Shelf Awareness for Friday, June 7, 2019

Little Brown and Company: Wolf at the Table by Adam Rapp

Tor Nightfire: Ghost Station by S.A. Barnes

Severn River Publishing: Covert Action (Command and Control #5) by J.R. Olson and David Bruns

Scholastic Press: Heroes: A Novel of Pearl Harbor by Alan Gratz

Flatiron Books: Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzalez

Peachtree Publishers: King & Kayla and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost (King & Kayla) by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers


Waterstones Owner Buying B&N; Daunt to Head Both Companies

Elliott Management, the U.S. private equity company whose U.K. arm, Elliott Advisors, bought Waterstones last year, is buying Barnes & Noble, B&N announced this morning. Elliott is paying $6.50 a share--well above recent levels--in an all-cash transaction that places the company's value at $683 million, including the assumption of debt.

The companies will be operated separately, but in a very positive move for the long-struggling chain, Waterstones CEO James Daunt, who led the turnaround of Waterstones, will be made CEO of B&N and be based in New York City. The companies said that under this arrangement, B&N and Waterstones will "benefit from the sharing of best practice between the companies. Waterstones has successfully restored itself to sales growth and sustainable profitability, based on a strategy of investment in their store estate and the empowerment of local bookselling teams. Under Daunt's leadership and Elliott's stewardship, this commitment to bookselling excellence will strengthen the ability of both companies to navigate with success a rapidly changing retail landscape."

Noting that B&N has 627 stores across the country, Elliott said it "seeks to build upon this strong foundation as it addresses the significant challenges facing the bricks and mortar book retail space, applying a model that successfully turned around Waterstones over the past decade."

In comments on the sale, B&N founder and chairman Len Riggio, who owns 19% of the company, called Waterstones "a bookseller I have admired over the years. In view of the success they have had in the bookselling marketplace, I believe they are uniquely suited to improve and grow our company for many years ahead. I am also confident that James Daunt has the leadership ability and experience necessary to lead this great organization. I will do everything I can to help him make the transition smooth. Having been the leader of Barnes & Noble for 54 years, I have had the privilege of working with the very best people in all the world of bookselling, including our great store managers and booksellers, who work in our stores. It is they who have made Barnes & Noble the #1 most reputable retailer in America. My profound thanks, as well, to the entire publishing world, with whom we have shared a great relationship over the years, and the many suppliers who have provided vital services. Finally, to our tens of millions of wonderful customers and members, it has been a privilege to serve them."

James Daunt

Daunt said, "I look forward greatly to working with the booksellers at Barnes & Noble. Physical bookstores the world over face fearsome challenges from online and digital. We meet these with investment and with all the more confidence for being able to draw on the unrivalled bookselling skills of these two great companies. As a place in which to choose a book, and for the sheer pleasure of visiting, we know that a good bookstore has no equal. I thank Mr. Riggio for his confidence, and I am grateful to Elliott for their commitment to support the continued transformation at Waterstones, and now also the same at Barnes & Noble."

Paul Best of Elliott commented: "Our investment in Barnes & Noble, following our investment last year in Waterstones, demonstrates our conviction that readers continue to value the experience of a great bookstore. We would like to acknowledge the contributions of founder and chairman Leonard Riggio and his team for creating the leading bookstore company in the United States. We look forward to working with James Daunt and the Barnes & Noble community of readers, members and booksellers as they start an exciting new chapter."

B&N's board voted unanimously to approve the deal, which is the conclusion of a process that began last October, in the turmoil after the abrupt firing of CEO Demos Parneros and a failed sale to WH Smith--another U.K. book retailer. At that point, B&N formed a special committee of board members to review "strategic alternatives" after the company received "expressions of interest from multiple parties" about buying B&N, including one from Riggio. Riggio had said he would "support and vote his shares" in favor of whatever the committee recommends. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal wrote that Elliott was "nearing a deal" to buy B&N," which was the first indication publicly of any progress in the effort to sell B&N.

Len Riggio

At the same time, Bloomberg News reported that Readerlink was also in the running to buy B&N, and that Riggio would be "a part of the deal." Once known as Levy Home Entertainment, Readerlink is the largest wholesaler of books to mass merchandisers, grocery stores, drug stores and other retailers. Bloomberg's sources called Elliott Management's offer more attractive than Readerlink's.

B&N stock jumped on the news yesterday, rising $1.37--nearly 30%--to $5.96 a share. This morning, after B&N and Elliott announced that the deal is happening, in pre-market trading B&N jumped again, by about 10%, to $6.50 a share--the amount Elliott has agreed to pay. B&N stock had performed dismally in recent months, dropping to $4.11 a share, near its all-time low. Before yesterday's news, the market capitalization of the company--the price of all its shares together--was in the low $300-million range, much lower than Elliott's offer of $683 million.

Elliott Management is best known for buying shares of debt-laden public companies and taking an adversarial role against management, pressuring for changes and moves to improve the stock price, a situation different from its full purchase of B&N. Founder and head Paul Singer personally is known for his strong financial support of the Republican Party and for his support of LGBTQ rights. Elliott Advisors, the U.K. arm, is run by Singer's son Gordon Singer.

In April 2018, Elliott Advisors bought a majority interest in Waterstones and, in September, Waterstones bought Foyles, the legendary London bookshop with six branches in London and elsewhere in England.

Waterstones had been owned by Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, who sold because he needed to raise cash after the collapse of a Russian bank in which he was a major shareholder. Mamut had bought long-struggling Waterstones in 2011; it was the last of the major U.K. bookselling chains and many thought it would soon go out of business. Mamut then appointed James Daunt CEO, an unusual move because Daunt was--and is--an indie bookseller: he owns Daunt Books, which has nine bookshops in London.

Under Daunt, who restructured and rebuilt Waterstones, the bookseller became profitable in 2015. Daunt is widely admired in the book business in the U.K., and seems to have worked well with nonbook owners--in one case, a Russian oligarch, and then a hedge fund. Among the changes he implemented at Waterstones: restructuring duties so that booksellers can spend more time selling books; making bookshops more reflective of their distinct communities; instituting campaigns to promote specific titles chosen by its booksellers; de-emphasizing front-of-shop coop campaigns; and taking the apostrophe out of Waterstone's.

For an in-depth introduction to Daunt's views on bookselling, how he turned around Waterstones, Amazon's effect on bookselling and much more, see our report on his keynote address two years ago at the Australian Booksellers Association annual conference.

University of California Press: The Accidental Ecosystem: People and Wildlife in American Cities by Peter S. Alagona

Sag Harbor Books Opens on Long Island

Sag Harbor Books, which will sell both new and rare titles as well as other collectibles, opened for Memorial Day Weekend at 7 Main St. in Sag Harbor, N.Y. 

The bookshop will be run by Greg Harris and Daniel Hirsch, who also operate Southampton Books on Hampton Road, the Real Deal reported, adding that "Hirsch hopes to have a robust selection of literary offerings, but also wants weave the store into the fabric of the area’s nightlife with author readings and book clubs."

"The arrival of a new, independent bookstore is welcome news for Sag Harbor's vibrant Main Street corridor, which already hosts an eclectic mix of stores and restaurants," said Manhattan Skyline Management Corp.'s Joshua Roth, who represented both landlord and tenant.

The Book Bus Gets Rolling in Cincinnati, Ohio

This spring, retired teacher Melanie Moore founded The Book Bus, a mobile bookstore based in Cincinnati, Ohio, that she built out of a 1962 VW Transporter truck. The bus sells new and gently used books, and Moore uses a portion of all the profits made from the Book Bus to purchase new books for children and classrooms in low income areas.

Depending on the weather, Moore typically sets up shop at farmers markets, flea markets or other outdoor events, CityBeat reported. When the weather isn't favorable, she can most often be found at area coffee shops.

Before retiring to pursue her bookstore dream, Moore was a school teacher for 25 years. She attended the Paz & Associates "bootcamp" and for a time she considered opening a traditional bricks-and-mortar location, but in the end decided that a bookmobile was the way to go. And she realized that she already had the right vehicle--her husband's 1962 Transporter.

Moore added that when she buys books to donate to children and schools, she makes every purchase from the Blue Manatee Literacy Project bookstore, which itself donates a book for every book sold. Said Moore: "It's a win-win!"

Books and Smoothies at Bedlam Book Cafe

Last November, owner Nicole DiCello opened Bedlam Book Cafe in Worcester, Mass. The predominantly used store specializes in literature, arts and humanities, sciences and books from academic and independent presses. DiCello also sells hurts and remainders, and carries a small selection of new titles written by local authors.

The cafe, meanwhile, sells coffee, tea and organic smoothies and juices, along with a selection of plant-based snacks and small-plate items. DiCello said all of her juice and smoothie ingredients are organic, and she partners with a variety of local farms.

DiCello, who is originally from the Midwest, moved to Worcester five years ago, the Worcester Business Journal reported. After a frustrating job search, DiCello decided to make her love of food and books her career.

The store is located in Crompton Place, a renovated former mill that is now home to a variety of local businesses and restaurants.

Obituary Note: Sophie Christopher

Sophie Christopher

Sophie Christopher, senior publicity manager at Transworld and co-founder of The FLIP (Female Leadership in Publishing), died June 3, the Bookseller reported. She was 28. Transworld managing director Larry Finlay said staff were "in a state of shock" at the loss of someone who "worked with relentless energy and alacrity, and with ideas at everything she touched....

"It's always devastating when any colleague dies--losing someone so young, so full of life and so full of further potential is even harder for all to take. Sophie was such a life force and a completely brilliant publicist. We all adored working with her, as did her authors."

Christopher began her publishing career at John Blake, and went on to work for Bloomsbury before joining Transworld in 2014. This year, she launched The FLIP, a digital platform and newsletter, alongside Ella Horne and Helena Gonda. The Bookseller noted that the initiative, "aimed at showcasing 'brilliant, inspiring, courageous and creative' women who work in the publishing industry, has amassed more than 3,700 Twitter followers in the months since its launch."

In an e-mail to staff, Finlay wrote: "Every author Sophie worked with was so grateful for all she did on their behalves. Every one of us who worked with her loved doing so--Sophie was not only the quintessential professional, she made sure to put everyone around her at their ease and have fun whilst doing so. She loved her work. She loved books. We are all going to miss her so very much."

Penguin Random House U.K. CEO Tom Weldon paid tribute to Christopher at PRH’s annual conference this week: "She embodied effervescence, an unstoppable force of positivity and enthusiasm, there was always this amazing smile on her face. Her latest brilliant project was the FLIP, a digital project to promote female leadership in publishing. I know how devastated everyone in the Ealing office, and indeed across the company, is feeling. There is nothing I can say to the friends and colleagues of John, Susan and Sophie to take away your pain but my heart goes out to you."


Image of the Day: A Musical Launch at Parnassus

Musical guests including country singer and author Radney Foster (For You to See the Stars) helped musician and journalist Henry Carrigan (above, left) celebrate the launch of his new book, Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life (Paraclete Press) at Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn.

Ga. Indie Booksellers on Great Summer Reads

"Whether you are headed to the lake or the beach, it's the perfect time to pick up your next favorite summer read," Georgia Public Broadcasting's On Second Thought noted in asking "a group of Georgia independent bookstore owners to recommend their favorite big hits and hidden gems for summer. Jessica Osborne from E. Shaver in Savannah, Janet Geddis from Avid Bookshop in Athens and Frank Reiss from A Cappella Books in Atlanta all shared their picks for the season."

S&S to Distribute Tanglewood Publishing

Effective October 1, Simon & Schuster will handle sales and distribution to markets and territories worldwide for Tanglewood Publishing.

Tanglewood Publishing, Indianapolis, Ind., publishes children's and YA titles featuring characters whose "spirit and experiences reflect the real world and issues of young readers, captured in an engaging story."

Personnel Changes at PRHPS; Simon & Schuster

At Penguin Random House Publisher Services:

Rachel Goldstein is named senior v-p, client operations, finance and strategy.

Chuck Errig is promoted to v-p, executive director, client sales and strategy.

Scott Gould is promoted to senior manager, business development.


Doug Stambaugh has been promoted to the newly created position of v-p, director, strategic operations and business development, at Simon & Schuster. He joined the company in 2007 and since 2013 has been v-p, global e-book market development and strategy.

Media and Movies

TV: Worzel Gummidge

Mackenzie Crook is writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of classic British scarecrow story Worzel Gummidge, based on the children's book series by English novelist Barbara Euphan Todd. Deadline reported that Crook, who made his name in the BBC comedy The Office and created The Detectorists, is adapting the works into two-hour long films, The Scarecrow of Scatterbrook and The Green Man, for the BBC. He will star as Gummidge, a scarecrow that can come to life.

"I'm thrilled to be back working with the BBC and many members of the Detectorists team to bring Worzel Gummidge to a new generation of viewers and reintroduce him to old friends," Crook said, "Adapting Barbara Euphan Todd's books into these two films has been a joy and I've completely fallen for her charming, irreverent scarecrow. Fingers crossed for a glorious English summer as we head out to Scatterbrook Farm and Worzel's Ten Acre Field."

Movies: The Goldfinch; The Hawkline Monster

The first trailer has been released for The Goldfinch, based on Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Variety reported that the project is John Crowley's "latest film after 2015's Brooklyn, and he enlisted Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins for the drama. The striking visuals in the trailer are certainly reminiscent of Deakins's previous work, which includes Blade Runner 2049, The Shawshank Redemption and No Country for Old Men.

The Goldfinch stars Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Finn Wolfhard, Jeffrey Wright, Ashleigh Cummings, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Denis O'Hare and Aneurin Barnard. The Warner Bros. film hits theaters September 13.


New Regency has acquired film rights to "the long-gestating adaptation of Richard Brautigan's Gothic Western novel The Hawkline Monster, which the legendary Hal Ashby had been trying to get to the big screen," Deadline reported. Roy Lee (It), Andrew Trapani (Winchester) and Steven Schneider (Pet Sematary) will serve as producers.

Ashby first acquired The Hawkline Monster in 1975, a year after the book was published, and attempted to adapt it into a film. Deadline wrote that "various stars were attached including Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman as well as Jeff and Beau Bridges. Following the death of Brautigan in 1984 and then Ashby in 1988, Tim Burton fell in line to develop the project for Nicholson and Clint Eastwood. The adaptive rights then fell into limbo between the Ashby and Brautigan estates for decades before New Regency picked up the rights."

Books & Authors

Awards: PEN/Malamud Winner

John Edgar Wideman won the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. He will be honored December 6 at the PEN/Malamud Award ceremony. The selection committee wrote that Wideman's short stories "render an internal and external world as vivid and intricate as Faulkner's, as emotionally painful as Baldwin's, and as unique as his own streets and stoops of Homewood. Through complex, lyrical language, Wideman creates intimate portraits of the characters in his sprawling family, in his classrooms, in prison, and elsewhere, characters whose conflicts mirror the larger world as it struggles with history and identity. Wideman challenges readers to consider what defines, separates, and unites us."

Wideman's books include American Histories, Writing to Save a Life, Philadelphia Fire, Brothers and Keepers, Fatheralong, Hoop Roots, and Sent for You Yesterday. He is a MacArthur Fellow, has won the PEN/Faulkner Award twice, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and National Book Award.

"I am very excited," he said. "I feel honored, lucky, and grateful to join such a distinguished group of writers."

PEN/Faulkner executive director Gwydion Suilebhan commented: "It's thrilling to be able to add as accomplished an artist as John Edgar Wideman to the list of distinguished PEN/Malamud Award-winning writers. His presence enriches the legacy of this award."

Reading with... Fleet Maull

photo: Robert Mann

In 1985, Fleet Maull was sentenced to 25 years without parole for drug trafficking. Maull made a commitment to eliminate negativity from his life and to use his education and talents to accomplish something of value during his time in prison. In addition to creating one of the first inside-prison hospice programs in the world while incarcerated at a maximum-security prison, Maull created two national organizations--Prison Mindfulness Institute and National Prison Hospice Association. Maull is a senior teacher in both the Zen and Tibetan meditation traditions, executive coach, social entrepreneur and creator of the Radical Responsibility philosophy and program. His new book is Radical Responsibility: How to Move Beyond Blame, Fearlessly Live Your Highest Purpose, and Become an Unstoppable Force for Good (Sounds True, May 14, 2019).

On your nightstand now:

Man Up by Bedros Keuilian: This is an easy-to-read prescription for embracing what I call "radical responsibility," written by someone who has both failed and succeeded, and who built his success from scratch having arrived in the U.S. penniless with his parents.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson is another very clear exposition of the approach I call "radical responsibility." Mark's irreverent approach really gets the psychology of success across in a very readable way.  

The Science of Meditation by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson is a very clear exposition of the state of the research on mindfulness and meditation. Goleman, a veteran science writer/psychologist, and Davidson, a preeminent neuroscientist, chose only the most rigorous studies to include in their in-depth survey of the scientific literature on meditation and its impacts.

Principles by Ray Dalio: he is perhaps the most successful wealth manager and investor on the planet who has built teams that perform at the very highest level in a very competitive industry. He knows what he's talking about.  

The Guru Drinks Bourbon? by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse: Dzongsar Khyentse is an unapologetic voice taking a stand for the genuine Vajrayana Buddhist approach to awakening and the critical role of the guru or vajra master in that tradition. He is refreshingly candid and unconcerned with political correctness.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt: I haven't started this one yet but have listened to many podcast interviews with Haidt, who is an unapologetic voice for reason, critical thinking and free speech.

American Prison by Shane Bauer is a tour de force chronicle of the sad and tragic history of imprisonment in the U.S., which has led to the morally indefensible phenomenon of mass incarceration.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island filled my childhood imagination with awe and adventure, and surely led to my lifelong fascination with boats and all-too-short career as a charter boat captain in the Virgin Islands.

Your top five authors:

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: One of the most influential Buddhist teachers and spiritual geniuses of the 20th century, who radically changed my life for the better.

Dr. Rick Hanson: He distills some of the most important discoveries from current neuroscience into extremely practical tools and practices any of us can use to enhance the quality of our lives and relationships. As a longtime clinician and Buddhist practitioner, he skips the hype and focuses on genuine human and spiritual evolution and development. 

Daniel Siegel: One of the best writers making sense of the dramatic evolution in our understanding of the human brain, mind, psychology and behavior.

Jack Kerouac: A great writer and the preeminent voice of the beat generation, which laid the ground for the counterculture revolution that shaped the latter half of the 20th century.

Hunter S. Thompson: Another great writer who keeps us all honest and sufficiently irreverent--the Charles Bukowski of journalism.

Book you've faked reading:

Ulysses by James Joyce--a must-read I just couldn't get through but convinced myself I had to read it... one day. I actually do have a fondness for everything Irish and would love to find the time to do this classic justice.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chögyam Trungpa: I have read this book countless times and return again and again to read and contemplate passages or whole chapters. Trungpa Rinpoche was one of the true spiritual geniuses of the 20th century and a powerfully evocative and deeply psychologically informed teacher. You cannot read more than a few sentences in this illuminating and poetic book without stopping to mull them over and contemplate or wrestle with the author's insights. The editor must have really struggled in selecting the pull quotes at the beginning of each chapter, as there are countless sentences which stand on their own for their brilliance and wisdom.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Unf*ck Yourself by Gary John Bishop: The title and cover art are evocative, and the book is packed with practical wisdom for getting out of our own way and actualizing our lives.

Book you hid from your parents:

I didn't bother. My parents were not that interested in what I was reading and weren't particularly close-minded. My mother was an artist and very open-minded. My father was just busy running a business. I also had four siblings, so the five of us were a lot to keep track of.

Book that changed your life:

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chögyam Trungpa awakened me to the power of the path of warriorship based on the ancient Shambhala teachings; it continues to serve me well as a basic manual for my spiritual path and life for all the reasons stated above.

Favorite line from a book:

"The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything." --from Chögyam Trungpa's Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Five books you'll never part with:

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness: These three are all by my principal Buddhist teacher, Chögyam Trungpa; they're basic manuals for the Mahayana and Vajaryana Buddhist path and serve as both ongoing inspiration and touchstones for my spiritual life and journey.

Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche is a classic exposition of the Buddhist path from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective by one of the truly legendary Tibetan masters, a guide one can depend on unequivocally.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo, translated by Francesca Fremantle: We are all going to die, and I would like to be as prepared as possible. I have worked with these teachings with Buddhist hospice patients approaching death, with my beloved late Buddhist partner, Denise, during her three-year journey with terminal cancer, and as my ongoing study personally, both for the purpose of attaining a deeper understanding of life and as preparation for awakening in the dying process and beyond.

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

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is the first book in, or prequel to, Tolkien's beloved Lord of the Rings series, where one can totally suspend disbelief and enter into another world, a fantastical world embedded with deep meaning for our own lives--the classic hero's journey told with aplomb, humor and just plain fun.

Book Review

Review: The Ghost Clause

The Ghost Clause by Howard Norman (Houghton Mifflin, $27 hardcover, 256p., 9780544987296, July 2, 2019)

Muriel and Zachary are newlyweds living in their newly purchased old farmhouse in small-town Vermont. She has just defended her dissertation on translations of Mukei Korin's erotic Japanese poems; that she brings this work home is a boon for their marriage. He is a private detective investigating the disappearance of a local girl who's been missing for months now. They bought the farmhouse from semi-famous painter Lorca, a recent widow whose husband, Simon, had a heart attack and tipped overboard on a ferry en route to Nova Scotia.

The first surprise of Howard Norman's (The Northern Lights, What Is Left the Daughter) riveting novel The Ghost Clause is that their stories are told in the voice of Simon's ghost. The title refers to a section in Vermont real estate contracts that allows a buyer to return a house to its seller if there turns out to be a ghost in residence.

Simon still occupies the farmhouse, and feels very involved in the lives taking place there now. He appreciates that Lorca still visits, too. He observes Muriel and Zachary in their daily activities (often including their prodigious lovemaking), reads Muriel's academic work and Zachary's case notes, and sits in on their conversations around the clock; this gives him a near-omniscient perspective. He causes few problems, except that he keeps setting off the MOTION IN LIBRARY alarm on the home security system, which might drive his cohabitants nuts. He spends a lot of time reading Thomas Hardy; Muriel owns plenty.

Supremely enjoyable, The Ghost Clause is about the intersections of lives. At its center are two marriages--one new, one a bit older and recently rent by death--but it features many other town residents as well, and is ultimately about human relationships and families, and how we try to make it all work. Beyond this rich daily-life material lie extra layers: Korin, the poet Muriel studies, is fictional, so the erotic poems in the novel (and the difficulties of their translations, and the modernist issue of their parentheticals) are Norman's invention. The missing-child investigation that threatens to consume Zachary for more than half the book is a thorough, often disturbing diversion. Finely detailed in its particulars and simultaneously revealing of grand-scale humanity, The Ghost Clause is both poignant and frequently gut-laugh-funny.

Norman's prose is inspired; Simon's narration is adorned with lyric moments (remember, he was a novelist in life): "A hammock of moon was traveling pale in hazy light," Norman (or Simon) writes of an evening at home with Lorca when they were still alive together; there is more poetry here than Korin's. Simon observes, "Scholarship as a form of courtship, it seemed to me." The charm of local culture is part of the appeal, too. Muriel notes after a party that "People stayed kind of late, for Vermont."

The Ghost Clause is one of the best kind of novels, excelling in every way: it's delightful at line level, humorous, absorbing in individual stories and wise on a higher plane. A book for any reader who cares about people. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Shelf Talker: This smart, literary novel of human relationships--and a ghost--in a small town in Vermont is heart-wrenching, heart-warming and life-sustaining.

Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: Layers of Storytelling at BookExpo 2019

If a good story is told well enough, you want to hear it again. And again. And then at least once more, because you're sure there's so much left to discover. --Ben Brantley, New York Times theater critic, in a recent piece on Jez Butterworth's play The Ferryman

The day after BookExpo ended, I saw The Ferryman, a brilliant Broadway production that is likely to win many of its nine Tony Award nominations this Sunday. Brantley, who has seen the play four times in London and New York, observed that Butterworth "tells a spellbinding story that is also all about storytelling. And I mean all forms of stories--national folklore, family legends, political news, even recollections of things that occurred only minutes earlier, which had seemed to turn into anecdote even as they were happening. The Ferryman is a celebration of the human--and classically Irish--urge to give life shape through narrative, and a lamentation for those who find themselves trapped in myths that assume the inevitability of fate."

Having just spent three days among hundreds of storytellers, I found myself thinking about how the layering of tales, real and imagined, weaves through our lives. In particular, I recalled two BookExpo events where layered stories were a central aspect of the presentations.

Frank Miller & Thomas Wheeler

One of the events featured Thomas Wheeler and the legendary Frank Miller, creators of Cursed (S&S Books for Young Readers), which will be released in October and is being developed as a Netflix series. The graphic novel re-imagines Arthurian legend from the point-of-view of 16-year-old Nimue, who first wielded Excalibur and ultimately became the Lady of the Lake.

While discussing his collaboration with Miller, Wheeler spoke about the confluence of storytelling on the page and on screen, a magical formula itself: "Cursed was intended to be a book. We were writing and illustrating a book, and Netflix started to reach out and say, we'd like to do this. We were keeping them at bay for a while and working on the book. I do think there was an interesting storytelling opportunity in that, as the book was approaching being finished, how this would be interpreted. There was a moment in time where we considered how do we tell this story in different ways.... I do think fans of the show will get content that is different from the book, that is still from the same creators. And those who read the book will have a more intimate relationship with the characters than they will on the show. I would say that the book and the show are friends, not family."

Miller observed that their interpretation of Arthurian legend "also carries great loss in an adventure story. That is, the heart of this is everything from love and romance to war to magic, and the nature of honor and civilization themselves. So this is a story that has it all. And in every interpretation of it that's been worthy, that I've ever read, it's touched in different ways on all these themes. So it's just..." He paused, then quipped: "I hate to tell you, but Arthur's a good story! I broke the news right here!"

John Cena

Whether you're a fan of professional wrestling or not, its essence is the art of storytelling and myth-making. One of WWE's brightest stars, wrestler/actor/writer John Cena, spoke at BookExpo on behalf of his children's books, Elbow Grease and the upcoming sequel Elbow Grease vs. Motozilla, both illustrated by Howard McWilliam (Random House Books for Young Readers).

A commanding presence on the Downtown Stage, Cena chose to tell a story about his own fear of entering the children's book world: "It's completely new, and I knew that often, as you are the book buyers and the book purveyors and the keepers of the information, I guarantee you see a ton of books with celebrities' names on them.... But when I went back to look at the data of actually who is following me, who enjoys the messages, what messages they enjoy, a kid's book seemed like the perfect thing to do. But then I had to convince you guys that I actually really wanted to do this.... So the book itself was about a two and a half year process and it's something that was a labor of love; something I truly believe in."

Noting that "in the storytelling business, if the audience doesn't care about the individual, you are done," Cena said it was through the WWE he learned the art of storytelling. And after a decade in the ring, "I really asked myself an open philosophical question--Why am I here? And the answer to that was I love storytelling. I come back every night, five nights a week in front of different audiences and tell this story. It's not the falling down. It's not the stunts. It's the good guy/bad guy, good vs. evil narrative that I enjoy so much.... I wanted to tell stories. And since then, whether you've liked what I've done or not, I can consistently say, without a shadow of a doubt, my heart is in the work, and it makes it easy to talk to you guys."

King Arthur and Frank Miller and graphic novels and Netflix and pro wrestling and kids' books--all in a day's work at BookExpo '19.

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

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