Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Prognosticating Link on Book and Reading Future

There are so many pundits offering advice on the post-book world that my head is spinning. If you read a lot of blogs, you're already seeing all of them. The New York Times piece on how to buy all your books for a penny has caused a particular amount of dismay.

Here's a link that one of my Rebecca coworkers (there are two) sent to me from Huffington Post on the post-publisher world.

I don't think I am the right person to blog about these developments, partly because I am too emotionally attached to the antiquated technology that is the book. I am actually attached to all antiquated technologies. Up until recently, my blogging involved writing my notes in a journal and wondering why nobody was commenting on them.

Monday, December 29, 2008

What am I Reading, Presidential Edition

So much attention is being paid to Barack Obama, the reader. The media is reporting every book he likes and even his favorite bookstore has garnered press attention as per this article in the Chicago Tribune.

But The Wall Street Journal had a revelation last Saturday as well. Not only is George Bush a voracious reader, but he has a running bet with Karl Rove as to who can read more books in a calendar year. So notes Rove’s column , with Rove ahead 64 to 40.

I find this revelation to be quite confusing. Politics aside, imagine what a boon it would have been to bookstores (note: many of them small businesses, the backbone of the economy) if Bush’s reading taste had been more public, particularly when his approval rating was high. Was the information suppressed because book-reading is too intellectual for a politician playing populist? Was the revelation now a sort of literary “gotcha?”

I have no clue. But here is a partial reading list for the last three years.
Read by both Bush and Rove:
--Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
--a Mao biography, unnamed, probably Mao, by Jung Chang
--a book on reconstruction’s unhappy end, which I cannot come up with.

Bush 2006
biographies of:
--Abraham Lincoln, too many options here.
--Andrew Carnegie, likely Carnegie, by David Nasaw
--Mark Twain, perhaps Mark Twain, by Ron Powers
--Babe Ruth, which I’m thinking is The Big Bam, by Leigh Montville
--King Leopold, no doubt King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild
--William Jennings Bryan, maybe A Godly Hero, by Michael Kazin
--Huey Long, either Huey Long, by T. Harry Williams or Kingfish, by Richard D. White
--Lyndon Johnson, most likely the first volume of The Path to Power, by Robert Caro
--Genghis Khan, which I’ll guess is Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford
--A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900, by Andrew Roberts
--Manhunt, by James L. Swanson
--Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick
--Eight Travis McGee novels, the first of which is The Deep Blue Good-By
--Next, by Michael Crichton
--Excecutive Power, by Vince Flynn
--Point of Impact, by Stephen Hunter (somebody’s watching Glenn Beck!)
--The Stranger, by Albert Camus

Bush 2007
--The Great Upheaval, by Jay Winik
--Khrushchev’s Cold War, by Aleksandr Fursenko
--bio of Dean Acheson, perhaps Dean Acheson, by Robert Beisner
--a bio of Andrew Mellon, likely Mellon, by David Cannadine
--Rogue Regime, by Jasper Backer
--The Shia Revival, by Vali Nasr
--Ana’s Story, by Jenna Bush, his daughter

Bush 2008
--The Coldest Winter, by David Halberstam
--The Day of Battle, by Rick Atkinson
--The Spanish Civil War, by Hugh Thomas
--Gettysburg, by Stephen W. Sears
--Vienna 1814, by David King

By the way, I’m at 76 for the year, but I’m not running a country.
Oh, and a note from my coworker Rebecca. Before you make a final judgment on this piece, read Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Some Mequon Recommendations for December

One day this past holiday season, I was inspired and brought my camera to work. It was one of my shifts at the Mequon location and I decided to photograph everyone with a book they liked. This is perhaps the least original idea conceived on a retail blog, but I figure after I exhaust all the clichéd postings, I will come up with something original.

It’s so original that we’ve actually done it already. Check out Mequon’s Myspace page, where Scott has a slide shops of these same booksellers, but with different books. Different books? Can’t they make up their minds? Scott also has exciting zoom action on his page. I don’t know how to do this. I also don't know why the shop is female and 26, when the location opened in 1993. I guess a 15-year-old would have trouble with adult content.

I love all our stores, but I have a soft spot for Mequon because I managed it for a year in the mid nineties.

My fondness is counter-balanced out by it not having regular public transportation access. You can commute from Mequon to downtown on the 143, but this means I can only get to the store at 5 AM from 12th and Mitchell, or at 3 PM, which gets me there just in time for an author signing. Not that I haven’t done this. Afterwards, I have to beg a ride from Mary or Bill, the author escorts.

Unlike the other Ozaukee towns, Mequon refused to have a park and ride so they let you get off near a gas station. Usually the bus comes to a complete stop, but I often worry that it’s just going to slow down and the driver is going to urge me to jump.

Here’s another way to get to Mequon by public transport. You take the 15 (or whatever bus you like) to Bayshore Town Center, and change for the infrequent 68 bus.* Walk north on Port Washington Road three miles, crossing the freeway when appropriate. You also have to cross Port Washington a couple of times because there aren’t always sidewalks on both sides of the street.

I sometimes get the feeling they don’t like pedestrians like myself, but everyone’s nice to me once I make it across the county line.

What were booksellers recommending the week I visited?

Lanora is a huge Toni Morrison fan. She thought on first read that A Mercy might be for core fans, but on the other hand, can a reader who wants to read Morrison not have read her already? The new novel revisits Morrison’s interest in the ill-effects of slavery, but this novel approaches it from a time when it was not race but class based.

Anne is still fond of Cathleen Schine’s The New Yorkers, by far her most popular book at Schwartz since The Love Letter some years ago. They’ve fine-tuned the breed over the life of the book--I think the advance copy, the hardcover, and the paperback all had different dogs, but my regret is that I still haven’t read this glorious novel.

Sharry is not the only bookseller hot on Ron Rash’s Serena this fall. It got some great reviews and hit a few best-of lists, but it never got the momentum it deserved. Think Macbeth played out among the logger barons of Virginia.

Adam told me that it’s hard to sell his favorite books in Mequon, but he’s glad we have Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest.

Barbara could not limit herself to one choice, but the only one I’m going to mention is the Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry. Poetry, that’s a good thing. In fact, for some reason, it seems to be the type of writing that gets the largest share of NEA grants, according to a nameless person who is not only remaining nameless, but anonymous. On the other hand, not one of these grants was promoting limericks. Why are we so prejudiced against comedy?

Scott, our Myspace operator, likes a good cookbook and this year his book of choice is Jose Andres’ Made in Spain. The Spain books keep coming--Mario Batali also Spain, A Culinary Road Trip, and last year we pushed Phaidon’s 1080 Recipes. To no avail! To no avail! Europeans love Spain but Americans? How long does it have to be a well-kept secret? I think readers keep wondering why there are no taco recipes. Or maybe nobody wants to offend the Basque separatists. Let me know if can think of another reason.

Jane picked Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult, but hedged her bets by standing in front of 50 other books that she loves. I can understand her choice—our booksellers have been touting Picoult for many years, and she’s rewarding us by continuing to appear at our shops, to huge crowds at Alverno College. Thank you again, Ms. Picoult!

Taylor is one of a handful of our booksellers who’ve worked at three or more locations (I can think of at least two other booksellers) and at Mequon, he’s hoping someone will fall in love with Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. We did what we could, including it in our Holiday Gift Guide. Time will tell if this turns out to be Stephenson’s magnum opus.

Chris is fond of a good biography, and this year, Jon Meacham’s American Lion is her choice, as well as America’s. Meacham has sold well before, but never before so dominated holiday gift lists.

Of course there are other Mequon booksellers and they have favorite books, but I didn’t get pictures of them. Out of sight (site), out of mind!

Current favorite indie lunch in Mequon: the meatball parmisan sub at Leonardo’s, particularly because they warm it up in their pizza oven.

Current indie purchase at Mequon: Wigwam ragg wool socks at Laacke and Joys, proudly made in Sheboygan! I got the classic gray but I think they will order the other colors.

Next time I’ll visit: North Shore Office Supplies, because I always find something I didn’t expect to want. I also have a fondness for Post-it Notes in the hard-to-find 3x5 size and they still carry them. They moved last year from Capitol Drive, near our Shorewood location, where they were called "North Shore Stationers."

*One day someone will explain to me why there are two 68 routes. How can a bus that makes a Lake Drive detour every 2-3 hours be useful to anyone?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

If you liked this film, maybe you’ll like that book…

When I am recommending books to folks, I try to compare them to existing books they might have liked. In fact, I often go the other way, asking them what book they’ve liked recently, and from that, come up with another book that could be perfect for them. In that way, I am like the Netflix computer, only instead of guessing whether they liked Napoleon Dynamite (here's a link to buy the Mad Libs version (???), I can just ask “Did you like Napoleon Dynamite.” You will understand this reference if you read the recent New York Times magazine article.

My answer: I liked it okay, but as the hype increased, I liked it less.

Being that our cultural reference points for movies are rather easier to spot, due to smaller selection and bigger grosses, sometimes I find that the best way to recommend a book is to compare it to a similar movie.

Have I mentioned before Don Lee’s Wrack and Ruin? More than once? It’s the story of a sculptor who moves to Rosarita Bay to become a farmer, only to have his home invaded by his brother, whose goal is to make a kung fu movie. Lee’s novel has turned out to be my favorite of 2008, the only book that I’m sure I’m going to reread. I guess if I read it in paperback, my beloved Brussells sprouts will make way for an image of elephants. Being that there are less than 50 friends of the Brussels sprouts on Facebook (I'm one), I'm not surprised.

One reason I thought it might work better than it did was because it so reminded me of the movie Sideways. It’s funny in a cerebral way and a slapstick way. It’s at the heart a story about friendship, by far my favorite kind of book. It’s also set in Northern California and shares a similar esthetic, only instead of wine, it is more brussells sprouts and pot.

I asked Don Lee some questions about his book on an now-archived Schwartz email newsletter.

Another book that came out in 2007 that I had much success selling was The Dud Avocado, and I think that it helped comparing the book to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the movie not the book because…I haven’t read the book yet. It’s hard when your only reference points for Truman Capote were his guest spots on Laugh In.

Elaine Dundy’s novel had that same kind of wicked frothiness. The story follows an American who moves to Paris to be an actress, only she gets involved in several detours. Also, you figure out that though the narrator is quite delightful, she’s not a very good actress.

So this year another lesser-known book came out, Miss Pettigrew Lives for the Day, and the only reason it saw the light of day is because a film version came out. Winifred Watson was an English writer known for rustics. This was a very different kind of book when it came out in 1938, and turned out to be her most popular.

Miss Pettigrew is a governess who is accidentally matched with a nightclub singer, and through a series of complications, comes out of her shell. It reminds me so much of an old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie, perhaps Top Hat. If you did see the movie version and were left a bit disappointed, my sister Merrill says that the book is much better.

If Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day leaves you aching for more Fred Astaire, I heartily recommend Joseph Epstein’s new celebration of all things Astaire, called simply Fred Astaire. Each chapter touches upon a different aspect of the hoofer from Omaha, from Ginger to his other partners to his style to his singing career. I always think of Epstein as a bit cantankerous, but he’s so clearly in awe of his subject that despite at least one erroneous recollection of a movie plot (once again, my thanks to my sister Merrill for pointing this out), that one can’t help but be charmed, even as he throws spitballs at Gene Kelly for his liberal ways.
And yes, though the Blu-Ray versions have come out, in most cases we can quickly order you the movies mentioned in this blog, at least when they are in stock at our warehouse. Alas, both Napoleon Dynamite and Sideways are both temporarily unavailable.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Where are the Major Awards on our Trade Paperback Fiction Bestsellers list?

Here's what we've been selling in trade paperback fiction for the last month (mid-November to mid-December):

1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
2. Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay
3. The Shack, by William Paul Young
(There are lots of interesting stories on the phenomenon of this Christian fiction bestseller that doesn't always sit well with Christians, but I am probably not the person to write that story!)
4. Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan
5. Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson
(Our owner Carol just finished this and was over the moon...she's not the first).
6. Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie
(I'm reading a collection coming out after Christmas by Daniyal Mueenuddin that is fabulous; his story "Nawabdin Electrician" is featured this year).
7. A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
9. Run, by Ann Patchett
10. Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston

What's missing?

a. The National Book Award winner. Rushed into paperback, Peter Matthiesen's Shadow Country should be at the top of our lists, but it's #21. Sometimes you find that some sales lag on award winners as book groups wait a few months to fit the book in their reading schedule. Book clubs, however, may be put off by the book's length and I think readers are confused by the award. This is three old books, rewritten? This is better than anything else published this year? We're confused. I'd love to see the definitive explanation, longer than a sentence, on why this book was chosen. Please link in the comments if you know of one.

b. The Man Booker winner. White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, is ranked at #22 on our bestseller list. Sales seem a bit below the last two winners. I really liked this book, and early feedback from customers has also generally been very positive. Perhaps it's the book club lag (see above) but it also might be the satire effect. Americans go with satire the way apple pie goes with mayonaisse. We're a serious bunch, and when we laugh, we like the laughs obvious.

Do me proud and try it. This is a worthwhile book, clever and thought provoking, with a good story too. Best, of all, I love the revised paperback jacket. The new purple color really ties in with men's fashion trends. Matching scarf and book--what could be a better gift? (If you read this post in the spring, also goes good with purple tie or casual shirt).

c. The Nobel prize winner. Where is Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio?

Regarding the ups and downs of the post-Nobel sales pop, there seems to be more momentum when readers gravitate towards an individual title. Doris Lessing? Read The Golden Notebook. Gunter Grass? It's The Tin Drum all the way. Sometimes everything comes together. Jose Saramago's Nobel announcement came with the publication of Blindness, perhaps his most lauded novel and certainly his best known in the United States.

But Jean-Marie Gusave Le Clezio? With books being mostly from small presses and lots out of print, it's been hard to get momentum going. I'm just going to mention one author and all booksellers will shake their heads in confusion--Dario Fo.

In this case, the critics have not definitively rallied around one particular book, and that hurts sales. I think many critics haven't read enough Le Clezio to know what his best book is. One article I read suggested we're all supposed to read his first novel, The Interrogation, which is now available!

Many of our shops have award winners on display. Check out the certified blue-ribbon picks.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Not the Merriest Christmas for Book Retailers

You may have heard that the book business is imploding. One customer came up to me last week and quoted Thomas Friedman as saying, “Bailing out the auto industry is like giving a loan to a bookstore after Amazon and the Kindle.” I was incensed, being that bookstores have always supported Friedman’s work. After I read the column, and it turned out the omitted words supporting “loan” were “billion” and “dollar”, I concluded I might not give a billion dollars to a bookstore either.

I can’t blame Friedman. Maybe he’s just feeling hot and flat because if some recent predictions come true, the New York Times and the book business just become online distribution content. In that case, he's going to be competing with a lot of other bloggers (hey, like me!) on a more level (flat) playing field. Now I'm not happy and he's not happy either.

This is the life of a bookseller. We often sell works by authors with whom we disagree. Recently Suze Orman suggested that people not exchange gifts for Christmas (or in her case, as she said she has a tree and a menorah, Chrismukkah). The problem is that for bookstores at least, without Christmas we’re pretty much out of business. The money many stores make in December keeps them in business for the rest of the year. I’m not about to pull her books from the shelves (Suze Orman's 2009 Action Plan goes on sale December 30th; we can hold a copy for you).

Sometimes, what one hand, the other hand taketh away. On one hand, the Oprah Book Club picks, most recently Wisconsin’s own The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. On the other hand, she showers massive praise on the Kindle. And before you call Schwartz to check, no we don’t sell them, and actually can’t. They are a proprietary product of our competitor and I’m not linking to them either. So there.

I still subscribe to a couple of newspapers as well, even though my local paper has had more than one article this fall on how to avoid paying retail for books. According to pundits, pretty soon I might not have a choice as many city papers may not have print editions.

The problem is, like books, the economics of the online alternative don’t work out so well. The cost of the book itself isn’t that much. You’re paying for the distribution to get it to the store, the editor who acquired it, the marketing person who called your attention to it, the accountant who settled the royalties, and the art director who came up with that swell cover, let alone the author and the agent. So say the book disappears. Some jobs go away but some will still have to be there. Will the book still be worth $25? How about $15? I’m thinking you’ll expect to pay a lot less than that, and in fact might expect it to be free or nearly so.

We can bypass the publisher of course; in the mypod (yes, like everyone else, I can't avoid a good Simpsons reference) and online world, many authors already do. When there are hundreds and thousands of books being published in this manner, it’s going to be a lot harder to figure out what to read. Publishers are one sieve, bookstores are another. Maybe social networking is the answer, but in a few short weeks, I’m already getting tired of people writing on my Facebook wall. Oh, except for Danielle Trussoni. She can write on my wall because she asked me for book suggestions.

As an aside (hey, it's all an aside), it's been not the greatest season for memoirs, or perhaps I or my booksellers haven't read the great one yet, so you should go back and read Falling Through the Earth, Trussoni's triple narrative of growing up in western Wisconsin, her father's tour of duty in Vietnam, and her attempt to follow his tour of duty. Hey, I read it two years ago and I still remember what it's about without looking it up, and it was on the coveted New York Times best books of the year. It's great! And yes, in a way this is classic log-rolling, only more transparent.

In the end, it’s up to you, the consumer. If enough of you want bookstores and we can continue to carry the product, some of us will still be around for you. The key word here is “enough.” I know lots of you have told me and my fellow booksellers how much we mean to you. But when you move a good amount of your purchases to some other entity, that could mean the difference between whether a store can make it.

I’m not just speaking for Schwartz here. If you’ve got a bookstore you love, let them order the books in for you that they don’t have. In this economic climate, they can’t support the inventory they had just a year ago.

I close on Roy Blount, Jr’s note on supporting independent bookstores, which has been floating around the net. Here is the source posting, posted on the Authors' Guild Site. You've seen it a hundred times already, but I would be remiss as a bookseller if I didn't link to it; maybe this time you'll actually read it!

Blount's newest book is Alphabet Juice, a collection of essays in the vein of Lynn Truss or Bill Bryson, his language books, not his travel ones. Well, maybe Blount's is as funny as the travel ones. What's not so funny is that there were recently a lot of job losses at Blount's publisher Farrar Straus Giroux, one of many publishers that has had to consolidate jobs due to slow sales. This is a publisher that has a big bestseller with Friedman (see above), as well as seemingly decent sales for their three key literary titles for fall, 2666, Home, and Sea of Poppies.

This is going to be a tough winter!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Analyzing the Analysis of the Random House Consolidation

A recent article on the Random House consolidation of imprints in the New York Observer is of great interest to publishing folk, booksellers, agents, and all book groupies. Consolidating Random House's five adult publishing groups into three is the first major change Markus Dohle has made since taking over the company.

The story does a great job of addressing the intricacies of who left the company and why. I love the quote “Together, Mr. Olson, Mr. Rubin, and the Applebaum Brothers ran Random House in a fashion that was described and eventually mythologized in widely read pieces of journalism like Lynn Herschberg's "Nothing Random" in The New York Times Magazine and Joe Hagan's "Those Royal Applebaums" in this paper (the Observer)."

It reminded me so much of a conversation I had with a good friend who shall remain nameless.

Nameless Friend (NF): My company is so bloated. We need to layoff a lot of people.

Me: Who would you layoff?

NF: Everyone I don’t know.

Back to the Observer article, what I think it missed in the analysis is the unique atmosphere at Random House where publishing groups can bid against each other for properties. Consolidate the groups and there are less parties at the auction, and less staff needed to nurture the programs. To explain, Random House and Knopf can bid for the same novel, but Knopf and Pantheon would not. Now with Doubleday and Bantam Dell folded into other groups, there is less of this. Good for them, but not as good for authors, agents, and the publishing folk made extraneous.

Broadway Books is to be folded into Crown’s Clarkson Potter, for example, as they have the two most developed cookbook programs. Currently Potter's is the stronger program, focusing on personalities more than chefs. This season it's all about Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics for us. No other cookbook comes close.

The same story holds for the business programs, though in this case, neither program is particularly strong, with with Crown's Steve Ross now helming the Collins program at HarperCollins. Doubleday is separated from Broadway but reunited with its paperback program Anchor. As it stands now, Rubin already had an agreement with Mehta to send his literary books to Anchor for reprint.

Now as for the comment that Mr. Mehta does not really do self-help, has anyone heard of French Women Don’t Get Fat?

Here’s the article.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Top Tens of the Year, New York Times, Washington Post and more

The New York Times top ten has become a much bigger deal for booksellers in the last few years. The Times made some tweaks that really made readers take notice. For one thing, they publish a longlist the week before of the Top 100 notable books. They've done this forever, but by giving it the significance of 100, it makes it sound more important.

Today was the official release of the top 10. In the past, the number of editor's choice titles fluctuated, with a number that I think was as low as seven and as high as twelve. Now it's the Ten Best Books of 2008. Much better.

7. The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins

When we were first sold these titles, only Morrison and Lahiri were slam dunks. We took decent positions (for us, that's a face-out of four to five copies per shop) of O'Neill and Barnes, due to publisher enthusiasm on the first and rep enthusiasm on the second. Our Knopf rep was positively over-the-top on the Barnes. 2666 was a priority book for FSG with its two formats, and so we went a bit bigger on that as well. On the other hand, I was ready to skip the Patrick French biography. Authorized biography of a living writer? I guess that's the hot thing--witness the success of Snowball.
I was a bit surprised to see two books that are effectively on Bush policy. Will people be reading the Filkins and Mayer in ten years? How about in paperback?

Here's a list that will probably not get as much attention, the Washington Post Best Books of the Year for 2008
1. Cost, by Roxana Robinson
2. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson

I was wondering what happened to Outlander, a book that got amazing reviews and readers, but has been so far shut out of the prizes. Nice to see Hedgehog of course, and several nonfiction books piqued my interest. I enjoyed Pham's Catfish and Mandala years ago, and one of our customers has been excited about the publication of Words in Air for years.

When will the first collected emails collection come out?

One more list, the Books of the Year from The Atlantic:
1. Europe Between the Oceans, by Barry Cunliffe

Yay! Another book on our favorite books list from our Gift Guide. Here's what Ken Favell at our Brookfield shop said about Olive Kitteridge:

An exquisite novel in stories that sparkles with wonderful character
insight. Olive is such a complex lady, a stern New Englander who you
can't help but empathize with. The best book I’ve read this year. What a gem!
Finally, here are Stephen King's Top 10 Books of 2008, as listed in Entertainment Weekly. Mr. King has helped a book along over the years, such as giving a real boost to Kate Atkinson's Case Histories.

Ex-Milwaukeean Perlstein visited Schwartz this fall, and since he still has family here, he might come back in the future. Stephen King called Nixonland the best history of the 60's he's ever read.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Woman in White Pants: a visit to Mom

It's rather unusual for a bookseller to take any time off between Thanksgiving and Christsmas. Like other retailers, this is when we do enough business to stay in business. I must confess that I visited my mother in Boston for a weekend, with the promise back home that I would work many extra shifts on the floor to cover this absence.

I grew up in Queens, where until this year, my mother Lillian still lived. There are many things she does not miss in her new apartment in Brookline, but one thing that hasn't yet been replaced were her two book clubs, one for novels and another for short stories.

Not that she's stopped reading. There's a lending library downstairs, and I of course am a dutiful son and offer suggestions that are sometimes gifts, and sometimes purchases from Schwartz in Milwaukee. We also try to shop the local bookstores in Boston, so she's got an Indie Bound gift card, which is good at Brookline Booksmith, only five blocks from her apartment.

I don't know if it's because of talking so much with my coworker Catherine Wallberg about Daphne Du Maurier, but I wound up buying the classic Rebecca at Brookline Booksmith. I love seeing all the bustling energy in that store, such great recommendations, and interesting display, and generally can't help but make a purchase. I will admit that this is often the case in independent bookshops. When I'm in Boston, I almost always take a pilgrimage to the Harvard Book Store. Buyer Megan Sullivan has a renowned book blog that I follow called Book Dwarf.

I think I'm also in the mood for Rebecca because for the last few weeks, I've been making my way through Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White for my lunchtime book club, the Third Ward Warblers. No, I didn't name it.

There's been some discussion among my bookseller friends whether The Woman in White or The Moonstone is the most significant Collins novel. What I know is that Jason in the group had already read The Moonstone and Catherine had a leather-bound version of The Woman in White. Problem settled.

We read Dickens and then Collins, in part due to the imminent release of Dan Simmons' new novel Drood. It's coming in February of 2009 (as always, please consider having us hold a copy for you when it arrives), and it is about Dickens' last years, narrated by Collins! It's a bit of a departure for the author, but I'm told from a big fan that there are speculative elements.

Back to Lillian. Though she's got glaucoma, she's still able to read some books if the print is big. Large print is better. She also listens to audio books. I brought her a novel I really enjoyed this fall, Francine Proses's Goldengrove, which sadly did not get as much attention as I had hoped. I was very excited to see a Harper Luxe (large print) version and bought it immediately for Mrs. G.

I've had feedback from one of my best friends, Heidi, whose opinion I greatly value. These postings are too long, and they aren't funny enough. Also, where the heck are my book reviews that pre-internet, I used to send out to scores of people by post?

I can only solve one problem at a time. Here's my take on Ms. Prose's newest:

GOLDENGROVE, by Francine Prose Harper, $24.95, 9/08.
Nico is a 13-year-old girl who lives with her ex-hippie parents and older sister in a upstate New York town near Albany, but out-of-range of cell phones and other wired conveniences. Mom writes lyric notes and Dad runs the Goldengrove bookstore—their worldview is determined by their hippie background and unfulfilled artistic ambitions. Older sister Margaret is Nico’s idol, a singer who breaks hearts, a world-weary lover of old music and films—her only secret is Aaron, a boyfriend who hopes to be a painter. Nico herself is set to be drifting towards the sciences, but there seems to be no reason for this inclination besides setting herself apart from the other characters. Life takes a devastating turn when (and I’m not giving anything away here) Margaret drowns unexpectedly in a nearby lake. Chubby Nico finds herself losing weight and growing her hair out; Aaron has similar designs on recreating the past. Her parents are not happy. Everyone is struggling with how Margaret’s absence affects their place in the order of things, both in the family and in life itself. Goldengrove is quite the change of place from the social comedy A Changed Man, which was one of my favorite books the year it was released. Though set in the present, it manages to seep itself in the glow of nostalgic past; the only drawback of that, is that books of this genre have to rocket into the present at the end, and in this case that makes it an unforeseen future. I liked it a great deal and hope for the best.

On that last structural device of the novel, I think Michael Cunningham did this at the end of Flesh and Blood.

It turns out I also convinced my sister Merrill to read Goldengrove, and she liked it enough to get some recommendations from me on other Prose novels to read. Her most successful novel in our shops was definitely Blue Angel, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award, but her nonfiction work Reading Like a Writer, has a very big following as well. In addition to A Changed Man, I remember being particularly obsessed with an old story collection, Women and Children First.

Merrill says her interest is not as strong as her Lionel Shriver fever she had, but we'll save that for another post.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Enthusiasm for City of Thieves in the State of Cheese

Recently I was walking between our Shorewood shop and our Downer location. There are two interesting ways to do this. Turn left at Capitol Drive, pick up a delicious cookie at City Market, and then turn right on Downer. The other way is to head straight down Oakland Avenue, stop in at Oakland Gyros for the chicken shish kabob sandwich (or the ginormous platter if you are particularly hungry), and turn left on Webster.

Anyway, I was taking route two when I ran into another Daniel, one of my favorite customers. The best part is that I had just seen his wife and daughter at the JCC, where I was helping out at Tatiana de Rosnay’s appearance at the JCC for Sarah’s Key. I love coincidences, not least because they are the stuff of great comic novels.

Daniel told me he had finished, on my recommendation, one of my favorite novels, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. Last year if you ran into me on the floor of one of our shops, and chatted with me, at one point I probably found a copy and read you a sonnet or two. It’s an incredible novel, a one-of-a-kind experience, about two friends in the early 1980’s San Francisco who are divided by the war machine, a woman, and a cat. It’s all in perfect sonnet form, based on the structure of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Some coworkers and I are planning to read Eugene Onegin this January, as part of our lunchtime office book club (Every book lover should do this. Details to follow in another posting.) and that has got me thinking about Russian literature in general, another novel that, like The Golden Gate, plans off Russia in a modern, inventive way.

It’s David Benioff’s City of Thieves, and it’s one of my favorite novels of the year. In short, it’s the story of two young prisoners during the siege of Leningrad who are told that their lives will be spared if they can find a dozen eggs for an army officer’s daughter’s wedding.

It’s a thriller that’s alternatingly gruesome, philosophical, and funny. There’s a Michael Chabon-ishness to it in both the humor and the underlying theme of friendship between two very different men. Benioff plays with reality much like Jonathan Safran Foer, and the story is as cinematic as The Kite Runner and Khaled Hosseini's newest, just out in paperback, A Thousand Splendid Suns.

That’s not a surprise, since Benioff wrote the screenplay for The Kite Runner. I recently spotted Hosseini’s recommendation for the book on Penguin’s “What to Give Checklist.” He called it “A riveting war novel and an engaging coming of age story. City of Thieves is tender, illuminating, and, be warned, often shocking. “

City of Thieves is a book that I’ve successfully recommended to 25-year-old women and 70-year-old men. I watched it get passed around to each member of my family. It’s that kind of book. It’s also time for you to buy it. Read it first, and then give it as a gift, if you can bear to part with it.

Read another take on City of Thieves from Sarah Marine at our Downer Avenue shop.

Find more recommendations in our Gift Guide. If you are a regular shopper under our Schwartz Gives Back program, one was sent to you. If not, we’ve got copies in our shops or you can look at a pdf here (part one) and here (part two). You can also pick up a copy in our shops.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Black Wednesday, yet another post

On one hand, publishers and booksellers understand that books are a great value, and as in previous economic slowdowns, books make particularly great gifts in tough economic times. New initiatives from Random House, Penguin, and the American Booksellers Association drive home the message.

On the other hand, a lot of our friends in publishing have lost their jobs this week, and we all expect more to follow, both in publishing and bookselling. I'm part sad for everyone caught up on this, part panicky over the whole thing for others as well as myself, and it's sometimes hard to go out on the selling floor and boot myself into bookseller mode.

Then I work at the Mequon Schwartz bookshop for the day, and I talk to a lovely reader who just finished the new Michael Connelly, The Brass Verdict, and wanted the last book featuring that guy who drives around in big cars. After finding The Lincoln Lawyer, we started discussing her love of legal thrillers and the odd situation where Schwartz puts half of them in fiction and the other half in mystery. It's part tradition, part publisher labeling, and part whether there's a dead body and does the reader know who did it beforehand. We move them around periodically and someday we'll have them arranged perfectly.

Names flew about--Steve Martini, John Lescroart, Lisa Scottoline and more, but she was voracious and had tackled all I could suggest. Finally I think we hit the jackpot--John Mortimer's Rumpole series. She ended up with a copy of Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, and I told her that if she liked this one, there were more than twenty others to devour.

I know she did not need to talk to me to make this discovery. I know she didn't have to come into the shop. But she did, and we had a good time together, and it made both our days.