As I've already mentioned previously, this year's Winter Institute was in Seattle, and as has generally been the case, I attended, along with Amie, our kids' book buyer. I've only missed two, including New Orleans, which many say was the best Winter Institute ever. And with 50 degrees and no rain, it almost felt like summer to us.
One of the great things about Seattle is that it's perhaps the most dynamic indie bookstore market in the country. The American Booksellers Association took advantage of this and scheduled half-day and full-day bus tours of area stores. I had seen most of the stores on the list, so I passed (plus I also had to host William P. Jones) but Amie was able to partake.
On recapping her day, Amie told me that the highlight was Book Larder, a cookbook store that I'd not yet visited. It had only opened in 2011, and so was only in business on my very last trip. Amie's always been fond of cookbooks, but she assured me that I would like it as well.
Fortunately I was meeting my niece and nephew one afternoon, and gave them the challenge of getting us there. The store is not large, but it's open and airy layout utilizes the space well. In the middle of the floor is a mini kitchen for demos. There was something cooking, but I was too shy to ask what it was.
The nice thing about so many cookbooks is that you have the opportunity to divide your inventory up in interesting ways. The store had a focused selection of gift items, and also did a fair amount of importing from Great Britain. I bought a copy of On the Noodle Road as a gift for someone's birthday. It turned out my niece has mutual friends with the author.
Speaking of food, we had some very nice meals while there. The joint dinner with Grove/Atlantic and Random House had a number of authors attending Local 360. And when I say a number, I'm not just referring to our dinner--it turned out to be a very popular venue for author dinners. In addition to the Grove authors listed yesterday, Random House featured Colson Whitehead with his poker memoir, and Cynthia Bond, withRuby, a much buzzed-about debut novel.
Simon and Schuster's dinner was held a restaurant called Delancey. It was a nice coincidence that Molly Wizenberg has a memoir coming about building the restaurant with her husband, also called Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant. Wizenberg is known for her previous book, A Homemade Life, and her blog Orangette. The focus was on Neopolitan pizza, but my favorite dish was roasted Brussels sprouts with Sriracha vinaigrette and shaved cheese.
I guess we must have been in a Neopolitan state of mind as my niece and nephew went to yet another neighborhood, Columbia City, on the way to the airport, and ate at Tutta Bella. My favorite thing on that menu was in fact a pizza, one with shaved Meyer lemon on it. Apparently I like foods that are shaved.
But I also like conveyer belts, and we wound up eating not once, but twice, at kaiten sushi. With some other booksellers, we went to the more upmarket Blue C sushi downtown. The weird thing about that chain is that I read about the business plan before the first store opened in a book written by Starbuck's head real estate honcho, when he left the company to do consulting. And then we also went to Marinepolis Sushi Land in Lower Queen Anne. Both locations had pretty good options for vegetarians, I should add, including deep fried and cubed sushi rice, corn sushi, and green bean tempura sushi. I know this is a bit of a detour, but I really do like kaiten sushi. Like dim sum carts, the thrill is in not knowing what will show up.
Seattle is still a bookish place, but it's also the home of the famous bookstore disruptor. I asked my local friend who is nos longer in the business how the locals deal and she said its very polarized. Here's a piece fromSeattle Magazine on
their disappearing bookstores. The story focused on second-hand
bookstores in particular, which have been under as much stress as new
stores, also due to internet pressure. And here's a Seattle Times article from 2008 about stores that sell new books closing.
In addition to the ones mentioned, Bailey/Coy Books
on Capitol Hill closed in 2009. But shortly after that, Elliot Bay
moved up the hill from Pioneer Square. We wound up having a wonderful
opening reception there for Winter Institute. I also got to sneak over
to The Secret Garden in Ballard with my friend K2, where I bought a copy
of This Town, which I promised to share. One last note on Seattle. Who else is weirded out that there's so much wrong-way parallel parking? It's something you take for granted in most cities, that you parallel park in the same direction that you drive. Well it turns out that it's not allowed in Seattle either, but you see it in every residential neighborhood, whereas you never see it in other cities? How did Seattle get this culture of wrong-way parking? If you know the answer, let me know.
I was on my way to buy office supplies this morning, most notably to stock up on markers for Malcolm Gladwell and his event tomorrow evening. Tickets sold out a couple of days ago, and folks have been calling us regularly, anxious that somehow there might be seats we didn't yet announce. Alas, we really are sold out. Maybe it's time to finally sign up for our email newsletter and not miss out? The link is on the bottom right corner of our website.
I knew that President Obama was appearing today in Waukesha, to promote a partnership between GE and "an area community college", as the national media referred to Waukesha County Technical College, but what I didn't allow for was that a big swath of roads around the airport would be closed off for his landing. Did I know from the news? No, Patrick Ness had told me at his wonderful event last night, worrying that his flight might be delayed as a result.
As an aside, the February issue also includes a profile of Project Runway's Miranda Levy, who has a studio on the third floor of Bay View High School. I didn't know Bay View High School had artist studios. I live only a few blocks from there, but since I have no artistic talent, it should matter, but somehow, it's nice to know that's an option.
Just to keep things bookish, there's a great essay from agent Elizabeth Evans on choosing to move from New York to Milwaukee. I like the line about how in Milwaukee, "you don't need to be a millionaire to have a seat at the table." My thoughts exactly.
At the Winter Institute, I spent some time with Judy, the associate publisher of Grove/Atlantic, who was helping host a dinner for Lily King, who appeared at Boswell for her last book, Father of the Rain. King's new book, Euphoria, sends her off to New Guinea for a novel inspired in part by Margaret Mead. The other guest was novelist Malcolm Brooks, who worked for 20 years on his Leif-Enger-like novel, Painted Horses, which is set in Montana.
But mostly I'm just talking about this to mention that whenever I see Judy, she asks me what's going on in Milwuakee? She's Bizarro Daniel, or maybe I'm Bizarro Judy. She grew up here an moved to New York, while I did the reverse. I wanted to tell her to eat at Odd Duck, or visit Karen Tibbets' new Soaps and Sense location in the Wauwatosa Village and then get some bakery at Rocket Baby on North and stop by Ono Kine Grindz, or insist that she take her mom to Soup House and then had a list of another 50 restaurants and shops, and then head up Prospect and look at that mesmerizing building that Robert Joseph is building on top of Prospect Mall and get a sandwish at Love Handle, but there was simply too much going on at the party. And I just assume she would come visit Boswell and see what's happening on Downer Avenue. So I'm simply emailing this blog post to her after it's written.
Today's my stay at home day (yes, even owners get one, especially when they are nursing a cold) but I've got a lot to do. I've got to write instructions for the booksellers working Gladwell tomorrow, and then compose a note to be sent to attendees on Brown Paper Tickets. And it wouldn't hurt to at least get started on our February events newsletter, right?
But one last thing--I mentioned how well our event with Patrick Ness went for The Crane Wife(signed copies available--see photo with booksellers Hannah and Jannis above), but what I didn't mention is despite the weather warnings, we still got a decent crowd of people for our event with Greg Kot and I'll Take You There (signed copies available), despite me being on the fence about cancelling. Among attendees were three of Mavis Staples' cousins. They graciously allowed me to take this picture of the family and post it here. Don't worry, Greg, I'm sending you a higher-res version.
I've now developed a "we've gone soft" attitude about the snow and cold, combined with being convinced that news media, in particular television, panics about weather so we'll stay home and watch more television. During that Arctic Vortex of the 1990s, I remember putting on two sets of everything and heading off for my mile-long trek to work. That said, they forget to tell Atlantans not to go out this week and look what happened. Gladwell's event in Atlanta had to be cancelled, by the way. But as I say to folks, all this panic is really our fault--nobody ever gets in trouble for over-warning, but if the weather turns out to be worse than expected, everybody starts looking for blame.
I would say that the subsection that we don't have that we get the most requests for is horror fiction. When we were planning out the store, I expected to have a lot more fiction subsections, including horror, but it's a lot harder to do than nonfiction, for some reason. There's a lot more disagreement about where books go, and a lot of worry that someone who would actually like literary horror novels won't browse the section. A number of other booksellers have told me this has been a problem.
So what happens is that the section winds up being truly genre, plus a bunch of Stephen King. But even Stephen King hasn't been writing purely in horror in decades. We've got plenty of folks reading in the genre, but it's a mashup of literary fiction and fantasy and graphic novel and even mystery. So what to do? Well, when someone asks, I just pull out five or ten books for a customer to look at, and leave on the table. So why not have that table readymade.
I asked four current and one former bookseller for their suggestions. Here they are.
1. The Shining, by Stephen King
2. The Birthing House, by Christopher Ransom
3. The Passage, by Justin Cronin
4. Fiend, by Peter Stenson
5. The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman
My rule of thumb is generally that if a person recommends a series, they are recommending the first book in the series, unless they say otherwise.
1. Between Two Fires, by Christopher Buehlman
2. The Devil in Silver, by Victor LaValle
3. Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman
4. Carrion Comfort, by Dan Simmons
5. John Dies at the End, by David Wong
I knew Jason would pick a Dan Simmoon, but I did not know which one he'd pick. It was the same for Christopher Buehlman. We had chatted more about the first book, but it was his second novel that made the cut.
1. Dracula, Bram Stoker
2. Hellboy: Darkness Calls, Mike Mignola
3. The Resurrectionist, Matthew Guinn
4. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
5. The Monk, Matthew Gregory Lewis
Mel brings up another good point. There's really great horror in the kids' sections too. And speaking of crossover, Matthew Guinn's novel is an Edgar Award finalist.
1. It by Stephen King
2. The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan
3. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
4. Night Film by Marisha Pessl
5. Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
Night Film is the classic case of a book that probably not be read as widely if it were classified as horror. You know of course that many series get moved from mystery to fiction as a spine listing because there are certain large retailers of books who will not buy genre. You might suggest we cross shelve, but while I grew up on this, I haven't done that in many years. I get the idea of having a book on more than one display, but don't really understand the benefit of having a book spined out in two sections.
Also note hat Ben Percy's Red Moon was the inspiration for our last horror post on the blog.
And because she hasn’t been gone that long, we also included Stacie
1. Needful Things, by Stephen King
2. The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
3. Let the Right One In by John Lindqvist
4. The Watcher, by Charles Maclean
5. The Other, by Thomas Tryon
Ah, what about the ghost story? I didn't even think that would count as horror. My rule of thumb for folks making this list was that there wouldn't be any editing. But who'd have thunk that I'd also not have a single book named twice?
I decided not to ask folks to write out recommendations for each one, but I think that many of the books have recommendations on our website.
When you hear about a book, you often think, "I'm going to read that" and then you get all caught up in other this and suddenly the book is out and you're no closer to reading it than you ever were. That's the case for me with Rebecca Mead'sMy Life in Middlemarch (Crown), a cultural biography slash memoir by The New Yorker staff writer. Of course my stumbling block was not having read Middlemarch. At one point, I decided that the two most-dropped signifiers of contemporary New York writers were Middlemarch and Mallomars. Here are reviews from The Boston Globe,USA Today, and Joyce Carol Oates' essay on the front page of The New York Times Book Review.
Isabel Allende switched it up for her last novel, Maya's Notebook, and now has penned what some call a classic thriller. Ripper(Harper) is the story of a high school girl whose mom disappears. Publishers Weekly's starred review was praise-heavy: "Allende's tightly plotted tale of crimes obvious and masked is sharply perceptive, utterly charming, and intensely suspenseful." Peruse these reviews in The Seattle Timesand the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, where Pamela Miller concurs that for a dark thriller, the tone can be rather upbeat. She calls it "creepy fun."
Jenny Offil's Debt of Speculation(Knopf) offers scenes from a marriage, "sliced life thin enough for a microscope slide and magnified it until it fills the mind's eye and the heart," per Booklist.Through the eyes of an unnamed protagonist, Offil offers vignettes of marriage and parenthood, highs and lows, including the husband's affair. Laura Collins-Hughes in The Boston Globesaid the book is so radiant and sparkling that it made her gasp. Meg Wolitzer suggested to NPR listeners that they be brave enough to wade into the experimental narrative structure, as the rewards were great.
Wiley Cash already has a Boswell staff rec for his new novel, The Dark Road to Mercy(Morrow). Conrad sees a mashup of Cormac McCarthy and Harper Lee in this story of two girls in the foster care system, and the rescue by their father that leads to no end of problems. Writer Jess Walter saw the mashup more as Harper Lee by way of Elmore Leonard, while Booklist compares the writing to Ron Rash and Tom Franklin. Alas, Ron Charles in The Washington Post has issues--he'd still recommend highly Cash's first novel, A Land More Kind than Home. If you want to see Cash, he's appearing at Left Banks Books' downtown St. Louis location. I was sort of surprised to see this listing on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's website but heck, I think Cash is worth the trip.
And finally, Anna Quindlen's Still Life with Bread Crumbs (Random House) is the story of a 60-year old photographer who, having lost her marriage and with her career on the ebb, trades in her city living for a home in the country. Library Journal writes that "With spare, elegant prose, she crafts a poignant glimpse into the inner life of an aging woman who discovers that reality contains much more color than her own celebrated black-and-white images." Here's an interview conducted by Carole Burns in The Washington Post.
It's a rare thing when I've read every book being featured in a week's worth of events, but I am proud to say that this is the case. I'm going to break tradition and write about the events out of order, as I have already written at length about two of our featured authors.
1. Our event with Greg Kot is on as scheduled. I've been looking around and saw that UWM did not cancel classes, and the nearby Wisconsin Conservatory of Music is hosting the Philomusica String Quartet as scheduled.By the way, it's at 7:30 pm and features Eli Kallman on piano.
5. Here's a satisfied customer who sent me a note about the book: "Thanks for suggesting the Greg Kot book. Bought it, read it, loved it. It’s one of the few pop music biographies I’ve read that is beautifully written."
6. Oh, and Mavis Staples is singing with the Robert Cray Band at Potawatomi's Northern Lights Theater on Monday, February 10. Here's the link for tickets.
Friday, January 31, 7 pm: Malcolm Gladwell at UWM for David and Goliath.
Last fall we were lucky enough to have a drop in stock signing for Patrick Ness, in between school visits for his new book for kids, More than This. We have some huge Patrick Ness fans on staff, and we also invited several area librarians. We had a great time, and hoped that someday we'd be able to host Ness for a public event.
That day came. Penguin Press was touring Ness for his adult novel, The Crane Wife, and Milwaukee was lucky enough to make the cut.
The story is of George, an American man, a long-time British resident, who runs a print shop in London. He's divorced with an adult daughter, who herself has a child, though he's only in his late forties. In his spare time, he creates this artwork out of old, discarded books.
One night he wakes up to find a crane in his yard, with her wing pierced by an arrow. Somehow he is able to break the arrow and free the crane. Coincidentally, the next day, a woman named Kumiko comes into the store to make a print of her own collage, this one made of feathers. They somehow realize that the two pieces of art actually fit together to form a beautiful image
And of course George falls in love.
The story is somewhat inspired by a Decembrists song of the same name, which is in turn is inspired by a Japanese legend called "Tsuro Nyobo." I'm not sure if it's better to know the folktale or not. I read the book without getting background info, and so I was less likely to know how the story went. (Jacket at left is for the UK edition.)
But of course the novel is more than the legend. George, his daughter Amanda, and her coworker Rachel (who turns out to be more involved than we first know) all struggle with possession, much like the Japanese husband of the folktale.
The story is a wonderful blend of contemporary storytelling with Japanese esthetic and is an interesting meditation on creativity and self-worth. Ness's writing reminded me a bit of Mark Haddon (the last two novels more than Curious Incident), graceful and sympathetic, but sometimes a bit cheeky. In regards to the Japanese influence, I was reminded a bit of reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog or perhaps Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor.
Here's our staff rec for The Crane Wife from Jen: "A story about a beautiful, loving crane and a violent, greedy volcano. Or a story about George, the crane he saves and Kumiko, the mysterious woman George falls in love with. Or a story that starts at the beginning of another story's ending. In his storytelling, Patrick Ness has taken a Japanese myth, mixed it with The Decemberists song "The Crane Wife 1 and 2" and created a beautiful tapestry. It’s an ancient story magically woven into a modern setting full of primal human emotions, a story that does not truly end."--Jen Steele, Boswell Book Company.
Here's Hannah's review of More than This."Seth remembers dying in America and yet here he is in his childhood home, alive, in England. Everything is dusty, the streets are empty, there is no electricity, and little food. Awake, he is focused on survival, asleep he dreams memories so clear and painful that he starts to dread the night. Days pass and it seems that nothing will change until the day he decides to take matters into his own hands. What he learns will throw everything he understands out of balance. In More than This, Patrick Ness returns to everything I loved about the Chaos Walking trilogy; he exhibits implicit trust in his readers by crafting an imaginative plot stocked with relatable characters in an unfamiliar reality." Hannah Johnson-Breimeier, Boswell Book Company.
James Bradley writes in the Sydney Review of Books, "The Crane Wife
manages the considerable feat not just of giving voice to this longing,
but of understanding it, not as an emptiness or a failing, but as a
necessary part of life."
Here's Colin Meloy singing their version of The Crane Wife.
Hope you can make our talk with Patrick Ness. It should be slightly warmer by Wednesday.
1. Mrs. Lincoln's Rival, by Jennifer Chiaverini 2. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
3. The Spymistress, by Jennifer Chiaverini
4. The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd (event MPL 2/10)
5. The Days of Anna Madrigal, by Armistead Maupin
Jannis had a great evening with Jennifer Chiaverini at the Brookfield Public Library. Backlist was even stronger than it normally is; this was her first trip to a Waukesha County venue in three books, and there were definitely folks attending who wanted to catch up, hence the strong number for The Spymistress, alongside the obvious contender of Mrs. Lincoln's Rival.
1. Demon Camp, by Jen Percy
2. The March on Washington, by William P. Jones
3. Duty, by Robert Gates
4. Wounded Minds, by John Liebert
5. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett
It's a battle of the Jens this week, with Percy'sDemon Camp taking top honors in nonfiction. It's the time of year when event sales can really squeeze out regular sellers, especially when there is no high-profile book with a first week out of the gate. We have signed copies of Percy's book, as well as The March on Washingtonand Wounded Minds, for those who could not attend.
1. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
2. Benediction, by Kent Haruf
3. Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, by Jennifer Chiaverini
4. The President's Hat, by Antoine Laurain
5. Tenth of December, by George Saunders
Here's a great opportunity to reprint Hannah's rec on Kent Haruf's latest, now in paper: "InBenediction, Haruf's gracious and honest examination of the intricacies of human nature shines through his characters like a beacon guiding us towards unequaled prose. Dad is dying, there's a new preacher, and Alice has come to live with her grandmother. Haruf weaves these events effortlessly into the tapestry of small town life."
1. The Half-Known World, by Robert Boswell
2. Milwaukee at Water's Edge, by Tom Pilarzyk
3. Riding through Grief, by Barbara Manger
4. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
5. Memoir of the Sunday Brunch, by Julia Pandl
Robert Boswell, who visited last fall, is getting a nice boost from Valerie Laken's recommendation as recommended reading to her writing students. She's noted that Boswell's The Half-Known World is one of the best craft books for writers out there, along with Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House.
Books for Kids:
1. The Scar Boys, by Len Vlahos (event 2/13 at Boswell)
2. The Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau
3. Steam Train, Dream Train, by Sherri Duskey Rinker with illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld
4. Divergent, by Veronica Roth
5. Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs
The film version ofDivergentopens March 21. Here's the trailer.
Carole E. Barrowman reviews this newest and best in mysteries:
The subplots of Elisabeth's Elo's debut,North of Boston "ripple out from the opening collision, circling a story rich with wicked smart allusions to Russian literature and clever nods to Western culture's most famous fishing story--Moby-Dick. Pirio is a fascinating character and Elo a noteworthy new voice in the genre."
Lake of Tears is the ninth Wisconsin-based mystery penned by Mary Logue, featuring Sherriff Claire Watkins. Barrowman writes that "Logue has crafted a compelling mystery that reaches back to the war, exposing the wounds soldiers bring home."
And here's the plot of Kevin McCafferty'sDead Man's Fancy: "When the Fly-Fishing Venus, a smart sexy fishing guide, goes missing while riding in the Madison Valley and a wrangler from a nearby dude ranch is impaled on the sword point of an elk's antlers, series regulars part-time PI and fly-fisherman Sean Stranahan and Sheriff Martha Ettinger investigate."
And finally, Mike Fischer reviews Rebecca Mead'sMy Life in Middlemarch. Fischer calls the book "a splendid homage to Eliot's greatest novel — as well as a compelling testament to why we read, what it means to have a favorite book and how a life spent rereading that book allows it to read us."
I've written for the past week about music novels, and while I've done a little proofing (not enough, of course) of the pieces, I had for the most part written them last weekend. That's because I was at workshops, talks, presentations, signings, and receptions at Winter Institute, the annual gathering of booksellers, which met in Seattle.
The amusing thing was that I realized that music is really inspiring a lot of fiction this winter and spring. First I talked to Stacey D'Erasmo, whose novel Wonderland is coming out in May. Carla at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt presented the title at a lunch, about a woman rocker planning a comeback tour, and she was just crazy about it. D'Erasmo has had several novels in the past, and has made quite the reputation as a critic, and HMH is hoping this is the breakout.
Then I went over to the Wesley Stace line to get a copy of his forthcoming novel, Wonderkid. It's about a rock band that makes it, but as a children's music phenom. They still think of themselves as true rockers, but it's hard to balance scoring whatever and encouraging kids to jump around and shake it. At the small press breakfast, my take-away was Nick Hornby with decades of on-the-job training, as Stace is also the musician John Wesley Harding. It's a March publication.
So who was on the line with me to get a copy of Wonderkid? It was Len Vlahos, author of The Scar Boys, who I wrote about several days ago. I snapped this photo to prove it.
This week's posts have taken on a bit of a thematic quality. First I enthused over a music book, and then I talked up a young adult novel with a music theme. I realized that Tim Federle's new book, Five, Six, Seven, Eight! which yes, also went on sale January 21, and also is an upcoming focus of ours, is also a music book. Of course musical theater is not exactly the same as rock and roll, though there are certainly rock and roll greats who've incorporated Broadway influences in their work, and of course a number of rock legends have turned to the stage. Right, Bono?
So you all know that I fell in love with Better Nate than Ever last year, and we had a wonderful day of events with Tim Federle. You also probably know that we hosted several great school events, an evening event at the Oak Creek Library, and a very nice impromptu signing at Boswell. We almost didn't have our day with Federle, as there were some cancellations in Chicago and Minneapolis. Simon and Schuster had faith in us, however, and kept our date and we were incredibly grateful to all concerned. Especially Tim.
At our library event, we invited one of our teacher friends who coordinates schools, and said, "Hey, if you think this will work for you, we'll pitch Federle for a return visit when the sequel comes out." And she fell in love too, and Simon and said yes, and lo and behold, Tim Federle is back in Milwaukee for Five, Six, Seven, Nate! Needless to say, I devoured the sequel! You know, in a blog post like this, you just can't have too many exclamation points.
Fresh off his audition for E.T.: The Musical, Nathan Foster is cast alright, but not as star-turning Elliott. No, he’s the second understudy to the little alien himself, with a vocabulary consisting of gleeps. Worse still, he’s slowly being cut from the chorus numbers. What’s a substitute alien to do?
With Nate in New York, much of the Pennsylvania drama is put on the back burner, plotwise. We know that the family’s floral business is suffering, Dad continues to be disappointed in his less than manly son, and best-friend Libby’s mom is in treatment for cancer. Instead, the focus is much more on all the details of getting ready for a show—rehearsing and blocking and changing scripts and infighting between the choreographer and the director, a newbie who is best known for a very popular video game.
There are complications, of course. For one thing, it’s hard to make friends on the set. Elliott, played by Nate and Libby’s crosstown rival Jordan Rylance, is particularly cold, though Nate does befriend the first understudy, a little person who needs help learning her part. He also has a secret admirer! In the end, Nate’s budding identity blooms a bit, and a happy-ish ending is just around the corner. But what did you expect, a dystopian apocalypse?
Better Nate than Ever has found a great audience among adults, kids, and yes, critics. The book was named one of the best middle grade books of 2013 by Publishers Weekly, and was one of six middle grade novels to be New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice titles for the year. It's a great story for a kid who loves theater, of course, and certainly for a kid who knows he's different. There was certainly nothing like this for a kid like me.
And that's been the thing about Federele's novels. They really resonate with a lot of adults, with acclaimed Modern Family actor saying it best: ""The book I needed—and would have adored—when I was a kid. Federle writes from the heart and hits you in the gut—not to mention your funny bone."
So I've been putting the book in the hands of a lot of adults. One of them was Barry, a longtime friend, former children's bookseller and recently retired teacher who came in to shop I said, "Barry, I think you really need to read this." And here was his reaction.
"As a retired teacher he knew this book was meant for me. I read it last night and finished it this morning. I am overwhelmed by it. I am trying to figure out who to share it with... I see so many former 6th grade students in Nate. I am so excited to know the sequel will be here soon. I can't remember the last time a book moved me the way this one did. It almost makes me want to break into song!"
So we decided to do something different for our public event, because I really feel that while Tim is great with kids and yes, we're doing three schools in a day for his upcoming visit (did I mention that one school on the first tour tap danced for the author?), I will be able to get a better crowd targeting adults. And here's the other thing. After Better Nate than Ever came out, Tim also authored a book of book-themed cocktails called Tequila Mockingbird, which turned out to be a big hit. And I really wanted to feature some of these cocktails at his public event.
We brainstormed, and we teamed up with the Cream City Foundation to bring Tim to their semi-regular Cocktails with Cream City. The foundation is an umbrella organization for funding LGBT organizations, sort of a lavender United Way. The event is on Tuesday, February 4, 5:30 pm (note the time) at Art Bar, located at 722 East Burleigh, in Riverwest. But you don't have to be LGBT to come, no way! After all, Better Nate than Ever and Five, Six, Seven, Nate! are about being the best you you can be, whoever you are. And Tequila Mockingbird is about being a literary cocktail lover.
Though I’ve mentioned at times that I really don’t listen to music the way I did when I was younger, I apparently still seem to love reading about it. Yesterday I wrote about Greg Kot’s new book on the Staple Singers, but that’s not the only music-themed book that came out on January 21. We’re also excited about Len Vlahos’s The Scar Boys. It seems like a good time to write about the book as Vlahos is one of the authors featured at Winter Institute, the bookseller conference going on in Seattle.
I wasn’t the first to dig into this novel—Amie and Hannah met Len at a pre-pub author dinner. And of course most booksellers are well aware of Len from his years at the American Booksellers Association
But what many of us didn’t know is that in his younger years, Vlahos was in a punk pop band called The Woofing Cookies and he calls on these experiences in his first published novel. Harry “Harbinger” Jones is no ordinary kid. He’s been struck by lightning, permanently disfigured, and no amount of operations will make him ever look like a normal kid again. He’s an outcast.
But then this other kid, Johnny, makes overtures of friendship. Johnny decides their going to start a band. They recruit a drummer (he’s the Ringo, so no story for him) and then a Pete Jones type, and then when he leaves, Cheyenne, and yes she’s a girl. Yes, there’s a love triangle, and she gets a little more spotlight, but in the end, this is a story about friendship and music, so Harry and Johnny are the stars.
Amie has been noticing a resurgence in realistic teen novels, and boys are getting more of a spotlight, thanks in part to John Green. I suspect we’ll be able to talk The Scar Boys up to folks who read R.J. Palacio’s Wonder as well. Leave it to a publishing person (much like Palacio, who was formerly the director of children’s publishing at Workman) to give us a good hook to sell a book.
Hey, our friendship with Len would definitely have led us to read The Scar Boys, but it wouldn’t necessarily propelled booksellers to endorse the book as heavily as they have. The Scar Boys is the #1 Indie Next Pick for Kids’ books for winter. And a whole mess of booksellers who didn’t know Len in his previous incarnation have also fallen in love with the book, like our own Hannah.
Here’s her rec for The Scar Boys:
“Harry gets scarred by lightning at an early age. In middle school, he's bullied, lonely, and friendless, until a classmate, Johnny, befriends him. Johnny and Harry decide to start a punk rock band because why not? It's the eighties and punk is IN! Music gives Harry an outlet, an identity, and all of the teenage band drama anyone would expect. If you don't want to pick up an instrument and rock out at the end of this book, then you're not reading hard enough!” –Hannah Johnson-Breimeier
We’re hosting Vlahos for a day of school visits, and an evening event at Boswell, co-sponsored by WMSE on Thursday, February 13, 7 pm. This book is definitely for the rock and roll parent to share with their rock and roll kid, so we’re hoping that our setup with WMSE as a conversation is going to be a lot of fun.
Here’s a Woofing Cookies video for a song produced by REM’s Peter Buck.
Life is a beautiful thing, of course, but it’s not always easy. Most lives have their ups and downs. We celebrate our successes and mourn our tragedies. Not all of us get the triumphant last arc that makes for a compelling memoir, but the Staple Singers got one. In I’ll Take You There: The Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom’s Highway, music critic Greg Kot traces their lives from roots gospel to crossover success to modest oldies act and back to Grammy-winning credibility.
Born Roebuck Staples, Pops Staples family grew up sharecropping in Mississippi. Heading to Chicago (with a name like that, how could he not, and yes, his brother was named Sears) for a better life working the factories, he never forgot the music of his childhood. Raised in a church-going family, Pops dabbled in blues, but became born again in Chicago. Together with three of his kids, Mavis, Cleotha, and Pervis (with Yvonne taking over for Cleotha and then eventually for Pervis), they started singing gospel music in church. Folks considered their sound country, but by that they didn’t mean the contemporary music genre, but instead of the rural South.
There were a number of elements to their uniqueness, from Mavis’s deep voice to Cleedie’s soaring harmonies to Pops’ tremolo guitar. They’d cover the old standards and some new ones, and played to bigger and bigger audiences. To sum up their sound in their formative 1950s, it was Gospel music, but using the musical language of the blues.
Slowly they watched their friends like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin
cross over to secular music. At first Pops wasn’t interested in
crossover success, but his attitude changed by the protest movement. He
decided that fighting for Civil Rights and acceptance was pretty much
religion on earth. And so they made the attempt to become stars on their own terms.
I’m not going to give you the whole story of their ups and downs; Greg Kot does it a hundred times better than me. And that’s not an understatement; I found I’ll Take You There compulsively readable. The Staples story is not your traditional up and down arc of show business, reaching a memoir-worthy plateau. That family had more than its share of breaks on the way up—it just seemed there wasn’t a record label who knew what to do with them, and when they did, like Stax, they fell into financial trouble.
I started following music aggressively in 1975, after most of their pop success in the early 70s, but I was as obsessed with the song "I’ll Take You There" as anyone. It really just can’t help but throw you into a hypnotic trance. Kot is gentle with their last pop hit, Curtis Mayfield’s "Let’s Do it Again," which was the second number one for the group. That was a racy number. But moving in that direction of sexy sex talking held no more crossover success for the band, and after their inability to ride the disco train, they had to rebuild their careers from the ground up. For Mavis, that meant begging for work, from singing gigs to an unsuccessful attempt at a Jheri Curl endorsement. For Cleotha, that meant a side gig as an insurance agent.
The Staple Singers story is one of trying to find success while being true to yourself. Pops was always looking of fair payment, and refused to open for the Rolling Stones when they offered the entire act $500 a night on a multi-million dollar tour. This was the kind of insult to injury the band would face; after all, the Rolling Stones had been strongly influenced by the Staple Singers arrangement for their rock and roll classic, "The Last Time." It turns out writing is heavily copyrighted, but arrangements are not, and since the song was a gospel standard, there was little Pops could do to get compensation.
I was also amused that Prince’s introduction to Mavis Staples was from hearing her sing backing vocals on Nona Hendryx’s song, “Baby Go Go.” This led to me listening to the song another three times (for those who remember that I made up record charts, that song hit #6 with me). Their collaboration led to two albums, the second of which, The Voice, is considered by Kot to be an underrated classic, with Prince having based the lyrics on a series of letters that Mavis Staples wrote to him. Once again, the Staples had bad timing, as Prince was cutting his ties to Paisley Park, the label he formed with Warner Brothers, and the album wasn't promoted.
In the end, both Pops and Mavis did find ways to return to their musical (if not Gospel) roots and find success, both earning Grammy awards later in their careers. But half the fun in Kot’s book is getting there—there are tons of details about recording the albums, gossip about Mavis’ rivalry with Aretha Franklin, and insights about how various influential people discovered the band. And boy did a lot of folks fall under their spell, from Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King, Jr., to Levon Helm, David Byrne, Ry Cooder, and Jeff Tweedy*.
Greg Kot really was the perfect person to write this book, particularly because he knows everything musical about Chicago, and the Staple Singers always stayed in Chicago, even after many studios decamped for elsewhere. Eventually a shared stomping ground led to the Grammy-winning Mavis Staples/Jeff Tweedy collaboration. One of the things I learned from I'll Take You There is that Mavis makes strong and lasting friendships. Boswellian Jannis (also quite knowledgeable about all things Chicago) told me that Staples sang at Tweedy's son's bar mitzvah. I confirmed this with a tweet.
So don't forget, we're hosting Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot to talk about I'll Take You There on Monday, January 27, 7 pm, at Boswell. My hat is off to the art director on this one--I love the jacket. And of course Brant Rumble was the editor. How could he not be?
While I was reading the book, I learned that our very good friend of Boswell, Martin Jack Rosenblum, passed away. We did a very nice joint event with Marty and Dave Luhrssen for their revised edition of Searching for Rock and Roll. We hosted another great event for Marty’s daughter, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, for her novel, Herself when She’s Missing. But mostly what I’ll miss is his presence in the store—his enthusiasm for books and music both, as well as his great kindness. Just a few minutes with Marty and my day would feel better.
Boy, would Marty have enjoyed this event. We will surely miss him.
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