Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

Reviews of books you’ve already read

Over the holidays and even a bit after them, I took refuge in books with proven track records. The problem with mostly reading new books is that about half the time, I’m disappointed. And for the sake of my mental health, I needed the tried and true to get to mid-January unscathed. Unsurprisingly, I loved many of the classic books I read! Because the reason they’re classic is that many people have already loved them!

I feel a bit silly writing reviews for them, because they’re none of them very new (well, most of them), and in some cases I am literally a century behind the times. But indulge me. Perhaps you just need one more person to tell you to read one of the titles below. Let me be the catalyst, because these books all deserve as many eyes as possible.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall (Knopf). If you’ve been in my store at any point in the last month, I have probably thrust this book at you with the eerie vigor of a recent convert. That’s because I am one. This book has changed my life. Well, it’s changed my exercise habits. Which is now changing my life. I have gone from really wanting to enjoy running but secretly loathing it to actually lacing up my shoes on purpose and finding an odd zen in my own wheezing.

If you have no interest in running, have no fear, this book is also a fantastic adventure story of the highest caliber. Just don’t be surprised if you start wondering if you, too, could run an ultramarathon. (A thing I have begun to wonder every day.)

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I’m not sure what else remains to be said about a book so beloved that multiple people have told me that they re-read it on an annual basis.  Maybe you, like me, shy away from books with one or more precocious teenage narrators. Try to swallow back your bile for this one. I promise.

As a side note, I read this book on a dark and cold winter night. And, because I was so drawn into the story, I drank an entire bottle of cheap sweet red wine while doing so, much too quickly. I cannot recommend this experience highly enough.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book One: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. When Bookdwarf said that this series might be better than the Harry Potter books, I thought she was crazy. Now I no longer think that she is crazy.

Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale by Herman Melville. People have been trying to get me to read this book for years and I have ignored them every time. I am not interested in whales or how they used to be killed, and every time I opened to a random page to get a feel for the writing, I got an eyeful of Melville pontificating on the nature of whiteness and purity or a whale chase.

If only someone had thought to tell me that it is FUNNY! (And that the pontificating on whiteness is actually genius, and the whale chases are actually enthralling.) I could have loved it years ago! If only I had listened to the people who told me that those random chapters on Melville spouting (ha! oh, c’mon, it’s funny) off about random ideas were, in fact the gems of the book. I hope you are not so stupid as me and have already read this book.

The Curse of the Appropriate Man by Lynn Freed (Harcourt). It breaks my heart that the only reason I picked up this book was because it was a remainder at Idlewild Books. I really should have paid full price for it. This is one of the finest short story collections I have read in maybe ever. I’ve already read it twice. Be aware going into it that it’s set in apartheid-era South Africa and so, is incredibly painful to read in places. The racism of the characters is so thick at times that I was cringing and squinting my eyes at the pages. But find it within yourself to accept the injustices of the time and place in order to read through the book, because at its heart this book gets closer to the dark and stormy and perverted parts of the female soul than most.

Also, I think we can all agree that is one of the top ten book titles of all time.

The Prisoner by Thomas Disch (Penguin). Like most thinking human beings, I love the original Prisoner TV series, even the stupid episodes like “Living in Harmony,” and found AMC’s recent attempts to remake the series tragic. However, after reading Disch’s novelization of the original show, I kind of understand where they were going with the remake. It is still horrible. But I see where they were going.

If only they had just remade Disch’s book exactly! I would have gotten cable so that I could watch it over and over. This is the first book I’ve read by Disch, but I’ll be going back for more. I ignored my family for a large portion of Boxing Day to read this book instead (and I actually like my family). I actually wish I had saved it for the train ride home, because this is the epitome of the perfect novel for traveling.

The Untouchable by John Banville (Vintage). Another writer who doesn’t really need my help, but here I am, giving it anyway. I love a good spy novel, so of course I loved an even better disgraced-spy-unmasked-and-hiding-in-his-house novel. Also, it is British. I find that novels about social disgrace are about ten times better when they are British (hi, Anne Perry and Penny Vincenzi!).

Written Lives by Javier Marias (New Directions Press). It is one thing when a book is laugh-out-loud funny. It is another when a book repeatedly makes you laugh out of SHEER JOY. I read parts of this while traveling and kept wanting to read paragraphs out loud to the other people in my train car (I did not, not that they would have heard me over their insanely loud phone conversations).

This book is, for those who love authors, the reading equivalent of dancing a sloppy tango in someone’s backyard after one too many beers on a cool summer night, the wind in your hair and all the good things about life floating around you. If you are a writer—or, through some fluke of nature, a person obsessed with books who is NOT a writer—you should call out sick, go get this book, and read it right away. Right away, I said!

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (Picador). If Written Lives is a tango, The Rest is Noise is a sandwich on thick pumpernickel. Delicious! But very, very chewy, and almost certainly not something to be finished in one sitting. It might be different if you know anything about classical music and its history. I did not, except that I knew I really liked string quartets and Bach and cellos. So it took me two weeks to read through this, one chapter at a time. More than one chapter and my brain closed up shop for the day.

This is the first book I’ve ever read that I think might have been improved by being digital. As it was, I often stopped to go on Youtube and listen to songs and composers Ross recommends (for some reason I missed the fact that the book has a fantastic website until I got to the end). And then, using the music I liked, over time built a Pandora station with all the stuff I liked. I recommend doing this as well. It’s helping me to remember things about the book that I would probably have forgotten otherwise, and has also made my homelife much nicer-sounding.

So, that is the end of me telling you to read books you’ve probably already read. Hopefully you haven’t already read all of them. (But if you have: call me!) And then tell me what book I should read that I have probably already read.

Review: You Are Not A Gadget

You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier (Knopf, 1/10).

Let’s just get this out of the way: I really like this book. This book changed the way I think about the Internet and intellectual property, and I think could change a lot of minds, but only if a critical mass of people start reading it and talking about it. So this is my Queen’s Gambit. (I apologize in advance for not citing page numbers with quotes, but as I was reading a review copy, I have no idea what the actual page numbers will be.) This review is long, so if you are in a rush and have some faith in my book recommendations, just go out and buy it in January and meet me back here when you’re done.

Okay! There are too many ideas in this book that I underlined and starred and ?ed and yes!ed to count. I’m just going to touch on a few, and especially the ones that made me think of books and publishing.

Probably the most interesting idea in this book, especially for the book world, is how the Internet’s push towards the hive mind (also known as the noosphere, a word so creepy that I almost become a Luddite every time I read it) has already damaged and threatens to essentially destroy art as we now experience it. As Lanier puts it:

“The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush.”

A thing, I’m sure we can all agree, that is not great for writing, which pretty much lives and dies by things like the strength and believability of an author’s individual voice.

A he writes, “Authorship—the very idea from the individual point of view—is not a priority of the new ideology.” Which is pretty well borne out by a quick glance at Wikipedia (an entity to which I am not opposed, by the way). The argument on behalf of the hive mind is that many many people working together will come up with a better answer, and faster, than individuals working alone. Lanier pretty conclusively demonstrates that this is not always the case, even for things to which humanity already knows the answer. And what about novels, of which there is no clear question, let alone a clear answer? Continue reading

Review: When Everything Changed

It’s been a long time since I wrote a book review here, mostly because I’ve moved the bulk of my book commentary to Twitter. But I just finished a book I need more than 140, 280, or even 560 characters to talk about.

Over the last three days I’ve been devouring When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present, by Gail Collins (Little, Brown; just released). And I think it might have changed my life.

Let’s get something clear at the outset: I am, in almost every way, the grateful heir of the hard work of generations of American women who imagined a better life for their daughters and granddaughters. I was raised with flat-footed real-proportioned fake Barbies, and a subscription to New Moon magazine, and a healthy appreciation for women’s history, both in general and in my personal genealogy. In my senior year of college, asked to produce a utopia, dystopia or manifesto for a political science class, I wrote “A Womb of One’s Own: The Muliebrity Manifesto,” complete with grrrl power soundtrack. (Yes, really!)

And so I approached When Everything Changed with excitement, because I have the utmost respect for Gail Collins, but did not expect to be surprised by it. I certainly did not expect it to make me cry.

But I was, and it did.

What Collins has done is taken things that we all know—women used to need their husband’s permission to buy a car, and the Pill was revolutionary, and fifty years ago for a woman to go in front of a judge wearing slacks was completely impermissible, and the story of the Equal Rights Amendment, and so on—and created out of them a narrative above and beyond the typical history-book regurgitation. By weaving the experiences of average women into her chronology of the social and political upheavals, Collins molds the changes of the last five decades into an entirely new creation. God, I found myself thinking over and over, my great-grandmothers and grandmothers really put up with this nonsense? And didn’t snap once? Suddenly, the story of women’s liberation, which had always intellectually resonated with me as a woman, began to feel like a part of me down to my very bones.

I found myself welling up at the oddest places in the book. Sometimes I would be moved by the story of a woman Collins interviewed. When reading the section about Billie Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, I remembered my mom telling me when I was younger about how she had been riveted to the TV set for the match, and how proud she’d been when Billie Jean won. Shuttling between soccer, basketball, and softball practices, I had just thought she was a weirdo. Now I realize an entire generation of women (and men!) had been perched in front of the TV that day as well. When reading about the increase of women attending college and looking at the years in which it became allowed for women to attend various graduate programs, I suddenly realized that there was more behind my Nana and Yia-Yia’s incessant harping about my grades than maternal concern. They were also trying to make sure I could take advantage of the opportunities they’d been denied. Both of them would have made very good lawyers. And each time I felt like I would cry—from sadness, from guilt, from the sheer amount of wasted opportunity on display—underneath it all like a heartbeat I could hear my brain: you are so lucky, you are so lucky, you are so, so, so lucky.

I knew many of these things before I started the book, but Collins has taken them and infused them with a passion and an importance that cannot be ignored. The book is perfectly paced, so it’s easy to get a sense of both the slowness and the speed at which many issues of the last few decades have unfolded. And because her aim is to tell a story, rather than to try to make a larger point, the point makes itself: things aren’t perfect, but my God, how they’ve gotten better.

Collins addresses my generation’s blessed amnesia about the gains of women since the 1960s at the end of the book, and the ways in which it’s both proof that the women’s movement has made true gains, and also problematic for the concerns of women that are still unaddressed. It’s my hope that this book can be a partial corrective for that. It can act as a reminder for women my age of what, if not for the tireless and in many cases unrewarded work of thousands of American women before us, could have been.

For me, it certainly has. Reading the book has put my life and its possibilities into sharp relief. I have woken up the last two mornings feeling luckier than I ever have, determined to do something good with my life simply because I can. I hope to feel that way tomorrow morning and again the day after that—and if the feeling ever fades, I will return to this incredible volume to be re-inspired.

My favorite cookbook in the world

If you’ve ever visited me in a bookstore in person and asked for a cookbook recommendation, I undoubtedly started with How To Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman. This is because it is the best cookbook I know of. However, often when I recommend it, people have looked at me like I am crazy. Not the Joy of Cooking? Better Homes and Gardens? Rachael Ray?

No, friends, no. Let me tell you a little story about last night that will help illustrate why I am so devoted to The Bittman (as I refer to it in my head).

By the time I got home from work last night, it was 10pm and I was starving. I had a whole pantry of nothing in particular and a refrigerator of wilted leeks and condiments. I saw a bag of whole-wheat pasta snuggled in the back corner of the pantry, so pasta it was. But it was going to be boring old nothing on it at all pasta. Blegh. Wait, I thought. I bet THE BITTMAN can save my meal! And o boy did it ever.

I flipped in the index (the completeness of which is one of my favorite things about the book) to pasta, then went the to appropriate page. Right there, a basic little recipe for oil and garlic sauce. Alright! This meal was not going to totally suck.

But wait! There were, as there are with almost every recipe in the book, several suggested variations on the recipe. Including one that called for toasted breadcrumbs. Which were also lurking in my pantry. And when I moved them, I found a small jar of tomato paste. So I toasted the breadcrumbs in garlic-y oil, added the tomato paste, and then added a cup or so of pasta water to thin the sauce out (a trick I learned from earlier treks through THE BITTMAN). Tossed it with the pasta, spiral pasta, which held the tomato-breadcrumb sauce beautifully, added salt and pepper, and holy shit, I had the best pasta dish I’ve made in months!

That is the beauty of The Bittman, for me. It has never let me down. It has endless variations that keep my meals from being boring. Whenever I panic and think, ack, how long SHOULD I boil these eggs/steam this broccoli/let this dough rise, The Bittman is there with its lovely index and personable and clear writing to keep me calm. I don’t worry when I see strange vegetables at the farmers’ market. I buy them with confidence, because The Bittman is waiting at home to give me five ways to prepare them.  You will feel like the MacGyver of cooking with this book.

In fact, it’s the only cookbook that I give a pass for not having any pictures (aside from some very helpful drawings for various skills like coring a cabbage, another thing I learned from The Bittman). Normally I like my cookbooks full of food porn. My other favorites—Nigella for baking, Ina for entertaining—oblige with glossy arty photos that make me drool, but that is not what The Bittman is for. It is a cooking tool, as indispensible to my kitchen as a paring knife and saucepan.

So when you’re looking for the right gift for graduation, housewarming, or for “hey dude maybe YOU could try cooking every once in awhile around here,” get The Bittman. If you’re a vegetarian, there is also How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, which is basically just as awesome. Get both, they look really nice together on the shelf and both have the satisfying heft of true wisdom.

As a bonus, below please find the recipe for my dinner last night, which I am naming Bookseller & Bittman Pasta to honor both my inspiration and the fact that it is pretty cheap to make.

You will need:

a bag of whole-wheat pasta (I used Trader Joe’s whole-wheat spiral pasta, forget what the Italian name for it is)

garlic, 2-3 cloves (I used this awesome thing I found the other day which is basically little ice cubes of crushed garlic, I think the brand name was Doret)

one little can tomato paste

1/2-1 cup breadcrumbs (I had some that came with herbs included, I highly recommend these. If not, you’ll probably want to add some Italian herbs into the recipe)

good olive oil

salt and pepper

Instructions:

1. Start the water boiling. Add a lot of salt (I love salt, but even if you don’t, The Bittman instructs that a good amount of salt is crucial to the best pasta).

2. This whole step, keep the burner on medium heat. Get out a decent-sized saucepan and put in a few glugs of olive oil. (The Bittman recipe calls for 1/3 cup, but I hate measuring olive oil, it’s always such a mess.) Add garlic, let it do its thing for awhile, then add the bread crumbs, 1/2 cup or so. Then you’ll probably need to add more olive oil so they’re soaked through. Move the bread crumbs around enough to keep them from burning, but not so much that they don’t crisp up, for 3 minutes or so, until they start to smell really good. Add most of the can of tomato paste (you can probably add the whole can, I just didn’t). Mix it up until you have this kind of bread crumb tomato mush. Turn off the burner.

3. At this point your pasta water should be boiling. Add pasta. Go find your book and read for a little bit.

4. Five minutes later, look up in shock. Holy shit! The pasta! Fish a piece out, it should be done. (The Bittman has very wise words about how to tell when pasta is done that you should check out.)

5. Before you drain the pasta, dip a measuring cup in and take out a little over a cup of the pasta water (I used a 2-cup Pyrex measure, which was perfect for this). Put that water in with the bread crumbs and tomato, stir to make a thick sauce. Add more water if you want. Take out another cup or so of water. Drain the pasta.

6. Put the pasta back in the pot, pour the tomato sauce over top. You will probably need to pour in a bit more water so that it all comes together well. I added more breadcrumbs at this point, I don’t remember why. Salt and pepper to taste. The pepper isn’t so important, but the right amount of salt makes this perfect. I did not have cheese in the house (I know, very surprising!) but if I had, I bet some sort of Parmaesan with a nice bite would have set this off really well.

7. Enjoy! This made about four big bowls. Just as good as leftovers (eating it right now) as it was last night. Incredibly satisfying.

Get back to where you once belonged

A small conversation on Twitter sparked this question: what books are now out of print that you would sell the hell out of if they were still in print?

I’ll start with three of mine.  They’re all kids’ books, I’m guessing in part because I’m too young to have loved grown-up books that are now OP, and in part because it’s the books I grew up with that really imprinted themselves on me and follow me around all day.

1. The A. I. Gang trilogy by Bruce Coville (originally published by Minstrel Books, part of S&S).  Fantastic work of sci-fi for older middle grade that I was completely obsessed with.  I have no idea why this isn’t available anymore, especially because I thought it was a given that Coville rocks, but I’m really glad I still have my copies.  Great characters, includes fantastic female characters and characters of color without being tokenist, hilarious, and so, so smart. This is a series that made me seriously think about nuclear war and the stupidity of Mutually Assured Destruction when I was all of, like, 10. Still re-read them everytime I move and have to re-pack them.  This series has perhaps the highest badge of honor I can give it: as a kid, I regularly pretended I was one of the characters and/or had extensive daydreams in which I re-wrote myself into the story.  I can say that about maybe two other books (The Dark is Rising series and The Egypt Game).  I really wish it was still around, I think it would delight fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society and E. L. Konigsberg but would also be great for reluctant readers, male or female.

2. Nobodies and Somebodies by Doris Orgel (originally published by Viking). This book was YA before YA was cool and before I was old enough to know what YA was.  Actually, I guess nowadays it would be high MG as well.  No matter, it is still great.  Story of a girl who moves to a new area and new school and gets caught up in the craziness of the cool and the uncool, but that looks at several points of view rather than walking the well-trod “man, those popular girls sure are bitchy” route. Would love to be able to sell this book again.  One character lies about having swum with dolphins to be cool, and the popular girls paint their nails in a really weird way that’s actually impossible, and there’s lots of kicking heels against the heater to protest popular girls even though it disrupts the class pet. This should be re-released as a TPO as MG so I can sell it to tweens who want a more sophisticated read.

3. Ash by Lisa Rowe Fraustino (originally published by Orchard Books). Another book that would still be in print if it had been published after the onset of YA madness. A very real look at what life is like when your sibling is mentally ill and your family is just a normal family.  I love this book so much, I can’t count how many times I’ve re-read it.  (Full disclosure, I think my mom and she were once in the same writer’s group, but as it happened so long ago that I can’t remember for sure, I doubt it’s influencing my mentioning it here.)  In voice, it’s an early King Dork, but telling a totally different story.  You know what, I’m going to type out the prologue so you can hear the voice, see if you get drawn into it the way I get every time I read it:

“The Last Will and Testament of Wesley Willian Libby, age 15 (cause you never know when a truck’s gonna hit you)

“Being of sound mind and body, not counting pigeon toes and baby flab, I hereby declare this my 1st and last will and testament so far.

“To my beloved month Bonnie Lynn Tibbetts Libby I leave my Bible. But 1st my best friend Merle R. Daigle’s gotta go through and erase some stuff. Merle, you know what I’m talking about.

“To my beloved father Stefan Edward Libby, known to the rest of creation as Steve, I leave the violin you never wanted to buy me. Sell it and buy the CB you was always after us to pitch in and get you for Christmas. And if you dig deep in my closet you’re gonna find an old G.I. Joe wearing them army medals of yours you LOST a few years ago. Don’t get all mad that I didn’t confess this when I was alive.  You woulda killed me.

“To my once-in-a-great-while beloved sister Deena T. Libby, OFFICIALLY known on her birth certificate as Dayna Theresa, which I personally think is a better name, I don’t leave nothing.

“No, just kidding Deena–you get the dust balls under my bed and the snotty handkerchief in my pants pocket when I die.”

“No, no, DEENA, just kidding! You can have my breadbox. Guess I should cross that out and write “CD-radio,” but Mama told me it was a breadbox under the Christmas tree and now that’s what it is. Also, my entire CD collection, except for the Roy Boys Grammy Ethyl give me for my birthdays, and Grammy had better take them back cause Deena would overreact if she had to share her room with Acuff, Rogers, Orbison & Clark.

“To the aforementioned best friend Merle R. Daigle, who’d get embarrassed if I called him beloved so I won’t, I leave my entire comic book collection except for the 1961 Green Honet and the ’62 Wonder Woman and the ’65 Superman cause them’s worth money and Mama & Daddy can sell them to pay for my funeral. Better clean out my college account at the Fleet Bank of Maine and use that for the funeral too. Only about $142.67 in there, so don’t get no expensive casket. Cremate me. But that don’t mean to keep my ashes around the house in no sicko urn. Bury them out back next to Togo, or put them in the cemetery with Grampy Libby. Even better, use them to fertilize Millard Worcester’s blueberry field, which’s got sentimental value to me but I can’t say why cause it’s Merle’s secret too.

“Merle also gets the personal effects in my locker if I die during the school year, but DON’T let NOBODY else in the locker, Merle, or I’ll haunt you, I swear.

“To the Calvary Bible Church I leave all my clothes to put in a gar(b)age sale or to give to the homeless cause Mama wouldn’t have the heart to do it herself. Except my Knights of Sisyphus T-shirt—that goes back to Ash. The church can also have my baseball equipment, Scrabble, books and junk so the kids will finally have something to do when the parents are fellowshipping at covered dish suppers.

“To my beloved brother Ashton Allen Libby I leave a composition book with some stuff written in it ONLY for him. Merle, you gotta get it for Ash out of the Shibboleth, and nobody else nag Merle to find out what the Shibboleth is cause that’s just between him & me. Now Merle, don’t get all mad, but the book’s in a secret compartment that YOU don’t know about. Take a hammer and pull up that floorboard with the big knothole, the one you always call Mrs. Fish-Lips’ belly button. Then paw around in there till you find the book, but don’t you dare read it or I’ll haunt you WITH CHAINS, I swear. If it ain’t there, that means I changed my mind and already give Ash the composition book.

“If there’s anything I left out then it ain’t important and Deena can have it.

“Just kidding! I didn’t leave nothing out.”

So, there’s my tribute to some books I wish were still around so I could sell them all over the place. What about you? What books do you try to recommend or sell but they’re out of print? Include the publisher name if you have it, maybe one of these days someone will stumble across this post and try to bring the book back.

What do comic book stores and book stores have in common?

Wow, I have put a multi-paragraph book review together for once! It’s for Tilting at Windmills, vol. 2, by Brian Hibbs (IDW, $19.99).  Brian Hibbs is the owner of Comix Experience, in San Francisco.

I bought this at brand-new Brooklyn comic book store Bergen Street Comics, which I highly recommend to any and all NYC comics-lovers.  The store is beautifully laid-out and so, so organized, which I prize very highly in any bookshop but especially comic shops.  NYC people, think Rocketship-level of blissful organization and shelving.  And they’re also on Twitter as @BergenStComics, and here’s the great review on the Greenlight Bookstore Blog that put them on my radar.

The book, I would recommend as well, but as I was told when I bought it, it is HEAVILY about Direct Market comics-selling and very little else.  You would have to be, like me, a huge nerd about retail AND comics in order to love this book despite it being just about the nuts-and-bolts of comic retail.

But I am, so I loved it.  Hibbs’ style is perfect for what he’s writing about—for those familiar with bookseller blogs, this book (which is primarily made up of columns that have run on Newsrama over the last several years) is very similar to Kash’s Book Corner in tone and content.  Both focus on a lot of specifics of their job, and neither are afraid to point out the emperor has no clothes, and it’s clear in each that this comes from a place of great love for their profession and for what they sell.

And in fact, there’s more in common in Direct Market comics retail and independent bookstore retail than I had thought.  Most Direct Market stores fit the profile of being local and indie, and it seems we can all agree that Diamond has…well…issues, sometimes.  I also found a lot to identify with in Hibbs’ excellent descriptions of the buying game, especially as comics stores have it a lot rougher than us, because they are usually ordering non-returnable.  Of course, bookstores try to minimize returns, because freight ain’t getting any cheaper, but it did help me to appreciate what we have.  On the other hand, as trade book publishers start to get more serious about giving a seriously better discount to accounts that order non-returnable (and by serious I mean more than a 3 or 4 point bump, if any publishers are listening), it’s good to get a look at how that might change our buying patterns.

One of the more interesting things Hibbs has been doing for the last five years is comparing how comics/GNs sell in bookstores (using BookScan numbers) to how they sell in the Direct Market (using Diamond’s numbers). Interestingly, this appears to have initially been a response to a fear on the part of Direct Market retailers that comics publishers were putting too much faith in the salvation of the general bookstore market for their medium.  I must admit I’d never considered bookstores a threat to comic stores.  I’ve been working in bookstores for years, and despite the fact that I have gotten a discount at those stores, I’ve usually bought my comics full-price at comic stores.  Mostly because they had a better selection, and because I could depend on the people behind the counter for great recommendations. If anything, I’ve come to see bookstores selling comics/GNs as good for comic stores, because at a certain level of interest, I’m going to send people to a comic store.  We’ve got five shelves at my store for GNs and it breaks my heart what we can’t carry, but really, comics are a medium, not a genre.  So it just makes sense that they have their own stores owned by people who seriously know what they’re talking about.

At BEA last year the phrase on everyone’s (and I do mean, to the point of nausea, EVERYONE) lips was, “graphic novels are a gateway drug!” As in, for kids, to keep them interested in books in general.  The same might be said of general-interest bookstores.  In that sense, one could see bookstores as the sleazy people who hang around playgrounds to get kids started, and comic stores as the actual drug dealer’s house.  In the nicest possible sense, of course.  (Now you perhaps see what “graphic novels are a gateway drug!” drives me so crazy.  The metaphor goes right off the rails without too much push.)

Anyway, I found myself getting a bit defensive at the BookScan numbers and Hibbs’ conclusions.  Hibbs freely admits that the BookScan numbers blow, which is good, but does not always take that into account when comparing Direct Market figures to bookstore figures.  At least the way I see it, as I would interpret his findings a bit differently.  But that makes sense.  I’m bringing bias to the table when I look at them and so is he, and we both know it.  And overall, the message is the same, and shouldn’t surprise anyone: comics and graphic novels work better at comic stores.  Indie booksellers in particular shouldn’t be shocked by this—we already know that specialists and people who love reading what they stock are best at their jobs.  That is, after all, the main argument we are currently making to justify our existence.

Two things that really surprised me: Hibbs only just got a POS system in 2007!  I quite literally CANNOT imagine running a store without a POS and was, frankly, assuming throughout the book that he had one until he said he was just getting one.  Especially with what seems to me like a buying process that is at least twice as complicated as ours!  The other is that, until recently when Hibbs and a few other lead comic store owners started one, comic stores did not have a trade organization.  This was obvious to me early on—when he would talk about a general grievance that many fellow store owners shared, I kept thinking to myself, why don’t they get their version of the ABA to work on that?  Answer: they didn’t have one.  Again, much admiration, and MUCH realization of how luckily we are to have the ABA.

So, now that they have one, though (ComicsPRO), I started thinking by the end of the book that it and the ABA should work together, or have some sort of informal link.  Perhaps this already exists, or has been tried before, but if not, it seems like we have enough in common that something good could come of it.  It seems like they derive the same sheer joy we do from meeting with likeminded retailers and hearing new perspectives, and I think it could be fun.  At the least, I think comics retailers would be a great addition to IndieBound in a more formal way.  Also, moving from a suburban to an urban store recently, I’ve become very conscious that the various differences between bookstores have as much to do with location (urban, suburban, rural) as with size, which is how it seems we’re more commonly divided right now (small, medium, large).  I wonder if there are certain topics with which I’d have more in common with an urban comic store of our current size than a rural general bookstore of our current size.

I can’t just generally recommend this book because I recognize that most people do not dig detailed discussion of buying.  Especially if you are not into comics, and therefore the content he’s talking about will make no sense to you.  If you don’t have a passing familiarity with concepts like Marvel’s Civil War, or DC’s 52, then the experience might be sort of like watching a Harry Potter movie when you haven’t read the books—you’ll get something out of it, but if you don’t know the backstory, there will be places you’ll be pretty confused (or bored). But to people with weird and oddly specific interests like me, and I suspect there are a few of you reading this, I can’t recommend this highly enough.  It’s good to see what other people are up to, especially when they are this interesting, funny, and good at making complex situations easy to understand.

(And of course, if you are reading this in NYC, I recommend you go get it at Bergen Street Comics.  It might even still be on the front counter!)

Worth buying in hardcover

I haven’t written book reviews on here in quite awhile, and I realized that yesterday after I finished The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway.  It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and that’s saying something, because I’ve been on a streak of great books lately.

Despite myself I’ve read almost nothing but new or new-ish releases lately.  I blame Twitter—everyone gets going on about a book and I just want to read it right away!  Not an awful thing, though, because right now over half of the books I’m reading are good enough to recommend to other people.  (This is way above average for my reading experience, because normally I’m just guessing with stuff I get from the stack of ARCs.)  On the other hand, I do apologize that most of these are only available in hardcover or not out yet.  Even though, as I note in the title, I consider them all worth a hardcover purchase.

These aren’t really reviews—as I’ve noted before, I am a bookseller by profession, not a book reviewer.  As you’ll see, there is a reason for that.  Let’s start with the book that inspired all this.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (Knopf, already out).
I am still in that weird place with this book.  You know, the place where it’s all really fresh and you can’t talk about it coherently.  But I will say this—this book came with nothing but the highest praise from a number of booksellers I really respect, and they were 100% right.  It was hard for me to crack into because I’ve never experienced a voice like it before, and it took me awhile to settle into it, but it was definitely worth the effort.  This book is so good that on Saturday, when I had to put it down to get ready for work, I got MAD.  I was seriously angry that I had to put it down!

I was just trying to write any sort of summing-up of the book and I just can’t.  It’s still too close.  I’ll just say that I recommend it as highly as everybody else did.

As a side note, this is the sort of book it is still possible to sell in hardcover without begging.  This is because it is COOL.  Take a look at the cover image.  The cover and spine, wherever it is pink, it is FUZZY.  It is just too cool.  This is the sort of thing that I find is currently necessary to push a customer over the edge into dropping $30+ on a HC, especially for a name they don’t know.  I can sing all the hosannas I want, but the fuzzy cover really can tip the scales.

(As a further side note, this is why I am so bummed FSG is not re-printing 2666 in the cool 3-books-in-a-box edition.  People loved that.  A woman actually pouted at me on Saturday when I told her it wasn’t available anymore.  I don’t blame her, as I think I pouted myself when I first heard the news. ETA: THIS IS NOT TRUE! This morning I found out they DID decide to re-print, and this afternoon I rec’d 3 copies into our stock.  So ignore this!)

The City & The City by China Mieville (Del Ray, May).
Though I have heard people praise his writing many times, this is actually the first Mieville book I’ve picked up.  No idea why it grabbed my attention, but I’m glad it did.  I loved it so much that I added all his backlist to a recent order and will catch myself up.  Fantastic book.  Just the right amount of fantasy, in the sense that it can absolutely be cross-sold to people who don’t like it.  The concept—two cities literally on top of one another, two populaces that have spent their entire lives pretending not to see one another, and wondering who keeps it all rigid—is a beautiful and beautifully-executed one.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster, already out).

What can I say about this book that this fantastic video does not?

Not much, except that it really does live up to the hype.  I follow a number of slightly-finicky people on Twitter who all seem to agree.

The Manual of Detection by Jebidiah Berry (Penguin Press, already out).
Another Twitter recommend, though the final push came from a customer recommending it to me.  (When the internet world and the real world tell me the same thing, I try to pay attention.)  This is a beyond-solid detective book with a great paranormal twist that only has a few flaws, all of which I chalk up to it being a debut and didn’t make me like the book any less.  Also a great cover.  I think this is a great book for summer—it starts light and gets darker, and I think I would have enjoyed trickling into the dark bits of the book while sitting in broad July sunlight.

For a creep-yourself-out trifecta, add

The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell (Algonquin, and, I know I’m late to the party on this one, but it really is great, and think of it this way, it’s the one book in this post in PB soon!) and

Darling Jim by Christian Moerk (Henry Holt, April), a book that is still giving me chills to think about.  This book is the literary fiction equivalent of a good true crime book, except you don’t have to feel guilty about reading it after you’re done.

Shimmer by Eric Barnes (Unbridled, June).
Another fantastic book for summer.  Luckily, I already tried to write a blurb for it for Eric’s website, so will just c-and-p that here: A lot of books are labeled “literary thrillers.” Most of the time that’s a lie.  It’s not when applied to Shimmer.  The book moves at a breathtaking pace, but I was purposely slowing my reading to enjoy both the writing and the structure of the book.  It’s a rare writer who can make you like the man at the root of Ponzi scheme that is technological, financial, and poised to ruin the lives of everybody he knows, but Barnes definitely pulls it off.  Shimmer is beautiful in the way that a collapsing building is; more beautiful, because throughout it you can cling to the hope that the building will somehow put itself back together.  A great book across the board that I would sell to almost anybody.
Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled, June).

Ha! ANOTHER book I have already written something about!  Unfortunately for you, it was a very rambling email after I had just finished it.  And before I post the email, I can’t tell you how excited I am that WORD will be hosting Emily’s launch party.

“Maybe not the sort of thing I would have picked up on my own, but I’m glad you told me to read the first four chapters.  That was enough to get me hooked.  Actually, the first chapter was–in particular, “tracking a rare butterfly-like quotation as it fluttered through thickets of dense tropical paragraphs” (3).

What a strangely beautiful book.  I don’t envy whoever has to write the jacket copy for it, as I can’t even sum it up in my head.  But here are the things I was struck by: I found the scenes with young Lilia and her father moving (first time I’ve ever empathized with a man abducting his daughter, somehow even before I knew why it was justified), I found Eli’s love for Lilia beautiful, and just many little descriptive sentences that were lovely but did not feel the need to call attention to themselves.  It was almost like watching a ballet, a destructive ballet.  The piece of the letter he wrote to Zed, on page 240, brought me to tears.

And there were a few little things that endeared the book to me as well–I am a secret language nerd, so Eli’s thesis was interesting, and also as a person who avoided a lifetime of academia on purpose, I really identified with his frustrations with people just TALKING about things and deconstructing things and so on, and never really doing anything.  And yet, his discomfort with the woman he loves doing things, because it means he gets hurt.  I still haven’t talked about how much I love Graydon!  Even though I also didn’t really like him at all.  What a fascinating, maddening character.”

The Believers by Zoe Heller (Harper, already out).
Very very very funny.  I love books in which I hate almost all the characters.  Heller’s depiction of the rich snotty liberal is spot-on and worth the price of admission.  I was especially drawn to Rosa, because I am always interested in maybe converting to Judaism (although not Orthodox, as she is), and I found the scenes in which she alternately loves and loathes the strictness of such a faith to be some of the most compelling.  The ideas about belief and its types go far deeper than I expected.  I think this would make a good book club book for book clubs that don’t like super serious stuff but also want something with a little meat to it.

Laura Rider’s Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton (Grand Central, April).

Three reasons I loved this book:

1.    This passage:
“She liked to tell her friends, and on occasion her radio audience, how frightened Frank became if there wasn’t printed matter near his person.  Their car had once broken down, and for some unexplained—perhaps paranormal—reason, they’d had no reading material for the two hours they’d had to wait for rescue.  Frank had almost gone mad.  There had not even been the Saab manual.  He sweated and he paced, reciting all the soliloquies that were his set pieces, roving through Othello, Lear, Merchant, Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Hamlet, and a few sonnets as well” (37).

2.    A character who shares my name!  This is perhaps not the most shocking thing, as my first name is fairly common and my last name even more so.  But it has never happened to me before, and certainly never as a minor character who talks about gardens on NPR.

3.    It is awesome and bizarre and hilarious.  This is the sort of book that I fear won’t get great critical attention because it was written by a woman, hinges on ideas about relationships, and because the protagonist is writing a romance novel.  But it should.  This book is just FUN and a perfect read.

Trouble by Kate Christensen.
One of the cool things about Greenpoint is that we are home to several great authors, and one of them is Kate Christensen, who I loved long before I moved here.  Her latest is not much like The Epicure’s Lament or PEN/Faulkner Award-winning The Great Man—as someone put it to me, “it’s commercial, but I don’t mean that as an insult.” And indeed that is the case.  This is probably an easier sell than her earlier books, and I think that’s fantastic, because I’d love for her to reach a larger audience.  This is a great place to start if you haven’t read anything of hers before.  Her ability to tell a gripping story is very well-displayed in this tale of two friends who run away to Mexico to escape the messes their lives have become.

Also, the sex scenes are fantastic.  If kids were still naïve enough to pass around books with the sex scene pages dog-eared, this book would definitely deserve that treatment.  Fantastic enough to get their own paragraph.

Can’t wait to throw a party for this one, either (in June, Brooklynites).  Am still trying to find a way to responsibly incorporate tequila—hey, it’s very important to the book, okay?  At the least, sangria.

Did you get all the way to the end? Wow, I’m impressed, as I barely did. Here is your prize: what have you read lately worth recommending?

Another reason to love Joe Hill

I thought I only loved the guy for his fantastic fiction, including what may be one of the creepiest ideas I’ve ever read in a book.  The crazy scribbled-out eyes on dead people in HEART-SHAPED BOX still haunt me.  *shiver*

But now I also love him for declaring March “Love-Your-Small-Bookstore Month.”  He says, go pick up a mass market paperback—I say, pick up HEART-SHAPED BOX, if you haven’t already.  It’s in mass market paperback and totally worth it, even if you think you don’t like horror (I thought I didn’t, and this book just knocked that perception away completely).

Thanks, Joe!

Tween books HELP

I was just looking through my blog stats and I realized that there are three searches that lead to my blog almost everyday:

1. bookavore.  Shocking, que no?

2. book tattoos (or some variation thereof). Also not shocking.

3. tween books OR books for tweens OR is [TITLE] good for tweens OR please god help me I don’t know what book to buy for my 12 year old daughter OR something like that.

People, searches are turning up at my doorstep everyday looking for a good list of books for tweens and I am failing them, dismally.  

So, help me out here.  Leave in comments the best/your favorite books for tweens, and if so, why and which tweens.  For the purposes of this list, tween means 10-13, and any books with “mature content” are excluded because so many parents of tweens are looking for books without it.  If you’re so inclined, please offer a link (remembering, of course, to link indie).

Go!

Of blogs and blogrolls

There’s a whole lot of fantastic floating around the book blogs lately.  Let’s start with a guest post by Patrick of Vroman’s at Booksellers Blog.  As I have been saying in person quite a lot, Patrick and Vroman’s are, I think, the best example in indie bookselling of how to best use the internet to promote your store.  I don’t know if I will ever get to Pasadena, but I feel like I just KNOW what Vroman’s is like from their web presence (primarily the blog and Twitter, for me).  Even if you’re already clued into the fun and importance of blogging, I highly recommend reading this post.  And ladies (and gay men), even if you don’t give a honk about blogging, I recommend clicking through to look at the picture of Patrick, who is a very nice-looking man.  And then maybe read the post too.

Booksellers will also be interested in the latest post on Kash’s Book Corner.  We are all good at being cranky about the hoards of self-published authors out there (I’ve been tweaking an essay about self-publishing that I may, one day, develop the cojones to post)–this post is an important reminder that there are great writers out there who self-publish because they run headlong into the corporate structures of publishing.  And booksellers, you know you can sympathize with running headlong into the corporate structures of publishing.

Finally, I’ve been slowly but surely revamping my blogroll.  Fellow bookavore are book people, honorary bookavores are not book people.  Well, they might like books, but that’s not the gist of their blog.  Mandatory warning that most if not all of those links are absolutely NSFW, especially if you work at the RNC.