of old white British dudes? And that one of them was locked up? Written, no less, on a bunch of index cards, like so many (terrible) notes for high school research papers. Winchester himself is a pretty interesting character: he's a former Oxford geologist. I dig that because I was an English and Geology double-major as an undergrad. One of the greatest things for word nerds about geology is how many awesome adjectives there are available for the naming of rocks. For example, the word "vuggy," which I tried desperately to get Patrick Somerville to include in his amaze-- book This Bright River.

Back in the Reference section, we have another gem: The Unexpected Evolution of Language: Discover the Surprising Etymology of Everyday Words by Justin Cord Hayes. On page 138, we learn the definition of "keister," which seems almost too good to be true: "Original definition: 'strongbox; chest.' New definition: 'buttocks'." According to Cord: "[t]his word derives from the German word 'kist,' meaning chest, as in 'place for valuables.' Germans kept their loot in their 'kists,' and, of course, some nefarious folks would break into those 'kists.' When English speakers 'stole' the word, a chest, safe, or strongbox became a 'keister.' Thus, a burglar might rifle around in your 'keister,' looking for nuggets. Enter pickpockets." Words--why you so fun all the time?

How about this excerpt from the chapter "Sex and Bread" for all you fresh spring lovers? Just a little sumpin' sumpin' from Mark Forsyth's book The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language: "Freud says that everything was secretly sexual. But etymologists know that sex is secretly food. For example, mating with somebody was originally just sharing your food, or meat, with them (meat meant food of any kind and not just flesh). Likewise, your companion is somebody with whom you share your bread (from the Latin panis)" (34).

Then there's the power of words to make a good blurb. There's this blurb I adore on the back of Andrew Shaffer's Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors, which I wish someone would use for blurbage on my memoir: "Extends the schadenfreude to the boudoir," written by the New York Times Book Review. Intrigued? There's a copy of Literary Rogues on one of the new paperbacks tables. Dope. Which used to mean "idiot," and now means "amaze-."

Finally we have the words in titles, which any writer who isn't lying can tell you are difficult to choose. From Dan Wilbur's How Not to Read: Harnessing the Power of a Literature-Free Life (available in the humor section), we have a series of classic book covers with incredibly descriptive new titles. On page 78 there's the childhood favorite by Eric Carle The Very Hungry Caterpillar, retitled Eat Until You Feel Pretty. Then there's Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, which is really Skipping Dinner Is Like Dropping Acid (99). Also hilarious: Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, which we all know should have been called Way Easier to Watch than Read (91).  

What's your favorite word? Hannah and I want to know. What's your favorite book? Hannah and I want to try to come up with a Wilburesque new title for it! And if you want a good blurb, you've come to the right place. We'll blurb the blurb outta your favorites! Tweet us your faves and look for part two of this blog post: let the word games BEGIN!