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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Post-BEA Post

If you follow a lot of book blogs then I'm sure you will have seen plenty of BEA wrap-up posts over the weekend. I'm going to add my voice to the chorus (are we a chorus? Maybe 'teeming horde' would be the more appropriate phrasing). For anyone reading who doesn't follow other blogs (that would probably just be my Nonna), BEA is BookExpo America. It's definitely the biggest book trade show in North America thus it is the biggest book industry event on the continent. That's impressive. Also, it's overwhelming. I thought about titling this post "On Being Horrible at Networking" but I'm hoping it will turn out to be more than that.

So, BEA. I went into this whole thing totally blind. Frankly, the internet was not very helpful in telling me what to expect. All I read about BEA from years past in other blogs was "wear comfortable shoes" (that I did, my friends, that I did). Not knowing what to expect leads to no expectations, and if you have no expectations you can't be disappointed, right? That's a good thing. The only thing I really expected out of BEA was to get an advance copy of Jeffrey Eugenides' new book "The Marriage Plot" which I have been waiting for since 2003 when I read "Middlesex" (also known as one of the best books ever). That didn't happen. But I wasn't that disappointed because in his speech at one of the author breakfasts BEA hosts, Eugenides said "I just finished it yesterday." Hearing him talk about the process was almost as good as reading a new book, so I can wait a little while.

I'm getting ahead of myself again...Day One of BEA was, for me, on Monday. It was the American Booksellers Association's Day of Education. I cannot tell you how awesome this was. I love, love, love getting together with other booksellers and discussing what's going on in our stores. Literally, it is exhilarating. Everyone shares ideas and talks about what's working in their corners of the world. And everyone is passionate about exactly what I am passionate about: books! Talking about books and sharing books. It makes me understand things like ComicCon (that's a kinda true joke). I learned so much and came back with so many new ideas to integrate into my store. If the whole week had been like this one day it would have been one of the best of my life.

Then on Tuesday the floor opened. The floor is the (monstrous, gargantuan) area where various publishers and vendors set up booths to display their wares. I was originally looking forward to this. Having no idea what to expect I guess I sort of started to expect what I wanted to happen. In my mind, I would walk into a booth, talk about the upcoming books and their authors, schedule some signings, get some ARCS. Basically I thought I would be courted by the publishers. Publicists would see my badge and think "she's a bookseller! My authors will want to go to her store!" That's not really what happened. That's actually not what happened at all.

I spent the entire first day wandering around like a lost kitten wondering why no one wanted to talk to me. Then I realized that one must be assertive. There are thousands of people here (that is not an exaggeration); the pubs can't talk to everyone - make them want to talk to you. Well, as stated earlier, I am bad at networking. Luckily, I'm part of a team. John (aka the husband and co-owner in this bookstore endeavor) and Jaime (aka totally awesome new friend, blogger at bookmarkedblog.com, and future employee of CHB) each talked up publishers and authors and made connections to score future events. That's what BEA is all about.

BookExpo was a pretty intense experience. It's huge and a bit overwhelming. But it can be a lot of fun if you are ready for it. From hearing authors speak every morning at breakfast to being one of the first to get your hands on the IT book of next season to making those all important contacts, BEA definitely offers a lot. I just wasn't quite ready for it. Next year though, it's on New York.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Review (plus some): The Guggenheims by Irwin Unger and Debi Unger

I spent my 22rd birthday in Venice. You would think that would have been enough but it wasn't; I wanted to to spend my birthday with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection at her Venetian Palazzo. John and I traveled through the canals across tiny, beautiful Venetian bridges and arrived to find the museum closed. I was disappointed. Flash forward to this Christmas (almost four years later), John has a crazy glimmer in his eye when he hands me my Christmas present. I can tell it's a book, but what book would he be so excited to give me? I unwrap the package and find "The Guggenheims: A Family History" by Irwin and Debi Unger.

I'm still a bit confused at this point. It does look like an interesting book, but it's not one that was on my radar and I don't see why he'd be so excited about it. Then, the real present comes out: I'm going to Book Expo America! My Christmas present was that he went to all the trouble to orchestrate a week off for the two of us (a grand feat when your bookstore has exactly two employees - the two owners!). I am thrilled beyond measure by this. I mean, it's BEA - I don't have to tell you how big of a deal that is, right?

For anyone confused as to how the two preceding paragraphs relate to each other: he also got me advance tickets to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which is conveniently located in NYC - the city that hosts BEA. Feel free to ohh and ahh over how cute and sweet he is. He's pretty awesome. Anyway, the book ...

"The Guggenheims" is a group biography that you can read as a flash through modern history. The family definitely lived through it and more often than not they touched it beginning with Meyer Guggenheim's entrance into industry in the 1850s. The Ungers rather nonchalantly deliver lines such as "in ten minutes of conversation, the fate of the American rocket program was settled." The participants of this ten minute conversation were Daniel Guggenheim, Harry Guggenheim (by proxy), and Charles Lindberg and they went on fund Robert Goddard's research on rockets. Goddard's grant from the Guggenheim family allowed him the freedom to develop new rockets that when on to influence World War II. I just can't get over that - a ten minute conversation.

That's probably what I enjoyed most about this book, it read as a historical text but added names and faces to the events. In my opinion that's what good nonfiction does, it links story and history into something cohesive. I find that easier both to digest and remember. In the case of "The Guggenheims" the narrative is indeed historical (it's a family history after all) but not linear. I would call it more tangential. The Ungers focus on one aspect of the Guggenheim's life and follow it through to its conclusion then move on to the next aspect, which may have had its temporal beginning in the center of the previously described events.

The book starts in the 1800s with the first Guggenheim's immigration to America, follows Meyer's rise into industry, and the family's decline as an industrial player. This was the part I as a bit leery of. I'm not incredibly fascinated by the mining industry and I worried that I would find most of the book dry until I got to the part I was interested in, Peggy Guggenheim and her involvement in the art world. Let's be honest, parts of the beginning did drag a little as the Ungers described the ups and downs of the Guggenheim's business interests. But the book never became a chore to read because of the characters it was peopled with. Every time you begin to be bored with business prospects and contracts the Ungers throw you a bone in the form of an interesting historical aside such as the fact that Meyer's son Benjamin was a passenger on the Titanic. He was the guy you see in James Cameron's movie who is dressed in his tuxedo, having a drink in the dining room as the ship goes down. That actually happened. Benjamin's last known words, were "we've dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." Or, a chapter or so later you'll get this gem of a quote from Meyer's grandson, M. Robert Guggenheim: "Every wealthy family supports at least one gentleman in leisure. I have elected to assume that position."

The later half of the book deals with the aspects of the Guggenheims I was more familiar with. Solomon's museum, Harry's fellowship, and Peggy's liaisons. The Ungers point out in the beginning of their chapter on Harry that the lasting influence of the Guggenheims is not their contributions to the world of industry but to that of art. The family has started museums, newspapers, art gallerys, even a publishing house. It was fascinating to see how far their influence reached. It wasn't that they were famous creators of art (though many in the family did become artists) but they surrounded themselves with and supported many of the modern creators of great art. At one point the Ungers provide a list of famous recipients of Guggenheim fellowships, and seriously these are the names that everyone recognizes.

By the time I reached the section on Peggy Guggenheim (the Guggenheim I was originally most interested in) I was a little disappointed (but just a little). Her salacious lifestyle couldn't hold a candle to the stories of Harry Guggenheim influencing multiple strains of history or the many stories of family politics gone awry. All in all, this was a really good read. It's kind of a beast in length but definitely worth the time - and while you're reading it it won't feel like much time. Fully recommended.

So, BEA was this week and I'm sure I'll be posting about it next week, but for now here's a picture of John and me in front of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, "a daring and adventurous building."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Sometimes a book comes in to the store that looks so good I have to put aside everything else I'm reading and devour it right then. Tayari Jones' novel "Silver Sparrow" was definitely one of those. Not only did the blurb contain the opening line: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist" but it also compared Jones to Toni Morrison . You don't set something like that aside, you cradle it to your chest and take it home to begin immediately.

"Silver Sparrow" takes place in 1980's Atlanta and tells the story of James Witherpoon's two families through the eyes of his "secret daughter" Dana and her legitimate sister Chaurisse. The this story of life and lies is made all the more heartrending and intense by the fact it is being told by the two blameless characters caught between their father's actions. The first half of the novel is told by Dana and as a reader you very quickly sympathize with her. Dana's revelation that she is a part of a "secret family" and that she and her mother often perform surveillance on her father's other family brings to mind many questions of identity. While Jones never really tackles the identity issue head-on I found it to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel. Who we are has so much to do with who we are in relation to each other.

At one point in the novel Dana begins a conversation with a man she knows to be her grandfather who knows her only as a stranger passing his house on the street, until he says "please excuse my clothes and such... I was just doing yard work. I didn't figure on meeting you." Dana realizes that her grandfather has known who she is, her identity has been revealed not only through her looks but also through their "surveilling." Jones may be suggesting components of identity in this way, that it is made up of both who we are and what we do.

Dana is not lost by being a secret child. She has more control over her identity by the virtue of her familial history, while her sister, Chaurisse, has been sheltered from the truth of her father's lifestyle and leads a life of not so blissful ignorance. Chaurisse may have a legitimate family life but she is desperately lonely and insecure. Her dream is to be "silver," which is what she "called girls who were natural beauties but who also smoothed on a layer of pretty from a jar. It wasn't how they looked, it was how they were" (there's the question of identity again). Thus Dana enters into Chaurisse's life. They meet in the cosmetics aisle of a pharmacy. Dana is irresistibly silver and Chaurisse longs to be her friend, to catch her silver properties. For her part, Dana has grown tired of surveilling and is looking for an opportunity to experience more of Chaurisse's life.

I'm sure you can imagine where a friendship between these girls leads, but it's not really the happenings in the plot that matter. It's in the way Jones has them unfold. This is a story of families, both typical and not-so. The characters are real and true. "Silver Sparrow" is a beautiful story for all of it's sadness, within its pages Tayari Jones delves into the meaning of love and family, secrets and betrayals and comes away with a novel that tells a story that is simultaneously unique and universal. You should definitely read this book.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Algonquin Books

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

So, "Cutting for Stone." I'm still quite weak on the whole book review thing. Mostly I just want to jump up and down while telling you that you must read this book. This is a novel that I truly want to curl up and live inside. It's not that I want to experience the particular events described, which are often tragic, but I want to live in Abraham Verghese's prose. I want to surround myself with it, immerse myself in it, and be swathed in its protective force.

I know it seems that I am getting down with the hyperbole, but you've got to understand - I love this book. I read a review (I can't remember who wrote it, sorry) that said each chapter in "Cutting for Stone" is like its own short story. I thought that was such an apt description of this novel. In 600 pages it spans 70 years and after completing I could flip to any chapter and reengage with its story.

The story itself is of twin brothers who grow up in Ethiopia surrounded by love of family and love of medicine. The family life of the boys is absolutely idyllic, and I dare you not to fall in love with their adopted father. It's simply impossible; you will love Ghosh from the first. A doctor with a love of literature, is it too presumptuous on my part to say he may be a little of Verghese himself? (Probably, but will that keep me from pretending it is so? Nope.) Verghese is indeed a practicing physician who has written an earlier book, "My Own Country," about his experience with the AIDS epidemic while working in Johnson City, Tennessee.

"Cutting for Stone" is a novel that I am reluctant to describe. What is great about the novel transcends the plot. It is indeed the story of the two brothers, Marion and Shiva Stone, it is about family and love, loss and relationships, coming of age... but it is more than that as well, it is a deeply varied and layered novel that is incredibly affecting.

I want to share with you just a small piece of the novel as Marion describes how he feels about being initiated into the field of his parents, learning medicine, and the comfort it provides:
I loved those Latin words for their dignity, their foreignness, and the way my tongue had to wrap around them. I felt that in learning the special language of scholarly order, I was amassing a kind of force.
How perfect a description is that for passion? Not just Marion's passion for learning about medicine but for all of our passions whatever they may be. I surround myself with books, all day every day, it is the force I have amassed. My passion for them and the noble protection they provide is written in that passage.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Catherynne Valente

I'm going to start this review with an appeal to you, reader. Please do not just give "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making" by Catherynne M. Valente to a child. Please share it with them! My sincere hope for this book would be that you and the child in your life enjoy this magical fairytale together. Preferably on a stolen day in the springtime, a day that was meant to be spent at work or school or anywhere else but you spend it doing something better. On a stolen day I feel like I've escaped from life's tedium, and to spend it with a book (especially this book shared with a kid on their own stolen day) is to add fantasy to an ordinary life.

"The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland" is the story a September, a young girl who is spirited away to Fairyland just after her twelfth birthday. I really don't want to divulge too much of the plot, but I will tell you that there is a wicked Marquess, a romantic Green Wind, and a Wyvern (a dragonlike creature) who claims that his father is a library. There are, of course, battles and tricks and lies but there is also great courage and kindness as September travels throughout fairyland.

I simply adore this book. The language is fantastic. This is Valente's first book for children, but she hasn't miniaturized her vocabulary. For instance, September is described in the beginning as "an ill-tempered and irascible child." What I kept coming back to while reading it was that I haven't read a children's book like this since I read "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" - Valente is definitely harkening back to Lewis Carroll here in a big way and the results are amazing. Note this passage in which a cat named Iago is speaking to September:
I wouldn't even consider it if I were you. But then if I were you, I would not be me, and if I were not me, I would not be able to advise you, and if I were unable to advise you, you'd do as you like, so you might as well do as you like and have done with it.

The story has both the heart and feel of Alice in Wonderland and shares Alice's appeal to adult readers, but it is certainly not derivative of Carroll's works. It speaks to them as a modern relative. The language and vocabulary will not make for simple reading, but kids will definitely find this book rewarding. I will repeat myself here and say that this is a book to be shared - to be read aloud and discussed. Not picked apart but reveled in.

On an adult level, this book for kids felt a lot like a coming of age novel. The end of the book deals very heavily with growing up, spoiled childhoods, and the idealization of childhood and innocence. My reading it just happened to coincide with the coming birth of my brother's first child and my realization that my own childhood is effectively over (yeah, I'm 25, I probably should have come to that realization sooner). The reason I point this out is to say that "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland" is a book for all ages. It caused me to both lose myself in the fairytale and later to ruminate over the way in which I approach my life.

You should definitely read this book, but first watch this totally creepy and awesome trailer that showcases the illustrations by Ana Juan:

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Feiwel and Friends

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Review: EllRay Jakes in Not a Chicken by Sally Warner

First off, I must admit to being a relatively new reader in the world of children's or middle-grade books. When I do read them they tend to be more along the fantasy track, thus a middle-grade book about a normal, contemporary kid is a very new thing for me. So when I say that Sally Warner's "EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken" surprised me, I'm not sure if it is because I am new to this or if elements of this book are truly surprising.

EllRay Jakes is eight years old. He's also the smallest kid in his class, so it comes as no surprise when he has problems with a bully. EllRay has kind and attentive parents and teachers, even many of the girls in his class tend to look out for him (including Emma McGraw of Warner's Emma series), but there is no escaping Jared Matthews - the class bully. EllRay doesn't know what he's done to cause this war with Jared, some kids are just mean he guesses, but if EllRay wants to make it to Disneyland he's going to have to stay out of trouble. That means staying away from Jared.

All of this sounds pretty typical, right? A cute story with funny illustrations (by Jamie Harper) and a bullying theme. What struck me about the book were EllRay's observations. He's at an age where he is recognizing the subtle differences between the interactions of girls and those of boys, mainly being that girls talk about their problems while boys ignore them. EllRay also makes clever judgments about the thoughts and lives of his teacher and parents. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Sally Warner has written a book that says to kids, "hey, this is how life is, so let's be nice to each other" without being overbearing about it (and consequently being ignored).

The other thing that really surprised me about this book was the mention of racism. Of course this is something that kids deal with, but how many middle grade authors can deal with it without racism becoming the story or worse yet becoming the soapbox that kids will ignore. EllRay Jakes is an African American kid new to a majority Caucasian town and school; when his father finds out about the bullying he worries that race may be the reason behind it. I didn't expect to see this touched upon and then handled so well by the author and her characters. "EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken" is a lessons book without feeling like one. It outwardly teaches about bullying, how and why it happens (hint: in EllRay's case it has nothing to do with race). However, it teaches more subtle lessons about communication and equality, from the biggest and lightest to the smallest and darkest, in a fun and often funny package. This is a great book for kids to read on their own and learn from or to discuss with their parents.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Penguin Group

Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: All Facts Considered by Kee Malesky

I, like most readers I know, am a huge fan of random facts and who better to deliver them to me than one of NPR's many reference librarians. Kee Malesky's book, "All Facts Considered," is written as a series of interesting facts grouped together under three main categories (History, Science, and Art). Each fact is explained in a few paragraphs or less. Malesky says that librarians have to be well versed in a wide range of facts because on any given day they are questioned about countless unrelated subjects. Now, that's an idea I can get behind. I majored in liberal arts - I appreciate a broad interest in knowledge and learning.

There's a great jacket quote from "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me" host, Peter Sagal, saying in reference to his relationship with Malesky, "every one of us 'media figures' who appears smart or well prepared in public has somebody standing behind the curtains, knowledge at the ready, covering for our ignorance." Reading this book is like having a knowledge mouse perched in your pocket ready to dazzle friends and foes alike with interesting factoids. And you don't have to be a 'media figure' to enjoy the man behind the curtain - little old you can experience a sense of intellectual superiority through this "Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge."

I loved this book. I learned a lot and definitely refamiliarized myself with things I have known and forgotten. Malesky's chosen format makes this great for casual reference or an afternoon of nerdy reading. Bonus, every fact has at least one source listed that you may use to delve deeper into the subject. As the author states in her introduction to the source material, "the not-so-hidden agenda of any librarian is to get you to read."

While reading is great, one of the best parts of reading a book is discussing it and this one prompted several discussions for me. I even called my mom one night to have her look up a reference in a book I knew she had. We stayed up talking about it until late that night. But the best, I must say, was having this conversation with my grandmother:
Me: Are you familiar with Abelard and Heloise?
Her (questioning look): Yes.
Me (dubious): Well, I want to read this to you anyway. "[Abelard and Heloise] fell in love, had a child, and were married (secretly, and over her objections) to protect the advance of his career. Her family sought revenge and arranged to have him castrated. Heloise and Abelard fled Paris, each taking monastic vows, and rarely saw each other again. But they did correspond by letters..." (a beautiful and tragic letter follows)
Her: That's so sad. ... I thought you meant Heloise the cleaning lady.

My grandmother. She's the best. Following this conversation she told me I must give her this book when I finish. If that's not a topnotch recommendation I don't know what is.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr.

I finally did it - I embraced my Southern sensibilities - I read "Gone with the Wind." Okay, so I didn't particularly enjoy it. I guess I just like my Southern fiction to be dark and gothic, words I would not quickly apply to Margaret Mitchell's opus. None of this is to say that "Gone with the Wind" was bad, it's just that it wasn't my cup of tea, or my brand of Whiskey (should Scarlett prefer). Now, you are wondering why I chose to read this book so obviously out of step with my usual literary tastes, right? Well, the first reason has got to be that I viewed "Gone with the Wind" as a novel to be conquered, much in the same way I will one day conquer "Moby-Dick" or "War and Peace." It is a culturally relevant work that I wanted my own piece of, with this year being 75th anniversary of its publication I felt that now was the time to tackle this beast.

The second reason, perhaps the greater reason, why I chose to read "Gone with the Wind" now was my interest in Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr.'s new book "Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood." I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this one at the Southern Independent Bookseller's Alliance tradeshow back in September, but I felt it would be unfair to both myself and Mrs. Mitchell to read it before cracking the spine of Scarlett and Rhett's tale. I'm glad I guilted myself into waiting because reading the two together was a great experience.

Fans of GWTW will surely enjoy this new book, but anyone with an interest in writing, publishing, or bookselling will find something to appreciate in this look inside the industry. Mitchell's book had quite a life of its own and reading about it from conception to publishing phenomenon to international copyright horror is endlessly fascinating. Margaret Mitchell alone imbues the book with such a charming and vivacious spirit I felt I couldn't get enough of her.

One would assume that a book about contracts, agents, and copyright laws of the 1930s would be both uninteresting and irrelevant to a modern audience, but Brown and Wiley's narrative not only maintains interest it keeps the pages turning. Who knew the life of a novel could make for such engrossing literature? I would love to know the stories behind a few other megablockbusters, i.e. JK Rowling's Harry Potter Series: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Edinburgh to Orlando. I've heard that a film version of Rowling's life is in the works and I can only hope that the screenplay is written with as much attention and care as that offered by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr. to Margaret Mitchell and her classic.

Advanced Reading Copy reviewed from Taylor Trade Publishing


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