Wednesday, December 21, 2011

my best of 2011--non-fiction

So the truth is that I read way, way less non-fiction than I do fiction. So I've chosen my top five (with one honorable mention) instead of top ten. And I don't tend to read traditional history or biography or anything like that. I'm mostly a memoir kind of girl. So keep that in mind.

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
You know that phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid?” Reading Julia Scheeres’ book about the Jonestown Massacre made me realize that one thing many of the residents of Jonestown were not doing in their final hours and minutes was “drinking the Kool-Aid.” So many of them were stuck in Jonestown—physically trapped, blackmailed, and deceived from the very beginning. They were overworked, undernourished, and totally cut off from the world. They weren’t the Jim Jones zombies that history has told us they were.

Scheeres’ account is fascinating and simply heartbreaking. Read her memoir Jesus Land too. You’ll understand why she wrote A Thousand Lives.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
by Alexandra Fuller

This is a fantastic follow-up to the story Fuller told in Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight. If Dogs was the story she had to get off her chest, then Cocktail Hour is the story her heart taught her to tell after many years wrestling. She seems to have really wanted to understand what the African experience was for her parents, and she lets them explain it in their own, inimitable style (her mom is hilarious!). She has come to a clearer understanding of what it all meant for them—living through wars, losing children, constantly moving, battling manic depression, all while desperately loving Africa and not feeling at home anywhere else in the world.

Expect more of the voice (so funny & stylish, yet cuts to the bone) you came to love in Dogs, plus the understanding that comes with age and acceptance.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson
This is one powerful memoir. Donna Johnson spent her childhood, the sixties and seventies, traveling across the country with her mother and siblings and an evangelist named David Terrell. Her time with the big tent revival varied from the fervor of fellowship and larger than life miracles to hard-scrabble poverty, abandonment, and bitter disappointment.

If you have any experience with evangelicals, good or bad, you’ll understand the push and pull of this memoir. Johnson absolutely nails the desire to believe in something as great and mystical as the power to heal and the truly devastating way that belief can so easily break when hypocrisy and human weakness edge in.

This Life Is In Your Hands by Melissa Coleman
This is a lovely memoir about growing up on a homestead on the coast of Maine in the 70s, just at the beginning of the back to the land movement, out of which grew our modern day concept of organic, self-sustaining farming. Coleman's father is Eliot Coleman, considered by many to be the father of organic gardening. Melissa's early childhood was spent in carefree innocence, running wild with her younger sister Heidi. The magic is broken, however, when Heidi accidentally drowns. This tragedy, coupled with the difficulties of living off the grid, drives her parents apart.

This is not a whiny sob story kind of memoir. I can't emphasize that enough. Melissa writes with empathy and surprising strength about parents who so often chose the cause or their own feelings over her and her siblings. On top of that, this is meticulously researched and a truly fascinating portrait of the times. Stayed with me.

Your Voice In My Head by Emma Forrest
This is a simply heartbreaking memoir about the journey from sickness to health; a story about how that journey isn't always a straight line. Emma Forrest is a young woman, a writer, in NYC dealing with mental illness (cutting, depression, etc.) when she meets the man who will change her life: not a boyfriend or lover, but Dr. R, a gentle but firm therapist who helps her get a grip on life. When he dies suddenly, she most understandably goes off the rails. Her boyfriend throughout the book, who she calls Gypsy Husband, is actually the actor Colin Farrell. Trust me, after you read this book you’ll never look at him the same way again.

In beautiful, incisive writing, Forrest cuts to the core of what it means to want to get better so badly and yet need help to do so. This book could help a lot of women on their journey to wellness.

Honorable Mention:

Blue Nights by Joan Didion
I adored The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion's last book about the death of her husband, in the way that you can love a terribly sad book, and I was eager to read Blue Nights when I heard about it. But it was difficult to love this new book, about the devastating death of her daughter Quintanna. Her writing has the same freshness and emotional depth it has always had. But, and I never say this, part of me thinks I'm too young to fully appreciate Blue Nights. She's so aware of death and aging and how some things go and are gone forever. I think I'm just too young to go there. I think I'll just keep re-reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem to get my Didion fix from now on.

my best of 2011--fiction

For the first time, I've gone back through my reading journal to officially determine my favorite books of the year. As seems to be happening more and more every year, this was the year of the many-hyped novels. I read a lot of them (most before they were hyped...that's the beauty of getting review copies and reading the books before everyone else!) and many of them were truly wonderful (The Night Circus, The Art of Fielding, The Marriage Plot). A few I wasn't crazy about (State of Wonder, The Paris Wife). I think the truth is that a lot of the people who are doing the hyping have good taste--they know what they're talking about! At the same time, so, so many wonderful books are published each year to no fanfare at all. Luckily for me, my job brings these books to my attention.

I wrote up all of my favorites but two (The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot), mostly because someone else on staff wrote them up for the store, but also because they've both gotten such amazing reviews. Read those!

#1 most favorite novel of the year is...

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Cambell
I can’t wait for you to meet Margo. She is the beautiful, striking-looking tomboy of 15 who is the heart of this story. She is twisting up like a weed from childhood to adulthood, curious about her power over men while also longing for her mother who abandoned her. After several deeply traumatic events, Margo is left alone, on the river she loves in rural Michigan. In her grandfather's teak wood boat, she takes off upriver in search of her mother, in search of somewhere to belong. Realizing that she can't survive alone, she uses the men she meets for protection and companionship. Though she has the gun skills and guts of her hero, Annie Oakley, Margo is still a little girl in the end, needing a home and a love that won't ask questions and won't leave her.

I knew from the first page that Campbell's writing was exquisite, her cadence melodic and language deliberate. It only took a few more pages for me to be totally hooked.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Morgenstern has created a compelling, complete world with The Night Circus. From the lovely, intricate graphics inside to the interspersed circus attraction descriptions, reading this book was like parting the curtains of a tent at the circus
and entering. Every detail of the clothing, food, and attractions are perfectly described and the love story between the magicians is simply mythic. The plot is unspooled from two points in the story decades apart and as the dates get closer together, the feeling that something explosive is going to happen is truly palpable. Cinematic, unique, memorable.

This book is great for anyone who needs a little wonder in their life or for those who know that true love is always magical. And it lives up to the hype.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
If you want to get all nestled into a good story with great characters you’ll actually care about, this debut novel is a great choice. Jude and Teddy are

The writing is wonderful and moving. Henderson writes about her characters like she really believes in them; her confidence in them, the way each character is a person and an idea, is quite Irving-esque. best friends living in a VT city (feels like Burlington) in the 1980s. They are teenagers doing the normal things teenagers do, playing in their band, doing drugs, and scrounging for money to buy drugs. Relatively speaking, they are two innocent kids. Until one night, when Teddy overdoses and dies. Jude is sent to live in the East Village with his father and the story just explodes from there. This is about music and New York and growing up and is just wonderfully done.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
If you’re one of those people who loves a novel for its characters, for the beautiful, evocative writing, and despite the fact that “not much happens,” then I think you’ll love The Forgotten Waltz. Enright is one of our most talented wordsmiths; her books are absolutely to be cherished and savored. Logophiles rejoice: you’ll never find a cliché in a book by Anne Enright. This story, about a woman’s affair with a married man, has been done before and has been done poorly, but Enright handles it carefully--Gina, Sean, and their spouses are all real people, with real struggles. No one is romanticized or vilified. Anne Enright writes the real thing.

Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell
This is an awesome collection of connected short stories by Vanity Fair columnist (she writes the Hot Type column!) and Tin House magazine co-founder Elisa Schappell. Most likely, if you are a girl you will get these stories. Were you unsure of who you were in high school? Did you date the wrong person? Did you go to college? Did you maybe make a few mistakes? Are all your friends having babies? Do you have a weird relationship with your mom? The writing is lovely and sharp and clever and sad and beautiful. Give short stories a shot. They are difficult to write, so if they got published, you know they’re good. That’s my logic anyway.

Lightning People by Christopher Bollen
This book reminded me that small publishers today are making great books and their books deserve a second look. Lightning People tells the intertwined story of four transplanted New Yorkers, part of the lost and wandering Generation Y—Joseph, a superstitious sometimes actor whose handsome good looks get him his acting gigs, Delphine, his Greek girlfriend who hates her job as a zoo assistant so much she persuades Joseph to marry her for a green card, and siblings Madi and Raj Singh, second generation Indian immigrants struggling with their Indian identity (and much more, of course).

This is one of those novels where the characters’ paths cross drastically and passionately, like struck lightning. You know it’s bound to happen, since it often does in novels like this, but it’s still both magnificent & dreadful, managing to feel both surprising & fated. Fresh language, precise details, and realistic feelings (so much angst!) make this a great novel from a new talent.

There But For The by Ali Smith
This book is simply delightful. Here's the premise: at a dinner party, a man the host doesn't know very well (he's the plus-one of one of the guests) leaves the table, goes upstairs, and locks himself in the host's guest bedroom and refuses to leave. He stays there for months (don't worry, it has an en suite bathroom). Each section is told from a different character, all loosely connected to Miles, the man in the bedroom.

Ali Smith uses clever, delightful wordplay throughout (especially to do with the words "there," "but," "for," and "the"), but her greatest gift is the tenderness that she brings to what could otherwise be a silly tale. A jewel of a book; I loved every page.

The Family Fang
I just loved this novel about the dysfunctional family Fang. Camille & Caleb Fang are performance artists who conscript their children Annie & Buster (or Child A and Child B as they are known by the Fangs’ many admirers in the performance art community) at very young ages to take part in their pieces. Being forced to basically trick strangers over and over seems to take its toll on Child A and Child B. Annie grows up to be a nearly famous actress, and Buster a nearly failed novelist. This story is about the seemingly irrevocably damage family can do and how sometimes they’re the only ones who can make a person whole again. Just a note: this book isn’t as quirky as the cover makes it seem. It’s just good.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What if the movie studios (like big publishers) were driven out of business and all we had was people's YouTube clips of them jumping off their roof or giving makeup tutorials? I'm sorry, but I'm not going to the movies to watch YouTube clips, just like I'm not paying for self-published crap on Amazon, which may be our only option someday if Amazon has it's way and puts the publishers out of business by becoming a publisher itself.

So many of these self-published books are just not good enough. So many of them (and I would know, remember, I work in a bookstore; I see them everyday) are not edited or formatted properly, to say nothing of the rotten cover art and cheap, flimsy paper and binding.

Maybe the way a book looks isn't important to you, but I think it's important to a lot of people. I, like a good portion of people, am not interested in ebooks because I am a collector of the object of a book. My home library is a comfort and pleasure to me. I love being surrounded by books. And I love when they are beautiful objects, with satiny jackets, deckled edges, and a comforting heft in the hand. And the fact is, I have yet to see a book made by CreateSpace or iUniverse or whatever that meets these standards. They just look like junk.

But I do think it's great that so many people are getting to tell their stories, and I do believe that there are masterpieces that are being self-published today (just as masterpieces are found in the slush pile), but I don't want to live in a world where we have millions of happy, self-published authors and NO GOOD BOOKS.

If you read that leaked memo from publisher Hachette a few weeks ago, then you know all the work that publishers do to bring quality books to market. I'll summarize it here:

1. Publisher acts as CURATOR, finding the talent and nurturing them as they work. This includes wading through all the crap that is now being churned out with CreateSpace and finding the work that is actually good. It also includes editing by a professional editor, not someone's neighbor or husband or friend. People who have edited bestselling, award-winning writing--these are the people who continue to do the work of editing new material. They are good at it.

2. Publishers have the MONEY to fund the writer's work. Part of the reason that the books they publish are good is because their writers have time and money to write full-time.

3. Publishers have the network to DISTRIBUTE. They have sales reps who have actually read the books who then sell them to bookstores, online and off, independent and chain.

4. Publishers MARKET and PROTECT the work they helped build. They have a vested interest in the intellectual property because putting out books is all they do. They don't also sell TVs and Elmo dolls and Hunter boots and diapers. They just do books. And those books have to be good.

Amazon's efforts at taking down independent bookstores are just the tip of the iceberg. They want to take down the publishers too. And when they do that, when they are the only company making and selling books, and they are also making and selling gadgets and who knows what else, you have to know that the quality of the books won't be a paramount concern. And my guess is the price won't be so great then either.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Kate Whouley answers our Author Questionnaire

Kate Whouley lives and writes on Cape Cod, in the home that inspired her to write Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved. A Book Sense Book of-the-Year nominee in the nonfiction category, Cottage for Sale received kudos from booksellers and reviewers, and is a popular selection for reading groups.

An avocational musician, Kate has played principal flute in the Cape Cod Conservatory Concert Band since 1995. "When I began working on the new memoir, I thought I was writing a book about the band and my personal musical journey. But as I began to write, I couldn’t help but notice that my mother was turning up on every page."

Many booksellers know Kate from her work in the book industry consulting with bookstores on design, renovation and other matters for her company Books In Common. Her latest book is Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words: Travels with Mom in the Land of Dementia.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

Alexander Maksik: You Deserve Nothing

Charles Dickens: Great Expectations

Orhan Pamuk: Other Colors

Emberto Eco: Baudelino

Milan Kundera: The Curtain

Mavis Gallant: Paris Stories

2. How do you write?

My working life has been spent in the book business. I know the crush of books, the confusion of titles, the way that publishers push a few big books each season—mostly by established authors and celebrities. I know how difficult it is for any book to find an audience. I know that some folks believe that books and bookstores may soon be obsolete. When I begin to write, I must forget everything that I know about the marketplace for books, and choose, instead, to learn the truth of the story I am telling. I work in a separate silence—away from my desk, away from the telephone, and away from my desktop computer. Wherever I open up my laptop, I have a cup of hot white tea—and if I am lucky, a black and white cat—within arm’s reach.

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

I was first published—at age fourteen—in a magazine for collectors of insulators—those little glass and porcelain knobby things that used to sit on the crossbars of telephone and electric poles. In the years since, I’ve written Hallmark cards, radio commercials, catalogue copy, publicity material, feature articles, personal essays, a long-running column in a bookselling magazine, and I’ve authored, edited and contributed to several professional books. Yet—and this may be because I have worked in the book business, too—I didn’t consider myself a “real” writer until my first memoir—Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved—was published. Around that time, I revealed this secret to a magazine editor. He corrected me: “Kate, you aren’t a writer. You’ve crossed over. You’re an author now.” Seven years later, I am still processing that information.

4. What are you working on now?

In the book tour whirlwind, I’m mostly working on showing up at the right place at the right time. But as the travel begins to slow down, I plan to return to a fiction project set in the ninth century. (When that one sees print, maybe I’ll be able to introduce myself as an author.)

5. Favorite recent find?
My cat, Mojo, although he found me. Formerly feral, he now enjoys the full privileges of Cat-of-the-House.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

tidying the beside-the-bed-book-pile

I know lots of people have stacks of books on their bedside table. I realize that's a thing. But if you work with books in any capacity (bookselling, publishing, editing, etc.), my guess is that you don't have a stack of books, you have PILES OF BOOKS. There is totally a difference. The difference is that a stack of books is manageable and normal and a GIGANTIC UNRULY PILE OF BOOKS quickly becomes unmanageable and a one-way ticket to crazytown.

Every few months I come to a frightening conclusion: there are too many damn books in the GIGANTIC UNRULY PILE and someday I'm going to jump out of bed and break my ankle or at least slip and get really annoyed. My test for this is when I notice Marc has to balance his hands precariously on the edge of the bed with his feet up against the PILE and leeeeeaaaaaan in to kiss me goodbye in the morning. No good will come of this: either he'll knock the PILE over or he'll just get too fed up with me and I'll die a spinster. So, not to be dramatic or anything, but last night it was time to tidy. Here's my scientific system: I create new PILES, hopefully smaller, but usually just more, which I then scatter about the apartment in a way that makes me feel like I dealt with them. Feel free to use my system with your own crazy book problem if you like.

Here are the PILES I create:
1. Books I have to read IMMEDIATELY.
2. Books I have to read IMMEDIATELY because they look amazing.
3. Books I have to read IMMEDIATELY because I promised the sales rep I would.
4. Books I have to read IMMEDIATELY because they come out in 6 months and I want to be able to tweet about them and make people jealous.
5. Books I have to read IMMEDIATELY because they come out next month and crap how have I not read this yet? (in descending order of how quickly I can read them)
6. Books I have to read IMMEDIATELY because they are already out, and oh never mind I'm never going to get to them (but obviously I'm going to keep them = New Pile)
7. Books I have to read IMMEDIATELY because I read the first half and why the hell can't I just commit already?
8. Books I have to read IMMEDIATELY because I bought them and they are so beautiful and shiny and hardcovery, okay never mind, it's not in the cards, they'll just go in the shelving PILE.
9. And the tiniest pile: why did I bring this book home in the first place and how should I get rid of it?

The next day, I'll point to the smaller piles by the bed and say, "Look Marc, I tidied!" hoping against hope that he won't ask any questions about ALL THE OTHER PILES SCATTERED ALL OVER THE APARTMENT.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Joni B. Cole answers our Author Questionnaire

Joni B. Cole is the author of the new essay collection Another Bad-Dog Book: Tales of Life, Love and Neurotic Human Behavior. (PublishingWorks). She (and her own bad dog) will be at Water Street Bookstore tomorrow (Saturday, 9/24) at 4pm to talk about her new book, writing and bad dogs.

“Joni Cole’s voice may be brutal, but readers, drawn to turn to the next page, will be rewarded: She is funny and so is her gutsy book.” – New York Journal of Books

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

I’m assuming you’re asking me about what bookish things are on my nightstand, and not the earring I took out last night and forgot to put back in, or my miracle face cream or dirty cereal bowl. At the moment my nightstand has on it David Baldacci’s paperback The Sixth Man (eager to start it!), Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, an excellent book except that I hate reading it on Kindle. (I vowed after Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad I’d never buy another book on Kindle—it seriously diminishes the reading experience for me, so why did I make this same mistake?) FYI: fallen under the table is a hardcover of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. Loved that book!

2a. How do you write?

I teach writing workshops and consult with writers and give talks at conferences, so I have to fit my own writing in around that work schedule. But I make it a priority, preserving entire mornings or afternoons when I can, getting up at 4 a.m. when I need to, and making the most of all those fifteen- or thirty-minute windows of opportunity while I’m waiting in the car for my two daughters to finish their field hockey practices or piano lessons or whatever.

2b. Do you require a completely silent, empty room, or do you listen to music?

I can write in silence or with noise, if that noise is the buzz of a coffee shop or a bunch of kids running around downstairs. But I don’t like music playing when I write at my desk. That said, music does serve my creative process, because I get a lot of my ideas when I’m jogging and listening to my iPod. So I’d say the soundtrack of my new book is a mix of Maroon 5, Garth Brooks, Flo Rida, the Zac Brown Band, Kesha, Cat Stevens, Cher, Pit Bull, Josh Grobin….

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

Hmm. I can’t think of a particular moment. There are times when I am burbling with professional self confidence, and reread something I wrote and think, “Man, that was good writing.” But there are just as many times when I’m struggling to put something, anything, on the page, and think, “Well, I used to be a writer.”

4. What are you working on now?

Snippets of essays, an article I want to propose for The Writer magazine, blog posts for a an online magazine where I’m a regular contributor. I’m uncomfortably aware that I am not immersed in a new book at the moment, but that’s the creative process. It takes its own sweet time, but something will gel, likely another essay collection, as long as I show up at my desk.

5. Favorite recent find?

Two recent life enhancements: Lemon Cloud dessert and the FX original series “Justified.” As for exciting stuff, I’m truly excited about this upcoming “season” of promoting my book. It’s fun to see it in stores and meet readers and booksellers. I want to appreciate every moment of this.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Melissa Coleman answers a few nosy questions

Melissa Coleman is the author of This Life Is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone, a new memoir about growing up on a farm off the coast of Maine in the 1970s. Her father, Eliot Coleman, was an integral part of the "back to the land" movement and one of the fore-fathers of organic gardening. She will be sharing her story at Water Street Bookstore on Tuesday, June 14th at 7pm (with Caitlin Shetterly).

1. Obvious Nightstand Question: I can't help but ask, what's on your nightstand/what are you reading now?

Just finished and loved loved A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. It every bit deserves that Pulitzer. Also on the nightstand suddenly, it seems, are a number of books by authors I know or have met: another Pulitzer winner, The Emperor of All Maladies, a brilliant work by friend Siddhartha Mukherjee, Townie by Andre Dubus, whom I saw read/speak recently and he was amazing, and The Sweet Relief of Missing Children by Sarah Braunstein, an excellent, clear-sighted debut by a friend here in Portland.

2. The "back to the land" movement seems to be having a 2.0 these days, with tons of cityfolk and otherwise setting up rooftop gardens, moving out to the country, shopping at Farmer's Markets, buying chickens. With your family's experience in mind, do you see any negatives in these trends? Would you caution people about taking on an experiment of the magnitude that your family undertook?

I see today's movement as much more sustainable, which is of course the goal. You can have your own garden AND electricity, you don't need to cut ties completely from the modern world. Back in the 1960s-1970s, a more extreme movement was required to break free of the status quo. There was only one farmer's market in Portland, Maine in 1971 and maybe one health food store. Today there are hundreds of farmers markets and health food stores across the state. It's a change that has built slowly to get to where we are today. My only advice would be that here is no one formula for how to live a healthy life, it's important to create your own version that works for you.

3. Your memoir feels so meticulously researched. You do a wonderful job of mixing the facts of what happened with your own impressions as a child of the time. Besides doing research on what was happening politically and culturally in the 1970s, did you interview your parents and other family members for the book? With your journalism background, did you treat them like any other interview subjects, or was it a more personal experience? I can imagine it could be therapeutic to get to ask all those questions and get the story straight, or maybe just really difficult.

Since my memories were limited, I had to fill in the rest of the details by talking to people who were there and reading a lot about the time. However, the research for this book never felt like research, it felt more like solving a mystery, figuring out the clues to what happened. I talked to my parents, extensively, our apprentices and neighbors, and the reporters who wrote about us. Most of the interviews felt like conversations between friends and family about a shared time, but I always circled back to the parts I needed to figure out. It did feel like therapy in some ways and I'm left with an understanding of the past that has left me at peace with it. I hope for the same for all of my family.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Caitlin Shetterly answers a few nosy questions

Caitlin Shetterly is the author of the new memoir, Made For You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home about her journey with her young family across the country twice, in search of the safety of a good job, adventure, and the American Dream. She will be at Water Street Bookstore on Tuesday, June 14th to talk about her new book (along with Melissa Coleman).

1. The Obvious Nightstand Question: I always have to know, what's on your nightstand/what are you reading?

I just finished Townie by Andre Dubus III, which is a searingly beautiful, moving, and can't-put-it-down read. I was so involved in Dubus' world I couldn't wait to get back to it every evening. Now my husband is reading it and he is just as hooked and moved as I was. Now I'm reading an older book by my friend Terry Tempest Williams, called An Unspoken Hunger. It's made up of beautiful essays--more like meditations, really-- about the environment and our responsibility to it.

2. This one is from @Bethazon (awesome librarian/culture geek on Twitter): Once you knew you had a much larger audience than close friends and family, did you feel any more pressure or responsibility when writing your blog? when recording your radio pieces? Would you change anything you did?

The only thing I changed, shortly after my first audio diary went viral on NPR, was that I took my son's name out of the blog. Other than that, I wrote every blog as if I were writing it for my husband--and, indeed, I read each one out loud to him before I published it. And he listened to every radio piece before it was finalized. In my writing life, I often have Dan read things--he has a great sense of my voice, he keeps me fair, he helps me write what I mean to say and he supports me, unconditionally--this is a gift. He read my book many times and then, finally, at the very end I read the whole thing out loud to him over 5 very long evenings (we have a young child) and I went hoarse, but we made the book better that way, because books are also meant to be read out loud.

3. I realize that no one writing a book about herself has any intention or editorial permission to write about every single bit of what's happened in her life. But I recently read a memoir in which I felt the author left out huge chunks of her life, and it ended up feeling less than honest to me. Reading your book, I felt like you could have elaborated on so many different aspects of your story (time in Paris, childhood, time in NYC) but didn't, without sacrificing any of the honesty or transparency. How did you do it? How did you know what to cut and what needed to be said? Does that make sense?

This makes perfect sense. This is important for books--you need to trust the writer. You know, as an actor, when I was in acting school in NYC, I was taught a technique of acting in which you speak from the true place of a character--whatever that might mean in that given moment. You work true moment to true moment. I've, for better or for worse, in my life, always been a person who has spoken from that place--whether I'm playing me, or someone else--I try to tell the truth from where I sit. And sometimes people don't like that and sometimes they do. But as a writer you have to remember that to tell a good story, you have to ask yourself that question from the movie about Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, "If you were lying it that gutter dying and you had time to sing one song..." what would it be? When I sit down to write, I start with that question and then I follow my heart.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

C.S. Lambert answers our Top Five

C.S. Lambert is an expert on sea glass hunting and is the author of three books on sea glass: Sea Glass Chronicles, A Passion for Sea Glass, and the Sea Glass Hunter's Handbook. She will be sharing about her seaglunking adventures, giving tips on how to find great sea glass, and will be identifying your own treasures, this Saturday at the bookstore at 2pm.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

All the Best Rubbish by Ivor Noel Hume.

2. How do you write?

I write full-time, and I need relative silence when I’m working. I can’t write when my husband is digging through his CD collection in the next room, or when he is vacuuming, or when he is watching a horror movie so loud that I can hear it on the 3rd floor. I write primarily in my office and edit the following morning at the kitchen table with coffee.

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

Several months after my first book came out, someone recognized me from my author photo. I was in a hardware store buying materials to build a fence.

4. What are you working on now?
A book on simple sea glass crafts; a murder mystery; a peculiar photo anthology.

5. Favorite recent find?
At an auction I bought a well-worn, well-loved rocking horse from the late 1800s.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What we learned from our listening session

A big huge thank you to all the customers who came out Tuesday night to our 20th Anniversary kick-off/listening session. It was a great success. We learned a lot about what you love about Water Street, what you didn't know that we already do (we give a 20% discount for book groups--just ask!), and what you want us to do moving forward. We got some great ideas (kids' birthday parties in the store! customers annotating books on our website! more books in translation!) and some fantastic energy and enthusiasm for new projects. A few ideas:

1. Volunteer effort through Water Street Bookstore into the local schools to encourage reading. After a customer asked about what we are doing to energize the schools to promote reading, Dan talked about the 10 years he spent reading to 2nd graders once a week at Kensington Elementary. Though he has since stopped doing it, to focus more of his time in the store, he agreed that the store is a natural facilitator for a literacy project like this. Promoting reading grows readers, who support the store with their families and help to create a more educated citizenry-- good things all around. Several people spoke up to say that they are retired and would love to volunteer. Stay tuned (though in the meantime, Rockingham Community Action has a great literacy volunteer program, too).

2. "Exeter Reads." Lesley Haslam, director of adult education at Exeter Adult Ed, shared about "Dover Reads," a town-wide initiative to encourage everyone to read the same book and discuss, like a giant book group. Many cities and towns across America have successfully run these programs and Exeter seems like a perfect fit.

3. Help Exeter residents become more engaged in town politics. When Jill Sweeney-Bosa asked if the changes to Swasey Parkway and Water Street (both are becoming one-way streets to protect damaged culverts) would affect downtown businesses, many people spoke up with frustration at the lack of resident participation in the recent town election (in which a warrant article to fix the culverts did not pass, among others). As a community center for Exeter residents, making Water Street a forum for discussion and education about issues discussed at deliberative sessions and articles on the ballot seems like a perfect fit. It wouldn't be a matter of pointing people in one direction or the other-- increasing resident participation would be the goal.

4. You want to hear what ideas we have percolating. Jane Bernhardt asked what new initiatives and ideas we're working on. Though we had run out of time, we agreed that pitching our ideas to our customers in a town-hall style forum like Tuesday night's is a great idea. We are already hard at work on a list of ideas and programs to pitch in the coming months. Stay tuned.

One last note: We meant to talk about a few little things that our customers can do to help us stick around for another 20 years, but we ran out of time. Here are a few:

1. Come to our events! The more people who come to the events, the more events we can do with authors you're interested in. Once we prove to the publishers that we can draw big audiences, they'll start sending us more and more great authors.

2. Forward on our newsletter. Help us spread the word!

3. Order your book group books through us. We'll get them in, set them aside, and give you a 20% discount. Good deal!

4. Tell your kids' educators and other parents that we offer a 15% discount on books for the classroom (15% off books for any public place--libraries, waiting rooms, churches, etc).

5. Bring a bag. We'll always offer bags, but this is one of those little things that you can do to help us keep operations costs down.

6. Support your downtown businesses. We've got it all in Exeter-- gift shops, toy stores, candy stores, wine shops, clothing boutiques, book stores, sports/hiking equipment shops, jewelry stores, florists, a copy & design shop, antique stores and great restaurants. A healthy vibrant downtown is good for everyone! Thanks again for coming out to support us on Tuesday night. And stay posted for more 20th Anniversary events throughout the year.

Jean-Paul's Picks for May 2011

  1. Last Men Out by Bob Drury & Tom Clavin (Non Fiction, May 3rd) Story of the very last days, hours, and minutes of the last Marines to leave Vietnam when Saigon was overrun by the North Vietnamese troops.

  2. Divergent by Veronica Roth (Fiction Young Adult, May 3rd) As promising as the Hunger Games series.

  3. These Dark Things by Jan Weiss (Mystery, May 10th) Meet Captain Natalia Monte of the Neapolitan Carabinieri, discover Naples above -and under the ground, but watch out for the Camorra.

  4. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (Non Fiction, May 10th) Amazing story about an American Ambassador and his family in the midst of rising Nazi Germany.

  5. The Snowman by Jo Nesbo (Mystery, May 10th) Be glad that the snow is gone ... Another great Scandinavian author!

  6. The Jefferson Key by Steve Berry (Mystery, May 17th) One of the best in the "Cotton Malone Series."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Elizabeth Berg answers our Top Five

Elizabeth Berg is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Year of Pleasures, The Art of Mending, Say When, True to Form, Never Change, and Open House, which was an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2000. Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as ALA Best Books of the Year, and Talk Before Sleep was short-listed for the ABBY award in 1996. The winner of the 1997 New England Booksellers Award for her body of work, Berg is also the author of a nonfiction work, Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True. She lives in Chicago and her latest book is Once Upon a Time, There Was You. She'll be reading at the bookstore Tuesday, April 19th at 7pm.

1. What's on your nightstand right now? On my nightstand? Get ready! Tea Obrecht's The Tiger's Wife, Maeve Binchy's Minding Frankie, Alice Hoffman's The Red Garden, Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies, Eula's Bliss's Notes from No Man's Land (essays), Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, Alex Munthe's The Story of San Michele. Needless to say, I like to read a lot of books at once. And I have a huge tower of books waiting to replace these. I'm a book pig; I just can't get enough.

2. How do you write? I've been writing full time since 1985. I like to write in silence, in my office. I jump up every now and then for this and that, but mostly it's pretty intensely focused. I usually write for about 4 hours straight.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer. I wrote truly awful poetry as a kid. At nine, I submitted a poem to American Girl magazine, which promptly rejected it. And should have. But oh, the tears. I guess I've always understood that writing is my vehicle for expressing things, and for coming to understand things.

4. What are you working on now? A non-fiction book that's a kind of fractured memoir mixed with my views on various aspects of life. There's a lot in there about dealing with aging parents, there are travel pieces and recipes, there are many confessions.

5. Favorite recent find? Amos Lee, Blood, Bones and Butter, a recipe for macaroni and cheese I found that doesn't have a bazillion calories, and a puppy I found online that I really want to adopt.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Back to Africa with Alexandra Fuller

I think a lot of people will be rejoicing at the announcement of another installment in the Alexandra Fuller canon. Penguin Press is calling Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness both a sequel and a prequel to Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. And it is simply fantastic. Fans of Don't Let's may find this hard to believe, but Cocktail Hour is Fuller at the absolute top of her game.

She continues on the subject of her family's life in Africa in the same riveting, deeply personal, highly accomplished style readers came to love in Don't Let's. And if Don't Lets was Bobo's story, her explanation for her love of Africa, then Cocktail Hour is her parents' story. She thoroughly interviews both of them and tells the stories of their parents and their grandparents. From Nicola's fiercely Scottish ancestors to Tim's bucolic family farm in England, we get a better picture of why they value land so highly, why owning a farm in Africa was their life's pursuit. Fuller captures both of her parents' voices so perfectly, allowing them to tell their stories (including their reactions to the publication of Don't Let's, what Nicola calls the "Awful Book.") in their own inimitable style. Perhaps through these interviews, and perhaps through an additional ten years of ruminating on the subject, Fuller seems to have come to a deeper understanding of what her parents experienced and what it all meant--living through wars, constantly moving, losing three children, and battling manic depression, all while desperately loving Africa and being unwilling to leave.

Fuller seems to have closed the loop that she left open with Don't Let's in an honest and satisfying way. You can feel how deeply healing the book must have been for her--not just the desperation to tell her story, like in the first go-around, but also the peace that comes with understanding your family and where you came from.

Coming in August from Penguin. While you wait, try Fuller's The Legend of Colton H. Bryant. It's amazing. One of my favorites.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River

I have a feeling that Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell is going to be for me this year what Anthropology of an American Girl was last year: a book I read in March that remained my favorite book of the year, my favorite to talk about, obsess about, and wholeheartedly recommend, for the whole damn year.

Once again, the main character is a young girl and the writing is beautiful and breathtaking, but the similarities end there. Margo, the protagonist of Once Upon a River, is a beautiful, striking-looking tomboy of 15 when we first meet her. She is twisting up like a weed from childhood to adulthood, curious about her power over men while also longing for her mother who abandoned her. After several deeply traumatic events, Margo is left alone, on the river she loves in rural Michigan. In her grandfather's teak wood boat, she takes off upriver in search of her mother, in search of somewhere to belong. Realizing that she can't survive alone, she uses the men she meets for protection and companionship. Though she has the gun skills and guts of her hero, Annie Oakley, Margo is still a little girl in the end, needing a home and a love that won't ask questions and won't leave her.

I knew from the first page that Bonnie Jo Campbell's writing was exquisite, her cadence melodic and language deliberate:

"Margo, named Margaret Louise, and her cousins knew the muddy water and the brisk current, knew the sand and silt between their toes, scooped it into plastic cottage cheese tubs and sherbet buckets and dribbled it through their fingers to build sagging stalagmites and soggy castles. They hollowed out the riverbanks, cut through soil and roots to create collapsing caves and tunnels...They built rafts from driftwood and baling twine. They learned to read upon the surface of the water evidence of distress below."

And after a few more pages, I was hooked on Margo. Just hooked.

Coming in July from W. W. Norton.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Welcome to the Year of the Tiger

Okay, so technically, this isn't the year of the tiger. That was last year, Chinese-New-Year-wise. This year is actually the Year of the Rabbit. But if you're aware at all of new books coming out, you must have noticed the tiger trend. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (okay, fine, that last one came out in 2010).

Maybe this tiger thing has been a slow build for a while now. While reading Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife recently, my boyfriend's friend said, in utter seriousness, "Is that a book by Tiger Woods' wife?"

I look forward to a slew of books next year about rabbits. The Rabbit's Father, When I Married a Rabbit, My Mother, the Rabbit.

Or maybe I won't have to wait that long. When God Was a Rabbit, coming in May 2011 from Bloomsbury USA.