Shelf Awareness for Friday, March 26, 2021

Algonquin Young Readers: the Beautiful Game by Yamile Saied Méndez

Berkley Books: Books that will sweep you off your feet! Enter Giveaway!

Feiwel & Friends: The Flicker by HE Edgmon

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: The Pumpkin Princess and the Forever Night by Steven Banbury

St. Martin's Griffin: Murdle: The School of Mystery: 50 Seriously Sinister Logic Puzzles by GT Karber


Class Action Suit Alleges Amazon, Big Five Price Fixing

A class action lawsuit was filed yesterday in federal district court in New York against Amazon and the Big Five publishers, charging that they engage in "a massive price-fixing scheme to intentionally constrain the bookselling market and inflate the wholesale price of print books."

The lead plaintiff is Bookends & Beginnings, Evanston, Ill., owned by Nina Barrett. The law firms are Hagens Berman and Sperling & Slater, who issued a long statement about the suit and are seeking co-plaintiffs. Hagens Berman also filed a class action lawsuit in January against the same defendants alleging price fixing with e-books. And in 2011, Hagens Berman filed a class action lawsuit against Apple and five of the then-Big Six publishers, accusing them of fixing e-book prices at artificially high levels. (The next year the Justice Department filed its suit against the same defendants focusing on collusion over the adoption of the agency model for e-book sales.)

Nina Barrett

Barrett commented: "I've been involved in bookselling since the early 1990s, and I've watched Amazon grow into the juggernaut it's become. I've experienced first-hand the devastation to publishing, bookselling, and to local brick-and-mortar shopping that's resulted. Indie bookstores like mine battle every day to survive on a commercial playing field that is anything but level, and I'm proud to do whatever I can to help remedy that."

Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman and attorney representing the proposed class of booksellers, said, "We believe we have uncovered a classic antitrust price-fixing scheme akin to exactly what Amazon and the Big Five book publishers have been accused of in the past. The Big Five and Amazon have sought to squeeze every penny they can from online and retail booksellers through a complex and restrictive set of agreements, and we intend to put an end to this anticompetitive behavior."

The suit filed yesterday says that the Big Five publishers--Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Macmillan--control 80% of the trade book market, and Amazon accounts for about half of all books sold, including 90% of all print books sold online.

The suit focuses on the "most-favored-nation clauses" (MFNs) that Amazon requires in its sales agreements with the publishers. (A previous Hagens Berman lawsuit concerning MFNs and e-book sales helped lead the U.S. and European Union to ban them in e-book sales for at least five years.)

MFNs entitle the buyer to the lowest price or best terms that the supplier offers to any other buyer. So in contrast to the e-book agency model cases a decade ago, when Amazon wanted to sell e-books at lower prices than publishers allowed, in this situation Amazon wants to be sure to have costs and terms as low or as favorable as any competition.

"When combined with Amazon's market dominance," the suit says, the MFNs "serve an anticompetitive purpose that controls the wholesale price of print trade books, destroys Amazon's retail competition, reduces consumer choices and creates a disincentive among booksellers to compete on price or non-price promotions in the sale of print trade books."

The suit points out that "if not for these MFN agreements stifling competition, it would benefit the Big Five's book distribution and economic self-interest to let Amazon's rivals gain more market share by offering them lower wholesale prices or exclusive early releases."

But, the suit continues, while Amazon benefits because it faces no meaningful competition from any rival bookseller, whatever the wholesale price, "the Big Five defendants benefit from this agreement because they have no incentive to lower wholesale prices and therefore can maintain them at supracompetitive levels."

And "Amazon's contracts with publishers cover practically all the potential avenues a competing bookseller may attempt to use in order to differentiate itself against Amazon. To control wholesale prices, the Big Five agree to anticompetitive restraints that prevent Plaintiff and other booksellers from competing with Amazon."

A section of the lawsuit detailed how Amazon punishes publishers who try to conduct business differently, citing in part Stacy Mitchell and Olivia LaVecchia's report Amazon's Stranglehold, published in 2016, and a House Judiciary Committee report on Big Tech last year:

" 'Amazon has used retaliation... to coerce publishers to accept contractual terms that impose substantial penalties for promoting competition' with Amazon's rivals. Amazon's retaliatory tactics against publishers include removing the pre-set purchase ('BUY') button, which blocks a customer's ability to purchase a publisher's current titles; and removing the 'pre-order' button, which eliminates the ability for a consumer to pre-order publishers' forthcoming titles. Another form of retaliation that Amazon reportedly engaged in was showing publishers' titles as out of stock or with delayed shipping times. Publishers, authors, and booksellers have 'significant fear' because of Amazon’s dominance.

" 'Amazon has the ability to promote or destroy a book in the national marketplace for any reason it chooses, and nobody outside the company can know why or how--or even that it was done,' observes Authors United. Amazon can, at any moment, remove the buy-button from a particular title on its site and cause overall sales of that book to plummet by 50% or more. It has the power to destroy a book's prospects and has exercised this power on a number of occasions. For example, to extract more fees from Hachette, it suspended pre-orders and delayed the shipping times of thousands of Hachette books by weeks, and modified its search and recommendation algorithms to direct shoppers to other books. Amazon's machinations did not just harm Hachette. It also suppressed the career prospects and incomes of roughly 3,000 authors for several months."

The suit seeks monetary recovery, including treble damages, for all overcharges and the end of the use of MFNs.

Blackstone Publishing: Rogue Community College: A Liberty House Novel by David R Slayton

MIBA on the Move

The Midwest Independent Booksellers Association is moving its headquarters into the space of Beaver's Pond Press at 939 Seventh St. West in St. Paul, Minn. MIBA said the new location is "on one of St. Paul's most interesting pedestrian streets full of local businesses, across the street from the Keg & Case food hall. Beaver's Pond owner Lily Coyle noted that we expressed interest in shared workspace and invited us to join her in 'the pond's' beautiful historic storefront building, where she'll be opening a locally-themed bookstore later this year. The situation also offers event space for the After Times when we can meet again, as well a few resident cats. All are welcome to visit any time." 

MIBA's new address is 939 Seventh St. W., St. Paul, Minn. 55102.

Volumes Bookcafe, Chicago, Ill., Closing Wicker Park Store

Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago, Ill., is closing its Wicker Park store, Book Club Chicago reported. Store owners Rebecca and Kimberly George made the announcement on Wednesday, telling customers and community members that the Wicker Park location's last day of business will be tomorrow, Saturday, March 27.

The George sisters explained that over the past year the Wicker Park store saw "epic losses" and underwent "endless business pivots," and what they described as an already precarious situation with a new landlord became even more so. Ultimately they decided not to renew their lease for the five-year-old store. The bookstore's downtown location will remain open, and the owners plan to reopen in a new space in Wicker Park before too long.

"This does not mean we are leaving you," they wrote. "We are still Volumes. We are still here. We will return to our beloved neighborhood in physical form sooner than you think. We are not going out of business, we are just closing a location."

How Bookstores Are Coping: Hoping for a 'Bright Second Half'; Outdoor Events in April

In Sunriver, Ore., Sunriver Books & Music was closed for a total of nine weeks in 2020, co-owners Deon and Richard Stonehouse reported. Deon Stonehouse noted that after reopening, the store required masks before it was legally mandated, and she was "shocked" by the number of people who traveled to the area with the "attitude that it was party time and masks were not necessary." 

In order to protect themselves, their staff and their customers, they hired a person to watch the door and make sure that all shoppers wear a mask and use hand sanitizer. The store provided masks for those who didn't have their own, and the team also removed most of the store's display tables in order to give more space for social distancing.

When the store first reopened, Stonehouse continued, they allowed 10 shoppers in at a time, but given the lax attitudes toward social distancing that was eventually reduced all the way down to five. She noted that while there's "no way to profitably run a bookstore" with only five shoppers allowed in at a time, "people's health comes first."

Sunriver is a major tourist destination, and typically Stonehouse and her team see the same vacationers return year and year. In 2020, the majority of the store's regular customers stayed home, and many of the customers who came in last year were new to the bookstore. With some of those new customers, Stonehouse continued, it wasn't enough just to have someone at the door--they had to be watched continually lest they take off their mask in the store, pull it down off their nose or place it below their chin. She emphasized that these customers were in the minority, but those careless customers were major sources of stress and drains of time and energy.

Despite all of the difficulties, Stonehouse said there were bright spots last year. One of the door people the store hired proved to be "exceptional," and has since been brought on as a bookseller. And while most of the store's regulars didn't travel this year, they still supported the bookstore from afar, and Stonehouse and the team have been "so touched by their support." They introduced delivery service during the pandemic (they'd already offered curbside pick-up), and that has been extremely popular, and book clubs over Zoom have expanded those audiences. Sunriver Books & Music plans to continue the Zoom book clubs even after members can meet in-store once again.

Asked about her outlook for 2021, Deon Stonehouse said the first half of the year will probably remain down, but she has hope for a "bright second half." Once enough people can get vaccinated, the team's role can shift. Eventually they'll no longer have to be "hall monitors for misbehaving adults" and the shop can go back to being a relaxed bookstore. She said she loves being a bookseller and it will be "so good to get back to being a bookseller."


Jennifer Murvin and Kory Cooper, owners of Pagination Bookshop in Springfield, Mo., reported that sales are still happening more online than in person, though some vaccinated customers are beginning to return to the store for browsing. Murvin said she misses seeing kids running around the children's room and holding in-person events, but she hopes that as the weather continues to warm up, they'll be able to host some outdoor events.

The store opened in May 2019, Murvin explained, so there isn't much to compare 2020 to, but the store fared well enough during the pandemic that they were able to retain their one employee, keep the doors open, expand the store's inventory and hold virtual author events. Asked about any bright spots last year, Murvin and Cooper pointed to the community's support for the bookstore, for which they said they are "so grateful."

The pandemic in general seemed to serve as a "wake-up call" for a lot of readers that independent bookstores can meet their needs online, and Murvin noted that the store now sees orders come in "from coast to coast." Another pleasant surprise was hearing how many people returned to reading last year, and Murvin loved seeing how mindful her customers were about buying and reading books about antiracism, social justice and history. She added that the store curated diverse and inclusive booklists for several local teachers this year.

Looking ahead, Murvin said the store will hold its first in-person author event at the end of April. The event will be held outdoors, all attendees will have to wear masks and entry will be timed to avoid crowding--she is "both excited and nervous about this." The store has expanded its partnerships with other businesses, including a recent partnership with a local pottery shop through which Murvin reads books to children while they paint, and those will continue to grow. Later in the spring and summer Pagination will host a local mobile plant shop and start a community garden, complete with picnic-style events. Said Murvin: "I am very optimistic for 2021." --Alex Mutter

Finalists for PW's Bookstore, Rep of the Year Awards

Finalists for the 2021 PW Bookstore of the Year and Sales Representative of the Year Awards have been announced:

Bookstore finalists:
Charis Books and More, Decatur, Ga.
Eso Won Books, Los Angeles, Calif.
MahoganyBooks, Washington, D.C.
Seminary Co-op Bookstores, including Seminary Co-op and 57th St. Books, Chicago, Ill.
Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria, New York City

Rep finalists:
Toi Crockett (S&S)
Richard McNeace (Faherty & Associates)
Jason Rice (Ingram Content Group)
Gail Whitten (Como Sales)
Marsha Wood (Ingram Content Group

Winners will be named in late May and an awards ceremony will take place at the inaugural U.S. Book Show, May 25-27.

Ferris State University Partnering with Akademos

Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., will partner with Akademos on a hybrid bookstore model. Through the partnership, Ferris State will move sales of course materials and textbooks online while it continues to operate an on-campus store for school merchandise and apparel. Students will be able to buy course materials through the online store beginning with the fall 2021 semester.

Gheretta Harris, associate v-p of auxiliary enterprises at Ferris State, said the university had an eye toward "textbook affordability, online solutions and flexible merchandising opportunities" while searching for a new bookstore partner.

G.L.O.W. - Galley Love of the Week
Be the first to have an advance copy!
A Forty Year Kiss
by Nickolas Butler
GLOW: A Forty Year Kiss by Nickolas Butler

A Forty Year Kiss by Nickolas Butler is a passionate, emotionally complex love story that probes tender places within the heart and soul. When 60-somethings Charlie and Vivian--married then divorced in their 20s--reunite after four decades, they are swept up by the very best of what their romantic relationship once offered. "Anyone who has ever thought about what might have been will find this book fascinating," says Shana Drehs, senior editorial director at Sourcebooks Landmark. "The story is a brilliant exploration of a second chance at love, always realistic but never saccharine." As Charlie and Vivian build a bridge from past to present, their enduring love paving over potholes, Butler (Shotgun Lovesongs) raises questions about how life changes people--or does it?--and delivers another heartening, unforgettable novel. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

(Sourcebooks Landmark, $27.99 Hardcover, 9781464221248, 
February 4, 2025)


Shelf vetted, publisher supported


'Book Publishing Professional' Jean Westcott on Jeopardy! Tuesday!

Jean Westcott on the Jeopardy! set with guest host Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Congratulations to Jean Westcott, who is appearing on Jeopardy! next Tuesday, March 30, after what she says are years of "applying, taking the tests and auditioning since, as a bookstore colleague reminded me, the time of Beanie Baby mania in our bookstore."

In her career, she has worked at B. Dalton, Olsson's Books & Records, IPM and, most recently, at Stylus Publishing, where she was sales and marketing manager until early this year when the company instituted several layoffs because of the pandemic. That same week she got "the call" from Jeopardy!

She chose the title "book publishing professional" even though she's also an author, explaining that she is "proud of that, but in my heart [book publishing professional] what I am. I have been consulting and looking for the next opportunity. Keeping an eye on the Shelf Awareness jobs list and looking to the future."

She called the Jeopardy! experience "fascinating," which included "Zoom audition this time, Covid tests before leaving, Covid tests at the studio the day before, no wandering around L.A., masked up and socially distanced on the set, being guided by the makeup artist who gave us our own poufs to powder away the shine, following the directions of the Covid coordinator, quarantining after getting home--all totally worth it for getting a chance at my Jeopardy dream."

Again, see Jean Wescott on Jeopardy! on Tuesday night.

NCAA March Madness at Eleanor's Bookshop

Eleanor's Bookshop, Tulsa, Okla., Has a rooting interest in Saturday's NCAA college basketball tournament's Sweet 16 game between the University of Arkansas and Oral Roberts University, which upset Ohio State and Florida in the first two rounds. "Did you know our founder Matt [McAfee] is an ORU alum?!" Eleanor's Bookshop posted on Facebook. "We're stoked for the Golden Eagles to be playing in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. To celebrate, we're offering 16% off on game day--March 27th! We close at 6, so you'll be home in time for tip-off. All are welcome. Even Arkansas fans."

PRHPS to Distribute Marvel to Comics Shops

Penguin Random House Publisher Services will exclusively sell and distribute worldwide Marvel Comics' newly published and backlist comic books, trade collections, and graphic novels to comics shops, known as the "direct market." The agreement begins October 1.

Direct market retailers can order Marvel products direct from PRHPS, or alternatively, through Diamond as a wholesaler under terms established by Diamond in the U.S. and the U.K. Hachette Book Group will continue to manage distribution of Marvel's graphic novels and trade collections to the book market.

The companies noted that PRHPS is "a free-freight company, allowing retailers to simplify their business models while alleviating the volatility and complexity of reducing freight costs and planning. Through many of PRH's standard offerings, like its rapid replenishment program for graphic novels and advanced supply chain, direct market retailers will experience more flexibility to manage inventory and stock their stores to best serve their customers."

Dan Buckley, president of Marvel Entertainment, which is a subsidiary of Disney, said, "Marvel's entire history is built on telling great stories. And as we've seen for decades, those stories go hand in hand with equipping the comic shops who share them. Marvel and Penguin Random House stand by that vision, and we are excited to build and expand those opportunities for our talent, retailers, and fans. Comics are the core of the Marvel Universe, and we are confident this new partnership will continue to grow and evolve this resilient industry. We look forward to advancing our capabilities with PRHPS to serve our fans and the direct market. We thank Diamond for their many years of support and partnership as we continue our relationship with them in other areas."

Marvel's full print and online October Marvel Previews catalog and comic book solicits will be available in July and distributed by PRHPS to active accounts. All comic book and trade orders for titles going on sale this October should be made through PRHPS. Early solicit titles will be available for order starting on May 26. Retailers can open PRHPS accounts now to register for Marvel's monthly title catalogs and solicits, which will continue to be available to retailers approximately three months ahead of on sale.

Marvel and PRHPS will share more information with retailers in the coming months. Direct market retailers can e-mail PRH for more information: U.S. retailers, Canadian retailers, international retailers.

Personnel Changes at Edelweiss

Linda A. Duggins

Linda A. Duggins has joined Edelweiss by Above the Treeline as v-p of strategic partnerships. She has 25 years of experience in the publishing industry, most recently as senior director of publicity and director of multicultural publicity at Grand Central Publishing. She was also a senior publicist at Warner Books, marketing manager at the Black Book Review, co-founded the Harlem Book Fair, is president of the board of directors of the Queensbridge Scholarship Fund and is on the board of directors for the National Book Club Conference.

Media and Movies

TV: The Man Who Fell to Earth

Naomie Harris (Moonlight) and Jimmi Simpson (Westworld, Perpetual Grace Ltd.) have joined Chiwetel Ejiofor as leads in the drama series The Man Who Fell to Earth, which recently moved from CBS All Access/Paramount+ to Showtime, Deadline reported. Based on the novel by Walter Tevis (The Queen's Gambit) and the iconic 1976 film starring David Bowie, the project "will follow a new alien character (Ejiofor) who arrives on Earth at a turning point in human evolution and must confront his own past to determine our future."

Harris plays Justin Falls, a brilliant scientist and engineer. Simpson plays Spencer Clay, a CIA agent whose obsession with the alien's true identity drives him to the edge of madness. Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet are writing and executive producing the series and will serve as showrunners along with executive producer John Hlavin. Kurtzman also will direct multiple episodes. The series is scheduled to begin production in London this spring and will premiere on Showtime in 2022.

Books & Authors

Awards: NBCC and Rathbones Folio Winners; Dylan Thomas and Stella Shortlists

Winners of the National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced last night in a virtual event produced by Wildbound Live. This year's NBCC Award recipents are:

Fiction: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell (Knopf)
Nonfiction: Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire by Tom Zoellner (Harvard Univ. Press)
Poetry: Here Is the Sweet Hand by francine j. harris (FSG)
Autobiography: Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (One World)
Biography: Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley (Scribner)
Criticism: Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Nicole R. Fleetwood (Harvard Univ. Press)

The John Leonard Prize was presented to Raven Leilani for Luster (FSG); the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing to Jo Livingstone; and the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award to the Feminist Press.


In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado has won the £30,000 (about $41,150) 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize, which honors "works of literature in which the subjects being explored achieve their most perfect and thrilling expression."

The prize givers described In the Dream House, published in the U.S. by Graywolf Press, as "a breathtakingly inventive, unflinchingly honest examination of domestic abuse in a female relationship, in which Machado breaks down the idea of what the memoir form can do and be--and bravely approaches a subject for which literary treatment has been extremely rare."


The shortlist for the £20,000 (about $27,460) 2021 Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize, which honors "the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under," consists of:

Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat (Syria/USA)
Kingdomtide by Rye Curtis (USA)
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria/USA)
Pew by Catherine Lacey (USA)
Luster by Raven Leilani (USA)
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (USA)

The winner will be announced May 13.


The shortlist for the A$50,000 (about US$38,000) 2021 Stella Prize, honoring Australian fiction and nonfiction titles by women that "invite readers to reach beyond their own perceptions, to question social and political systems, and to examine their place in the world," have been announced:

Fathoms: the world in the whale by Rebecca Giggs
Revenge: Murder in Three Parts by S.L. Lim
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
Witness by Louise Milligan
Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

The Stella Award Night will be held April 22.

Reading with... Fady Joudah

photo: Cybele Knowles

Fady Joudah is the author of five collections of poems: The Earth in the Attic, Alight, Textu, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance and, most recently, Tethered to Stars (Milkweed, March 2021). He has translated several collections of poetry from the Arabic and is the co-editor and co-founder of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. He lives in Houston, Tex., where he practices internal medicine.

On your nightstand now:

Until the Lions by Karthika Naïr: it's an epic poetry collection--literally, as its subtitle says it is "Echoes from the Mahabharata." I get lost in the grand narrative retelling of the literary legend, and then I am astounded by the personalized shifts with which Karthika stamps her voice on the Mahabharata, so tender, fierce and visionary. It's a liberating experience to be dissolved into what Amjad Nasser called "the ten metaphors of poetry," so to speak, between grief and love, ecstasy and despair, meaning and nonsense. And the title itself is from Chinua Achebe. The lions, hunted by humans, get to tell their story--this itself is one of those eternal "ten metaphors" of poetry.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Agatha Christie's crime novels, in Arabic. There were also these spy novels for kids, also in Arabic, The Thirteen Devils, about thirteen teenage boys and girls from different Arabic countries who engage in high stakes adventure. And then comic books galore.

Your top five authors:

It's a carousel. Today, let's say Emily Dickinson, Frantz Fanon, Miroslav Holub, Toni Morrison, Zbigniew Herbert.

Book you've faked reading:

Where do I begin? Midnight's Children. A brilliant book. So brilliant that the actual ending of the story became irrelevant to me, and I can't recall if I'd ever finished reading it.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Shakespeare's Sonnets.

Book you've bought for the cover:

I've not done such a thing, I don't think, unless it was an illustrated medical book.

Book you hid from your parents:

None, really. Though they did not know that I used to go to a minimart next to DQ in Austin so I could sneak a peek at Playboy issues when I was 12.

Books that changed your life:

Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, Said's Culture and Imperialism and the Complete Works of al-Hallaj.

Favorite line from a book:

"If you meet your antiself, don't shake hands! You would both vanish in a great flash of light." --Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

Five books you'll never part with:

The book of my heart. Some of it has been written. Some of it I can't read it because it's in invisible ink, or has not been transcribed, or if transcribed is in a language I don't understand or has not been translated for me yet. So that's three books in one. Heart of Darkness, I've read more than once. Chronicles of a Death Foretold, also.

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

Tar Baby by Toni Morrison. The Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi. Arabesque by Anton Shammas.

Book Review

Review: Did I Say that Out Loud?: Midlife Indignities and How to Survive Them

Did I Say That Out Loud?: Midlife Indignities and How to Survive Them by Kristin van Ogtrop (Little, Brown Spark, $28 hardcover, 336p., 9780316497497, April 13, 2021)

In Did I Say that Out Loud?, Kristin van Ogtrop shares frank, often laugh-out-loud--and at times, surprisingly poignant--essays about her life and the encroachment of middle age. As she did in her first book, Just Let Me Lie Down, which expounded upon the many zany pitfalls of being a working mom, van Ogtrop again draws from her own experiences and shares stories from others who have affected her life along the way, into her 50s. "Some of what you learn between the ages of twenty-nine and fifty-six is wonderful and some of it makes the world feel scrambled and cruel," she writes, weaving in sections about her upbringing, early jobs, her marriage, raising three boys and wayward dogs, and how she landed a career in the magazine publishing industry.

Van Ogtrop climbed the corporate ladder for 25 years. She worked for and with the legendary Anna Wintour at Vogue and later jumped to Premiere, Travel + Leisure, Glamour and manned the helm for 10 years at Real Simple. Joy and fulfillment prevailed in her career, while chauvinistic anti-feminist episodes also brought occasional challenges. When the Internet became the go-to for reading preferences, van Ogtrop was forced to cut budgets and jobs--and rethink her goals. At an annual pelvic exam, van Ogtrop mused to her gynecologist: "I think I'm either going through peri-menopause, suffering from depression, or need to find a new job." The doctor looked at van Ogtrop "over the tent" of her legs and replied, "Or maybe it's all three."  

The doldrums of middle age may be a time when women lack energy, inspiration, fervor and intention. But reading about van Ogtrop's experiences is never dull. The first essay packs a wallop, suspensefully conveying how a mysterious "little pain" in van Ogtrop's back grew into major surgery that revealed a foreign body had perforated her stomach. These 20 conversational narratives are replete with wise-cracking, self-deprecation and quick wit as she riffs on topics including robots (Roomba and Alexa); social media exploits; friendships and book groups; midlife career advice; when death hits close to home; and dealing with aging parents.

Botox may remove wrinkles and frown lines, but it can't take away feelings of sadness and grief, anger and disappointment. However, the playful honesty of van Ogtrop's inimitable mindfulness will offer readers a fresh sense of perspective as they laugh at the absurdities of life and getting older right along with her. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Shelf Talker: Kristin van Ogtrop, a long-time heralded magazine journalist, dishes out fresh, playful essays on the joys and absurdities of middle age.

Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: Listening to Zagajewski

When I first heard the poet read, at a small event during the summer of 2001, I didn't know his work at all. As soon as he began, however, I leaned into those words to receive the brunt, the wave, the wash of images, the sound of lines forged and bent in unlikely combinations ("A poem grows/ on contradiction but can't cover it.") that felt as fresh and inevitable as water down a hill (Europe's "coarse plaid of borders" or clouds that "swim on their backs,/ gazing calmly at the sun.").

Adam Zagajewski in 2014.

Adam Zagajewski died March 21. He was 75. The New York Times described him as a "poet and a former dissident in exile whose life and verse reverberated with laments over displacement and reminders that the past perseveres," and noted that he had "taught at the University of Houston and the University of Chicago, wrote several collections of poems and essays, and returned to Krakow in 2002, with his wife, the actress and translator Maja Wodecka."

Also mentioned was the fact that shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the New Yorker had published, on the issue's last page, his prescient poem, "Try to Praise the Mutilated World," written a few months earlier and translated by Clare Cavanagh.

Obituaries listed some of Zagajewski's books: Mysticism for Beginners (1997), Without End: New and Selected Poems (2002), Eternal Enemies: Poems (2008), Asymmetry: Poems (2018), Another Beauty (2000), Slight Exaggeration: An Essay (2017), all translated by Cavanagh; along with Solitude and Solidarity (1990) and Two Cities (1995), translated by Lillian Vallee. His honors were also noted, including the Prix de la Liberté, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the Princess of Asturias Award.

These are all facts. But two decades ago, when I first listened to this stranger, Zagajewski, read, I heard a sketchbook of his work and wanted more. Soon after, as I began reading him, the sketches filled with color, hazy borders were framed, outlines of images came alive, the words irresistible in their knife-edged engagement with, and disengagement from, a mad and beautiful world.

His poem "Dutch Painters" begins with "Pewter bowls heavy and swelling with metal./ Plump windows bulging from the light"; and offers an evocative portrait in words of a place and time where "Doors were wide open, the wind was friendly./ Brooms rested after work well done./ Homes bared all."

Not the poet's home, however, because simplicity and peace are moments frozen. "The painting of a land without secret police," the poet observes and can't help wondering: "Tell us, Dutch painters, what will happen/ when the apple is peeled, when the silk dims,/ when all the colors grow cold./ Tell us what darkness is."

What is darkness? In other poems, he answers: "where the horizon's razor lay in wait,/ and the black spider of evening/ and night, widow of so many dreams."

What is hatred? "I found the phrase/ 'There are blows so terrible.../ Don't ask!' I don't...."

What is a poem? "Poetry summons us to life, to courage/ in the face of the growing shadow."

Without End: New and Selected Poems is like an artist's retrospective. I read, and hear, the poet again every time I turn a page. The young Zagajewski writes of complacency: "Don't let poems lull you/ just don't read them you haven't got time/ time's got you grips you in its fist/ its claws if it's a bird/ chokes you slowly you think it's only asthma."

A decade passes and he writes of quiet strength: "That force that grows/ in Napoleon's dreams/ and tells him to conquer Russia and snow/ is also in poems/ but is very still."

Another decade goes by and the poet writes of learning: "I read poets, living and dead, who teach me/ tenacity, faith, and pride."

And later, when the poet might have been driven to his knees by the world, Zagajewski writes a clear-eyed hymn to beauty and horror: "You should praise the mutilated world./ Remember the moments when we were together/ in a white room and the curtain fluttered./ Return in thought to the concert where music flared./ You gathered acorns in the park in autumn/ And leaves eddied over the earth's scars."

Reading itself becomes an intricate war dance with time: "Reading books, ah, we kept forgetting/ Who wrote them and what fights there were..../ It's only now/ they stand still on the bookshelves, so incurious/ without recollection, like old men warming themselves/ on a street bench in the sun."

In Another Beauty, Zagajewski observes: "The imagination's ceaseless quarrel with the world: whenever the imagination grows too strong, it is cut down to size by the mocking laughter of cocksure realists, tax collectors and successful businessmen (to say nothing of strict moralists like Pascal or Simone Weil). But every time the sober world regains the upper hand so completely that the imagination lies near death, a distant province gives birth to some poet who will write a new poem one day."

When the poet read in 2001, I listened. When I first read the poet, I really heard. And now, as I reread the poet, his poems still speak. RIP Adam Zagajewski.

--Robert Gray, editor

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