Friday, November 19, 2010

And yet, another reason physical books are better than e-books

Imagine this scenario on (insert holiday morning of your choice). Instead of handing your loved one a beautifully wrapped rectangular package, you instruct them to open an email. I guarantee that this is how it will come off to them:

I love you so much and think you're so amazing and interesting that I downloaded this book for you. Here, let's look through it together under the (insert holiday decoration of your choice). We can turn the pages with this little clicky thing and look at how wonderful and beautiful the pixels are. I bet you can see how wonderful this book is and how much it means to me by looking at this desensitized, sterile, robot-like digital copy. It must make you feel so special that I spent $9.99 to download it for you while sitting on my ass on my couch.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Another reason physical books are better than e-books:

If you're reading a book and you really hate it and you want to express how much you hate it, in a way that will make you feel better for all the time and/or money you spent on it while also making a physical statement of your very high yet appropriate aesthetic standards, you can throw it across the room. You could even break something with it, which would probably just make you hate the book even more. Either way, you can throw it and leave it on the floor where it landed flattened open with the spine breaking and the pages folding in a very ugly manner (if you have never done this because you are much tidier and/or mature than me, trust me, it's very cathartic).

What the hell do you do with an e-book you desperately hate? Delete it? Click and drag it into a trash bin? Sounds lame.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dana Jennings answers our Top Five

Dana Jennings is an author and assistant editor of the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times, where he has most recently been blogging about his experience with prostate cancer. His new book, What a Difference a Dog Makes: Big Lessons on Life, Love, and Healing from a Small Pooch tells about the healing power of living with and loving his dog, Bijou. Originally from New Hampshire, Dana will be reading at Water Street Bookstore on Thursday, November 18th at 7pm.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

I tend to listen to music in bed -- with my two golden retrievers, Moxie & Harry -- and i've been listening to a Starbucks collection called "Heading West: Songs for the Open Road." The artists include Patty Griffin, the Shins, Calexico, Old Crow Medicine Show, and other bands like that. This morning on the bus to work, I was re-reading a wonderful collection of poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser called "Braided Creek." It's a genuine conversation in empigrammatic poems.

2. How do you write?

I write in the morning. When I'm really focused on a book, I work at the dining-room table. If I'm just dreaming & doodling, I write at my local Starbucks. I write my first drafts in longhand, using Pilot's Precise V5 Extra Fine pen, and a range of Moleskine notebooks. I'm addicted to beautiful papers and leathers. After I write, I head off to my job at The New York Times, where I'm the asst. editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section. I also write for the paper.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

It was in third grade. A fourth grader named Cindy Clark, who now lives in East Kingston, showed my teacher, Mrs. Consentino, a story she had written. I watched this play out, and said to myself, 'I can write a story.' I went home that afternoon and started my "first novel": The Cannon Twins in the Robbery Mystery.

4. What are you working on now?
I'm doodling on a book called "Redneck Jew: My (Ahem) Spiritual Journey." It's about how a working-class hick -- me -- improbably converted to Judaism in his late 40s. And, yes, there will be Redneck Jew jokes in the book.

5. Favorite recent find?

Two music videos that I absolutely love that I constantly watch over & over on YouTube: "Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show [reminds me of the Kingston carnival when I was a kid] and "White Winter Hymnal" by Fleet Foxes. Can't get that song out of my head.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What I loved about FREEDOM:

This sentence:
"But [Jocelyn Zorn] had a fine, unsettling cool, an unflappability suggestive of irony, and was the sort of bitter salad green for which Walter ordinarily had a fondness."

This is an excellent sentence, and I like the idea of describing someone as a salad green. That's it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Toby Ball answers our Top Five

Toby Ball is the author of the new dystopian thriller, The Vaults. Michael Harvey, author of The Third Rail has this to say about it: “If George Orwell and Dashiell Hammett had ever decided to collaborate on a book, they might have come up with something like The Vaults…superbly plotted, stylishly written and entirely unique.” Find out for yourself tomorrow night at 7pm, and read his answers to our Top Five right now.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

I am reading a great book called The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. I look forward to my time with it each night. I also have the manuscript for my next book (titled Scorch City) and a signed copy of Jess Walter’s Financial Lives of the Poets, which will be my next read.

2. How do you write?

I work full-time and have a 13 year old son and 5 year old daughter. I essentially write from 8 until 10 each night in whatever peace and quiet I can find. I usually have some sporting event on silently in the background for something to distract me when I take an occasional break from banging on the keys.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

This is a tough one to answer. There are so many different moments when you feel like you are taking the next step: the first time you sit down to do some creative writing (this could be when you are four or five years old); when you decide that you are going to put forth the effort necessary to write something that you want to have published; the moment when you start working on a second draft – the beginning of the real work; the moment you get your first rejection from an agent; the moment when you get your first offer from an agent; the moment you sign a publishing contract; the moment that first book arrives in the mail. I’m not sure which of these moments was “the moment,” but each was a milestone in its own right.

4. What are you working on now?

I’m working on the third book in the loose series that began with The Vaults.

5. Favorite recent find?

This website has a list of what it considers the greatest magazine articles ever written along with links to each. It is very heavy on the past twenty years or so, but the ones I’ve read so far have been excellent. For starters, David Foster Wallace is consistently great and the two-part article on Mel Lyman was fascinating. Enjoy.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Elyssa East answers our Top Five

Elyssa East is the author of Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. Don't miss her reading at the bookstore on Wednesday, October 20th at 7pm.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

Lots of books and at least a years’ worth of New Yorkers that—let’s just cut to the visual.

It's like a landslide waiting to happen. And it has a tail of books and magazines that has spilled onto the floor. Sometimes I think of the books as an army attempting to conquer my sleep. In this they succeed, as I often wake up in the middle of the night and read.

And since you asked, in these piles are Da Zheng’s Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveler from the East, Erica Hirschler’s Sargent’s Daughters, The Paris Review Interviews Women Writers at Work, The 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Richard Burtons’ The Anatomy of Melancholy (always on the nightstand), Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, Katheleen Kent’s The Wolves of Andover, Terese Svoboda’s Pirate Talk or Mermalade, The Selected Prose of Heinrich Von Kleist, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories. I’m on a bit of a story bender right now so I’m definitely moving between the above collections a lot.

2. How do you write?

I would really like to have a sensory deprivation chamber to write in, but I’m not that privileged. I do like being by a window, as I prefer natural light, but can find it distracting. We have a view of the Hudson River and the Palisades and regularly see hawks and sometimes bald eagles out the window. I feel extraordinarily lucky to live in Manhattan and have a nature view with the occasional barge and tugboat passing through.

I teach creative writing at Purchase College. When it comes to writing, though, a lot of days I don’t get going until kind of late. It’s like I need to burn off some anxiety before I can start working. That, or I’m building up steam.

I adopted a dog a few months ago and she likes to nestle under my desk while I’m working and jump up to commandeer my hands for a petting session every so often. She’s helps take the edge off. Here’s her special under-the-desk spot and default mode of sleeping with a paw around one of her teddie bears.

I don’t often listen to music while working as I can get too swept up into it, but that really depends on where I am in my process. When I did listen to music while writing Dogtown I took in a lot of Bach Cantatas and one of my favorite pieces of music ever, Antonin Dvorák’s American Quartet. There was also some Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear, Os Mutantes, and Betty Davis on rotation. Plus, my fiancé happens to run an avant-garde jazz label called Pi Recordings, so I logged a lot of time with his beyond hip, fantastically weird music floating in from the other room.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

If I could say I had an a-ha moment it was while reading this gem, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, when I was in middle school in Georgia, but I couldn’t write worth a lick and I was one of those lucky people who had teachers that went out of their way to tell me that. Nonetheless, I had known that I wanted to be an artist of some sort, only I had no training in anything other than music—my mother was a piano teacher—and I thought that you just had to be born with some magic ability no matter what creative form you wanted to pursue. So my path from wanting to write to actually doing it and then doing it well enough to be published was akin to snow accumulating and turning into a glacier.

4. What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new book, but I can’t say much about it except that it’s a novel about love, an unusual surgery, and a sanatorium. It’s too undefined to say more beyond that and I’m terrified it will flop. I’m also working another nonfiction book proposal about poets and artists during wartime and possibly an anthology about farm animals.

5. Favorite recent find?

The recent Charles Burchfield exhibit at the Whitney blew my mind.

Burchfield paints the sounds of things as well as their colors and energy. His work is wholly, oddly synesthetic and vibrates off the canvas like some strange insect beating its wings. Guernica Magazine, which just celebrated its sixth year, recently published some great photography, including these images by Jason Larkin from an Egyptian history museum. I’m very excited for the Nicolás de Jesús show at the Neuberger Art Museum. I love Mexican art and find De Jesús’s work to be hilarious. You can read it as skeletons making fun of the living or that though we’re all alive we’re somehow dead inside. It’s this reflexive paradox and the idea that the dead are not fully gone and that we are not fully alive that I love so much. And if I don’t catch the Zwelethu Mthethwa show at the Studio Museum of Harlem before it closes next week I don’t know how I’ll ever forgive myself.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Shelf Talker: My Hollywood

My Hollywood by Mona Simpson

I read Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here in high school. Since then, I have been under the impression that I hated it. I remember underlining sentences, but I didn't want to keep the book on my shelf (a big part of the reason was probably that it was a movie tie-in cover, and that I am a snob). 'That mother,' was all I could think; I just hated that mother (if you've read the book, you know what I mean-- she is manipulative and controlling and can't keep her promises). It wasn't until recently that I realized the fact that I hated that mother, that I so identified with and understood the daughter, meant that the book was a success. That I felt like I couldn't keep it on my shelf didn't mean it wasn't good, it meant that it was so well done that I believed it. It worked.

Mona Simpson's latest book, My Hollywood also worked. But unlike Adele in Anywhere But Here, I loved Lola and Claire in My Hollywood. They are the type of characters that you keep on hearing in your head, that are so real you almost feel like you created them, that make you feel you're the only one who really knows them. Lola and Claire live in LA in the latter part of the 20th century. Lola is a woman from the Philippines who is working as a nanny to pay for her children's college educations. When we meet her, she is on the last leg-- her youngest daughter is in medical school. She doesn't resent having to do this-- her children are her whole life, and this is just what a mother does for her children, to give them the best chance. Claire is the woman who hires her to take care of William who is told that, in LA, hiring a nanny is just what a mother does for her children, to give them the best chance. My Hollywood is about motherhood and surrogate motherhood; it's about LA and the TV business and the futility and hopelessness that exist side by side with comedy; it's about falling in love and failing at it and falling in love again. It's about the balance between your work and your life, between what you expect to happen and what really happens, between yourself and everyone else.

Simpson is a challenging writer. She asks you to understand her characters on the same level that she does. You're given the clues; you make the character yourself. This is the most powerful type of fiction, when a writer trusts her reader to create and love her characters as much as she does, but doesn't make it easy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton has been short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize (and is one of five women out of the six people nominated) for her novel, The Rehearsal (earlier referenced as one of the books that has called to me). This is what I thought of it when I read it a few months ago:

This book has the feel of a mid-century all-girls school story, think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but you quickly learn that it has a meta twist to it that makes it so much more than your conventional novel.

Two stories unfold together—a student and teacher have a relationship, and the whole school is abuzz. Several other students, including the girl’s sister, take sax lessons from the same woman, a Miss Brodie-like figure. They discuss the drama with her, and she seems to feed off their confessions, all the while hiding her own secrets from the world. Meanwhile, the drama school next door decides to use the account of the student-teacher relationship as material for their end of year play.

The dialogue can seem quite stilted at times, but keep in mind that the feeling the dialogue creates is very intentional. Every word and scene feels deeply intentional, in a way that almost feels creepy, like when the camera lingers on a closed door or fluttering curtain in a horror movie --you just know something is behind it.

Hilary Thayer Hamann answers our Top Five

Hilary Thayer Hamann is the author of the novel, Anthropology of an American Girl (Spiegel & Grau). She will be reading and signing at the bookstore on Thursday, Sept. 23rd at 7pm.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

Let’s see, there are about ten or twelve thousand books on my nightstand right now, so many in fact that I really ought to take a picture and e-mail it to you! It looks like a brick wall. And by no means does the quantity indicate my ability, just foolish, blind ambition.Lately, I’ve been interested in sparsely written fiction by women with strong underlying stories, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, a really great collection of her short stories, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and Marguerite Duras’ The Lover and The War. I’m curious about voice, about the possibility of establishing something idiosyncratic and unforgettable for the protagonist in a neatly written package. A lot of times what comes through a tight plot-driven book is basically the author (this is true of Jackson) in another guise, which is fine, because it’s economical. But I’m finding that, as a writer, I prefer a firmly shaped character to lead the way. I like motive and plot to reveal itself somewhat organically from the behaviors and preferences of the characters. I’ve also been doing research for my next book and so have been reading about the Vietnam era, lots of non-fiction books from the library and new works like Tim O’Brien’s excellent The Things They Carried and Karl Marlantes’ beautiful Matterhorn. I’m reading the O’Brien book to my kids (10 and 12). They are completely involved.

2. How do you write?

Following the May release of Anthropology of an American Girl (AAG) by Random House, writing became my full-time job. Prior to the release, I worked with them on the re-edit, going back and forth with the manuscript, and that took lots of time. Also, I’ve been involved in a family business for many years, which I have turned over almost entirely to my ex-husband. And, most importantly, as I mentioned, I have two young children, and one teenager in her second year of college, so my life is devoted to them and to giving them a balanced education and a happy home life. Sadly, there are not a lot of cool coffee shops where I live now, so typically I go to the public library every day and work there. Even if I feel I can’t write too many words on a given day, I know that I at least have to be with my ideas in solitude. I will read, listen to music, and organize my work. For most of the summer there was a lot of publicity happening for AAG, so I had to be ready to accept opportunities at the drop of a hat. I was working in the round, collecting and sorting, building character sketches, etc. I have one gigantic file of notes with alphabetized labels like: architecture, clothing, dialogue, music, names, scenes. This is the more or less organized dumping ground for all things connected to the project. I also have an image folder full of things from the period pulled from the web. I can play this on slide show sometimes. Last, I have a music playlist for each project. There is the AAG playlist, which I never return to now that it’s over, and I have a new one for the latest book. I build very eclectic lists that I gather meticulously, so my lists will have songs few people have ever heard of.

The song list from the book is:

Follow you, Follow me, Genesis
Can’t Find My Way Home, Traffic
You’re All I’ve Got Tonight, The Cars
Cow Cow Boogie, Ella Fitzgerald
Here I Am, Come and Take Me, Al Green
Who’s Gonna Be Your Sweet Man When I’m Gone? Muddy Waters
Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, Allman Brothers
Turn the Page, Bob Seger
Jesus Met the Woman at the Well, Peter, Paul, and Mary
Rock On, David Essex
Bernadette, The Four Tops
Tell Me Something Good, Chaka Kahn and Rufus
Bennie and the Jets, Elton John
Mainstreet, Bob Seger
What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye
Hey You, Pink Floyd
Fire, Ohio Players
Let the Sunshine In, The Fifth Dimension
Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, Four Seasons
Romeo and Juliet, Dire Straits
Point Blank, Bruce Springsteen
She’s the One, Bruce Springsteen
The Cisco Kid, War
My Cherie Amour, Stevie Wonder
How Soon is Now? The Smiths
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Bob Dylan (Judy Collins version)

But I listened to lots of other things that did not appear in the book (Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Beth Orton, Nina Simone, etc).

I will often work on something late into the nght, or will get up and work again. The best part about writing is when you are about “seven-tenths wet,” you know, like almost all the way in the water. Not wet enough to start retreating, but just immersed enough to have to keep plowing forward in order to survive. It’s when all your intent lay directly ahead. I am only about three tenths wet right now! I need the one voice to click in. Right now I have three in tandem, and I am waiting for one to take the lead.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

There are lots of these moments, and they come in a variety of ways. I remember being in high school and starting using journals for self discovery and self preservation. I kept these books for several years. I could have just left off there as many people do and felt that I was a writer. After all, I was writing. I got a lot of feedback on academic writing while in college and graduate school, and that was fun. I guess I was halfway through AAG when I wrote the “This is Where I Falter” scene, which falls halfway through the book between high school and college years. The book contains two distinct sections and in the middle I write in my own voice, asking for some sort of divine inspiration!

4. What are you working on now?

I am writing a few books. The main one is about my childhood in the Bronx. It was not a very picturesque landscape, but I was happy there. I want to study lower middle class security and risks. What constitutes a win, or a loss? Loyalty? Sacrifice, etc. A second is about my later life and the reversals in fortune that have occurred to me. I work on this every day. It is very much like journaling. I am also developing a book about teaching classic music, film, and books, and general media awareness to children.

5. Favorite recent find?

I actually have a great answer to this. It’s a website called “The Selvedge Yard” ( It is a carefully curated home for high resolution photographs of fascinating design objects, sexy people, and cool tropes of the late twentieth century. You can find photos and essays on everything from Ford GT40 race cars to classic Schwinn Stingray bikes to the history of denim in Hollywood to the ancient art of Tebori Tattoo to amazing photos of the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Steve McQueen, etc. It’s awesome!

Friday, September 10, 2010

My super-gooey love for Our Tragic Universe

I totally loved this book. Meg is a modern British girl. She is staying afloat thanks to a number of thankless jobs, including being a ghost writer for a teen series, teaching weekend workshops on the special and very particular art of ghost writing, and reviewing crappy books for the local paper, all the while at work on her 'real' novel.

This book is very philosophical-- you'll hear ideas about storytelling, the origin and end of the universe, and New Age theories on everything. Thomas allows her characters to talk a lot, possibly more than anyone would allow in real life, but it's okay here because they're smarter and more interesting than normal people.
Meg is the literary nerd version of Bridget Jones. She's smart and curious as hell, floating through her early 30s but determined to find her place. I like her because I see myself in her-- I think many of us 'transient 20-somethings' (or whatever the New York Times calls people who are trying not to turn into versions of their miserable parents) would. Funny, with a story I actually cared about. Not easy to do.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

If you like the novels of Dan Brown, you might like ....

Read all of Dan Brown and looking for more? Try these.

1. Cabal of the Westford Knight by David S. Brody

Did the Templar Knights ever reach the East Coast of the USA? A fictional but interesting action story, based on the findings of real artifacts and mysterious carvings found all over America. I call it "The Da Vinci Code for New England."

2. Steve Berry's "Cotton Malone series"

This series includes: The Templar Legacy, The Alexandria Link, The Venetian Betrayal, The Charlemagne Pursuit, The Paris Vendetta and The Emperor's Tomb (November). Cotton Malone, a bookstore owner in Denmark and a former US Justice operative, is always on the search for lost historical artifacts and treasures. With Steve Berry, you're sure to get a good dose of action combined with very interesting historical facts.

3. William Martin's Lost Constitution and City of Dreams

Peter Fallon, a Boston bookstore owner, brings the history of New England alive while chasing after historical documents that are either very important or valuable. Lots of local history and lots of action guaranteed.

4. William Dietrich's "Ethan Gage adventures"

This series includes: Napoleon's Pyramids, The Rosetta Key, and The Dakota Cipher. Ethan Gage is an American who some how ends up in Napoleon's army. Willy-nilly, Gage always gets involved in treasure hunts. Spectacular escapes, wild actions, history, and a lot of humor make those books very enjoyable.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Feeding the dystopian fever

So you've finished Mockingjay. You're looking around, not sure what to do now that you don't need to worry about the fate of the world and everyone you've come to love (or maybe you just don't know what to read next--either way). Don't worry, we've got a few suggestions.

1. The Maze Runner Trilogy by James

This is one of those books that you won't need a bookmark for-- you'll read it in one sitting (or at least you'll want to). Thomas wakes up with no memory of who he is or where he is from. All he knows is his name. He finds himself being lifted in a metal box, and when the box opens, he is surrounded by other boys his age. Slowly he learns that they are stuck in the center of a maze, and that solving it is the only way out. Part Lord of the Flies, part Orwell, part fascinating mystery/thriller, with a little romance thrown in too. Absolutely addictive. Book two, The Scorch Trials, comes out October 12th. This was my favorite YA book from last year. And there is more to this story then just a maze--it promises to be just as large scale and political as HG.

2. The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking Series Book One by Patrick Ness

Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him -- something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn't she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd's gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.

3. Birthmarked by Caragh O'Brien

Set in the future in a world affected by environmental damage and political collapse, Gaia lives with her parents outside the Enclave, the gated community reserved for the rich and privileged. She and her mother are midwives, and must deliver a quota of babies to the Enclave each month. When her parents disappear, Gaia must solve the mysteries that surround her family and her community. This has adventure, mystery and a bit of romance. I couldn't put it down!

4. Epitaph Road by David Patneaude

Fourteen-year-old Kellen lives in a future in which 97 percent of the world's male population has been killed off by a virus. Women have taken over all governments and have relegated the remaining men to second-class-citizen status. Boys like Kellen have very few options. Something sinister is brewing, and an uprising of men who live independent of female rule coincides with a new outbreak of the virus. Kellen and his friends, Sunday and Tia, travel to the Olympic Peninsula to investigate and make sure that Kellen's dad, who lives in the colony, is protected from the virus. Each chapter begins with a haunting epitaph for one of the deceased. Most of these epitaphs express sorrow, but some are clearly for men who were abusive and are not missed by survivors. The story is fast paced, and the concept intriguing. The competent world-building allows readers to fully accept the book's premise. (School Library Journal)

5. Life As We Knew It trilogy by Susan Beth Pfeiffer

Miranda's disbelief turns to fear in a split second when an asteroid knocks the moon closer to the earth. How should her family prepare for the future when worldwide tsunamis wipe out the coasts, earthquakes rock the continents, and volcanic ash blocks out the sun? As summer turns to Arctic winter, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited water in the warmth of a wood-burning stove. In her journal, Miranda records the events of each desperate day, while she and her family struggle to hold on to their most priceless resource—hope.

What are you reading after Hunger Games? Hmm?

Photo at top by Eva Skewes

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Shelf Talker: Mr. Toppit

As I wrote in my previous post, I'm am eagerly awaiting the release of Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton (The Other Press). I read it recently while on vacation, and this is what I thought:

This novel has a delightfully mid-century feel to it (even the font reminds me of an Iris Murdoch book), but has a lot to say about 2010: our rather embarrassing obsession with celebrity, rehab fascination, and even a take on the Oprah phenomenon. This book goes places you wouldn't expect, which is the best thing about it.

A British writer of obscure children’s books, Arthur Hayman, dies in the arms of an American tourist in London. The tourist, Laurie Clow, has a practically spiritual response to meeting Arthur and being with him at his death. She becomes an evangelist for his books, The Hayseed Chronicles, propelling them to Harry Potter-like popularity. As a result, the Hayman family, Luke, Rachel and their mother, Martha, reaps the rewards and challenges of being famous for doing nothing.

Elton has created some absolutely hysterical characters, particularly Lila, the obnoxious German illustrator of The Hayseed Chronicles who is like a mother bear protecting her cubs when it comes to the Chronicles.

I love paperback originals. Am I alone?

Maybe the bookstore police will get me for saying this, but I just love to see books come out as paperback originals. And I've been thinking lately, could paperback originals save publishing? Or at least help a little bit?

The Other Press is a lovely independent publishing company that has been putting out beautiful trade paperback originals. Titles like The Glass Room and The Quickening have been great sellers for us. I think part of the reason is that though the authors are not big names, customers are willing to take a chance on a paperback that is less expensive. Every bookseller can attest to the number of times a stack of hardcover debut novels comes in, books that may be absolutely wonderful but don't receive much publicity, and are left to languish on the shelves untouched. Customers are hesitant to take a chance, when the chance costs upward of $30.

Certainly books from blockbuster authors will sell hundreds of thousands of copies in hardcover. And clearly we should not mess with that winning formula. But what about literary fiction from debut authors? I say bring on the paperback originals, especially when they are as lovely as the books The Other Press has been putting out. Giving paperback originals extras like exquisite covers, deckled edges and French flaps has transformed plain old paperbacks into collectible pieces of book art.

The AAP numbers recently released for June lend support to this idea. Adult hardcover sales are down 13.9% and adult paperback sales are up 0.9%. Paperback sales aren't up by much, but if they're not down that seems like a success in today's physical book-selling climate. I think everyone in the industry agrees that big changes are needed. And I realize that the profit margin is higher with a hardcover, and that there is a lot about publishing I don't understand. I also realize that there is some stigma for authors whose books aren't released first in hardcover (though this seems totally lame to me--does the binding really matter? Aren't we concerned about what's between the covers?). But with some tweaking, and maybe a change in perception, is a combination of more paperback originals to hardcovers a formula that could work? I think the idea merits more research.

I'm looking forward to selling two of The Other Press' new books when they come out this fall, Mr. Toppit and The Wrong Blood. These will be easy hand sells, because they're great books and, to be perfectly honest, because they only cost $14.95.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Our Deserted Island Top Five

So, the age-old question: which five books would you choose to take with you if you were stuck on a deserted island? Three Water Street Bookstore booksellers give their answers.


1. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
2. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
3. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
4. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
5. Holy Land by Rauan Klassnik


1. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
2. Fall of Giants by Ken Follett (releases 9/28)
3. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
4. The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise by Julia Stuart
5. Big History by Cynthia Brown


1. Three by Annie Dillard

This classic volume contains Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, and The Writing Life. Okay, sure, this is sort of cheating, but I'm using my 5 books wisely by bringing an omnibus! Annie Dillard is quite simply one of my top three favorite writers. In these books, I found paragraph after paragraph of the most fascinating, glittering prose I had ever read. Every blade of grass and star in the sky brings her wonder and joy. She lives her life in a way I could only hope to.

2. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Non-Fiction by Joan Didion

Again, I may be cheating here a little...but how could I choose between Joan Didion's wonderful essay collections? Slouching Towards Bethlehem was a watershed book for me. Reading it made me realize that the way words are hung together matters, that each individual sentence can be a whole world. I'll admit to heavy-handedly Didionizing my writing in college papers after discovering her, though of course I soon realized she's simply inimitable. I'll still pick this book up every once in a while when I just want to be quieted and moved by the written word.

3. A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

My favorite Irving novel, and one of my favorite novels period, this wonderful book will always remind me of my family and my home. By the time I was in sixth grade, my parents and both of my brothers had already read it. The copy that was passed down to me is a bruised and battered paperback that I will never, ever upgrade.

4. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

All of Faulkner's great novels are deep reservoirs of meaning and tradition, but Absalom, Absalom! for me surpasses all the others. Each page uncovers secrets and clues that could never be fully picked up in a single reading.

5. Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

McDermott's lyrical prose will always comfort and calm me, and Charming Billy is my favorite of her novels. Her characters are universal figures--we know what they will do wrong before they do, we know how they love and lose, what they fight for and grieve for. Billy is a flawed and desperate character, and one that we cannot help but love. I've read this novel a half dozen times and never tire of it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lily King answers our Top Five

Lily King answers our author questionnaire. She is the author of The Pleasing Hour andThe English Teacher. Her most recent novel, Father of the Rain, won the New England Book Award for Fiction. She will be reading and signing at Water Street on Thursday, August 26th at 7pm.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin and Paul Harding's Tinkers. I'm a year behind on my contemporary lit reading.

2. How do you write?

I write while my children are school, from about 8:30-2:30 Monday through Friday. No weekends. No holidays. I write the first draft of my novels by hand in lined spiral notebooks, then type them bit by bit into the computer. I wish I could write with music in the room but I can't at all, though sometimes if I go to the coffee shop, I can handle the music there if it's not too loud. I have one cup of tea, usually around eleven in the morning, which is the highlight of my day.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

I loved to write all my life, but I don't think I allowed myself to believe I was a writer until my first short story was published in 1992. When I got a copy of that issue of Glimmer Train, I felt something shift.

4. What are you working on now?

I'm on my book tour now, and haven't been able to write for weeks, and I'm aching for my study and my cup of tea. When I can get back there, I'll continue working on a collection of short stories as well as a new novel I started when I was at an impasse with Father of the Rain.

5. Favorite recent find?

I was just on North Haven Island in Maine for a reading and I stayed at Nebo Lodge Inn. It was perfect: delicious food, wonderful staff, truly relaxing even though I was there for work.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Matthew Dicks on the Book Tour (Pt. 3)

Matthew Dicks is the author of the novels Something Missing and most recently, Unexpectedly, Milo. He will be reading at Water Street this Saturday at 6pm. This is his third and final guest blog for us. Thanks Matt!

I thought I’d end this three-part series on book tours with some advice for readers who plan on attending an author’s appearances, as well as some advice for new authors preparing for their first book tour. But in the spirit of stories, one more story from my current tour.

Not all bookstores are alike. Some treat an author as a visiting dignitary, an emissary from the literary world. They meet and greet, they wine and dine, and provide introductions full of warm and loving adjectives. None of this is necessary, of course, nor is it even expected, but it’s nice when it happens.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was my recent appearance at a big box store. When I arrived at this particular store, I was greeted by a table about twenty feet from the doors, complete with a display of my books and a sign indicating that I would be “speaking and signing” at 2:00. It was 1:45.

After a five-minute search of the store, I eventually found a stock boy who used his walkie-talkie to contact the manager, who appeared five minutes later to greet me. She introduced herself, redirected me to the front of the store, and explained that she had set me up “right here.”

Right here was the same small table displaying my books that I had seen when I walked in. While there was a large space in the rear of the store for speaking engagements, the manager had inexplicably placed me in the shadow of the front doors, in the path of foot traffic.

While deciding how to handle this, I explained that I needed to use the restroom. When I returned a couple minutes later, the manager was gone and a group of a dozen readers had gathered around the table, waiting for me to speak. There were no seats for these people, nor was there any room for the seats either. I explained to my would-be audience that the manager would undoubtedly be back shortly and would arrange for some chairs or move our location entirely.

The manager never returned. At 2:00 a male voice came on the intercom to announce that I was in the store and would be speaking and signing in the front of the building.

The audience looked at me, I looked at the audience. And we all waited for about five more minutes, certain that the manager would return.

Finally, I gave up. At the behest of two impatient readers, we took charge. I turned the table around, moved two tables of books over, and commandeered a dozen chairs from the café. Audience members assisted in this reconfiguration, and by the time that we were done, we had carved out a suitable, though hardly ideal, space for the event.

Oddly enough, this worked out well. The forced teamwork and mutual disgust in the absence of assistance brought me and my audience together as one, all pulling on one chain to make this situation work, and I felt instantly accepted. I spoke for about thirty minutes and then answered questions for about forty-five minutes. And everyone bought a book.

The manager never returned. Not once. After the event was finished, people returned their chairs to the café and left. I saw the manager a couple times, hurrying this way and that, but she never approached me again.

I guess that once you use the restroom, you’re on your own.

Like I have said, you never know what to expect while on a book tour.

So in the spirit of preparing for the unexpected, allow me to offer some tips to readers and authors who might be attending or speaking at a book event soon.

First, for the readers:

1. Don’t be late. In fact, show up early and say hello. Authors are often asked to be 15-30 minutes early for an event, and there’s not much to do during that time. I’m always happy to chat with people prior to speaking, and it makes me feel good knowing that I have a new friend in the audience as I begin reading and telling stories.

2. Ask questions, and please don’t be afraid to ask questions unrelated to the book or even writing in general. As an author, I believe that anything and everything is fair game when it comes to the question-and-answer session, which is my favorite part of an author appearance. Want to know the name of my cat? Want to know what I routinely eat for breakfast? Want to know how my childhood plays a role in my fiction? All these questions are on the table, and a good speaker will be able to turn each of these questions into a story that will entertain the audience and provide a little more insight into the author as a person. Lately I’ve been giving away a prize for the oddest or most intriguing question asked, and I’ve gotten some whoppers!

3. Purchase a book, and if you’ve already bought a copy of the author’s book elsewhere, buy something else. Hosting an author event costs money, and more often than not, these events are free or the price of admission can be applied to a book. While authors are not generally paid for their appearance, bookstores incur marketing and promotional costs, expenses related to travel and lodging, and increased labor costs for the additional employee or employees who assist with the event. Make a purchase and support the store and its continued efforts to bring authors to your community. Hell, make three purchases. These are books that we’re talking about. If you’re attending an author event, you like to read.

And for authors who are just starting out:

1. Remain positive regardless of the circumstances. The story I opened with illustrates this point well. I stayed positive despite the bookstore’s failure to provide me with a suitable space (or even a few chairs), but a potential negative became a positive when the audience members and I joined forced to correct the problem. Whether you are speaking to an army of two hundred or a cluster of just four people, remember that everyone standing in front of you could be a reader for life, and they all deserve your best. And keep in mind that booksellers want to provide authors with large audiences, but sometimes it’s simply not possible. They do their best, so you must do yours, regardless of the circumstances.

2. Make an effort to bring people into the store by promoting the event as well. Use Twitter, Facebook, your website, an email blast or anything else to let potential readers know where you will be speaking. If you want an audience, do your part to ensure that one will be there to listen to you.

3. Bring a trusted friend to your first few appearances, and ask for honest feedback following the appearance. It’s extremely difficult to evaluate your own speaking performance, so having an observer who you trust is extremely beneficial, especially early on in your career.

4. Tell stories. As an author, I assume that you are a good storyteller, so use every opportunity available to you to tell a story. If I was asked about the name of my cat, I’d be sure to include the story about the time I accidentally started the dryer with him inside. If I was asked about what I routinely eat for breakfast, I’d be certain to tell an amusing story about my days of managing McDonald’s restaurants in addition to explaining that my breakfast of choice is an Egg McMuffin. Speak in stories whenever possible, and constantly seek ways of using audience members’ questions as an avenue into a story or personal anecdote.

5. Don’t spend too much time reading from your book. As one who frequently attends author appearances, I can assure you that most audience members are there to hear you talk about yourself and your book. Listening to you read a short, well chosen section of the text is great, but authors who spend even a third of their allotted time reading from their books are surely losing the attention of many audience members. Talk about the process by which you wrote the book. Talk about why you became an author in the first place. Talk about your most recent spat with your wife (provided that she is not in the audience as well). An author appearance is an opportunity for the reader to get to know you. If they like you, they will purchase your book and get to know your story on their own.
6. Tell more stories. I cannot emphasize this enough.

7. Don’t read your comments from a card or a sheet of paper. Speak naturally, make eye contact and smile. Relax. Take a public speaking class if necessary. No one wants to listen to you read a book report.

8. Self-deprecation is an undersold commodity in today’s world. Don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself and let your audience know how stupid you can be. Nothing is more endearing and amusing than a speaker who is willing to be honest and sincere. You wrote a book, so everyone already knows that you are reasonably intelligent. Do not spend your time trying to prove how smart you are. Instead, make every effort to be yourself.

Unless, of course, you are a jackass. Then pretend that you are someone else.

Good luck, and I hope to see many of you on Saturday, August 21 at 6:00!