Friday, February 27, 2009

Just One More "Little Bee" Note Before Monday's Event

Nowadays newspapers schedule reviews from big publishers around their on-sale date. I've been despondent because the American critics don't seem to be rallying around Little Bee the way international critics and American booksellers have. Finally a few breaks:
Sarah L. Courteau in the Washington Post compares Cleave to Ian McEwan and says "Little Bee will blow you away."

People Magazine gives Cleave four stars as the weekly People Pick, praising it as a "stunning work" with mixing "wry humor" with "heartbreak and hope." I think they wait a week to post online, so that you buy the magazine.

For those folks who aren't Milwaukeeans who follow this blog (Hi Mom! Actually she has trouble with the cable box), here's where else Cleave is appearing...

Milwaukee, WI, March 2 at 7pm: Event at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop
Ann Arbor, MI, March 3 at 7pm: Event at Borders, 612 E Liberty
Seattle, WA, March 4 at 7pm: Event at University Bookstore
Seattle, WA, March 5 at 7pm: Event at Third Place Books
Santa Barbara, CA, March 6 at 7pm: Event at Chaucer’s Books
Santa Monica, CA, March 8 at 3pm: Event at Diesel Bookstore
Portland, OR, March 9 at 7.30pm: Event at Powell’s City of Books
Danville, CA, March 10 at 7pm: Event at Rakestraw Books
Capitola, CA, March 11 at 7.30pm: Event at Capitola Book Café
Corte Madera, CA, March 12 at 7pm: Event at Book Passage

Cleave states in his blog that the East coast is next, especially if momentum builds and crowds show up at the events.

Did you notice we are the first event? I'm plotzing. We've got 40 books. If we sell out (I know, I'm dreaming big), don't worry, I've got a backup plan as this schedule is filled with bookseller friends. We'll get your book signed (personalized or not) at one of the stores later on the tour and then mail the carton back to Downer Avenue.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"The Housekeeper and the Professor"--A Case Study in How to Spot a Book we can Sell.

Folks always ask how we know whether a book will work for us. We get lots of reads of course. Reviews and interviews often help.
There is sort of a formula. I'm always looking for books that have multiple markets. Does the story work both as a character-driven novel and also a mystery? That would be In the Woods. Does the old-fashioned storytelling blend with a modern structure? There we have City of Thieves.

Two audiences I'm always trying to link together are the review-driven and the word-of-mouthers. You'd think that sweet spot is the book that appeals to both, but a book that gets all glowing reviews has one problem going for it--why do publishers need booksellers to tell readers that they should read it in spite of the mixed review?

The book has to be good enough to get reviews, but at least a few of the reviews have to voice complaints that the book is too commercial, too story driven, too emotional, perhaps too cliched. That would be Water for Elephants and any number of bestsellers driven by independent booksellers.

Early reviews are usually either positive, if the author is well-connected, or non-existent, if there are no logs to be rolled (ask me about that if you don't know to what I refer). If the book works, however, later reviews are sometimes of the backlash quality, analyzing the cultural response as much as the book itself. To use a comparison from the film world, one of my more erudite cinematic friends confided in me that he despises Slumdog Millionaire.

As an indie bookseller, we've had several books in the last year that had immediate response, but nowadays communication is so fast that by the time the book is out, it's an immediate hit. After seeing both The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society break out of the indies faster than my sister Merrill's cats can scoot out of a room as soon as they lay eyes on me, I decided that for fall 2008, we needed a book that would be the same kind of gem, but folks in the mainstream would find a bit offputting.

We found it in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Say "translated from French" and "discussions about philosophy" to most self-service shoppers, and they will quickly move on to another aisle. But we were lucky enough to have the trust of our customers, and could therefore sell hundreds. The reviews didn't hurt on that one, either, though I could easily see that backlash-type review had the novel achieved the level of success stateside that it received in Europe.

So this winter I went sniffing for another success story on that level. It's been a bit harder, due to all our transition issues, and the fact that there is actually a lot more great fiction published in the winter than there is in the fall. Publishers save fall for the big guns that don't need our help, and use January through August to launch the breakouts.

My find is Yoko Ogawa's novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor. Ogawa's novellas, The Diving Pool, vanished without a trace, giving him a bad track record in the US. The book was sold into us very quietly, we didn't even put it at every shop.

It wasn't until our fall rep night, where several publishers meet with our booksellers to talk about hand-sells and gift options, that we had any inkling this was something special. Mary Ellen, our recently-retired Macmillan rep, got the chance to talk up one book from winter 2009 and said this was her favorite book on the list? Really? I didn't even remember it.

It's the story of a woman who is hired to care for this mathematician who has been in a terrible car accident. He's lost his short-term memory and can't recall anything from longer than 80 minutes previous. He's already driven off a number of domestic workers. They sort of hit it off, and when he insists her son stay with her during her work hours, he starts giving the two of them math lessons.

It's a philosophical tale filled with number theory where the reader has to fill in some of the details. It's actually quite accessbile but the quotes from Paul Auster and Nobel prizewinner Kenzaburo Oe lend it gravitas. Ogawa is acclaimed in Japan but not enough to get the great reviews; hence the book was released as a trade paperback original. Oh, and if you'd like to read an Oe novel, I've been told that A Personal Matter is a good place to start.

Mathy? Translated from Japanese? See, there is a formula. The fact that the book is actually quite wonderful is the key, but the other little details make it stand out from all the other wonderful books out there. It also keeps it from selling off the shelves at Target successfully, at least for a while.

And it's not just any math, it's number theory. That's the one branch of math that's easy to explain but very hard to prove. Just ask anyone who has struggled over Fermat's Last Theorem. Readers like the former, but don't care much about the latter.

Here's the Auster quote. We booksellers know how he came across the book, but the fact is, he doesn't give quotes to everybody, so this still means a lot.

"Highly original. Infinitely charming. And ever so touching."
--Paul Auster

And now you know our secret. Go open a bookstore!
Addendum--I wrote this piece several days ago, but posted it on the 26th. Coincidentally Motoko Rich wrote a piece in today's New York Times on Europa's success with translated titles, most notably The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Now all we need is for Janet Maslin to write a rave about Little Bee. I'm pretty confident she would love it.
State of the store. Among the paperwork I've filled out this week was my membership form for the American Booksellers Association. Once I have that, I can start on two projects that many customers have been asking about, our gift cards and our web site. Neither can be functional until the bricks-and-mortar store is live. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Who is Jan Lievens and What Does He Have to do with Flying?

In my continuing effort to get out of the house, I committed myself to attend the MAM After Dark event “Lievens on a Jet Plane”, put on by Cedar Block Gallery, and while I don’t know everyone involved, one of the folks putting it together was ex-Downer Schwartz bookseller Brent Gohde, so once I said I would attend, I felt uncomfortable backing out.

Honestly, isn’t it easier saying yes a month in advance? Then you get closer and think, “Why did I commit to this?” I think it is all explained in Stumbling On Happiness. Everything else is explained in this book, so why not this too?

Though I attended solo, I did have a fantastic dinner at St. Paul Fish Company with Kirk beforehand. My one-pound lobster dinner (for $12.95!) was delicious. I will not go into detail here because I have vegan friends, but I highly recommend it. It’s located in the Milwaukee Public Market.

Just as an aside, for a lovely lobster novel, you can’t go wrong with Stewart O’Nan’s lovely Last Night at the Lobster. I was on a plane recently and a Philadelphia venture capitalist (he helped raise the money for that academic program called Blackboard) recommended O’Nan to me; he couldn’t remember his name but I figured out that book he loved was Wish You Were Here. As always, figuring out a book someone is talking about without knowing the title is always a triumph; that’s why I jump up and down when I solve one of these queries in the bookstore.

Oh, were we talking about art?

I had know idea what I was walking into, but soon figured out that this was a tie-in to the Jan Lievins show at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Lievens was a Dutch master, very popular in his time, but now lives in the shadow of his friend and rival Rembrandt. It turns out that several of Lievens paintings were mistakenly attributed to the big R, who also appears as a model in some of the artwork. Apparently some of this was discovered only recently, in the course of putting together this show.

Note to writers: the friendly-rivalry between the two artists, and their parallel rise and fall seemed like a great idea for either a novel or one of those Ross King-style narratives to me. I did some research and I-Page and there’s nothing, nothing!

The official tie-in to the show is Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered. You may know that in these kinds of shows, only the art museum sponsors the show gets the tie-in paperback. We only get to carry the hardcover, which is $65. Think of it as five $13 paperbacks. You’re not afraid to buy a $13 paperback from me, are you?

Let's be totally frank. $65. In February. When we're closing. We didn't bring the book in for stock. We can still get it from our warehouse for you but you really have to buy it. Promise?

So the Lievens on a Jet Plane part is that 25 or so local artists reinterpreted several of Lievens inconic paintings in their own way. It was great! While I thought that some folks may not have really been inspired by Lievens, others, particularly those who chose Samson and Delilah as inspiration, went all out.

There were also creative art stations, a Lievenator that turned photos into paintings, and a jerky film-strip style presentation of the new works that made them look like they were dancing. I looked at all the new works first, which made the Lievens work really come alive. I don’t normally feel this way in an art museum, but all the energy, the music, the really good turnout of art lovers, and one glass of sparkling wine gave me chills.

Oh, if I could have an event like this at the bookstore once in a blue moon, it would all be worth it!

If you want to read a good history that puts the lives of Rembrandt and Lievens in perspective of Dutch 17th century history, there’s nothing better than Simon Schama’s Embarrassment of Riches. Meanwhile, go see the show, and make sure you attend the next Cedar Block presentation.

One last note: we will stop taking warehouse orders for our shops on March 1st. After this post, I will only be linking to our web site if the book is in stock at one of our shops. Once the Boswell Book Company web site is up and running, the buy links will return.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Stepping Out to the Ballet and Some Books that Come to Mind in the Process

I’ve spent much of my life spent in a cocoon, buying new titles for the bookstore in a dark room. “Yes, yes, I’ll take two”, would come the cackle, cleverly skipping this or that title until the right one came along. “Buddhism’s being overpublished,” I’d squeak, “Everybody wants to read books about atheism now”, and the sales rep would scribble this breakthrough, saving it for his or her weekly call report.

But now, as I transition into a new job at Boswell Book Company, mostly on the sales floor, I must come into the light and actually do things and see people. I consider myself a natural introvert (aren’t most readers?) who has trained himself for 25 years to be a people person. It’s hard to believe that I could sometimes go an entire weekend in my youth without talking to anyone.

I celebrated this vow of sociability (heck, maybe someday I’ll get in the “Boris and Doris” gossip column in the Shepherd Express) with a venture into the artistic world, a journey to the ballet.

Thursday was dance night, as Elly Gore, the long-time, Schwartz Bookshops children’s buyer, now retired, and I went to see the Milwaukee Ballet. I mostly wanted to see Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free”, the dance that inspired the Broadway show On the Town, which then became the movie, at which time all Robbins’ choreography was removed. You can read more in Somewhere the recent bio of Robbins.

It turns out that there were actually three dances, the others being Adam Hougland’s “K 413” and Marius Petipa’s more traditional “Raymonda Act 3”, featuring the music of Alexander Glazunov. The ballet celebrated the marriage between Raymonda and her lover, and turned out to be the highlight of the evening for Elly. I know nothing, but knew enough that it would be lots of little dancettes, sort of like eating a bag of mini donuts.

If someone were interested in more on this subject, I’m not sure what I’d recommend. Perhaps Ballet's Magic Kingdom: Selected Writings on Dance in Russia, 1911-1925, the recent book that was a surprise front-page review on the New York Times Book Review. Not shockingly, it is still out of stock with the publisher.

I also might recommend Colum McCann’s Dancer, a fiction recreation of the life of Rudolf Nureyev. Michael Pink, artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet himself, came to speak at one of the Schwartz shops when the book was first published. McCann has a new novel, Let the Great World Spin, coming next June.

Take a break and watch this video of the Milwaukee Ballet guys rehearsing “Fancy Free.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

If I Said I Read "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," Would You Point Me to the Loo?--What's WIth the Two Titles for "Little Bee"?

Why do books change titles when published abroad? For years, publishers bought rights, and they probably figured that they knew what title was best for their market. Perhaps the book was called I Left my Knickers in the Loo in Great Britain and that just didn't work stateside.

Traditionally this just didn't matter. The world was not flat, and we all couldn't order books that easily from other countries. Lately though, I think this causes more problems. When you're searching for a book, it's a bit confusing. Why is this still happening?

And if there's a movie version that's released internationally, what do you do then? In the Harry Potter example above, the film was released under two titles, and the audio of scenes were edited to refer to both the "philosopher's stone" and "sorceror's stone."

With Zoe Heller's last novel, the answer was to change the name of the book again. It was originally released in Great Britain as Notes on a Scandal. The American title became What was She Thinking? When the movie came out again, the book was renamed Notes on a Scandal. Here are a couple more notes on Zoe Heller:

1) We have some bargain copies of Notes on a Scandal left. It's a great deal at $6.99--the book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, for goodness sake. You can't order it on our web site but you can stop by and pick one up, or reserve a copy by phone or email.

2) Her new novel The Believers is scrumptuous. It should be out in March. Expect a full-blown, enthusiastic posting on this one.

A good example of a book that was helped by a title change was Linda Olsson's Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs. There's no question that Astrid and Veronika is simply catchier. The title went on to be used for most subsequent publications.

Well, what do you know? Chris Cleave's book also has two titles, and just like with Olsson's (did I mention for the hundredth time she's appearing at our Mequon shop on March 27th?), the American publishers chose to go with the name of the character Little Bee as the title for Cleave's new novel.

What did he think about that? Let's ask him!

Daniel: Whose idea was it to have two titles? How did the publishers explain to you that one idea was better for the US and the other for the UK?

Chris: Actually both are big improvements on my original title for the novel, which was The Developing World. One of my publishers rang me up and said: “Which part of A NOVEL’S TITLE MUST NOT MAKE IT SOUND LIKE A GEOGRAPHY TEXT BOOK is confusing you?” I thought that was nicely put. In the end I like both the titles we came up with. The Other Hand is a good title because it speaks to the dichotomous nature of the novel, with its two narrators and two worlds, while it also references Sarah’s injury.

Little Bee is a good title too, because the novel is really Little Bee’s story, so it’s a straightforward and an honest title. Also I like it because it sounds brighter and more approachable – and that was my aim with this novel after all: to write an accessible story about a serious subject.

The titles weren’t chosen because it was thought, “Oh, the Americans will like this, and the British and the Australians will like that.” It was more about the personal taste of my respective editors. I like the fact that the novel has two titles. I like it when two apparently divergent choices are simultaneously right. I like complexity. While we’re on the subject, I like my name. I think “cleave” might be unique in having two synonyms that are antonyms of each other.

Daniel: It looks like despite the title, you used two very different jackets, but they seem to be by the same artist. True?

Chris: I see what you mean - they’re both outrageously orange, and they are both very elegant in my opinion. The US jacket was drawn by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, a supremely gifted designer and typographer, who has among his many achievements a book called Men of Letters in which he recreates the faces of the famous writers of history using lovingly calligraphed letters. He’s also made a book of zoo animals formed entirely from the “Bembo” typeface. His website at is a thing of beauty.

The UK jacket was designed by the head of my London publisher’s art department, a genius and such a team player that he refused to take credit for it. The jacket had gone through several incarnations, and it still wasn’t right, and it had to be printed on Monday morning, and the man had a flash of inspiration and came in over the weekend and drew it to perfection.

The interview ends here, but I have a bit more to say (shocking).

There are so many jackets for the book that my head is spinning. The book is being published as Little Bee in Canada, but the rights are held by Random House Canada, not Simon and Schuster. It has a different jacket.

In addition, the paperback of the UK edition (the book came out in cloth there last year) was going to be the hardcover in a calmer shade of blue, but the new jacket seems to be that standard inspirational child picture that seems to be all over trade paperbacks of late. Sadly, if I saw that picture, I would have a bit of trouble picking the book up; it just wouldn't speak to me.

Just another reason to buy the book in hardcover, I guess.

Don't forget, the event is March 2nd at Downer Avenue, 7 PM.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Yes, I'm Interrupting One Interview for Another--Valerie Laken Discusses Dream House

When we moved into our house three years ago, my friend John did some research on the place and gave us the owners going back to the 1930's. We actually know the couple who lived in the house in the late eighties; it's a good story for another posting. The family who lived there before us left Milwaukee for a job in Baltimore. But it was a family in between that was the story that stuck most with me. I was told by neighbors that the wife was hit by a car in the neighborhood, and the husband in his grief moved nearby, and then finally to Florida.

Imagine if one of the stories about your house something like that, or maybe even murder. That's the basis for Valerie Laken's new novel Dream House. Set in Ann Arbor, it starts with Kate Kinzler buying a house to renovate with her husband, only to find that a terrible crime has taken place there. What she doesn't know (as opposed to us all-knowing readers) is that the perpetrator Walker Price is just out of prison for serving his sentence and still rather attached to the place.

Laken is appearing at the Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue this Thursday (February 19th) at 7 PM. I asked her some questions about houses and stories and she was gracious enough to reply.

Daniel: I love how the house on Macon Street is almost like a character in the story. The "house as character" looms large in literature. Is the house based on one actual place in Ann Arbor? Don't give the address away here, but imply that people might find it out if they attend!

Valerie: The house in the book is very much based on my old house in Ann Arbor. About two weeks after we moved in, a neighbor stopped by and told us that a murder had once occurred under our roof. This was not exactly what we'd had in mind when we bought into the romantic This Old House vision. What's worse, our neighbor didn't actually know how or when the murder had occurred. So we spent those first several weeks imagining worst case scenarios, seeing blood in every carpet stain and bullet holes in every cracked bit of plaster. This was pretty far from fun. Eventually another neighbor told us a more complete story about the crime, and though it was disturbing, it struck me as a terribly moving, tragic, honorable story, one that completely reshaped my view of the house. Instead of feeling frightened and ashamed of our home's past, I came to find it oddly inspiring. And the seeds of that story began to grow in my imagination, eventually blooming into this novel.

Daniel: Many of your characters are trying to reshape their pasts, and yet they can't get away from them. It's not exactly that they can't grow up, but more that they are stuck and can't move on. It's almost like the story addresses the internal issues of the characters. So I ask-what came first here, the story or the people?

Valerie: One of the clearest records of our past is our home, which stores all our old stuff, both physical and psychic. The way we have lived in the homes of our youth shapes the way with assume we should -- or should not -- live in the homes of our adulthood. Even if we want to do things differently as adults, our homes are also powerful shapers of habit. Many of our best and worst habits start at home, and so if we want to change our ways, that often means breaking with the traditions of our home and family, which is a powerfully difficult thing to do. On some level, yes, the book is peopled by characters who want to break with their pasts, but they discover the pain and difficulty inherent in that desire.

Daniel: There is also some physical and psychological abuse that shows up in several characters' pasts. It recurs enough to make me think this links to the book's central themes. Does it?

Valerie: First and foremost, I was interested in the ways that homes can be both nurturing and damaging. I think most people have at least some personal experience that bears that out. Whether someone is losing their home to foreclosure or seeing an interstate built in their back yard, our homes can really test our limits, and problems at home rattle us at our core. Obviously domestic abuse, whether physical or not, is one of the clearest ways our homelife can damage us, so it seemed natural for that pattern to emerge in the book. The book was built around the central domestic homicide incident, but it seems to me that a violent event of that magnitude would not often emerge in a vacuum or in a perfectly calm, safe environment. To place a murder in the middle of a book with no other significant violence would seem implausible to me, as well as dramatically unbalanced. So there is a slight thread of domestic violence running through the novel. I actually believe that most family members, in reality and therefore in fiction, do damage to each other sooner or later; it's an inevitable part of loving and living with someone. But I think that the kinds of damage that get done, and the ways that family members react to that damage and work to heal or avoid it, reveal a lot about the family.

Daniel: One way I like to think of your novel is that it's a thriller without an enemy, and by this, I'm comparing it to Andre Dubus III, not Tom Clancy. There is conflict, but it's driven more by misunderstanding than by good and evil. What's your take on this? Were you planning on going this route or did it just happen? Or best of all, do you totally disagree with me? If so, how would you describe what you're writing?

Valerie: Yes. I don't really believe in villains. To me a villain is a flat character, someone unequivocally bad, and I just don't find that approach to humans very truthful or interesting in life or in fiction. A close match between characters who are all somewhat flawed and somewhat beautiful usually strikes me as more dramatic, unpredictable, and authentic. When I read about people doing terrible things in the news, my reaction as a writer has to be "What would compel someone to do that?" That's the main mystery a writer has to try to solve. A writer's job is just to try to carve out a way to make humans more comprehensible to one another. I tell my writing students to think of the way Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. I think we would all agree that Lecter is unequivocally bad, but what made him so deliciously frightening in the film was the fact that Hopkins didn't approach him with the dismissive attitude of "How evil," but rather, "How interesting."

I don't want to ask all the good questions. You can still find out if Laken writes in the morning or the afternoon!

Valerie Laken is a faculty member of the English department at UWM. She has degrees from Iowa and Michigan, and was won the Pushcart Prize, two Hopwood awards, and honorable mention in Best American Short Stories. Once again, she will be appearing at the Downer Avenue Schwartz store this Thursday, February 19th, at 7 PM.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I'm a Little Freaked Out about How Interesting this Interview with Chris Cleave is

There’s so much in my life that needs to get done. I’m still helping Schwartz ready for our closing at the end of March. I’m rushing ahead with all that is entailed with reopening the Downer Avenue shop, perhaps even a bit earlier than scheduled.

With that on my plate, all I really want to do is work on Chris Cleave’s appearance for Little Bee on March 2nd at Downer Avenue (at 7 PM, as is usually the case). This guy’s coming over from London. What if we don’t get a lot of people? Will my customers be kicking themselves someday if they realized they missed this event? I think so.

I don’t even know how good this guy is at events. Maybe he’s shy. Maybe he’s boring. He’s smart, I’ll say that. I’ve become a regular follower of his blog and enjoy it quite a bit. Not to worry. I’ve got the feeling this is going to be a really good evening.

Hey, maybe I can ask him a few questions. Abracadabra! A little Q&A to get us to the next level here, interest-wise. But before we do, I’m going to excerpt Marilyn Dahl’s review in Shelf Awareness, a wonderful trade newsletter that focuses on indie bookstores. Of course, because it’s so smart, the readership is anyone who’s anyone in publishing.

Chris Cleave's novel will amaze and delight you, and break your heart. It's one of the finest books I've read in years, from its lyrical opening lines to its surprising end. It tells the story of a young Nigerian refugee, Little Bee, who has made her way to England but has ended up in a detention center. She is looking for an English couple, Andrew and Sarah O'Rourke, whom she met on a Nigerian beach two years earlier. Told from the viewpoints of Little Bee and Sarah, the story is tragic and sweet; its wisdom and power last long after the finish.
--Marilyn Dahl, in Shelf Awareness (read the whole amazing review)

Daniel: My favorite question #1: Where was the conception of this book? What came first?

Chris: In 1994 I worked for three days in the canteen of an immigration detention centre near Oxford. It was the summer vacation at my university, and I was taking on all kinds of casual work to make some money. What I saw in that place shocked me so deeply that I wanted to write about it ever after. For many years I didn’t think I was technically good enough to tell the story, so I just held on to the idea and worked on my writing until it was up to the task. I started seriously researching the novel in 2006, and wrote it in 2007 and 2008.

Daniel: What kind of research did you do for the book? How have political groups that support refugee rights taken to the book? One would think they would like it...

Chris: I did a year of research. I listened to a lot of Nigerian English, on the radio and in person. I interviewed asylum seekers and those who work with them (some of the transcripts are on my website). I learned a lot about the UK immigration detention system, much of it shocking and appalling. It was a year of education for me. I discovered a hidden side to the Western world, and not a pretty side either. And yes, there are lots of wonderful groups in the UK, the US and Australia that support refugee rights. Some of them like the book and some of them don’t. My greatest pleasure with the book was when three of the people who helped a lot in the research told me that they loved it. But some of the groups think I’ve gone too far, and some of them say I haven’t gone far enough. There are some activists who take pretty radical positions, including direct action and advocacy for a total removal of border controls. That isn’t really my style. I’m a writer, so I’m into change through peaceful persuasion. But I understand the anger and the sense of outrage that drives such people. You’d have to be made of stone not to freak out when you discover how the West treats asylum seekers.

Daniel: Has your depiction of the center (centre) gotten you into any hot water (watre) in the UK? (OK, you have to understand that I wrote this after meditating on the differences between the two editions, but I’m saving everything except this bad little joke for another post.)

Chris: No, not at all. First, because the UK is still one of the best places in the world to practice the art of free speech. That’s something truly great about Great Britain, and it’s a civil right that I and many others fiercely defend through regular exercise. We don’t have a Constitution or a Bill of Rights to enshrine it, so we must practice it in our lives until it becomes an inbred instinct of a free people. Second, I think my depiction of a British immigration detention centre is accurate in the salient respects. It’s based on meticulous research and it would be hard to take issue with it on factual grounds, so people haven’t. That’s not to say that everyone likes me for doing it, but frankly that’s their problem and not mine. The British treatment of asylum seekers brings shame and ignominy on the nation. I didn’t invent that treatment; I’m blowing the whistle on it. I don’t want to be like those people who lived right next door to Bergen-Belsen and claimed, at the end of the war, that they never knew it was there.

Daniel: I describe the way you structured the novel to be a line to the awful Nigerian scene--in the way you navigate your way out, it reminds me of several of the books I've read by Iris Murdoch. She would put these awful events in the novels, but sometimes they'd be at the beginning, sometimes the middle, and sometimes the end. Did you think about where this went and how this affected momentum? At any point in your book was it somewhere else? I imagined you starting with it and working backwards but I have no idea.

Chris: I experimented endlessly with the structure of the book. As you correctly guessed, I moved the beach scene to the start, to the end, into Sarah’s voice, into Little Bee’s voice, and so on. Having alternating narrators and a non-linear timescale makes it very complicated to thread this story together in a way that reads smoothly and maintains tension to the end. But this is what I love about writing novels. They are incredibly intricate engines, and if you change one little piece here, it can throw the whole thing out of equilibrium way over there. So you spend half your time with tweezers and a jeweler’s eyepiece, and the other half with safety goggles and a lump hammer. And eventually, usually at three in the morning, the thing just clicks into gear and runs. It’s the most uplifting feeling. I get it about once every three years.

Daniel: Another of my favorite questions: anything interesting change from first draft to final version?

Chris: Yes – almost everything changed. The first draft was rejected by all of my publishers, so I went away and rebuilt it - stronger and taller, as we say in London. I had five separate narrators in the original version and, believe it or not, none of them was Little Bee. She was a character but she didn’t speak. The breakthrough was when I majored on her voice. You can see that I don’t work in isolation: I have two great agents and three great editors to guide my efforts, and to tell me when I’ve got it right and when I’ve got it wrong. The more I listen to them, the more I learn about writing. The fun part, of course, is when they all disagree…

There’s a part two to this interview! It revolves around one of the most interesting aspects of this novel to me, and something I thought would disappear in the modern wired age--the book has different titles in the Eastern and Western hemispheres. So my advice to you, at least for now; don’t go to some UK site and buy The Other Hand, unless you want multiple copies of Cleave’s novel. It’s the same book…or is it? Stay tuned for the answers.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hands of My Father--an Author Inadvertently Teaches me About my Own Father

I'm thinking a bit about Myron Uhlberg's memoir Hands of My Father, newly released from the now-folded-into-Random-division-but-still-exists-as-an-imprint Bantam Books. It's his story of growing up the hearing child of deaf parents.

As Uhlberg, best known for his children's books, says, his parents were "deaf", not "Deaf." The culture was ill-formed and the neighbors treated Mom and Dad as if they were developmentally disabled. Nobody in his dad's family learned to sign.

Still, his dad had a career in the presses of the New York Daily News, not unheard of because the presses were so loud that not having hearing was hardly a disadvantage.

It's a charming book of life in an earlier time of New York. There are some interesting New York touches, though I was a little surprised that his Brooklyn dad went suit shopping at Bloomingdale's and Macy's in New York, but not the closer but equally grand Abraham and Straus of Brooklyn.

If you jump to the A&S site (and you should, just come back), note that the author showed an A&S in Trumbull, Connecticut, that he or she states was originally a Jordan Marsh location. It was likely first a branch of D. M. Read of Bridgeport, which was folded into Jordan's (as the locals used to say). Love it or hate it, I can't help but go off on department store tangents.

What really confused me was that Uhlberg said he passed up going to NYU in the Bronx to attend the brand new Brandeis campus in Massachusetts. NYU in the Bronx? NYU is in Greenwich Village. I've been there a hundred times. Plus my dad went there. I was always a bit surprised that he did, as the family lived off the Bronx's Grand Concourse and it seemed quite out of the way.

Because I'd already been a bit confused about the wandering on-sale date for Hands of My Father, I was ready to write in with a correction. I do that a lot, and every so often I'm actually correct. Really, I fixed a math formula in an upcoming math novel, at least for the second printing.

Before I wrote in, I did some internet research. Oops! NYU actually moved its undergraduate schools to the Bronx in the 1800's and only moved back to Manhattan when a fiscal crisis forced them to sell there land in 1973 and merge with Washington Square College. It's left out of the short version of their official history.

My dad had actually gone to college in the Bronx. It had never made sense that my Bronx-bred dad had travelled halfway across the city for his VA schooling. I called both my sisters. It was news to them, and both were delighted to glean a new tidbit about my late father, who'd never actually described the more-pastoral-than-urban campus.

Now that I've read Hands of My Father, I have two reasons to thank Uhlberg, for telling me about his father's past, and a little about my own too.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Too Many Lincolns

It wasn't too far into the winter 2009 buying season that we realized there were a lot of Lincoln books coming out for the 200th anniversary of his birth. More than that, many of them were high profile, with big expectations.

It becomes harder for a book to break out. The books wind up getting reviewed as together as roundups. William Safire in The New York Times Book Review grouped together six separate Lincoln books. Though it made the cover of the section, the titles didn't get listed, almost nullifying their impact.

The Chicago Tribune went two better; there are fully eight Lincoln books reviewed together in their Saturday book section. And that doesn't mean there are only eight Lincoln books of note in the heap. Our buyer Jason's pick, In Lincoln's Hand: His Original Manuscripts With Commentary by Distinguished Americans, didn't show up on the Tribune list.

It was, however, featured on a nice segment on CBS Sunday Morning.

In the end, there's another problem confronting new Lincoln titles. It's that Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, is currently the de facto book to read about Lincoln, riding the wave of interest after being cited as an vital book to both Obama and McCain in the last election.

Here are our top 10 Lincoln books since January 1st through February 8:
1. Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
2. Manhunt, by James Swanson
5. Chasing Lincoln's Killer, by James Swanson (a kid's version of the popular Manhunt)
6. Abe's Honest Words, by Doreen Rappaport (another book for kids)
7. In Lincoln's Hand, edited by Harold Holzer
8. A. Lincoln, by Ronald C. White
10. Tried by War, by James M. McPherson, released last fall.

McPherson appears with two books on the list, and a strong recommendation for a third, the Ronald White biography. His credentials are built by his mammoth bestseller, Battle Cry of Freedom, which is still a steady seller in many bookshops.

Janet Maslin reviewed 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History, by Charles Bracelen Flood in The New York Times. Perhaps this will help another Lincoln book break out of the pack.

My pick? Andrew Ferguson's Land of Lincoln. Mostly because it was very funny.

Let's see what happens with the Darwin books for his anniversary. There are far fewer titles coming out to mark this occasion.


Just in case you don't regularly read The Inside Flap, here's John Eklund's memories of life at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops.

Our buyer Jason Kennedy collects his thoughts on Dan Simmons' latest novel Drood here. I may not read it, but it is inadvertently responsible for me reading Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White.

The Chicago Tribune raves about Milwaukee's Valerie Laken. She will be talking about and reading from her new novel Dream House at our Downer Avenue shop on February 19th, 7 PM. I am about 100 pages into this novel currently. I was very excited to see quotes from Charles Baxter and Nancy Reisman on the book. Even though we know that these quotes often indicate some sort of professional or personal connection, there is often some stylistic connection between the writers. I hope to talk more about Laken and her novel in an upcoming post.

I'd link you to the review, but it does not appear to be indexed. I'll just quote the first sentence: "The publication of Valerie Laken's thoughtful, tender, first novel is aptly timed, as shock waves from the subprime-mortgage meltdown continue to rattle the economy."

Coming up on March 4, Yiyun Li is appearing at our Shorewood location at 7 PM, to discuss and read from her novel The Vagrants. Here's a link to her extraordinary review in the Chicago Tribune. I bought a copy tonight at our Shorewood shop. Even though I received an advance copy, I will be definitely getting one signed for my sister Claudia who is head of the Chinese language department at Holy Cross.

Here's another great review, this time from The New York Times. This event sounds like a special treat. You could have seen Ha Jin (I mention this as my high-school-now-Facebook friend Nina has mentioned how much she likes this writer) early in his career at our shops; don't look back and regret not having gotten a signed copy of Ms. Li's first novel.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The First of Many Things to Say About Little Bee

A year and a half ago I read an advanced copy of a book for which I had boundless enthusiasm. It sure was an uphill battle getting reads, and in the end, our hardcover sales were disappointing. The book was The White Tiger. It turned out to be a pretty good book after all--it was awarded the Man Booker Prize.

If at first you don't succeed, try again. In fact, I'm trying even harder. In the past I shunned manuscripts. I just didn't think I got the best reading experience I could out of the book. There were several times I read a book very early on, and there were pages missing, or I later learned that entire swaths of plot were changed.

The rules keep changing. With web 2.0 and electronic distribution, independent bookstores need to be further out in front of the pack, chiming in when we think a book is great, and perhaps sometimes even offering criticism. I still believe I enjoy the experience of the finished book or reader's copy more; that's why when I read pages on a book that blow me away, I'm even more impressed.

Last fall I read just such a book that had me gushing. It's called Little Bee, and it's finally published. Simon and Schuster used some of my bookseller feedback when they did a galley mailing to member stores in the American Booksellers Association. At least one bookseller went to the marketing person and accused her of bribing me. She did not. And I stand by my gush.

One of my sales reps took my advice, read it, and was so over-the-top excited by this book, she called me from the road at night and left me a message that I wish I knew how to save. Alas, it's gone forever. Then Jason our buyer (he's following me to Boswell Book Company) read it. Then Lanora, our Mequon manager (the new proprietor of Next Chapter Bookshop). Both loved it.

By the time I got to Winter Institute, that bookseller education conference, the book made the Indie Next top 20 for February, recommended by the esteemed bookseller Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston. The reads had been plentiful, and were about seven to one enthusiastically postive. Still, there were some naysayers--see my post on Cutting for Stone for why that happens. Oh, and if you read that post, you know I'm eating a bit of paper.

I said that Little Bee was the kind of book that could be a Man Booker shortlist, and guess what? It was nominated for the other big British prize, the Costa award, formerly the Whitbread. I have so much to say about this book that I'm saving it for other postings. For goodness sake, I haven't even mentioned what it is about.

The author is coming to our Downer Avenue shop to discuss his novel on Monday, March 2nd, at 7 PM. It's not a large tour, and this is his only stop in this area--no Chicago or Madison. Much like Linda Olsson's tour (hey, she's coming again for her new book, to Mequon on March 27th), this is pretty amazing. And we haven't even sold 2000 books yet.

More posts to come. Meanwhile, read Chris Cleave's blog. And show your support for Schwartz and the future Boswell Book Company by taking a chance on this book. This is what independent booksellers are for, helping you find a book that will rock your world.

Just an aside. Though it's hardly a copy, I think the cover treatment, which by the way I think is beautiful, is referencing What is the What. Hey, if Cleave could pick up just a fraction of Eggers' sales, he'd have quite the hit.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Two Musts for, But Not Just For, Comic Book Fans and More, Plus Maybe Another That's Not for "More"

It's confession time. I was a long-time comic book geek and that geek still lives on somewhere inside me. Almost as I early as I could read, I bounced between Spooky Spooktown and Little Lotta Food Land from the Harvey stable. I particularly identified with Little Dot’s single-minded collection of all things “dot.” It should surprise no one.

Before you disparage my Harvey-philia, you should know that had I not torn my Richie Rich Riche$ et al into shreds, they would have been worth a lot of money. The writer of many of these series, Sid Jacobson, recently adapted the much-lauded 9/11 Report into graphic novel form.

I moved on to Archie Comics (a shout out to Jughead) and then to DC superheroes. My favorites in The Legion of Superheroes were Shrinking Violet and Ultra Boy. Her power was super-tininess, while her skills were not unlike Harriet the Spy. He was intriguing because he could do so much in a super way, yet his inability to do more than one thing at a time made him particularly vulnerable. Yes, focus was his downfall.

I read Superman, but also had a fondness for the adventures of Lois Lane. Who would have believed that when I was pricing my collection, these would wind up being some of my most valuable collectibles? It’s because they seemed to be so uncollectibly uncool at the time.

Every week my father would allot me one comic, and yes, that limit was often breached. I have particularly powerful memories of extra comics being snuck home under my shirt. Nowadays I figure most parents would think, “At least they’re reading something” but back, comics still had the tinge of laziness and corruptibility.

The comics I read, however, all fell under the Comics Code Authority, that judgmental tribunal set up to combat the evil influence of comics. They were safe, and attempted to be morally uplifting, despite my father's concerns. But what's the backstory here?

The history of the rise of comic culture in the 1950’s, and the subsequent McCarthy-esque crackdown is all documented in David Hajdu’s The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America.

I am thrilled to mention that Hajdu will be speaking at the Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue on Tuesday, February 10th, 7 PM, on this very subject. He’s a professor of journalism at Columbia University and has won raves for this book and his two previous titles, Lush Life, and Positively Fourth Street, which cogently mix pop and cultural history into a brew suitable for narrowcast fans (jazz, then Dylan, now comics) or broad-reading history buffs.

And of course, his documentation of this crisis and resulting crackdown could stand in for just about any controversy in the continuing culture wars. Rap music? Video Games? Family Guy? They all push the same buttons. It should be a great talk.

And for a local angle, check out the story behind a historic comic book burning in Waukesha County on page 295.

Gearing up for this event put me in the mood to read a new book that just came out as a paperback original called Captain Freedom: A Superhero's Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves. This was one of the featured titles at the recently-visited Winter Institute, that continuing education class for booksellers that I attended in Salt Lake City. I wouldn’t have normally picked it up, but you know how moods are—it just seemed right at the time.

Captain Freedom has four fantastic powers--flying, super-natural strength, lightning-fast reflexes, and the uncanny ability to predict the weather. He’s murky about his origins, though he knows he was raised on a kibbutz in Montana. He’s dated a super assassin, and has been nominated for the International Justice Pride. The Comics Code Authority brought him to trial at least once.

Let me be blunt. This book is astutely hilarious, a meditation on fame and celebrity as memoir, from the perspective of one of those very guys I idolized as a child. Robillard’s mind is in hyper-drive, stringing together every kind of pop culture reference, topical aside, and linguistic curve ball, all in perfect super-hero vernacular.

The Christopher Moore and Neal Pollack quotes should lure exactly the right reader, and the McSweeney cred doesn’t hurt either. I didn't even know it at the time, but it's the first acquisition for Carl Lennertz, whose superpower must be to acquire mega-fun books that will save the world from dreary reading.

To-do list for comic fans:

1. Hear David Hajdu talk at Downer Avenue Schwartz on Tuesday, Feb. 10th, 7 PM

2. Pick up a copy of the so smart but so silly Captain Freedom. Try reading a bit on page 122, when CF confronts the international pirates who are bootlegging his movie.

3. Oh, one last thing. You also might also want to check out Holy Sh*t: The World's Weirdest Comic Books. It's a collection of the story behind some particularly outrageous conceptions, including strange sex (the book is not graphic, sorry), Christian moral handbooks, Black power Archie-type adventures, and a manual for careers in the personal service industry featuring Popeye. It's full-color representations of all the jackets with accompanying history and critical analysis. Fascinating, and a real deal at $12.95.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Case Study: Cutting For Stone

Surprise. I read a book that I had issues with. Normally it's an obscure title that likely won't see the light of day beyond a write-up in Publishers Weekly, but several times per year, it's a book that goes on to win wide acclaim.

Everybody likes it but me. What do I do?

I sell the heck out of it. My best skill as a bookseller are not my award-winning critical eye. It's keeping a pulse on what lots of readers are liking and matching a reader up with something they love. I think this is a skill that most booksellers learn; when you first get started, it can be quite frustrating that a book you really love (Wrack and Ruin comes to mind) can be very difficult to sell.

As I told people until they were sick of hearing it this fall, you're either a Sarah's Key person or a Fault Lines person, but likely not both. Of course, several folks took that as a dare and insisted on buying the two books together. Most booksellers were no different; they liked one or the other. The good ones learned to sell each of them, matching reader with book.

So here comes Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone. It's a grand novel of the making of a doctor, set in Ethiopia for an exotic twist. The characters are large, the structure as thought out as a breakthrough circuit, the tension of the last hundred pages so thick you'd need a surgical knife to cut through it. The Addis Ababa setting under Emperor Selaisse gives it a bonus historical angle, in much the same way that Junot Diaz explored the Dominican Republic (see earlier posting).

We sell a lot of medical lit in the Atul Gawande vein. Though this is a novel, Verghese's knowledge and style will have fans of the nonfiction genre chomping at the bit. His acclaimed nonfiction works My Own Country and The Tennis Partner cement his writerly and doctorly reputation.

It's a grand and heroic story, and it's got twins. Twins! Sort of conjoined! You should know that I love that. Had I been blogging earlier, I surely would have had at least one conjoined twins posting. Chang and Eng, The Girls, Half Life, the list goes on and on.

It's the #1 Indie Next Pick for February, selected by booksellers in the American Booksellers Association. It's a focus title from Knopf so if it's not a front-page New York Times Book Review, I promised a fellow bookseller I'd eat page 77, or at least a little bit of it. I'm using stats here--eight of the ten best books of the year for 2008 in the New York Times were from the Knopf group.

But for me? I had issues. I admit it, and I don't want grief for it, the way one fellow bookseller chided me when I confided why I didn't like The Year of Magical Thinking. I'll tell you what I like, or I'll tell you what's acclaimed, or I'll tell you what's the best page-turner. I'll even know when someone shouldn't be recommended Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader. My suspicion is, however, that that person isn't likely walk into one of our stores.

What are my contacts with other bookstores for, if not to hear what they think about new books? I've got discerning readers all over the country sharing feedback, and though most of us were crazy for Verghese's novel, I'm not alone. It happens the other way too; if you've run into me, I've likely talked your head off about how amazing Chris Cleave's Little Bee is, but one out of about 10 reads were problematic. That's still a pretty darn good success rate, 90%. If you were a teacher, you'd still give it an "A."

We've got Cutting for Stone in stock, and as a special treat, it's being discounted 30% in our bestsellers case, for a limited time.


The horn that is tooted by oneself department: Here's a piece in about my hopes for the Boswell Book Company. Its a bit goofy, but would you say anything different about me?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mood at Winter Institute is "Fright-cited"

My apologies if you read a lot of book blogs. 500 booksellers just came from the American Booksellers Association "Winter Institute 4" and they've all probably got lots to say in their posts. I spent time with high-profile bloggers and at least one that prefers to be anonymous. Oy, this is like a low-rent Project Rungay piece when the authors get all excited about hanging out with Emmett.

When Avin Domnitz, retiring exec director of ABA and former co-owner of Schwartz, commands every bookseller to have a blog, lots of people listen. Hence, lots of postings on authors met, sessions attended, and two particularly bad breakfasts. The fruit tart on the other hand, despite my random survey that showed it 75% uneaten, was actually quite delicious.

Lanora (Next Chapter Bookshop), Jason (Boswell Book Company) and I (same) were in a somewhat different place from the rest of the gang. New bookstores and booksellers are rarely so high profile. Folks would ask a hundred questions and well, I had a hundred different answers. Sadly, I often had different answers to the same question.

But fright-cited really describes my mood, and in a way, it was the mood of most of the attendees. I heard several comments about how upbeat the show was. My thoughts on that were, "If you were really pessimistic about the future, both short and long term, why would you come to this?" On the hand, these folks are sophisticated enough to be thinking, "What's going to happen to books and the book business in the next few years and how can I continue to be a part of it?"

Two really great sessions really made the show. Booksellers are moving to e-catalogs and John Rubin's Edelweiss program actually makes these e-catalogs more than an attempt to save paper--it has far more functionality than the paper equivalent. For once, publishers (surely not all of them, but enough) are going to have one platform so we can do things like pull multiple catalogs up at a time and sort them by subject. Or we can look back at a set of titles and find out if a title we skipped is actually selling at other stores.

The other teriffic development was news about the ABA e-commerce web site. The new version is programmed in drupal (not drouble, as I originally wrote it), an open source program. That's really great. I don't know why and you don't need to explain it to me. I am, however, desperate for comments and some know-it-all who wishes to expound on drouble is welcome to.

When our site goes live, we'll be able to enter far more gift items, autographed books, and select bargain books that can be purchased on the site. You won't be able to search for them, and maybe we have to make that more clear on our site, but let me tell you, it was hard for us to get everything we wanted loaded by the ABA. They just had too much to do. We'll have too much to do too, but if it's important to us, we just won't do something else. Oops, no bags today--forgot to order them!

The new site is actually much faster than the old one. I had a complaint recently that a customer wanted to link to our site but it was taking five minutes to load each title. Too long! The new one takes less than four and a half minutes. No, that's a joke. One person beta testing the site said it was a thousand times faster. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Catalogs where no man or woman has gone before. Web sites that take less than five minutes to pull up a link. Pretty fright-citing!