Sunday, January 4, 2009

In Praise of Julia Keller and Other Things

I put my money where my mouth is and subscribe to our local paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I have my favorite sections and rituals, such as plotting house sales (or lack thereof) in our neighborhood, and of course closely follow Geeta Sharma-Jensen's book coverage.

This week she has a column comparing the regional pleasures of the national bestseller The Story of Edgar Sawtelle to the local cult favorite Driftless, by David Rhodes. Both are stirred in a pot of literary mediation, spiced up with the classic Peace Like a River from nearby Minnesota.

Honestly, I'm not sure why Enger's book was included, but I liked the column anyway.

Oh, I didn't link The Story of Edgar Sawtelle because it's transitioning back to the pre-Oprah cover. Each has it's own ISBN, and I'm not sure which one we'll have. Why not do both? Here's the original and here's the Oprah version. I have pictured the one with the Oprah seal.

I hope all you book lovers in Wisconsin follow the Journal-Sentinel book coverage. It definitely helps local bookstores to have book pages, and we're grateful that for all the changes happening in the newspaper business, we still have a book-centric editor like Jensen putting it together. Heck, we're lucky to have anything at all. Don't take it for granted. Whether you subscribe or buy a newsstand copy (not that we have newsstands), let them know that the book section is part of your decision.

Though a lovely aside, what I really want to talk about is another ritual of mine, buying the Saturday Chicago Tribune. That's where they moved the book section, formerly on Sundays. Book sections have disappeared from newspapers all over the country, and burying it on Saturday, one of the lowest circulation days, was a step towards eliminating altogether. It was like a dare--you say you want a book section, let's see if you actually help Saturday circulation.

It's a year later, and it's not gone yet, though it's now folded into the arts section, occupying the first few pages. I actually like the new format, particularly because it highlights the high point of the section for me, the columns of Julia Keller.

Keller is the Trib cultural critic and had continued to write Lit Life, a colum in the Sunday Tribune. Since the Saturday switch to "Books and Arts", she regularly writes the lead review. I love them because they are timely, exuberant, and Chicago-y, a far cry from the six-month-old academic titles that used to lead off the section.

This fall Keller's highlighting of The Chicagoan reinforced everything we loved about this wonderful gift book, an appreciation and reproduction of a Chicago-based New Yorker-type magazine from the roaring twenties.

When Keller wrote about Joseph Epstein's Fred Astaire, I was ready to dance myself. She got the joy in that little book's meditation and I was thrilled. It's true. Many people read reviews to get ideas on what to read but booksellers also use them as a mirror to their own readings. While it's interesting to read a review from someone you generally disagree with (Michiko Kakutani comes to mind, if I even understand her argument at all), there is more joy in someone like Keller (Janet Maslin also comes to mind) saying what I wanted to say, only better.

This week Keller interviewed Nami Mun, author of Miles from Nowhere, a novel about a Korean runaway in the Bronx, circa late 1970's. The book has had buzz for months, as Riverhead was comparing it to their huge success with Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I certainly had no idea the author lived in Chicago. Maybe she'll wind up visiting Milwaukee.

The other front page piece was actually from Jessica Reaves, but it was a review of Janice Y. K. Lee's The Piano Teacher, another book that's getting lots of buzz. I haven't read the book yet, but I had better soon--we have an event with Ms. Lee at our Shorewood shop just six days after publication. That's a tall order for a first novelist without a local connection, at least to my knowledge.

Here's some help in making your decision to attend. Read this great review, online in this case, and then show up to hear a new voice at the start of what could be a notable career.

Note also, that both titles are highlighted in our Indie Bound section as Indie Next picks. Ms. Lee's novel is recommended by my book-crazed friend Bill Cusumano, the buyer at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor. He reads like crazy and every time I talk to him, he's passionate about some new writer. I'm no fool--I take his advice.

If you take a road trip to that lovely college town of A2, you'll have a double treat as you can browse Karl Pohrt's elegant and cerebral Shaman Drum, and then head to Nicola's for a great selection filled with staff recs, a cozy fireplace, and a nice selection of gift items. You can cap off your day, with a trip to the new-concept local grocery Plum Market and then dinner at Zingerman's Roadhouse, where entrepreneurial legent Ari Weinzweig himself showed us their fabulous collection of salt and pepper shakers.
Really, they are fabulous. You have to see them someday. Put it on your list that I am helping you make.

Oh, and when I'm there I read the Ann Arbor News.

Yours Truly,

Blogger who likes real newspapers and bookstores, perhaps because he is too old to know better.

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