Shelf Awareness for Friday, January 20, 2017


Viking: The Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose

Wednesday Books: I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin

Bloomsbury: BookExpo Titles

Little, Brown and Company: The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson

Time Inc. Books: BookExpo Events

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: New York City

Mulholland Books: Yesterday by Felicia Yap

Quotation of the Day

PEN America: Trump's NEH/NEA Plan 'Casts a Sinister Cloud'

"The Trump administration's plans, reported in The Hill this morning, to abolish wholesale the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts are an outrageous abdication of the U.S. government's proud history of support for groundbreaking research and creative endeavors that have served as engines of innovation and bolstered America's stature as a haven for free thinkers and a global leader in humanity's shared quest for knowledge.... 

"The announcement that this is even under consideration casts a sinister cloud over our vibrant national culture, stoking fears that the Trump Administration aims to usher in a new Dark Ages in America. U.S. leadership and innovation in arts, culture, and the humanities are wellsprings of American greatness and the envy of the world. This proposal sends shivers down the spine of all Americans who value research, scholarship, and creativity and who recognize the mortal blow that eliminating these vital agencies would strike at the heart of treasured sectors of our society. Even apart from the essential resources at stake, the signal sent by this gesture is a slap in the face to artists, writers, researchers, and scholars who are learning that the Administration seems to consider their work worthless."

--Suzanne Nossel, PEN America's executive director, in an official statement released yesterday

G.P. Putnam's Sons: A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light by Eleanor Brown


News

NPD Buys U.S. Nielsen Book Services, Including BookScan

The NPD Group, the international market research company, has bought Nielsen's U.S. marketing information and research services for the book industry. Those Nielsen services include BookScan, which measures 85% of print book sales at retail in the U.S., as well as PubNet, PubEasy and PubTrack products. In the next few months, they are becoming part of NPD Book, a new division, whose president will be Jonathan Stolper, senior v-p, global managing director of Nielsen Book. Nielsen will provide operations support for NPD BookScan and related U.S. services during the transition period. NPD has also offered all U.S. commercial Nielsen Book employees the opportunity to join NPD Book.

Nielsen will continue to own and operate Nielsen Book outside the U.S., both in current and future markets. Nielsen Book includes Nielsen BookScan, Nielsen BookData, Nielsen Books & Consumers, Nielsen BookNet, Nielsen PubEasy, Nielsen PubTrack Digital and the U.K. ISBN Registration Agency.

NPD president and CEO Karyn Schoenbart said, "Industry expertise is a hallmark of NPD, and we are excited to add services for the book industry. Like many of our industries, publishing is experiencing rapid and dramatic change. By combining data and industry expertise, we will be able to give the industry a winning advantage in understanding and anticipating trends."


Running Press Book Publishers: Life Is Like a Musical: How to Live, Love, and Lead Like a Star by Tim Federle

 


Neighborhood Reads Bookstore to Open in Washington, Mo.

Neighborhood Reads bookstore will open this summer in Washington, Mo., "and local readers may not be surprised by who is behind the project," the Missourian reported. Dawn Kitchell, educational services director for the newspaper, "has made her life's mission to promote reading. She has been working with newspapers and schools for 30 years." In addition, she has promoted books through the Missourian's Book Buzz youth literacy project, which she co-created in 2003.

Kitchell said she has always felt there was a missed opportunity in the community for a bookstore, and began researching small indies about a year ago, finding encouragement at every turn. "In any other community, I might not be as optimistic--it will take a lot to get a bookstore off the ground--but my work with families and educators convinced me our community needs a bookstore," she said. "I wanted a name that shared our mission--the goal, as always, is to keep reading a community priority."

Kitchell and her husband, Eric, have purchased a historic house at 401 Lafayette St. and are planning "some renovations on the 118-year-old structure, including adding on about 300 square feet for a meeting space," the Missourian wrote.

She plans to continue her work with the newspaper: "We recommend a lot of great books in the Missourian. Now, we'll be able to offer readers a place, in addition to the local libraries, to seek out those titles and others like them. It takes a bookstore to attract authors on book tours--now we'll have that."

Kitchell also noted: "We have a group of volunteers helping guide us in getting the doors open. And we're already interacting with the community on our website, neighborhoodreads.com, and through Facebook and Instagram. We're trying to build excitement and learn from readers what they hope this bookstore will be."


Spiderline: The Substitute by Nicole Lundrigan


Ben Sevier New Publisher of Grand Central Publishing

Ben Sevier

Effective February 27, Ben Sevier is joining Hachette Book Group as senior v-p and publisher of Grand Central Publishing and will join HBG's executive management board.

Sevier has 17 years of publishing experience and most recently was v-p and publisher of Dutton, where he worked for 10 years. Earlier, Sevier held editorial positions at Simon & Schuster, St. Martin's Press and HarperCollins Children's Books.

"I have admired Ben Sevier's work for many years," HBG CEO Michael Pietsch said. "He is a superb publisher of commercial fiction and nonfiction both, and combines acquisitions acumen with strong marketing, team-building, financial, and leadership skills. I know he will work excitingly with Grand Central Publishing's excellent staff and with HBG's superb sales team. I'm excited to welcome Ben to HBG's executive management board and to the writers and literary agents GCP works with. I'm confident that they will value the energy, quality of thought, and close partnership that Ben is renowned for."

Sevier commented: "Grand Central is doing some of the most dynamic and effective publishing in the business, and taking the helm there is a rare opportunity to lead an already superb publishing program to greater heights. I'm thrilled to join GCP's extraordinary and talented editorial and publishing teams. And I'm especially excited to begin working with GCP's spectacular writers, many of whom I've been reading with pleasure for years, to help them achieve their goals."

As announced late last year, Jamie Raab, Grand Central's president and publisher, is stepping down at the end of the month after 30 years with the company and its predecessor, Warner Books.


Shelf Awareness Sign-up Giveaway: Deadly Game (Robert Finlay #2) by Matt Johnson


Apple, Amazon End Audiobook 'Exclusivity Obligations'

Amazon and Apple "have abolished contractual obligations around the world that required the two companies to supply and distribute audiobooks solely with each other, under pressure from European Union antitrust regulators," the Wall Street Journal reported. The agreement was struck January 5, but made public yesterday as Germany's competition watchdog, the Bundeskartellamt, dropped its formal probe into the companies' arrangements.

The "exclusivity obligations" required Apple to source audiobooks only from Audible, which was prevented from supplying its audiobooks to other digital platforms besides Apple's iTunes store. Bundeskartellamt head Andreas Mundt said the "exclusivity agreement affected the sales opportunities of audiobook publishers since, apart from Audible, there were few alternative purchasers available." Removing the obligations "will enable a wider range of offer and lower prices for consumers."

The European Commission agreed that the deal should "improve competition in downloadable audiobook distribution in Europe."

An Audible spokesman commented: "We look forward to continuing to offer customers our unmatched selection of hundreds of thousands of audiobooks in the Apple iTunes store, and to working with our many content providers and audio partners."

Alexander Skipis, head of the Börsenverein, the German publishers, wholesalers and booksellers association, said, "We very much welcome that the two companies have given up their exclusivity agreement and that iTunes is open for other audiobook providers."

Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association in the U.S., praised the agreement: "Competition in the marketplace is always a good thing. We're seeing more retailers selling audiobooks and coming to market with different business models. This decision should help that growth."

New York literary agent David Black told the Journal that authors should benefit from a more competitive retail environment: "This allows for wider distribution, which means more people will be aware of books, and that can only be a good thing."


Booksellers Recommend: Winter & Spring Nonfiction

Shelf Awareness continues our look at upcoming titles for the winter and spring. Today's list, based on bookseller recommendations, focuses on adult nonfiction. Our fiction list ran yesterday, and installments on young adult & middle grade and children's & early readers, are still to come.

In 2009, Bill Hayes moved from San Francisco to New York City at the age of 48. Hayes was grieving the death of his partner and traveled to New York with only the faintest idea of what he'd do when he got there. He found solace almost immediately in the city's never-ending activity and, to his surprise, fell in love with his neighbor and friend Oliver Sacks. In a collection of essays entitled Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, complete with photos of the people he met and the places he visited, Hayes writes about his relationship with Sacks, who died of cancer in 2015, and his discoveries in New York City. Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., said Insomniac City is "one of the best pieces of creative nonfiction I've ever read. Thank goodness Hayes is an insomniac and falls in love with both New York City and Oliver Sacks. It's tender, insightful, funny and terse." Insomniac City will be available from Bloomsbury USA on February 14.

Arriving on March 1 from Oxford University Press is The Invention of Angela Carter, a new biography of English writer Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon. In the book, Gordon retraces Carter's travels around the globe, from Britain and the United States to Japan, and looks at Carter's work, including the novels Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, in the broader context of her times. Gordon completes his portrait through interviews with Carter's friends and family and unrestricted access to her archives. Molly Parent, co-owner of Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes Station, Calif., said she "can't wait to dive into this biography of a woman as fascinating and surprising as her fiction."

In The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, journalist Michael Finkel explores the life of Christopher Knight, the infamous North Pond Hermit. From 1986 until his capture in 2013, Knight lived by himself in the woods of northern Maine in a campsite he scrabbled together from scavenged and stolen materials. Knight supported himself entirely by stealing from vacant summer residences around North Pond and committed thousands of burglaries during those 27 years. After Knight was finally caught and arrested during a burglary attempt, Finkel struck up a correspondence with Knight and interviewed him several times in jail. The result is a fascinating look at Knight's life and his complicated moral outlook. Martin Schmutterer, manager at Common Good Books in St. Paul, Minn., said that most of his staff have read The Stranger in the Woods and it seems to be the "consensus pick" for most-anticipated title of the spring. Look for it from Knopf on March 7.

In 2014, Ariel Levy published an essay in the New Yorker called "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," describing a month in 2012 during which her life fell apart. She was on assignment for the New Yorker in Mongolia, and at the time was pregnant, married and successful. Within weeks, all of that was turned upside down. In The Rules Do Not Apply, Levy expands on that essay, creating a memoir-length account of what happened in Mongolia and how she picked up the pieces afterward. "It's more than just a grief/break-up memoir, it's a story about both the fragility and the awesome resilience of human life," said Molly Parent of Point Reyes Books. "A gorgeous and gut-wrenching book." The Rules Do Not Apply will be available March 14 from Random House.

Author Jim Harrison died in March 2016; just in time for the first anniversary of his death comes A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand. Though he was best known for his fiction and poetry, Harrison was also a lover of food and a  renowned food writer. Available from Grove Press on March 24, A Really Big Lunch collects many of Harrison's essays on food for the first time. Among them are pieces about a French lunch that went 37 courses and the strange language of wine reviews. "We miss Jim Harrison, so it's great to have a collection of his fabulous food writing before we have to let go," said Mark Laframboise, buyer at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.

Imagine Wanting Only This is a graphic memoir from writer and illustrator Kristen Radtke. Radtke's uncle died suddenly while she was in college, and not long after his funeral she caught a glimpse of an abandoned mining town. This spurred a fascination with abandoned places and ruins that grew to a lifelong obsession, eventually leading her on an around-the-world trip to forgotten and ruined places. Imagine Wanting Only This is her account of that journey, from abandoned cities in middle America to Philippines islands and a village in Iceland buried in volcanic ash, a retelling of tragic events in American history, and even her own troubled family history. Martin Schmutterer of Common Good Books said that Imagine Wanting Only This reminded him of the work of German author and filmmaker Wim Wenders, and that it was "everything I want in a comic. It's thoughtful, personal and haunted." It will be published by Pantheon on April 18.

David Grann, the author of The Lost City of Z, returns on April 18 with Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. After oil was discovered on Osage Indian land in Oklahoma in the 1920s, the members of the Osage Indian nation became the richest people per capita in the world. Then they began to die, killed off one by one, and those who tried to investigate the killings often wound up dead themselves. Eventually the FBI hired former Texas Ranger Tom White to track down the parties responsible, and with the help of a team of undercover agents he revealed a massive criminal conspiracy. Tom Nissley, owner of Phinney Books in Seattle, Wash., called Grann a "master storyteller," adding that with Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann may have "unearthed his most remarkable story" yet.

After the Nazis tore through continental Europe during the opening months of World War II, the deposed leaders of many of the occupied countries sought refuge in London, and quickly Great Britain became known as "Last Hope Island." Lynne Olson's Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War is the story of those refugee leaders who banded together and the contributions they made to the Allied war effort. Among the cast of characters are Norway's King Haakon, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and Britain's Earl of Suffolk, who rescued two nuclear physicists from occupied France to help the Manhattan Project. "I've loved all of Lynne Olson's World War II books," said Mark Laframboise of Politics & Prose. "She writes with a novelist's sense of story and finds the most story-worthy subjects to write about." Last Hope Island will be out on April 25 from Random House.

Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women is the true story of scientific discovery and a fierce, forgotten labor struggle. In the years immediately after Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium, the radioactive element was used in everything from watch faces to body lotion and tonic water. To meet this demand, hundreds of girls worked in factories putting radium in consumer products and were exposed to so much radium, in fact, that they would glow in the dark. It was an enviable job, until the girls began getting sick, and as evidence mounted that the radium itself was the source of these illnesses, the factory owners refused to take responsibility. Stephanie Crowe of Page & Palette in Fairhope, Ala., said that The Radium Girls was "the most compelling and powerful book I've read this year.... I was totally captivated, and even after finishing the book the experiences of these women linger." Available on May 2 from Sourcebooks, The Radium Girls and author Kate Moore will be at Winter Institute.

Rounding out today's list is Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken. In 2008, comedy writer, author and political activist Al Franken ran for the Senate in Minnesota. His opponent was Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent. After a long campaign that was closer than anyone expected and eight months of a recount controversy, Franken, who began his career as a writer on Saturday Night Live, became the junior United States senator from Minnesota. In Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, Franken takes us through his decision to run for the Senate, the grueling campaign and his career on Capitol Hill since then. "We have high hopes, for numerous reasons, that Senator Al Franken's new book will be the giant of the season," said Martin Schmutterer of Common Good Books. It will be out May 30 from Twelve Books. --Alex Mutter


Obituary Notes: Carol Troxell; James S. Ackerman

Virginia bookseller Carol Troxell, "whose New Dominion Bookshop on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall survived as a seller of new books despite competition from online and big-box booksellers," died Wednesday, the Daily Progress reported. Troxell was 68 and had purchased the bookstore, which opened in 1924, from former owner C.C. Wells in the mid-1980s.

"It's a shock. We can't believe it, really," said Mitzi Ware, events coordinator at the bookstore. "The staff is carrying on because we are in the middle of a lot of events that have been scheduled, but it's hard. We have no idea what the future will bring."

Sandy McAdams, the owner of Daedalus Bookshop who had known Troxell since she worked with Wells, said, "She's just wonderful and she was certainly a mythic part of downtown. And she'll be missed horribly."

Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Festival of the Book, called Troxell "an invaluable part" of the festival, "helping establish it as the beloved annual event that it is and enthusiastically welcoming authors into her shop each year during the festival, but also year-round. Her impact on the local community--both writers and readers--simply cannot be measured, and she will be sorely missed by all."

New Dominion bookseller Melissa Lockwood told CBS19: "This bookshop was more than a bookshop. It was an area where people would come in and look for Carol because she was such a force and really irreplaceable. They don't make 'em like Carol Troxell anymore."

---

James S. Ackerman, "a Harvard art historian whose studies of the architecture of Michelangelo and Palladio remain classics in the field," died December 31, the New York Times reported. He was 97. While serving in Italy after WWII, "he volunteered to work for the Monuments and Fine Arts Commission in Milan," the Times noted, adding that "his immersion in the Certosa di Pavia generated a master's thesis at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, where he went on to earn a doctorate in 1952. While teaching art history at the University of California, Berkeley, he was approached by the art historians Anthony Blunt and Rudolf Wittkower to write a survey of Michelangelo's architecture for a series of architectural monographs they were editing."

The Architecture of Michelangelo, published in two volumes in 1961, "was greeted as an indispensable work on an overlooked subject" and was honored with the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians' Hitchcock Award. Ackerman subsequent books include Palladio; The Villa: Form & Ideology of Country Houses; Distance Points: Studies in Theory and Renaissance Art and Architecture; Origins, Imitation, Conventions: Representation in the Visual Arts; and Origins, Invention, Revision: Studying the History of Art and Architecture.



Notes

Image of the Day: Claudia Rankine, Citizen & Martin Luther King

On Monday, Claudia Rankine discussed her award-winning book Citizen, as part of  the University of Michigan/Ann Arbor's annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium. The school's Rackham Auditorium was filled to capacity. Pictured: (l.-r.) Peter Blackshear, co-owner of Bookbound Bookstore in Ann Arbor; Claudia Rankine; Megan Blackshear, co-owner of Bookbound Bookstore; and Dr. Maggie Hicken, University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.


Pulpwood Queen Girlfriend Weekend a Big Texas Hit

L. to r.: Ann Weisgarber, Lilah Conroy, Melissa Conroy, Kathy L. Murphy, Caroline Leavitt, Cassandra King and Janis Owens.

The Pulpwood Queen Girlfriend Weekend was held January 12-15 in Nacogdoches, Tex. This year the annual celebration of books and authors partnered with Stephen F. Austin State University.

Kathy L. Murphy, founder of the 700-plus member Pulpwood Queen and Timber Guy Book Club Reading Nation, said: "Our wonderful partnership with the Creative Writing Department at Stephen F. Austin State University is off to a great start. Thanks to Dr. John McDermott who heads the program, we had six graduate students volunteer to help with the event. We not only gave all students, faculty and board access to hear all the authors we brought in, but we are now making arrangements for the authors to visit their classrooms and do workshops through their Distinguished Author Series."

During the weekend, an Author Silent Auction was held, featuring writers signing personal items to benefit the charity of their choice. This year, $2,500 was raised and all proceeds will go to the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Houston's Murder by the Book, which was the book vendor for Girlfriend Weekend, also donated a portion of its sales to the center. In addition, the Doug Marlette Award, which is given to individual or individuals for spending a lifetime promoting literacy, went to the late Pat Conroy's family.

Other awards handed out included:
Fiction Book of the Year: Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt
Nonfiction Book of the Year: Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall
Bonus Book of the Year: The California Wife by Kristen Harnisch
Splinters (Teen) Book of the Year: The Feathered Bone by Julie Cantrell
Pinecones (Children's) Book of the Year: Momotaro: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters by Margaret Dilloway


'An Independent Bookstore Is Home'

photo: David Leyes

Elan Mastai, author of February's #1 Indie Next List pick All Our Wrong Todays, was featured in a recent Bookselling This Week q&a. Among of our favorite responses:

How have indie bookstores influenced your life?
Book City is a local indie bookstore chain of four stores in Toronto, and there is one on Queen Street near where I live so I go there pretty much every other day. I spend a lot of time there and I know the staff well and love to hear their recommendations.

To me, the most alluring tourist attraction in any new city is a bookstore that I have never been to before, whether it is Copperfield's in northern California or the Booksmith in San Francisco or Vroman's in Pasadena or the sadly departed BookCourt in Brooklyn.

I was in Denver a couple months ago and made a pilgrimage to Tattered Cover. I love bookstores, particularly independent bookstores because they tend to have a unique and curatorial point of view. I love going to a place that is owned by a person who might actually be there and you can have a long, interesting conversation about books and they may, because of their specific tastes, carry an author that you’ve never heard of but who may turn out to be one of your favorites. That has happened to me so many times. And so for me, no matter where I am in the world, an independent bookstore is home.


Personnel Changes at Crown

Penny Simon, executive publicist, has been named a vice president of the Crown Publishing Group. She joined Crown as a publicity assistant in 1989 and worked up through the ranks in the publicity department to associate director of publicity. In 1996, she moved to Knoxille, Tenn., and worked as a freelance publicist for Crown, then rejoined the company fulltime in 2007 as executive publicist.

Simon's boss, Carisa Hays, v-p, executive director of publicity, commented: "A consummate professional, an amazing publicist, an excellent colleague: these are just a few of the ways that I would describe Penny. In an industry where it is unusual for an employee to stay with one company for an entire career, yet alone one of almost thirty years, it is an honor to recognize Penny for her professional life's work. Long may it continue."


Media and Movies

Media Heat: Zadie Smith on Fresh Air

Today:
Fresh Air: Zadie Smith, author of Swing Time (Penguin Press, $27, 9781594203985).

Sunday:
Meet the Press: Hugh Hewitt, author of The Fourth Way: The Conservative Playbook for a Lasting GOP Majority (Simon & Schuster, $24.99, 9781501172441).


Movies: My Life as a Zucchini

A trailer has been released for the English-language version of the French-Swiss stop-motion film My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette), based on the novel Autobiographie d'une Courgette by Gilles Paris, Deadline reported. The movie, which was nominated for a Golden Globe and selected as Switzerland’s entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, features the voices of Will Forte, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris. Directed by Claude Barras, the U.S. version of My Life as a Zucchini will make its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this month, followed by a limited theatrical release February 24.

Books & Authors

Reading with... Anna Pitoniak

photo: Andrew Bartholomew

Anna Pitoniak's debut novel is The Futures (Lee Boudreaux Books, January 17, 2017). An editor at Random House, she graduated from Yale University, where she majored in English and was an editor at the Yale Daily News. She grew up in Whistler, British Columbia, and now lives in New York City.

On your nightstand now:

I have a tall stack of books that, out of stubbornness or optimism, I refuse to shelve properly because I am convinced I'm going to get around to reading them any day now. Right now I'm in the middle of A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Also in the stack are The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, An End to Suffering by Pankaj Mishra, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine and 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I can't pick just one! I loved I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. But my all-time favorite is probably the Guests of War trilogy by Kit Pearson: The Sky Is Falling, Looking at the Moon and The Lights Go on Again. The novels are about two English children sent away to Canada during World War II, and I found them captivating. I lost track of how many times I reread that trilogy.

Your top five authors:

Vladimir Nabokov, Donna Tartt, John le Carré, Kazuo Ishiguro and Michael Lewis. In very different ways, each of them writes books that I find completely un-put-downable.

Book you've faked reading:

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. We had to read it in college, and while our professor was nice enough to let us skip the whaling chapters, I'm afraid I didn't get through many of the non-whaling chapters, either. I remember the early scenes at the inn in New Bedford and that's about it. Sorry, Professor Smith.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Stoner by John Williams. I read it this summer, after hearing others evangelize about it. It is a luminous, extraordinary novel, and it moved me in ways that I still don't fully understand.

I also have a tendency to read books that were blockbusters about 15 or 20 years ago, and become obsessed with them, and wonder why no one is talking about them. When the answer is that, 15 or 20 years ago, everyone was talking about them. This was recently the case with Personal History by Katharine Graham and Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. These books don't need my evangelism, but still.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Anything with Ina Garten on the cover. I love her.

Book you hid from your parents:

David Letterman's Book of Top Ten Lists and Wedding Dress Patterns for the Husky Bride--maybe not for the reasons you think. My parents got this book as a gift in the 1990s. My mom and dad would take turns reading the Top Ten lists aloud to each other, and they would wind up in such hysterical laughter that they would literally roll around on the floor, crying and struggling to breathe. I was a kid, and I was totally freaked out. The jokes were about Bill Clinton and Bibi Netanyahu and they went right over my head. My parents were clearly possessed by demons. Or maybe I was just annoyed that they weren't paying attention to me. So, I hid the book in my sock drawer for at least a year, until I deemed it safe to bring it back out.

Book that changed your life:

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov. I didn't think of myself as an aspiring writer the first time I read it, at least not consciously, but with hindsight I can see that it unlocked something inside of me. It showed me how writing, when done right, could reveal a certain kind of invisible magic that runs through ordinary life. I've reread Speak, Memory so many times that it has become a touchstone, a talisman, a reminder of the intense pleasures that beautiful writing can bring.

Favorite line from a book:

"He was himself, and he knew what he had been." --Stoner by John Williams

Five books you'll never part with:

An inscribed copy of Andrew's Brain by E.L. Doctorow, the last book he wrote, and which I was lucky enough to work on; my shelf of Penguin Classics; a well-used copy of How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, which was invaluable after graduating from college, and is still invaluable today; and my old tattered paperbacks of Speak, Memory and The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov, both of which I wrote my thesis on, and both of which are held together with packing tape.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I got my hands on an early copy just before it came out in 2012, so I read it without any spoilers, or any knowledge of a twist coming--which is the best way to experience a book like that. I don't think I've ever been so addicted.

Book you want to read next:

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. Every summer, for the last several years, this has been on my list; I figure I need a nice long chunk of time to devote to it. Every summer, I fail to get around to it. I haven't done it yet, but maybe next year will be the year.


Book Review

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Random House, $28 hardcover, 368p., 9780812995343, February 14, 2017)

Many admirers of George Saunders's inimitable short story collections like Tenth of December probably have despaired of this supremely talented, empathetic writer ever producing a novel. But with the publication of Lincoln in the Bardo, the wait is over, and we have a story of loss and grief that's extraordinary in both substance and style.

The "bardo" is, in Tibetan Buddhism, the transitional state between death and rebirth. In Saunders's novel, it has a tangible location: Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood, February 1862, shortly after the death of Abraham Lincoln's son Willie, age 11, from typhoid fever.

Over the course of an extended evening, the novel recounts the anguished visits of the grief-stricken president to the mausoleum containing his son's body. These rendezvous occur in anything but solitude. Instead, they're intently observed by an audience of spirits, whose alternating chorus of voices supplies most of the novel's distinctive, drama-style narrative as they recognize, in the words of one of them, the "vivifying effect this visitation had on our community."

As the ghosts emerge from their "sick-boxes" at nightfall, Saunders spins a fantastic story that includes scenes both gorgeous and tragic, all of them compelling. In one, an assemblage of angels ("young girls in summer dresses, brown-skinned and jolly, hair unbound, weaving strands of grass into bracelets, giggling as they passed: country girls, joyful and gay") urge the spirits, many stubbornly resisting, on to the next stage of eternity. In another, the author unfurls a spectacular vision of divine judgment, distinguishing it from the existence of souls who were "bored, so very bored, so continually bored," as each night for them "passed with a devastating sameness." That's one criticism that can't be leveled at Saunders's vibrant depictions of the often unruly, sometimes comical activities that occur in the raucous graveyard, as the ghosts, most of whom are unaware of their spiritual status, endlessly squabble and scheme.

And as if the premature death of his son weren't enough, the Lincoln of Saunders's novel, still in the first year of his presidency, must endure virulent attacks on his fitness for office. In stark contrast to the descriptions of the phantasmagoric events at Oak Hill are the chapters containing fragments of contemporary and historical writing about Lincoln. These clippings--some real and some convincingly invented--reveal the vilification the 16th president endured for his conduct during the war that was more than a year away from turning in the Union's favor.

George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo unquestionably requires a willing suspension of disbelief. Once accomplished, it's easy and most rewarding to surrender to the spellbinding power of this captivating novel. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: From the death of Abraham Lincoln's son, George Saunders's first novel spins a gloriously imaginative portrait of human grief and the afterlife.


Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: The 'Basil Fawlty of Booksellers' & Co.

Bernard Black, the patron saint of curmudgeonly booksellers

Bernard: You sold a lot of books. You got on well with customers.
Manny: Thank you.
B: I'm gonna have to let you go.
M: But I got on well with all the customers, I sold a lot of books!
B: It's not that kind of operation.

--"Manny's First Day" episode of BBC's Black Books (about the 20:20 mark)

After showcasing the quirky/quaint aspects of bookselling in Wigtown last week, I felt equal time rules demanded that we highlight the legendary curmudgeonly side of the trade, especially in light of certain recent viral headlines: "Steve Bloom: the Basil Fawlty of Booksellers"; "Yorkshire's 'bookseller from hell' regrets calling customer 'a pain in the arse' "; "Blame Yorkshire's wuthering winter, says wife of U.K.'s 'rudest bookseller' "; and even "What Britain's grumpiest bookshop owner can teach us about the NHS crisis."

Bloom, owner of Bloomindales in Hawes Market House, was accused of being ill-mannered to potential customers who refused to pay his 50p entry fee. The chairman of Hawes Parish Council said members want the bookseller to change his attitude or leave the town: "I have received more than 20 letters of complaint in the last four years about the abusive behavior of Mr. Bloom--by letter, e-mail and telephone.... The bookseller is a discredit to the good reputation of the town, he is letting the Market House trustees down time and again."

Having since expressed some regret for his behavior, Bloom nonetheless vowed to continue his admission fee policy: "I explain about the 50p and when they come to leave with a book I say keep the 50p. Many people then say 'no keep it or give it to charity.' So it goes to Compassion in World Farming.... Those people who get upset about the 50p feel challenged. This is a test. I want people who come into to shop to be interested and appreciative of books. This is not a bus stop or a room for browsers.... Now that this has got out to the press, all and sundry know how it works, so it won't be the same. But I'll continue to ask for it--I'm not bowing to pressure."

Bloomindale's

He even has supporters. In the Guardian, Stephen Moss wrote: "Mr. Bloom is one of the last, honorable remnants of this dying breed. Secondhand bookshops have been decimated by the Internet.... As for the rudeness, it goes with the territory. Secondhand booksellers are natural misanthropes. If you don't buy a book, you are wasting their time; if you do a buy a book, you are stealing one of their friends. Either way, they will hate you, so enjoy the miserable experience.... Book lovers are life haters--and Mr. Bloom is a hero, not a villain, keeping an ancient tradition alive."

We've all encountered the classic bookish curmudgeon. In my case, she was a librarian in the small Vermont town where I grew up who seemed to despise kids (I don't think it was just me.) and was forever ushering us back out onto the street when we lingered too long in the children's book room. Hers was a determined, if ultimately futile, attempt to derail my need to read.

During my long tenure on the sales floor, I tried to be a gracious and welcoming bookseller, though I suspect there's just a little Steve Bloom buried deep inside many of us. "Curmudgeon" is not an infrequent word used to describe folks in our profession. As recently as last summer, the New York Times noted that the Strand's "employees are known for being 'curmudgeonly' but also clever, even cool."

And last year, Jim Toole of Capitol Hill Books was labeled "D.C.'s most curmudgeonly store owner" by the Washingtonian in an interview where he explained his extensive set of rules for customers. Asked if patrons generally obeyed, he replied: "Either that or they go home. People either have to follow the orderly processes here, or they're asked to leave. What am I supposed to do, sit here as the owner of the bookstore and put up with some miscreant? The customer isn't always right. I am. People don't like that. They think I should be groveling--I don't grovel."

For our 2009 special April Fool's Day edition, I imagined a hyper-curmudgeonly bookseller who professed an "intriguing new concept for increasing sales at the retail level--smashmouth, trash-talking, in-your-face handselling.... Instead of the traditional, cooperative, conversational, low-impact approach to bookselling, he began taking the fight directly to his opposition. 'Essentially, I make them eat their words,' Wilkins said. 'We don't let them out of the bookstore until they've bought books.' "

As a model curmudgeon, however, Bernard Black still reigns supreme:

Bernard: What do they want from me? Why can't they leave me alone? I mean, what do they want from me?
Manny: They want to buy books.
B: Yeah, but why me? Why do they come to me?
M: Well, because you sell books.
B: Yeah, I know...

Words to live by? Um... maybe not.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)

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