Shelf Awareness for Friday, November 14, 2014

Hampton Roads Publishing Company: Becoming Baba Yaga: Trickster, Feminist, and Witch of the Woods by Kris Spisak, Foreword by Gennarose Nethercott

Dial Press: Like Mother, Like Mother by Susan Rieger

Severn House: A Messy Murder (Main) (The Decluttering Mysteries #4) by Simon Brett

Forge: My Three Dogs by Bruce W Cameron

Running Press Adult: Scam Goddess: Lessons from a Life of Cons, Grifts, and Schemes by Laci Mosley

Chronicle Books: Taste in Music: Eating on Tour with Indie Musicians by Luke Pyenson and Alex Beeker


Amazon and Hachette Come to Terms

Hachette Book Group and Amazon have settled their dispute over terms and are returning to "normal trading" immediately and Hachette titles "will be prominently featured in promotions," the two companies jointly announced yesterday.

The multi-year agreement for e-book and print sales in the U.S. takes effect early next year and leaves the agency model for e-book pricing intact. The companies said that "Hachette will have responsibility for setting consumer prices of its e-books, and will also benefit from better terms when it delivers lower prices for readers." They also said that Hachette titles "will be prominently featured in promotions." The phrasing resembles that of the recent agreement over terms between Amazon and Simon & Schuster.

Michael Pietsch

"This is great news for writers," Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch said. "The new agreement will benefit Hachette authors for years to come. It gives Hachette enormous marketing capability with one of our most important bookselling partners."

David Naggar, v-p of Kindle at Amazon, said, "We are pleased with this new agreement as it includes specific financial incentives for Hachette to deliver lower prices, which we believe will be a great win for readers and authors alike."

The dispute became public in May when Amazon began punishing Hachette by delaying shipments of most Hachette titles, not allow pre-orders, not discounting titles at its usual levels and making it difficult to find Hachette titles. A spot check of Hachette titles after the announcement found that Amazon is again treating Hachette titles as it does most publishers' books.

The New York Times nicely described the dispute this way: "Depending on which side you were rooting for, it was a struggle between the future and the past, the East Coast and the West Coast, culture and commerce, the masses and the elite, technologists and traditionalists, predators and prey."

Speaking with Shelf Awareness yesterday, Hachette author James Patterson's first comment on the resolution was "Yay! It's good to have that behind us." A critic of Amazon in the dispute, he added, "I don't know the details. Maybe it was good for Hachette. Maybe it was good for Amazon. I'm assuming Amazon made some gains here.... It's really important that publishers be protected in the short term. Now everyone can move forward and do other things, such as bring attention to books--to serious ones and to some not so serious."

Douglas Preston (see his Book Brahmin with Lincoln Child below), who founded Authors United, which ran ads critical of Amazon's treatment and is writing a letter with the Authors Guild asking the Justice Department to investigate Amazon for antitrust violations, told the Times he was relieved to hear news of the agreement, but added, "If anyone thinks this is over, they are deluding themselves. Amazon covets market share the way Napoleon coveted territory."

James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research, told the Wall Street Journal: "It's a victory for Hachette in that they get to set the consumer prices of their e-books, while Amazon wins in that it has given Hachette an incentive to keep prices lower. This deal should have been done a lot earlier. Emotions took over, and they both began talking like they were protecting the free world."

The most dispiriting comment came from Meryl Gordon, author of The Phantom of Fifth Avenue, a Grand Central title, who told the Times that she was "delighted and relieved... I hope that Amazon has learned that books are not commodities like dishwasher detergent. I'm looking forward to buying books again on my Kindle."

Amazon and Hachette had strong incentives to come to an agreement: the important holiday season is fast approaching and both companies have had poor financial results recently.

Only yesterday, Hachette parent company Lagardère announced third-quarter results and said that Hachette sales were down 18.5%, in part because of an unfavorable comparison with a strong third quarter the year before and the postponement of some titles, but also because of "the difficult situation with Amazon."

For its part, in October, Amazon reported a loss of $437 million for the third quarter and net sales up 20.4%. The size of the loss was a shock, and although the sales increase was high, it continued a trend of slowing sales growth. Wall Street has become less patient with the company, which, combined with unprecedented bad publicity for Amazon, may have led the retail giant to soften some of its demands in the Hachette negotiation.

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Baltimore's breathe bookstore cafe to Close

On December 31, breathe bookstore café, Baltimore, Md., will close. Longtime owner Susan Weis-Bohlen had put the business up for sale during the summer. Mary and John Wortman, who run Dangerously Delicious in Canton, are opening Dangerously Delicious Pies in breathe's space this January.

Announcing the change in her e-mail newsletter, Weis-Bohlen wrote: "While it is the end of an era (a decade!) for breathe books, I am very excited for Mary and John. They love the space, the vibes, the karma we have created over the past 10 years here."

Her new business, Susan's Kitchen and breathe Ayurveda, will operate out of her home in Reisterstown, where she moved earlier this year: "We may in the future open a storefront on Main Street, but right now we want to concentrate our efforts on creating a full schedule of classes and workshops."  

Weis-Bohlen also noted that with the closing of breathe books, she "will be able to more fully concentrate on Ayurvedic and vegetarian cooking classes, Ayurvedic consultations and life-style classes, meditation and large author events. I'm sad to see breathe go but also eager to follow the path of my heart and delve deeper into Ayurveda."

GLOW: Sourcebooks Landmark: A Forty Year Kiss by Nickolas Butler

Domanico Appointed to BAM's Board

Ronald J. Domanico has been appointed to Books-A-Million's board of directors and as a member of the audit committee. He will stand for re-election at the company's annual meeting of stockholders in 2015. Domanico recently retired from HD Supply, where he was senior v-p and CFO.

"We are very fortunate to have identified a director of the caliber and experience that Ron possesses," said executive chairman Clyde B. Anderson. "Ron is a seasoned financial executive that brings a depth of experience in finance, strategy, and operational matters to our Board."

Rakuten Opens Online Bookstore in Taiwan

Rakuten, the Japanese corporation that owns Kobo, launched a 100,000-titles strong online bookstore within the Rakuten Ichiba Taiwan Marketplace yesterday, "expanding its presence in the country's competitive e-commerce market," Focus Taiwan reported.

"The launch of Rakuten Online Bookstore represents another major milestone in developing Rakuten's presence in Taiwan," said Yuichi Ejiri, president of the regional business management group at Rakuten Asia.

Obituary Note: Raymond Almiran Montgomery

Raymond Almiran Montgomery, publisher and author of the wildly popular Choose Your Own Adventure series for children, died on Sunday, November 9. He was 78.

A theme of his life was developing innovative methods of teaching young students. At the Wall Street Journal, he encouraged teachers to use the paper in their curriculum. At Columbia University, he was assistant dean of faulty. In 1966, he founded the Waitsfield Summer School in Waitsfield, Vt., to help children with learning challenges (the English curriculum was experientially based and gaming was used exclusively to teach basic math).

He then worked at the think tank Clark Abt Associates in Cambridge, Mass., and after that developed the Energy Environment Game for the Edison Electric Institute and designed role-playing programs for training Peace Corps volunteers in cultural awareness and sensitivity.

In 1975, he co-founded Vermont Crossroads Press to publish books for young readers, but the press soon expanded its purview, publishing, among other titles, The Centered Skier by Denise McCluggage and The Woodburner's Encyclopedia.

In 1977, Choose Your Own Adventure was born, when he published Ed Packard's interactive children's book Sugarcane Island, announcing it as the first in a series called the Adventures of You. Packard left to write a different book for another press, so Montgomery wrote the next book in the series, Journey Under the Sea, using the pen name Robert Mountain. After selling his interest in the publishing house, he took the series to Bantam, where the series was renamed Choose Your Own Adventure, which went on to sell more than 250 million copies across more than 230 titles in more than 40 languages. Montgomery, Packard and others wrote the books.

In 2003, Montgomery and his wife, Shannon Gilligan, founded Chooseco, which re-launched the series and has sold 10 million copies of 65 Choose Your Own Adventure titles since then. Montgomery's last book in the series, Gus vs. the Robot King, was published in September.

Holiday Hum: Indies Prepare for Big Holiday Season, Part 2

With just two weeks to go until Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, independent booksellers around the country are planning for the annual rush and what is usually the biggest, busiest time of year. [This is the second of a two-part story; part one is here.]

Janet Geddis
Janet Geddis

At Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., owner Janet Geddis has also seen very strong sales of both Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl (Random House) and Amy Poehler's Yes Please (Dey Street Books). She and her staff are also very excited about Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg (Holt).

"That's going to be an easy one to handsell and recommend to anyone who likes books," Geddis remarked.

For fiction, Geddis expects the "tried and true" 2014 bestsellers, including Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Knopf) and David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks (Random House). Recently, Avid hosted an event for My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories (St. Martin's Griffin), a collection of stories by 12 YA authors including Stephanie Perkins, David Levithan and Rainbow Rowell; several of the contributing authors visited. The event was a huge success, and Geddis hopes to see strong sales of the collection continue.

This holiday season will be Avid's fourth; Geddis saw a big jump in sales in 2013 and expects to see the same for 2014. She and her staff have taken pains to "up our gift wrap game," and offer more sidelines and gift items. During the holidays, Geddis also keeps her store open seven days a week (usually Avid is closed on Mondays), and she plans to bring back a popular program in which members of the store's young readers book club are brought in on the weekends as guest booksellers.

"We've done that the last two Decembers," Geddis said. "It's been a huge hit."

Jeremy Ellis
Jeremy Ellis

During the week before Thanksgiving, Jeremy Ellis and his staff at Brazos Bookstore at Houston, Tex., will reconfigure the store by turning their events space into additional displays just for the holidays.

"Our event calendar is effectively over at Thanksgiving," said Ellis, although he noted that Brazos will host a few offsite events over the holidays. "We totally rejigger the store. We feature 120 titles that we get big stacks of, and we put a catalogue on our website, as well as a physical catalogue. We focus on those books, in addition to everything else."

Among those titles, Ellis said that he and his team are big fans of Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven (Knopf). "That's already been selling at an incredibly brisk pace and shows no signs of slowing down."

The YA The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp (Tor Teen) has also done well for Brazos, as has Michel Faber's new novel, The Book of Strange New Things (Hogarth). For nonfiction, Ellis expects Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs (Yale University Press) to be a "big deal," and Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (PublicAffairs) to sell well. And for every holiday season, Brazos stocks a few new humor and gift books; this year, the team is bullish on F**k: An Irreverent History of the F-Word by Rufus Lodge (Friday Project).

Over the past three years, Ellis has seen holiday sales and traffic steadily increase. "We try really hard to be a friendly, great space for all of us and qith all the best books," Ellis said. "We're seeing much traffic and interest."

Arna Lewis, buttonwood books
Arna Lewis

Arna Lewis, co-owner of Buttonwood Books & Toys in Cohasset, Mass., has already seen strong sales of Make It Ahead, Ina Garten's newest cookbook (Clarkson Potter), and she expects that will be a strong seller. She and her staff will also be pushing Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner), along with Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Press) and Ken Follett's Edge of Eternity (Dutton). They're also excited about Andrew Smith's YA novel Grasshopper Jungle (Dutton), and for children, they expect Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (Candlewick) to do well, too.

Although Buttonwood has been around since 1989, Lewis and her co-owner Kathy Detwiler took over just last year. The 2013 holiday season was the store's first under new management, and they've applied what they learned last year to their plans for this year.

"We have our holiday gifts out earlier this year, and people are already coming in," said Lewis. "We've expanded our gift section, and we're doing a couple of shopping nights for schools. We're ordering quite a bit more; our inventory has grown. The store is stocked." --Alex Mutter


Image of the Day: Connecticut Children's Book Fair

YA authors Len Vlahos and Caragh O’Brien show off each other’s books.

The 23rd Connecticut Children's Book Fair drew thousands of fans and featured authors Nora Raleigh Baskin, Patrik Henry Bass, Jerry Craft, Anika Denise, Christopher Denise, Anna Dewdney, Jane Dyer, Chris Grabenstein, Jeff Kinney, Natalie Lloyd, Jean Marzollo, Barbara McClintock, Wendell Minor, Florence Minor, Caragh O'Brien, Dan Poblocki, Judy Schachner, Pat Schories, Kevin Sherry, Len Vlahos, Lauren Tarshis and Nancy Elizabeth Wallace. Sunday morning, 500 fans filled the presentation room to see Jeff Kinney, while hundreds more waited in his autograph line. The CCBF is a project of the UConn Co-op Bookstore and the UConn Libraries.

A Room of One's Own's Sandi Torkildson Honored

Sandi Torkildson, co-founder and longtime owner of A Room of One's Own bookstore, Madison, Wis., was one of 10 recipients of this year's Isthmus Indie Awards, which "celebrate retailers, inventors, artists, scientists and others who show bold, innovative leadership and who give back to our community." They will be honored November 18 at a benefit for Dane Buy Local. Isthmus noted that Torkildson "is a fixture in downtown Madison, serving on countless committees, mentoring young entrepreneurs and fostering other small businesses."

"Part of the whole thing about bookstores is that you can browse and discover things, and you just can't do that same kind of browsing online," she said. "Finding something that you don't even know you're looking for--I think people really appreciate that experience and support us because they want to be able to do that."

Torkildson also credited the many booksellers she has worked with: "We've had wonderful staff people who have worked really hard, who really love books and really get excited about books.... It's just like when you go to the liquor store and all the big companies write their little blurbs about their wine. I don't know much about wine, but I always like it when there's one actually handwritten by somebody who says it is a really good buy."

Cool Idea of the Day: Indie Offers Free Books to G20 Leaders

Photo: Brisbane Times

As world leaders converge on Brisbane, Australia, for the G20 summit, Avid Reader bookstore "has sent out formal invitations to the embassies and High Commissioners of the G20 countries for the world leaders to visit the bookshop. In return, each leader will be given a collection of Australian books for free," SmartCompany reported.

Co-owner Fiona Stager called the offer "a fun way to make a serious point about literacy and illiteracy.... With all this talk about economic growth, illiteracy is a fundamental issue here in Australia and when we looked into it, we found that more than 700 million people around the world are illiterate."

The list of books covers a gamut of political issues, from climate change to gender equality, and includes fiction titles The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan and Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko.

"We thought we would be a bit cheeky but the books we have chosen are ones we are passionate about. They are about gender, community, climate change, knowledge and learning empathy through fiction," said Stager. The G20 leaders have yet to take up Avid Reader's offer, SmartMoney noted.

On Facebook Stager wrote: "Hopefully Putin and his buddies will drop by for a macchiato next week."

Buzzfeed noted that Avid Bookstore "has already won the G20, by screen-printing special commemorative 'shirtfront' T-shirts emblazoned with the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin."

Music Video: 'All About Those Books'

Mary Ellen & the Readers at the Mount Desert Island High School, Bar Harbor, Maine, sang "All About those Books," their version of Meghan Trainor's "All About The Bass."

Personnel Changes at Penguin

On Monday, Rachel Lodi joins Penguin Young Readers as associate digital publicist. She was formerly a marketing assistant at Palgrave Macmillan Trade. Before that, she worked in marketing and publicity at February Media and in the editorial departments at Scholastic and Pearson.

Media and Movies

Media Heat: Eric Lichtblau on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry

Today on Tavis Smiley: Sophia Loren, author of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life (Atria, $28, 9781476797427).


Today on CNBC's Closing Bell: Walter Isaacson, author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, $35, 9781476708690).


Tomorrow morning on Good Morning America Weekend: Sophia Loren, author of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life (Atria, $28, 9781476797427).


Sunday on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos: Lt. General Daniel Bolger, author of Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, 9780544370487). He will also appear tomorrow on CNN's Smerconish and Fox's Huckabee.


Sunday on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry: Eric Lichtblau, author of The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler's Men (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, 9780547669199).


Sunday on Oprah's Where Are They Now: Darryl and Tracy Strawberry, authors of The Imperfect Marriage (Howard, $24.99, 9781476738741).


Sunday on NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge: Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon & Schuster, $30, 9781451697384).

TV: Hap and Leonard

SundanceTV has greenlighted Hap and Leonard, an original series based on Joe Lansdale's Southern noir books that will be filmed as six one-hour episodes. reported that the series "is created by feature film writer-director Jim Mickle and writer Nick Damici, who partnered on the film adaptation of Lansdale's Cold in July." Mickle will direct, with production beginning next year for a series premiere in 2016.

"Equal parts shocking and hilarious, Hap and Leonard will cut through in a crowded TV landscape as irresistible southern pulp noir," said SundanceTV president Sarah Barnett. "What's more, Jim and Nick are true Sundance voices, having made a splash in recent years at Sundance Film Festival with their feature film."

Books & Authors

Awards: Goldsmiths; Welt Literature

Ali Smith won the £10,000 (US$15,710) Goldsmiths Prize, which recognizes "published fiction that opens up new possibilities for the novel form," for her book How to Be Both, the Guardian reported. Chair of judges Francis Spufford called the winning novel "a book which confirms that formal innovation is completely compatible with pleasure--that it can be, in fact, a renewal of the writer's compact with the reader to delight and to astonish."


Haruki Murakami became the first Japanese author to receive the €10,000 (US$12,475) Welt Literature Prize (Welt Literaturpreis) since the award was established in 1999. In his acceptance speech, Murakami mentioned the Berlin Wall and "said it is the task of novelists to help readers penetrate these walls, and that harnessing the power of each person's imagination 'could be the starting point of something,' " the Japan Times reported.

Book Brahmins: Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

douglas preston and lincoln child
photo: Deborah Feingold

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's Relic and The Cabinet of Curiosities were chosen by readers in a NPR poll as being among the 100 greatest thrillers ever written, and Relic was made into a hit movie. Their recent novels include White Fire, Two Graves, Gideon's Corpse and The Lost Island. Blue Labyrinth (Grand Central Publishing, 2014) is the newest title in the Pendergast series.

On your nightstand now:

Douglas Preston: Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson (I was sent this manuscript so I could write a blurb and I can't put it down). Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff (I had no idea how complex, interesting and misunderstood Cleopatra was; this has got to be one of the most beautifully written biographies I have read in a long time). I'm rereading The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (a first-hand account of Cortés's conquest of the Aztec empire and the city of Tenochtitlan, a truly heartbreaking story). The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson. (The final volume in his three-volume series on the defeat of Germany, this is a great book, and now I will have to read the first two volumes. Typical of me to read out of sequence.)

Lincoln Child: So many books, so little time. At present, my real and virtual nightstand includes: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand; The Swift Programming Language by Apple Inc.; Five Seasons by Roger Angell; and The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman. Oh, yes, and a play called Twelfth Night by some guy named Shakespeare.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Preston: I had many favorite books as a child, starting with Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who and the Hardy Boys series. But my all-time favorite was The Curious Lobster's Island by Richard Warren Hatch. I loved the humor and sense of adventure of this now forgotten story, which I read one summer in Maine.

Child: I had two: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and Dr. Dolittle's Circus by Hugh Lofting. My fifth-grade teacher was reading us Circus one chapter a day. I liked the story so much that I secretly checked the book out of the library and finished it way ahead of the rest of the class. That was the start of a period of voracious, omnivorous reading that didn't stop for decades. Come to think of it, it still hasn't stopped.

Your top five authors:

Preston: Leo Tolstoy for his immense humanity, Homer for writing the first and perhaps best thriller of all time, Wilkie Collins for his incredibly complex narratives and unforgettable characters, Isaac Asimov for his prophetic vision and Ernest Hemingway for how he transformed our American language and wrote stories that were true.

Child: Charles Dickens, Henry James, Wilkie Collins, Ernest Hemingway and H.P. Lovecraft. These are not only my top five authors, but also probably the authors who have been most influential on my own writing.

Book you've faked reading:

Preston: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I tried, I really did, and I felt guilty and stupid for not liking this book, until I realized that, in contrast to books like James Joyce's Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, it was just too removed from basic human experience to qualify as a work of literature. And it was just too clever for its own good, like being at a party with someone a lot smarter than you, who wants you to know it, and know it and know it.

Child: I actually got 300 pages into Gravity's Rainbow back in high school before I gave up. I felt pretty smug carrying it around, too. But I felt neither guilty or stupid when I put it aside. I do, however, feel a little guilty (and stupid) for not reading Ulysses. I've tried several times, but I just can't get past that first chapter.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Preston: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. This is one of the most thrilling books I've ever read, starting with the apparition of the woman on the dark heath, with a narrative structure that seems far more avant-garde than Victorian. A work of genius.

Child: The 13 Clocks by James Thurber. This novelette is a neglected classic. The clever wordplay, droll references to fairy tales, fantasies and romances--real or imagined--make for an unforgettable reading experience. And, of course, there's the whimsically described yet terrifying Todal: "You've only heard of half of it. The other half is worse. It's made of lip.... It moves about like monkeys and like shadows."

Book you've bought for the cover:

Child: Jaws by Peter Benchley. Saw it in the bookstore window, bought it maybe 10 seconds later. Are great white sharks really that large?

Preston: Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen. The paperback had a photograph on the cover of a ship bashing through a fearful sea, which (combined with the name) promised a sea story of great intensity. I was not disappointed.

Book that changed your life:

Child: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. For the first time, I felt just about as close to a fictional character, reading this book, as I felt to my own self. It was an overwhelming and in some ways unsettling experience.

Preston: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. I read this as a young teenager and it left me in a daze for weeks afterward. It's an astonishingly original and inventive book, which made me, a 13-year-old boy, cry. Quite a feat.

Favorite line from a book:

Child: "I am haunted by waters." --Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Preston: "Isn't it pretty to think so?" --Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Which character you most relate to:

Child: Bazarov from Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. I was in high school when I read it, and the gloomy, brooding, nihilistic fellow was strangely appealing (this was before I knew what a Byronic hero was). No doubt I'd feel differently if I revisited the book now.

Preston: Andrei Bolkonsky--at least, when I read War and Peace when I was 20, I strongly identified with the character. As Linc also says, if I were to reread the book at 58 (my current age), I might have a different reaction.

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

Child: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. My father gave me this book as a Christmas present when I was a teenager, and it's one I'll always treasure. It's like a small but perfect jewel, a Fabergé egg.

Preston: The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway. I read it one winter morning in my attic room when I was 17, during a snowstorm. You know a book is good when you never forget where you were when you read it.

Book Review

Review: Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee

Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee by James Gavin (Atria, $32 hardcover, 9781451641684, November 2014)

is that all there is, peggy lee bioBy any commercial account, Peggy Lee's life was a huge success. In a 60-year career that covered the glory days of big band swing, cabaret clubs, cool jazz and rock and roll, she sold more than 20 million albums, was nominated for an Academy Award, wrote and performed dozens of her own songs (including four in Disney's animated Lady and the Tramp), and published an autobiography and a poetry collection. Yet, as James Gavin's new comprehensive biography suggests, the woman born Norma Deloris Egstrom--the Jamestown, N.Dak., daughter of a hard-drinking railroad man and a mother who died when she was four--never quite found the satisfaction from fame, romance and riches she imagined in their prairie apartment beside the Midland Continental train tracks.

Gavin's lifelong interest in jazz led him to make hundreds of radio and other media appearances, write liner notes for more than 400 CDs, and publish biographies of Lena Horne (Stormy Weather) and Chet Baker (Deep in a Dream), all of which provides him with a deep cache of historical archives and interviews. Borrowing its title from one of her most famous songs, Is That All There Is? boasts descriptions of Lee from dozens of music heavyweights such as Count Basie ("Are you sure there's not some spade in you?"), Downbeat critic Dave Dexter, Jr. ("This chick sounds like a drunken old wh*re with the hots"), lyricist Jerry Leiber ("the funkiest white woman alive"), even Iggy Pop, of all people ("Peggy was a super-sassy super-hottie... she also had beautiful eyes and a bomb a**").

Gavin takes us behind the glamorous façade to the ambitious, often disappointed "Miss Peggy Lee," who never had enough money, lovers, or booze and pills to leave her hard-luck, small-town past behind. When Dragnet's Jack Webb cast her as the remorseful alcoholic cabaret singer Rose in his film Pete Kelly's Blues, he and the critics noticed that the part was exactly Peggy Lee. Nonetheless, four marriages, countless lovers, hypochondria and a crushing workload didn't stop her from creating a stage persona that seduced millions and won adulation and imitation from singers as diverse as Joni Mitchell, k.d. lang and Beyoncé. Lee's breathy, sultry, torch-singer voice became in time what Gavin calls a "true saloon voice, rough around the edges--the sound of cigarettes, liquor, late nights, a frequently broken heart, and a never-say-die spirit."

With neither the fawning adoration of Peter Richmond's 2007 biography Fever nor the tell-all scandal of a gossip column, Gavin's Is That All There Is? presents a balanced story of the life of a fragile star with extraordinary talent but also more than her share of insecurity, extravagance and eccentricity. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: Music journalist and biographer James Gavin brings extensive research and revealing interviews to his detailed portrait of the legendary artist Peggy Lee and her complicated life.

Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: Just Say No to Robot Booksellers

I blame Joe Queenan for sending me down the robot bookselling rabbit hole this week. "Are We Really Ready for Robot Salespeople?" was his column's headline in the Wall Street Journal recently. "Are there areas where robotic personnel would be a welcome addition to the U.S. economy?" he wrote. "Sure. Robots could easily replace bookstore clerks, dental hygienists, bouncers and college-admissions officers."

"Bookstore clerks" might be robot-replaceable, but not great indie booksellers, whose unpredictable book/author obsessions, evangelistic prime directive ("You must read this!") and emotional ties to their local communities do not necessarily lend themselves to seamless robotic replication.

On the other hand, I'd have to concede that managing robot "bookstore clerks" might be less complicated (until the inevitable robot uprising) than managing indie booksellers, which can seem more like herding bookstore cats. For example, bookstore clerk/robots could easily be programmed to wear a store uniform, while anyone who's ever been in a staff meeting debating the potential introduction of name badges knows all about fierce, if relatively quiet, bookseller uprisings.

That said, our robotic retail future appears to be at hand. Lowe's has unleashed OSHbots, which will "be able to communicate with customers in multiple languages and remotely connect with expert employees... to answer specific project questions." And "food giant" Nestle is deploying "1,000 'emotional' humanoids as sales clerks across its Japanese stores. We are sure that our customers will enjoy shopping and being entertained by robots."

Then there are Amazon's robots and Echos and drones, oh my! From Tuesday's New York Times: "In a promotional video, Echo had aspects of both Mary Poppins and HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with perhaps a touch of The Matrix."

Earlier this year, a designer envisioned the bookstore of the future as "niche, retro, social, inky, bibulous, but with only a few books to buy off the shelf. The idea is that you make your own, with the help of floating robots--choosing the paper, ink, font, leather, even gold leaf--on antique presses and binders."
John Forsyth, chair of the Australian bookstore chain Dymocks, told the Financial Review "the potential for robotics is massive, but that will take us some time to identify." He wasn't referring specifically to booksellers, but still.
As is often the case with future worlds, the warning signs have been around for years. From the digital/robotic archives of the New York Times:

1983: At the New York Is Book Country Fair, "McGraw-Hill Bookstore will have a computer activated by touching its screen. Omni magazine will welcome guests with a robot." And at the American Booksellers Convention in Dallas, booksellers lined up to hug "a red robot who not only walks but also talks a blue streak.... a visible reminder that computers are now an important part of American book publishing and bookselling."

1980: At the ABA meeting in Chicago, a "specter is haunting publishing.... What will bidding goodbye to Gutenberg lead to? The 'paperless' book, say the futurists. And what will the old-fashioned publishers, editors and authors be creating for their new hardware? Answer: not books but 'software' to feed the electronic robots."

1977: The ABA show in San Francisco featured "a five-foot-tall robot selling The Encyclopedia of How It Works... The robot's electric voice asked, 'Would you like to know how I work?' And gave back the answer: 'Get mommy to buy my book.' "

1930: "A grotesque figure" spoke during the ABA's dinner. "Two glassy eyes, one green and one red, stared from its flat face.... A row of little bulbs where the collarbone should have been were illuminated a grid-glow tube in the thorax flashed. Then this mechanical man began to speak.... Televox asked, almost coyly, 'I wonder if there are any questions.' 'What is your favorite book,' asked J.P. McEvoy, the toastmaster. 'My favorite book," responded Televox. "is Is Sex Necessary?"

Where will robotic handselling ultimately lead us as a civilization? You've seen that movie. As film trailer voice-overs like to say, "In a world where..."

Imagine robots working for a few years as bookstore clerks until they finish their novels and become robot authors. Far-fetched? Last month, organizers of Japan's Hoshi Prize for science fiction "decided to open up entries to aliens and computers," hoping that next year's competition "will see stories created by artificial intelligences going up against those written by humans, with judges to be unaware of who--or what--wrote an entry until the winner is chosen."

Are they already among us? Just ask yourself this: Would a human mind consciously link these four professions: "bookstore clerks, dental hygienists, bouncers and college-admissions officers"? Or did a robot "easily replace" Joe Queenan? --Robert Gray, contributing editor (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)

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