Shelf Awareness for Friday, April 20, 2018


Grove Press: The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

Gibbs Smith: We know that there's no place like the bookstore - Thank You Booksellers!

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers: Five Feet Apart by Rachel Lippincott with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis

Central Avenue Publishing: Pickle's Progress by Marcia Butler

Quotation of the Day

'Bringing the Human Element into Promotions' for Indies

"To us, great social media tells a good story. The goal is to reach your followers with organic content that means something to them, and we hope to do that by telling stories.... We're really passionate about bringing the human element into promotions. We envision doing something fairly similar to what Humans of New York does--taking a photo of the person and then telling a snippet of their story. We think that could be really powerful in putting a human face to these indie bookstores that are making such a difference in their communities."

--Mary Cate Stevenson, who, with Noah Nofz, runs Two Cats Communications, a digital media marketing company that is ABA's new part-time social media coordinator

Ecco Press: What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays by Damon Young


News

Ownership Transition Planned for Tucson's Antigone Books

Antigone Books, Tucson, Ariz., has solidified its plans for the future. In the store's e-mail newsletter yesterday, co-owners Trudy Mills and Kate Randall, who had put the business up for sale in 2016, announced they "have a plan for the future of Antigone Books and we couldn't be more thrilled."

Three staff members--Morgan Miller, Kate Stern and Melissa Negelspach--have been working for more than a year to find a way to buy the bookstore. Recently, they were approved for an SBA loan that will cover most of their costs, but need now "to raise a bit more to take them the rest of the way and see them through to a solid start."

New owners (l.-r.) Morgan Miller, Kate Stern and Melissa Negelspach

"We have every confidence that this is a great next chapter for the bookstore," Mills and Randall wrote. "Morgan, Kate and Melissa are extremely talented and hardworking, and have already brought their skills and interests to the bookstore you know today. They care deeply about Antigone Books and will maintain its spirit while bringing in new energy and ideas."

To help raise the additional $32,000 they require to cover operating capital and other loan-related costs, an Indiegogo campaign has been set up. In addition, Antigone Books will host a "Big Kickoff Party" on Independent Bookstore Day, with profits from all sales that day to be donated to the soon-to-be-owners.

On the Indiegogo page, the prospective new owners noted: "With your help, it will be purchased in 2018 by three women who have been working in independent bookstores for a collective 24 years and Antigone Books, specifically, for a collective 15 years. We have had the full support of Kate and Trudy since beginning this project: In addition to working toward buying the business, we've also spent this year and a half learning every aspect of running the business--directly from the women who made it what it is today....

"The most important thing to know about us is our deep love for Antigone Books. We are extremely loyal to this store that treats its employees with respect, that has feminist, progressive, and literary roots, and that has remained independent in its feel and policies since 1973. With us--the next generation of Antigone book lovers--the store will retain its spirit while growing in ways that further promote reading, create meaningful spaces for discourse, and attract new generations of thinkers and progressively-minded Tucsonans."

The Tucson Weekly reported that Mills and Randall "will retain ownership of the building. Mills plans to stay on a month after the sale is complete and then retire, while Randall will step down and become an employee."

"Maybe you’ll even see me at the cash register," she said.


Abrams: The Overlook Press Distribution Change


BookExpo, AAP Unveil CEO Panels

BookExpo and the Association of American Publishers are holding two CEO panels during this year's show at the Javits Center in New York City.

"Leadership Roundtable: Publishers on Publishing" will feature Markus Dohle, CEO of Penguin Random House; Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster; and John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan. The three will "reflect on industry trends, market highlights, and the power and responsibilities of publishers as global, corporate citizens," the organizers said. Maria A. Pallante, AAP president and CEO, will moderate the event, open to all BookExpo attendees and exhibitors, on May 31 (9:45 a.m., Downtown Stage).

"State of the Industry: Publishing and Copyright Policy" will be moderated by Associated Press publishing reporter Hillel Italie and feature AAP's Pallante; Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild; and Keith Kupferschmid, CEO of the Copyright Alliance. This panel will discuss "the equities of copyright law as they relate to authors, publishers, and other aspects of the public interest, from the promise of global digital commerce to the evolving legal landscape in the courts and on Capitol Hill." Open to all BookExpo attendees and exhibitors, the event takes place May 30 (10 a.m., room 1E12).

"We've reimagined BookExpo to become the place where the business of bookselling gets done in North America," said Ed Several, senior v-p, BookExpo. "This has included developing deeper relationships with industry leaders like the AAP who created these unprecedented roundtables with CEOs from the top publishing houses and industry organizations."

"This panel is a celebration of the publishing industry at the year's most important event for our community," said Marisa Bluestone, AAP senior director, communications.


Oxford University Press: Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War by Elizabeth R. Varon


Online Flash Mob Boosts Common Language Bookstore

"Every now and then the Internet is used for very good purposes, and one kind act can pick up momentum and become a trend or even a movement," the Mary Sue observed in reporting on a curious case of online empathy and action that occurred this week involving Common Language Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich.

On Monday dadrielle wrote on Tumblr: "I saw a sad facebook post from the gay bookstore back in Ann Arbor where I used to live about how they hadn't sold any books that day so I went on their online store and bought a couple, and while you don't get #deals like elsewhere online, I'd love it if y'all would consider buying your next gay book from them instead of like, Amazon."

Other Tumblr users "began to reblog the post at a fast rate," the Mary Sue noted, adding: "It's so easy these days to get anything from Amazon, especially more obscure or niche titles at the click of a button, that we often forget to support independent businesses. But many of us have a deep-seated love for bookstores that will never be broken--and that call to book-buying arms seemed to pay off immediately."

On Tuesday, Common Language wrote on Facebook: "So a pretty amazing thing is happening. Not sure why, but we have had 28 online orders in the last 24 hours. Some kind ambassador is posting something to get people on our site. Whoever that may be (and I have a couple of hunches) thank you so much. These are the types of days when we think it just might be possible to buck the trend and survive as a Feminist/LGBT bookstore."

In an update posted Wednesday, the bookstore noted: "At last count we had 211 online orders over the last couple of days. We generally have a handful of online orders PER MONTH. And many days our in store sales are 3-5 books. In other words, this deluge is significantly more than we sell in a month. We are literally brought to tears by this outpouring....

"As I take a short break from fulfilling orders I wanted to share a few thoughts. This is transformative.... All of you did this. You made it happen. And you can be a part of making that dream come true. In fact, you can be the most important part of making that dream come true. You can be an ambassador. It was, after all, an ambassador who made this happen."

The Mary Sue added: "Strangers online have single-handedly helped to boost this wonderful shop, staffed by 'three people and one dog,' and if the orders continue past this current viral spike--the original Tumblr post, plus additions, now has upwards of 120,000 notes--we can help to expand and grow the bookstore's future possibilities."


Ecco Press: White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf


University Press of New England Will Close in December

The University Press of New England, a publishing consortium of colleges and universities founded in 1970, will be shut down by the end of 2018, Dartmouth College has announced.

While at one time UPNE included as many as 10 institutions, only Dartmouth and Brandeis University have been involved for the past two years, with the former employing all UPNE staff and the consortium headquartered in Lebanon, N.H. Dartmouth president Phil Hanlon said that with only two institutions involved, UNPE had become "unsustainable to operate."

"This decision was not made quickly or easily," said Hanlon. "Dartmouth will continue to support the scholarly publication of the work of its faculty."

After UNPE's closure in December, Dartmouth and Brandeis will take control of their own respective imprints. According to the press release, "Brandeis University Press is engaged in discussions to find alternative arrangements to secure the Brandeis University Press imprint into the future," and Dartmouth will appoint a faculty study group to "consider whether and how the Dartmouth press should move forward." The group will present its recommendations in November.

Dartmouth's chief human resources officer Scot Bemis, meanwhile, said that the college's HR office will work to assist UPNE staff "in identifying other employment opportunities."


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Obituary Note: Geoffrey M. Footner

Geoffrey M. Footner, "a former Baltimore shipping executive who later became a noted maritime author, historian and lecturer," died April 5, the Baltimore Sun reported. He was 94. "Geoffrey was a rough and tumble, argumentative, seafaring salt--and the best friend you could ever have," said Scott S. Sheads, a fellow author and historian. "He's homeward bound now, and has left us onshore with a lot of wonderful memories.... Geoffrey always had a great interest in Baltimore history and became a colorful figure in the city's maritime history. Over the years we had many lunches together and he was still talking about the War of 1812 as if it was still in progress. He was delightful to listen to."

Another friend and author, Ralph E. Eshelman, called Footner "a character, and everyone whoever met Geoffrey felt that way. He was a guy who did what he wanted to, and didn't care what other people thought.... I couldn't get enough of him. He was unique."

Footner's books include The Last Generation: A History of a Chesapeake Shipbuilding Family--M.M. Davis and Son (1991); Tidewater Triumph: The Development and Worldwide Success of the Chesapeake Bay Pilot Schooner (1998); USS Constellation: From Frigate to Sloop of War (2003); and A Bungled Affair: Britain's War on the United States, the final Years, 1814-1815 (2013).


G.L.O.W. - Galley Love of the Week
Be the first to have an advance copy!
The Night Before
by Wendy Walker

Four months ago, Laura Lochner began therapy: "It was in my hand. The weapon that killed him.... That night made me see what I've always been." Now, beginning anew, she has gone on a date: "I am going to get it right tonight. Even if it kills me." But she doesn't return. Is she a victim? Or a killer? Unreliable narrators are de rigueur, but with The Night Before, Wendy Walker takes this a step further with a brilliant twist, according to Jennifer Enderlin, St. Martin's Press executive vice-president and publisher. "She is going to start a trend where 'shifting time structure' is the hook. [Laura] tells you the truth from page one." Or does she? As the clock clicks down, we are whipsawed between now and then in a taut and edgy thriller. --Marilyn Dahl, Shelf Awareness

(St. Martin's Press, $26.99 hardcover, 9781250198679, May 14, 2019)

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Notes

Come for the Peaches, Stay for the Credits

André Aciman with Shelf Awareness's Dave Wheeler

Shelf Awareness associate editor Dave Wheeler joined André Aciman, author of Call Me by Your Name (Picador), for a conversation about the novel and its recent film adaptation by director Luca Guadagnino, starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. The event took place earlier this year at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; the audience q&a was held on the main floor of the bookstore to better accommodate the packed crowd. John O'Brien from KUOW, the local NPR station, recorded the conversation for an episode of its Speakers Forum series, which is now available to stream online.


Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop 'Puts Verse Before Prose'

A chalkboard outside Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop reads: "New Year's goal: Read more poetry!" amNewYork noted in its profile of the DUMBO neighborhood specialty bookstore that features "tables splayed with various sizes of poetry books, in a range of colors and formats, adorn the small space. Shelves on the perimeter of the bookshop alphabetize the authors by first (rather than last) name, and record store-style flip shelves organize titles by contemporary poets, showing off their artwork to perusing customers who may pick a vintage album for the same aesthetic reasons."

Owners Farrah Field and Jared White started selling books from independent poets and small presses at the Brooklyn Flea in 2011 before moving into a storefront. "We wanted to do something kind of different than anyone was doing," White said. "We focus on small presses and handmade books, stuff that doesn't usually end up in bookstores."

Berl's "attracts a strong local contingent, as well as tourists walking their way through the historic neighborhood," amNew York wrote.

"We're the only bookstore doing this with poetry in New York," White said. "And Brooklyn is the place to do it because there's such a rich, totally open community."



Media and Movies

Media Heat: Steve Israel on Weekend All Things Considered

Tomorrow:
CNN's Van Jones Show: Cecile Richards, author of Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead--My Life Story (Touchstone, $27, 9781501187599).

NPR's All Things Considered: Steve Israel, author of Big Guns: A Novel (Simon & Schuster, $26, 9781788544283).

Sunday:
MSNBC's Kasie DC: Pat Cunnane, author of West Winging It: An Un-presidential Memoir (Gallery, $28, 9781501178290).


Adaptive Studios Acquires Zane Grey's Literary Estate

Adaptive Studios has purchased Zane Grey's complete literary estate, "which includes a massive catalogue of intellectual property from one of the most iconic storytellers of the American West," Deadline reported. More than 133 titles are involved in the deal. Adaptive Studios "hopes to breathe new life into Grey's classic western stories for modern audiences to be distributed across digital, TV, film and publishing." In addition to Grey's literary works, Adaptive Studios will retain and manage all rights related to Zane Grey's name and likeness, Deadline wrote.


Movies: Beautiful Ruins; Words on Bathroom Walls

David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) "is making a deal to direct Fox 2000's film adaptation of Jess Walter's 2012 New York Times bestseller Beautiful Ruins," Deadline reported, adding that Sam Mendes "brought it to the studio intending to direct, but he stepped out and will produce through Neal Street with Julie Pastor and Karen Rosenfelt." Walters is executive producer alongside Neal Street's Pippa Harris. The script was written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster. The plan is to go into production this summer.

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AnnaSophia Robb will co-star opposite Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell (Lost in Space) in Words on Bathroom Walls, based on Julia Walton’s debut novel, Deadline reported. Directed by the Thor Freudenthal, the film was written by Nick Naveda. LD Entertainment financing and Mickey Liddell and Pete Shilaimon are producing.


PBS Books Covering Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

Tomorrow and Sunday, PBS Books will cover the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which is being held this weekend on the University of Southern California campus. In partnership with PBS's the Great American Read, the schedule includes many author interviews. (The festival lineup includes Junot Diaz, Diana Gabaldon, Caroline Fraser, among many others.) Hosts are PBS Books executive producer Rich Fahle; Jeffrey Brown, PBS NewsHour correspondent for arts, culture and society; and Ashley C. Ford, cultural writer and author. The programming will be livestreamed from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific (2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern) both days on PBSBooks.org and on Facebook Live.


Books & Authors

Awards: SIBA's Southern Book Finalists; Wolfson History Shortlist

The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance has determined finalists for the 2018 Southern Book Prize. This year features 30 titles across eight categories that have been selected as representing the best in Southern literature. The finalists will be sent to juried panels of booksellers, who will select winners in each category. Winners will be announced July 4, "Independents Day." Check out this year's Southern Book Prize finalists here.

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A shortlist has been unveiled for the £40,000 (about $56,775) Wolfson History Prize, "recognizing and celebrating books which combine excellence in historical research with readability for a general audience." Each shortlisted author receives £4,000 (about $5,680). The winner will be announced June 4. This year's finalists are:

Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination by Robert Bickers
The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris
A Deadly Legacy: German Jews and the Great War by Tim Grady
Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann
Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation by Peter Marshall
Heligoland: Britain, Germany and the Struggle for the North Sea by Jan Rüger


Reading with... Alexandra Borowitz

photo: Jeff Harris

Alexandra Borowitz is the author of Family and Other Catastrophes (Mira, April 10, 2018). She has been writing since early childhood and loves drawing inspiration from awkward everyday situations and anxieties to craft stories that center on dysfunctional families.
 
On your nightstand now:

Literally speaking, a book that my sister wrote me on my wedding day. We're 20 years apart, so she was five when she wrote it, but it was impressively long, and all about our relationship. I will treasure it forever. In terms of published books, the next book on my list is Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I was obsessed with puberty as soon as I learned what it was, so I loved Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Especially because much like Margaret, I wasn't raised religious but I really wanted to find some kind of faith, and I often felt like the only kid my age who actually envied all her friends who got to go to Sunday school. That, and I couldn't wait to get boobs.

Your top five authors:

Margaret Atwood, because she's essentially the godmother of dystopian science fiction. She has also written many books that aren't science fiction and don't get nearly enough credit, like The Robber Bride, which I loved. Jonathan Tropper is another favorite, because he's essentially the gold standard when it comes to the genre I write, and I've always admired him. Other favorites are Stephen King, Maria Semple and Ann Patchett.

Book you've faked reading:

When I was in ninth grade, I switched schools and learned that I would have to read Guns, Germs and Steel over the summer. I would have been a lot more excited to read this if the title wasn't literally the most boring thing I could ever imagine as a 14-year-old girl obsessed with shoes and makeup. I started reading the book in earnest, and I was drawn in by an opening scene about a farmer who was boning his sheep, but very quickly the book started revolving around silt and then I never picked it up again. When we discussed it on the first day of school, I generally just copied what other kids said and started with "Piggybacking on that comment...."

Book you're an evangelist for:

The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder. It's hilarious and the descriptions are so evocative. I'm also a sucker for anything about dysfunctional families and weddings, obviously.

Book you've bought for the cover:

When I was in high school, I picked up A Taxonomy of Barnacles by Galt Niederhoffer. I liked it because the cover looked cute, but much to my surprise I also wound up loving the story itself. In hindsight this might have been the book that inspired my obsession with the comedic family dynamic genre.

Book you hid from your parents:

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison. My mom actually bought this for me when I was in middle school, but it seemed insanely edgy to me. I guess I didn't literally hide it from her, but I felt very precocious reading it, and I assumed she bought it for me without knowing anything about the content. In terms of a book I literally hid from my parents, I know my mom bought some kind of "you and your body" type book when I first got my period, which included ridiculously graphic descriptions of sex. Sometimes I'd reread that bit by myself and then hide the book in my bedside drawer because it felt naughty. Even though--again--my parents bought it for me in the first place.

Book that changed your life:

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. I bought it in a mad Margaret Atwood spree after I finished some of her better-known books, and went into it without reading the summary. I just naturally assumed it was science fiction, and read it as if the characters were living in some alternate reality--until about a quarter through the book I realized it was just a regular novel set in the real world. But by then I was already hooked. It's an amazing story, and I love how she's able to write from different perspectives, telling the same story several different ways.

Favorite line from a book:

"If at first you don't succeed, lower your expectations." --Jonathan Tropper, This Is Where I Leave You

Five books you'll never part with:

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (hilarious), On Writing by Stephen King (taught me so much about writing and crafting a story), The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (no, I didn't read it after discovering the Hulu series, although that was very good too), The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (fantastic and addicting narrative) and This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper (the best of dysfunctional family-centered novels).

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

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I read it after a coworker recommended it, and I got through it way too quickly because I would stupidly read on my walk to and from work (imagine the opening scene from Beauty and the Beast where Belle pranced down the provincial French streets with her nose in a book--except I was in San Francisco and dodging puddles of urine).

Book you had to read for school but actually liked:

The Giver by Lois Lowry. When I first found out I had to read it at school, I wasn't expecting much because the cover is just a black-and-white photo of an old bearded man. At the time I would have much rather read the "Create Your Own Rap" form on the back of a box of Reese's Puffs, but much to my surprise, I immediately fell in love with the world of The Giver. It was the first dystopic/futuristic story I had ever read and that later became a favorite genre of mine.


Book Review

Review: Pretend I'm Dead

Pretend I'm Dead by Jen Beagin (Scribner, $24 hardcover, 240p., 9781501183935, May 15, 2018)

Whiting Award-winner Jen Beagin's first novel, Pretend I'm Dead, features the raunchy, antsy, droll and painstakingly proficient housekeeper Mona. After a blue-collar childhood in Torrance, Calif., with an alcoholic father and equally dysfunctional mother, she is placed with distant kin in Lowell ("Hole"), Mass., and pretty much left to fend for herself. By day she cleans the houses of her adopted hometown with "all this brick and repression... snow, wool, guilt." By night she works at a pop-up needle exchange where she meets a disabled addict wearing a tee with Jack Kerouac on the front. Two decades older and living in an SRO hotel, this man she calls "Mr. Disgusting" has a room with real paintings, Indian textiles and shelves of existential and Russian novels--unlike her last boyfriend: "some edgeless dude... whose heaviest cross to bear had been acne." Mona may not know where she's going, but she knows what she likes.

If Mona's uneasy relationship with Mr. Disgusting opens doors to possibility, her housecleaning work grounds her. She's got a vacuum jones ("on applications she listed it as one of her hobbies") to go with the practice of raiding her clients' medicine cabinets. When Mr. Disgusting disappears, he leaves her a letter urging her to escape to New Mexico to start a new life. Why not?

Packing her pickup with books and cleaning supplies, she takes off in "what the 12-steppers called a geographic," rents half an adobe casita duplex in Taos, and launches a housekeeping business. Sharing her casita, the ashram mystics Irishman Nigel and Japanese Shiori remind her of John and Yoko, "but the truth was, they were more like Yoko and Yoko." They take Mona under wing and introduce her to meditation, a healthy diet and marathon contemplation of New Mexico sunsets. Softening somewhat under their transcendental tutelage, Mona reaches out to reconnect with her father and even holds questioning discourse with the God she calls "Bob."

As Mona's business adds new referral clients, she finds herself scrubbing the floors and bathrooms of cancer victim Henry and spiffing the double-wide in the desert of red-haired psychic Betty. Beagin generously seasons her narrative with the nuts and bolts of housekeeping work, including Mona's reliable Hoover Aero-Dyne Model 51 vacuum and clever uses of Murphy Oil Soap on leather sofas and olive oil on stainless steel appliances. But Pretend I'm Dead is all Mona's story. The central characters of its four sections provide a different slant on her often painful path to maturity. She listens and she learns. Beagin's debut is grungy and ribald, melancholic and funny. Throw in a little wisdom, schmaltz and a few useful housekeeping tips, and Pretend I'm Dead delivers a real bang for the buck. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: Whiting Award-winner Jen Beagin's first novel introduces the raffish and despondent Mona, a beguiling and lovable cleaning lady.


Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: 'The Best Way to Tell the Story'

On Monday, I read that during the London Book Fair's Quantum Conference, Hachette U.K. CEO David Shelley said he was "optimistic" about "people's relationship with paper" and the trend of younger generations gravitating back toward paper, along with the resurgence of independent booksellers. "If you look at what consumers are saying they want from us, they're not saying they want interactive e-books," he observed. "What consumers are saying that they want from us are really, really beautiful books."

That's true... and heartening. I'm one of those people described above who have a lasting "relationship with paper." I'd guess you are, too. It is only a slight exaggeration to say: "Books are my life." But I'm also intrigued by other voices out there. No, this isn't a ghost story, though there is a ghost story coming up if you read just a little further.

On Tuesday, I read an interview with "applied futurist" Tom Cheesewright, who contends that e-book sales statistics "are completely wrong--they only take account of established publishers, so it's measuring the wrong thing. As I say, technology breeds diversity, and that includes diversity of publishing models as well as diversity of formats." The next question posed to him was about the future of bookshops, and he was optimistic, in a futurist kind of way: "Machines remain really bad at giving us a good discovery experience."

So... that's a consolation.

On Wednesday, I read Kate Pullinger's story "Breathe" on my iPhone. It was produced in association with the Ambient Literature project, which launched in 2016 to "investigate the locational and technological future of the book. The project is focused on the study of emergent forms of literature that make use of novel technologies and social practices in order to create robust and evocative experiences for readers."

"I plan to write a ghost story to be experienced in a bedroom in a city--any bedroom, in any city," Pullinger had noted in the Bookseller when the Ambient Literature project began. And she did just that, later describing "Breathe" as "a literary experience delivered through your smartphone that responds to your presence by internalizing the world around you. Using APIs--application programming interfaces--the story leverages data about you, including place, weather, time, in order to create an experience that is personal and uncanny."

In a recent blog post, Tom Abba wrote: "Ambient Literature has been an extended conversation about storytelling, situation, audience, presence and much much more." During this year's Hay Festival, his group will be running workshops, hosting a panel discussion and making a new piece of work--"Words We Never Wrote"--that will premiere there and "explores the meaning of writing, language, and storytelling. I'm incredibly proud of this piece--it asks questions about linearity and form, art and suggestion that I've been aching to address for years."

Ambient Literature is one of many ways to answer the eternal storytelling prompt: "What if?" As a reader, former bookseller, working member of the book trade, and person "of a certain age," I am as devoted to the traditional book as I've always been. I have never become an e-book guy, but I am intrigued by alternative ways in which stories can be told using technology.

In 2016, the same year Ambient Literature launched, I saw Simon McBurney's stage production The Encounter in New York (It has just opened in London to begin a European tour). You could say that the production is "based on" Petru Popescu's book Amazon Beaming, which chronicles the head-spinning 1969 journey by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre into a remote area of Brazil, where he became lost and literally/figuratively blew his mind.

You could say it was about that, but it becomes so much more when filtered through McBurney's imagination. He explains it better than I ever could here, and here, and here. I sat in a sold-out Broadway theater, wearing headphones like everyone else in the audience, and became part of this incredible act of storytelling. Safer than being lost in the Amazon jungle, but mind-blowing nonetheless (trailer).

On Thursday, I read an interview with Gareth Fry, a member of The Encounter's sound design team, who said: "Simon was given the book about 20 years ago and he spent a long time mulling over how to do it. He did some workshops before I came on board and began to think about the story's epic scale, its claustrophobia and its characters. That the audience wear headphones is something that evolved out of that process of trying to find the best way to tell the story." (McBurney's take on storytelling).

That's it, really--"the best way to tell the story." Printed books have always done the job flawlessly for me, and still do every day. But there are stories that can be told in other ways. Kate Pullinger's "Breathe" is one; The Encounter another. While e-books themselves don't interest me, I'm fascinated by the technological exploration of "What if?" Ultimately, I think the best way to tell a story depends upon who the storyteller is.

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

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