Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A New Year, A New Sun, A New Mission!

Dear Readers,
I've been biting my tongue for a good while. Like anybody, I've got my pet peeves and favorites -- and like anybody reasonable, I'm a little uncomfortable with the things I realize I love, really love. Nobody wants to be the guy willing to get in a fist-fight over Kirk vs. Picard. So, like any reasonable fellow, I worry, sometimes, if the words coming out of my mouth are really words, or sort of a -- incomprehensible stream of hyperbole. It's Kirk, by the by, and if you think otherwise you're a little bit less of a human being, but I digress.

So, with that out of the way, I think it's time I talked a little bit about Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is a prolific writer of speculative fiction. There's a pile of things that can (and should) be said about Wolfe, but I think the most pertinent thing that can be said is that the man can write the hell out of the English language. Wolfe was pretty much the first writer that hammered home to me the difference between "purple prose" -- thick, jumbled, masturbatory -- and being able to write like nobody's business. A Wolfe story is dense, allusive, and rewarding -- especially rewarding through re-reading. I color-coded my copy of Shadow & Claw with little sticky notes, like going through a textbook, and by the time I was through I had gone through two packs of the things in six different colors. It looked more like a schizophrenic's rolodex than a paperback.

Anyways, I could keep yelling for five hundred words. Trust me on this one. Neil Gaiman (you may have heard of him) cites Wolfe as an inspiration and a personal favorite; the Washington Post, along with a slew of other newspaper-generating bodies (the Post just seems to have a particular affection for "the old man," as they call him) named Wolfe the foremost science fiction writer active today.

So, there you go. Gene Wolfe. There's no living writer I can recommend more highly. Speaking of which, the onset of the New Year also means the onset of Operation: New Year, New Sun, brainchild of eternal friend of the store, Mordicai -- our man in the trenches over at Macmillan, the house of ideas that puts out pretty much all of Wolfe's works. I figure it's a pretty noble objective; Christopher Lee claims to read Lord of the Rings at least once a year, and Wolfe is pretty much our Tolkien. Having someone to scream at helps get through the (very lengthy) volume, so I invite and cajole you to take a crack at the most worthwhile writer you've probably never heard of with us, starting January 1st. We'll have copies on hand -- originally published in four volumes, Book of the New Sun is typically available in two omnibus editions, the first of which is Shadow & Claw.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Vagabond, Colette

Gigi may have been my introduction but The Vagabond remains my baptism. Colette is one of my favorite writers ever:

My street, under the greenish gas at this hour, is a morass of toffee-like, creamy mud - coffee-colored, maroon and caramel yellow - a sort of crumbling, slushy trifle in which the floating bits of meringue are lumps of concrete.

Reading her is a pleasure. Any world is marvelously observed and the pleasure of her language is measured out in exact portions. There are no impenetrable densities here, her writing is as natural as reading. And her characters are thoroughly human, pain and beauty intact:

No matter what visitor, for a mere tradesman, or even for my charwoman Blandine, I should raise this drooping neck, straighten that slouching hip and clasp those empty hands. But tonight I am so alone.

Her first books, the Claudine series, were famously published under the pen name of her first husband, Henri Gauthier-Villars. This, her first novel without him, is deeply autobiographical. It is the story of a woman locating strength in her solitude, adjusting to a new place in society, as she works to support herself in dance halls after a failed marriage. Asked to marry again, the novel is a contemplation on exchanging freedom for security and the eventual answer she gives her suitor. A more thoughtful review can be found here. I only want to encourage enthusiasm for one of France's great glories.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Why isn't there one for Manimal?

In the vein of our previous post about cool fake book covers for popular web services, here's someone who's made some amazingly minimalist fake book covers for popular television series. They're made by this guy, who's selling prints, if you really feel like you want a fake minimalist book cover of Dexter on your wall. Why didn't I know about these before Christmas? Check it out.


Also if these books were real, I would buy 100% of them.

Things I would Tweet if I could get Twitter to load

*Apparently someone recently dug up the grave of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. He wasn't in it. Vampire Lorca walks among us!

*Are you interested in seeing what people who write for the New Yorker read last year?

*Social media blog Mashable describes how six bloggers turned their blogs into published books.

*A different kind of year-end list: Book Maven offers the 10 worst books of 2009.

*Oldies but goodies: check out these awesome Dr. Seuss/superhero mashups.

Happy 87th, Stan!

Today is the 87th birthday of Stan "The Man" Lee, who is perhaps a figure not well known outside readers of illustrated literature, but who can legitimately claim, more than any other man alive, to have shaped our collective imaginations. Why? Because with a couple of artists (primarily Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) Lee invented Marvel Comics and created the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil, Doctor Strange and Marvel's single most successful and iconic character, Spider-Man. Et cetera, et cetera, et effing cetera.

For the full litany of the man's achievements you should of course go read his Wikipedia article, but the short story is that Stan toiled as a scribe in romance, war, and cowboy comics in the 1940s and 1950s until the late legendary DC Comics editor Julie Schwartz (who like Lee, and pretty much everyone who invented comics as we know them, was a fellow New Yorker) rescued the superhero genre from obscurity in the late 1950s. Dissatisfied with the comics he had been doing and preparing to flee the industry altogether, Stan took one last stab at the medium now that the heroes he loved were coming back in vogue, and in 1961 he wrote Fantastic Four #1. His transformative brainwave was that he wrote comics about people who were people, not flawless deities. Comics poobah Alan Moore summarizes nicely: "[DC Comics had] one dimensional characters whose only characteristic was they dressed up in costumes and did good. Whereas Stan Lee had this huge breakthrough of two-dimensional characters. So, they dress up in costumes and do good, but they've got a bad heart. Or a bad leg."

The rest, as they say, is history. Happy birthday, Stan! And thanks for making my childhood awesome.

[The Sex Pistols-inspired Stan Lee t-shirt shown here is still available from Secret Headquarters. And, of course, Shakespeare & Co. carries a wide variety of Marvel Comics publications on its shelves.]

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Marukami

As starter Murakami goes, I am unsure where I landed with Sputnik Sweetheart. On the one hand, I appreciate a three-character novel where everybody is an introvert. On the other, its triumvirate of troubled characters are so remote as to be removed from everybody, including the reader. They are more a collection of tendencies than anything else. Plus, it's a story that shifts as it finishes, almost ending twice, like reading a cake about to topple. I suppose my real problem is how slight it feels. This isn't a crime, just a consideration to file away.

Somehow, it doesn't feel like the proper entry point for deciding how I feel about Murakami. I was between casting After Dark or Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World in the role of decider. I will say that I appreciate the loneliness and dread turned on low for the entirety of Sputnik Sweetheart. As readable as it is, it's not pleasant but I was still compelled to keep going. I look forward to potentially choosing the correct book, the one that makes me understand why he is as dear as he is to people I've met.

Merry Days to yr One Eyeball





















Djuna Barnes draws James Joyce.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tyger, tyger, burning bright

A couple weeks ago, Brooklyn author Jonathan Lethem initiated a series of marathon readings of his new novel Chronic City, in which he would recite (like the Homeric poets, one hopes) the entire 528-page work end to end. As the readings ticked by one after another, it became evident that Lethem was not moving with the appropriate hustle, and when it came to the big finale at Book Court in Brooklyn, he had fully half of the book still to go. How did he accomplish this? The reading went until 5am is how. And I'm told people stuck around through all of it.

But that's not the part of the story that perplexes me. It's this: as the Book Court reading drew near, it started going around that in addition to Lethem, Book Court was also going to have a LIVE TIGER on hand for the reading. I can't find many references to it on the internet, just here and here, but I heard it from a bunch of people before the reading that this was real and was going to happen. It wasn't, and it didn't, but I still wonder how the rumor got started. It would have been pretty awesome, but as a guy who's had to run bookstore readings before I don't blame them for sticking with the "guy in glasses reading from a book" approach, rather than "huge exotic jungle predator" approach.

[Image of Siberian Tiger by Malene Thyssen from Wikimedia Commons.]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Books spied on the train today: unidentifiable James Patterson novel. Foreign-looking edition of an Umberto Eco book I don't recognize. La Nueva Testamenta.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

PW's Heart of Darkness

This week Publishers Weekly, the leading American trade magazine about the book biz, used the picture at the left as their cover image to illustrate their annual feature on African-American publishing. The internet promptly lost its damn mind, and the weekend was a Twitter bonanza of people tweeting that PW was crazily racist (which you can follow at #afropw). The image itself is from Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present by Deborah Willis, which no one was particularly bothered by, so clearly it's the way the image was contextualized that's freaking everyone out.

The editor who chose the image for the cover, PW senior news editor Calvin Reid (@calreid), has issued an apology for the furor. A few people have come to his defense, including Willis herself, who's also the chair of NYU’s photography department and a MacArthur "genius grant" fellow. And personally I think the use of the image is just fine. On the other hand, I'm a white dude in his thirties, so take that with as large a grain of salt as you like.

On a related note, the idea of "African American publishing" always makes me feel a little weird. Does that make the rest of every publisher's catalog "Caucasian publishing"? To a certain extent, it's how shoppers feel, at least. Our African-American lit titles sell better now that they're in their own section than when they were just sprinkled among our general fiction. The demographic of buyers for crossover titles like Sapphire's Push and Edwidge Danticat's Farming of Bones is pretty varied, but our best-selling "African American Fiction" titles like Addicted and Nervous and, well, the entire oeuvres of Zane, Eric Jerome Dickey and Teri Woods (who doesn't even have a Wiki article...what?) have a pretty homogenous fan base. And I want to put books where customers will have the easiest time finding what they want, but still ... I look over at fiction and see it's segregated, to some extent, by race of author and/or protagonist, and I feel a little odd about the whole thing. Maybe we'll shovel it all back together and see what happens to sales. Project for the new year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

You start a question and it's like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of the hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back garden and the family have to change their name. No, sir, I make it a rule of mine: the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask.

Part of me really wants to talk about our holiday sale and the amazing selection of books we currently have at a 20% discount. Titles like Wolf Hall, New York, A Gate at the Stairs, Changing My Mind and many more. Except all I really want to talk about is my crush on Robert Louis Stevenson and his perfect writing.

It's a tidy novella, famously about split personality. The story of respected Dr. Jekyll and loathsome Mr. Hyde is many things, though. It is religious allegory, detective story, moral cautionary, philosophical thriller, with language that propels the reader forward through perfect descriptions of evening: It was a fine dry night; frost in the air; the street as clean as a ballroom floor; the lamps, unshaken by any wind, drawing a regular pattern of light and shadow.

of transformation: The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death.

of doors: Up went the axe again, and again the panels crashed and the flame bounded; four times the blow fell; but the wood was tough and the fittings were of excellent worksmanship; and it was not until the fifth, that the lock burst in sunder and the wreck of the door fell inwards on the carpet.

The Suicide Club is next.

Buyback season is here

And by that I mean: SELL US YOUR BOOKS FOR CASH.

It's that time of year again, when students are wrapping up with their finals, and trying to unload their textbooks. Shakespeare & Co. (all of them) buys back books, coincidentally enough. So you with heavy textbooks that you're using as doorstops, and us with cash we want to give you for these very heavy shelf-liners, seems a marriage made in heaven to me. We even buy back old editions. If it's not too busy we can give you a price quote over the phone too.

You can also sell books to us via our website. Although you've got to ship us your books and then wait a couple weeks for a check to be mailed back to you, vs. cash in hand if you come in to one of our stores.

[Image uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by user Man-ucommons]

Monday, December 14, 2009

Amazing fake book covers for web service phenomenons

Here is a Flickr set by French illustrator Stéphane Massa-Bidal (Rétrofuturs), who has designed a bunch of really incredible covers for nonexistent books about major web services. My favorite is the one he's designed for professional networking site LinkedIn, and its tagline: "A friend is one who has the same enemies as you have." (A quote which is widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln, although I can't figure out from where, so maybe it's apocryphal.)

I don't know if they're designed to look like a specific series, but they remind me a whole lot of Penguin's paperbacks from the 1960s.

(Found via The Daily What via Design You Trust)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My Top Ten Films Adapted From Novels #4: Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King

Being sent to prison is sort of like being branded with the Scarlett Letter. You couldn't really handle life, so you're sent away to a prison usually located in a remote area of a state, to stew about your crime and wonder what might have been with your life. But being sent away for a crime you didn't commit can tear a man's soul and resolve apart. In the case of Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, it's about being hopeful. It's about not feeling sorry for yourself. It's about going at it alone when no one believes in you. Adapted and directed by Frank Darabont, Shawshank Redemption tells the story of two imprisoned men who bond over a number of years in prison. The story is spoken by a narrator in the form of one its characters Ellis Boyd "Red' Redding played by the incomparable Morgan Freeman. It adds grace. It adds pain. It adds nuisance. This is a different story from King's usual work which makes it so compelling. It's infused with likable characters, others reprehensible, all layered with contradictions. The last thirty to forty minutes of the film are as dramatic as anything you'll see in motion pictures. If the last scene doesn't bring a tear to your eye, you're dead inside. It's hollow. Get a check up.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Me-ri Ku-ri-su-ma-su

So the Christmas season is in full swing, and that means it's time to buy gifts. Generally I like to be thrifty, maybe get someone an interesting book. For instance: Maybe James's newly acquired Mouse Guard RPG book mysteriously vanishes, and when Christmas rolls around, BOOM - Christmas miracle, I "bought" a "new" copy for him.
Anyway, as the person who manages the internet around here, I have an acute awareness of what is selling well online. And our biggest holiday seller - that is, the book we are selling like hotcakes online right now - is this, the Genki 1 Elementary Japanese textbook. It may be pure coincidence, but more than half the books we've sold this week online have been this book. Also strange? Half of them were going overseas. I guess the gift teaching yourself Japanese is in this year. So whether you're celebrating Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, the Emperor's Birthday, or anything else (as long as it's not "Dowhateveryouwannikah," because those Gap commercials are pretty much the worst thing ever), give that special someone a gift that says "I think you might be more interesting if you tried to learn Japanese."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Rules For My Unborn Son, by Walker Lamond

Walker Lamond had a problem. He wanted to make sure his (as yet unproduced) son grew up to be a proper gentlemen -- "thoughtful, adventurous, honest, hardworking, self-reliant, well-dressed, well-read, [and] well-mannered," to be precise. Undertaking this task was complicated by the sad fact that by the time he had an actual son, he may have gotten "old and uncool."

Enter Rules For My Unborn Son.

Originally a blog project (properly titled 1,001 Rules For My Unborn Son, but the blog is presently ongoing at about 500 rules), the Rules are just what they sound like -- one-sentence guidelines for the programming of a good lad. They range from, "Keep a schedule," to "You won't always be the strongest or the fastest. You can be the toughest," to "Call your Mom," to "Admit when you are wrong, and mean it," to "Own a wool flannel suit."

The rules sometimes sound a little too super-macho, but tend to find the right balance -- more old-time Fred Astaire gentleman and less "Mad Men." After reading a few hundred of them I felt pretty comfortable with the gender politic playing out, anyways. Plus, the rules are all pretty great -- I wish I could spew off more great examples of tips for dudes of all ages, but the actual dude's blog is probably better for that.

Plus, it's pleasantly gift-sized and makes great Christmas fodder for anyone who happens to be a son, a father, or a would-be father.

1,001 Rules For My Unborn Son after the jump.

P.S. Did I mention that Walker Lamond is A) Named Walker Lamond, and how awesome is that? and B) He's the nattiest gentleman you ever did see. Here he is below, looking dapper. (Photo via Project Beltway.)
Rules For My Unborn Son is available in hardcover from St. Martin's Griffin and here at Shakespeare & Company.
Books spied on the train today: Monster, by Walter Dean Myers. Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka (Bantam edition, I think it was).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo

This is a novel that never takes the easy way out; it is shocking, violent, terrifying, horrible, uncompromising, brutal, remorseless and gruesome... but so is war.

There are books I feel strongly about keeping on hand. It's a straightforward list to invent and append: Ulysses, Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. Admittedly overlong, it runs into books I love (Nine Stories) and others I do not (Fountainhead) but recognize are dear to others. In the end, it's about making sure we never sell out of a tidy garden of personal classics. When I first began to comb through fiction, ticking off titles, I noticed this was missing. It's here now, along with Catch-22 and Homage to Catalonia, three books that make for a solid foundation to any wartime reading list. Of the three, this is the most brutal read, about a soldier in the hospital after a shell blast, prisoner in his own body. The story is most familiar to a number of people through footage from the 1971 film adaptation that appears in the music video for Metallica's "One".

Incidentally, Trumbo was responsible for the screenplay of Lonely Are The Brave, which is basically the greatest movie ever.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rick Moody and life lessons learned

Okay, so it all started when American author Rick Moody announced he was going to write and publish a short-story piecemeal, on Twitter. Hey, new media everyone! Woo! Exciting, right? Rick Moody got a lot of ink in a lot of papers and blogs for proposing the stunt, and good for that guy.

However. The people at Electric Literature didn't really think through the idea of having dozens of other people simultaneously re-Twittering excerpts from Moody's story while he was still Twittering it, and the whole thing very quickly devolved into a chaos of text wherein no one trying to read the story could be sure what part they were up to, and everyone just thought Rick Moody was spamming the hell out of their Twitter accounts.

Very quickly Moody started getting a lot of ink in papers and blogs talking about the "Rick Moody Twitter backlash". I guess there's no such thing as bad press, but still, back to the drawing board on that one, guys. Personally I think the idea is still viable. I mean, short stories are just a series of 140-character bits anyway, so why not? Mostly I feel like it's weird that no one else has tried this before. Are there any other Twitter-novelists I don't know about?

The Tiger bump



Everybody's got an angle, you know? In the midst of the hoopla of the whole thing about Tiger Woods and his 85 mistresses, book biz reporting has focused on British science writer John Gribbin. After photographs of Woods' car appeared on thesmokinggun.com that showed a copy of Gribbin's 2003 book Get a Grip on Physics in the back seat, the book leapfrogged overnight in Amazon sales rank from 396,224 ... to an incredible 2,268! Both Amazon and Amazon UK are now sold out of the book, and used copies are going for a ridiculous $75-$100 a copy.

Lucky break for Gribbin, whom I don't think has commented yet, but whose name recognition has just rocketed upwards. Bad news for Tiger, although scandalized celebrities may have just discovered a new revenue stream: selling advertising space in the wreckage of their personal lives.

The video above is from a Taiwanese news broadcast about the Tiger Woods story, and uses computer animation to recreate the event in a way that makes the whole thing look like a hilarious episode from Resident Evil.

Well blow me down

Google's main page illustration right now is Popeye, because today is the 115th birthday of E. C. Segar, the creator of Popeye. Neato! The 80th anniversary of the spinachy sailor is coming up in January as well (the 17th, to be precise). I used to watch Popeye cartoons all the time when I was a kid, although I admit I've never read the strips. At least there are some nice archival collections out there now to catch yourself up. Do kids even know who Popeye is any more? Do they still show those cartoons? Or do they just know it from like, Popeye manga? Super Action Alchemist Sailor Popeye!

(ps - Popeye manga is real.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Dickens Hated Shakespeare

Not really. The Morgan Library currently has Charles Dickens's original manuscript for A Christmas Carol on display (see here). It is of particular interest as it shows all the corrections and omissions to and from the published text we all know and love (and which has inspired such masterpieces as the current Jim Carrey film). The Morgan has allowed the New York Times to scan the whole of the manuscript for online viewing - you can find that here. And, because you can never have enough links in a post, here is an article about the exhibit, including a special contest issued by Declan Kiely, the curator of the Morgan's department of literary and historical manuscripts. Readers are invited to look over the manuscript and try to find what they feel is the most interesting edit, and to submit it in the comments section of that article; the winner - the person who finds the most intriguing change - will be invited to an afternoon tea at the Morgan with Mr. Kiely. Is this awesome? (Y/N).
The manuscript itself is really interesting for Dickens fans and Christmas fans and people with a lot of time on their hands, and the corrections are often enlightening and/or entertaining, if manuscripts are your bag. For instance: on the first page, Dickens insults Hamlet in a passage missing from the published text. Apparently he thought better of it, realizing that people really like Shakespeare, and Hamlet is kind of hallowed ground. Still though, makes Dickens even cooler I say. My favorite change? Stave V, page 62, after Scrooge has woken up from the ghost's visits and asks a passing boy whether he's missed Christmas:

"What's to-day?" cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

"Eh?" returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

"What's to-day, my fine fellow?" said Scrooge.

"Today!" replied the boy. "Why, January 15th."

"Damn."

Okay, so that's not in there. Anyway, submissions are due by December 16th, so get reading!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

New York City Hot Spot Characters...

I don't know about you, but do these creatures freak anyone else out?

New York City hot spots, such as Times Square, have characters coming out as if we were in Disneyworld. Quite frankly, they are extremely creepy versions of Nickelodeon and Disney characters. They also tend to have a Spiderman here and there along with Freddie Kruger and Michael Myers.

Tourists find them funny and entertaining. But I on the other hand am freaked out. Spongebob is more of neon lime green color and Mickey and Minnie are decked out in these weird, sequined outfits. When I see them, I turn the other way. When they wave, I'm sure I have a look of absolute horror on my face.

Does anyone even know who that duck is supposed to be?

TEXTBOOK HAM

Thanks a bunch to MBS Textbook Exchange for the free ham! Here's something that happens when you're a store that sells lots of textbooks: the wholesalers that sell textbooks to you will send you little gifts now and again. We used to get like, barrels of caramel popcorn. MBS? They sent us a 10-pound frozen ham. They've done it the last few years we've been here, and we've always been super excited to get it. Time to start planning our annual ham party.

My siberian husky, pictured here, would also like to offer his profound thanks and gratitude to MBS for all the bones they've provided over the years.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Four Novels That Are Really Hard To Shelve

A couple of weeks ago we talked about the sometimes tenuous nature of fiction categories -- especially the distinction between catch-all "literary fiction" and genre fiction. This week, we'll tip you off to five books that straddle the -- novels that probably ought to be genre works, but are deemed to... literary to sit next to the latest Patterson mystery. So, in no particular order...

Motherless Brooklyn
, by Jonathan Lethem

Upon its publication in 1999, Motherless Brooklyn made waves for its unconventional narrative and another uptick when the author's followup, Fortress of Solitude turned out to be a pretty big deal as far as "things the New York Times really loves" goes. Brooklyn is a fairly stock detective story with one twist: The protagonist, a small-time would-be detective with Tourette's syndrome. The disconnect between the fairly stock (if not labyrinthine) noir story and the main character's condition -- and that he narrates, of course, without the verbal tics that mark his speech -- made for an oddball take on a pretty standard formula. At the time of its release, there wasn't much question that Motherless Brooklyn was a detective story (it even won the Golden Dagger, the big-deal mystery fiction award, that year) but the prominence and undeniable literary fictionality of Lethem's later work has seen its current edition resolutely rebranded "Fiction."

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

An old favorite of this humble bookseller, The Master and Margarita is also a classic of Russian literature and a common fixture in college classes. Penguin, which has published it for years and years, comfortably categorizes it as "fiction." Despite this, the novel concerns itself with vampires, witches, giant talking cats andthe Devil himself. Which isn't to say it isn't great -- plus, the first draft was burned, in despair, by the author; the finally published version had 13 percent of its text censored by the Russian government, both of which sound like hallmarks of a great novel to me.


Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End Of The World
, by Haruki Murakami

This 1985 acid trip of a novel -- by the generally excellent Murakami -- owes a lot to its surrealist, absurd premise, concerning a man who uses his brain to encrypt large quantities of data (for hire, of course) and the unfortunate things that happen to him working a case for an elderly scientist. This novel -- Hard-Boiled Wonderland -- alternates chapter-by-chapter with the even more bizarre End Of The World, in which a man moves into a surreal village where he learns how to read dreams by staring at unicorn skulls. Do you follow? While the novel borrows pretty heavily from both cyberpunk and noir traditions, difficulties in classifying it -- and the author's insistence that it didn't quite belong to one of its influential genres over any other -- found it a niche in the US as "surrealist fiction," which, well, it certainly is that.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

The Road is probably the biggest line-blur that comes to mind. It lives on the fiction shelf, Oprah loved it enough to put it in her book club, it won the Pulitzer-- so on and so forth. But the novel is about as post-apocalyptic as you could get. With a major motion picture in the theaters as we speak, there's not really any mistaking it for a novel about the end of the world -- it looks and plays out like Mad Max, after all. Maybe Oprah willed it into literary fiction, or maybe the fact that it's really good -- either way, The Road takes the cake as the hardest novel (for me, anyways) to stick on a shelf. Usually, we split the difference, and put it in both sections.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Thank you, universe. For life, love or maybe just a picture of Buster Keaton with Samuel Beckett.
Presumably taken on the set of Film, a synopsis is attached, for your perusal:

Samuel Beckett’s only venture into the medium of cinema, Film was written in 1963 and filmed in New York in the summer of 1964, directed by Alan Schneider and featuring Buster Keaton. For the shooting Mr. Beckett made his only trip to America. The film, which has no dialogue, takes its basis Berkeley’s theory Esse est percepti, that is “to be is to be perceived”: even after all outside perception -- be it animal, human or divine -- has been suppressed, self perception remains.

Get ready for the bests

Now that we're only one month from the end of the year, a flurry of media/literary outlets have already started putting out "Best of" lists, and there's only going to be tons more as we near 2009's end. Some interesting examples out now:

*The New York Times Book review has published its "100 Best Books of 2009" list and, wait, what? One hundred books? How is that useful to anyone? Also as someone on Twitter points out: @MAOrthofer: NYTBR doesnt even believe in '3%' - out of '100 notable books of 2009' http://bit.ly/5YJC9z only TWO are translations. There has long been a perception in the publishing world that Americans absolutely do not care about books that are translated from other languages, whereas audiences in the rest of the world are happy to read translated works. NOT HELPING, New York Times. In the words of another book blogger: "I know some readers are interested in American literature, but I hope most of us are just plain interested in literature. Two out of a hundred?"

*For a more visual thrill, you can look at Amazon's "Best Book Covers of 2009" list.

*Publisher's Weekly put out their "Best of 2009" list a couple weeks ago and a ton of people freaked out (see: "Sexism row over Publisher's Weekly top books of 2009") since pretty much all of the authors listed are guys. The blogosphere has thrown the term "sausage fest" around a lot.

*The Onion AV Club released its "Best Comics of the 00's". Its exclusive fixation on tepid "high culture" comics is not really to my taste. I don't get Achewood, and I thought Blankets, Persepolis, Pyongyang, Fun Home and Black Hole were all overrated--although college curricula have embraced them all pretty much across the board. Sean T. Collins at CBR gives voice to a lot of the criticisms I might level at the list--there's no manga, its "focus on New Yorker-friendly storytelling modes", no ranking of selections. But check it out out for yourself.

*The Guardian UK asked a bunch of famous writers (and other Brit celebrities of one sort or another) what they thought were the best books of the year. A bunch of heavyweights like Colum McCann, Nick Hornby, Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Carey, Malcolm Gladwell, Eric Hobsbawm, and Colm Toibin, &c. &c., weigh in with their picks.

Time for my ticker-tape parade

I'd been behind the eight-ball for the last two weeks and building up a steady back-log of writing I needed to catch up on, which for a while I thought was insurmountable, but over the weekend (when I had nothing else to do and my girlfriend was out of town) I knocked out 5000 words a day. And then yesterday I had to come to work and then knuckle up with 8000 words before midnight. Eep! It was not fun, but I barricaded myself in the library all day and wrote as fast as I could and at the stroke of midnight I submitted the novel to NaNoWriMo.org to verify I had "won" and ... it counted me at 50,007 words. So, yeah, whew, I barely barely squeaked by, but it was a ton of fun. And now I have to catch up on all the internet reading and blog posting that I've been remiss on while I was writing.

I'll probably be putting it on Lulu soon, eventually, maybe. There's some editing that needs to happen. You can also look for the Nano novels of ex-Shakespeare alum Mordicai on Amazon.com. I've decided I'm going to read back-to-back his Wil O' Wisps and Other Illuminated Manuscripts from 2008 and Watchtower Gothique from this year, when he gets around to putting out a manuscript. I will probably lose my mind in the process. Coincidentally, Watch Towers (of a sort) also feature prominently in my own book. One of these days I also kinda want to go back and revisit in some fashion the Nano we, as a bookstore, wrote together, Therefore a Cruel Messenger (we did one with color illustrations, too), and the aborted one of the same title we started the following year.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

My Top Ten Films Adapted From Novels #5: Out Of Sight By Elmore Leonard

Stylish. Sexy. Cool. Steven Soderbergh's comic caper announced him as a director of immense skill and talent. Flawlessly adapted by Scott Frank in a non-linear narrative, Out Of Sight follows a bank robber along with his friend and accomplice on their quest to rob $5 million dollars in uncut diamonds from a former white collar inmate. It doesn't seem like the movie was made in this contemporary era of film. I could see Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder taking this story, these characters, and creating a classic by adding their own sensibilities to the film. One of the most important things in film is casting and this film hit it out of the park. Don Cheadle. Dennis Farina. Albert Brooks. Ving Rhames. Steve Zahn. Viola Davis. Isaiah Washington. Jennifer Lopez. George Clooney. Lopez and Clooney work well together. They work very well together. It is there obvious chemistry that adds a bit of fire to the mix. Both of them are made for their roles. This was the role that made George Clooney a leading man. And to this day he is the closest thing we have to Cary Grant in films today. Highly underrated and neglected by the studio, Out Of Sight doesn't follow the formula of what a story is suppose to be. No one changes. It's just fun entertainment. It's what a good story is made of.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Don't Try This at Home

The shortlist for the Literary Review's "Bad Sex in Fiction" award were recently announced, and as usual, they're a squick-inducing comedy goldmine. In case you've never had the pleasure, and it is not evident from the award's title, this is an honor bestowed on authors who have written the most uncomfortable and unpleasant descriptions of sexual activity in a given year. The list itself is here, and features such literary luminaries as Philip Roth, Amos Oz, and Nick Cave. And some of the passages, well, there are some real doozies, most of which would make me blush to excerpt in any great detail (which is the point, I suppose).

Here's a sure-fire crinkler from Paul Theroux's Dead Hands:

"'Baby.' She took my head in both hands and guided it downward, between her fragrant thighs. 'Yoni puja – pray, pray at my portal.'"

And honestly it just gets worse from there. Another florid winner is the floridly titled The Naked Name of Love by Sanjida O'Connell (who is also the only woman nominated this year):

"...it was as if he were splashing about helplessly on the shore of some great ocean, waiting for a current, or the right swimming stroke to sweep him effortlessly out to sea. He felt they were lacking some vital ingredient; she was only partly engaged, the building explosion of sensation that had made her unfurl like a flower, a morning glory greeting the sun, was missing."


What is even happening in that passage? Enough to make me wonder if any of these writers have ever in fact made the beast with two backs.* Also "The Naked Name of Love" (which, alas, is not in print in the United States) sounds to me like the kind of title a scriptwriter would make up when he wanted Hugh Grant's love interest to be demonstrated as reading something goofy and frivolous.

The winner of the award will be announced in a ceremony on November 30 at London's In & Out club. I don't know if that was chosen as the site because it's actually a swank and famous club, or if it was just the punniest place the Brits could find. The award itself is a plaster foot and it ... wait, the award is a plaster foot? Seriously? God, that is weird. What is wrong with people?
*Shakespeare reference for +10 points.
[Image of advertisement from 1926 voyeurism magazine from Wikimedia Commons.]

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Portable Dorothy Parker, Marion Meade

I do like a collection that has been curated by its author. And the first part of this portable consists of stories Parker chose to comprise a Viking Press anthology in 1944 for those in uniform. It is a "tidy package of quality wares that has remained continuously in print." This expanded edition leaves that material intact and includes along with it a selection of articles, letters, interviews and poems in order to present a fuller picture. As a newcomer, I am still working my way through the work of an author whose reputation for acerbic wit precedes her. From Arrangement in Black and White to Big Blonde or Here We Are, this has been a real treat of an introduction; she was a prolific natural writer with a careful eye for human behavior and ear for exchanges. Excessively quoted for a reason, she achieves her trademark humor, really, through heartbreaking accuracy on the human condition across a range of characters. From the back flap:

"I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn, but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending."

Parker must appreciate the fact that she is buried in Baltimore. High-hat! Seriously, with rough cut cream paper and a masterfully illustrated jacket courtesy of Seth, this book has a satisfying heft, fit for the treasure inside. Beautiful both to gift and own, and of course, read. Recommended, recommended.
Books spied on the train today: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, by Chogyam Trungpa.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday Round-Up



ITEM: What are your favorite authors giving as gifts this holiday season? Penguin Books will tell you! Walter Mosley's list features some smoking hot sci-fi. China Mievelle? Someone buy me that for Christmas.

ITEM: 15 (Male) Literary Characters We'd Totally Sleep With (via LemonDrops.com) and 15 (Female) Literary Characters We'd Totally Sleep With (via Asylum.com).

ITEM: The Greenlight Bookstore's blog posted photographs of all their staff, which I might do as well if I decide I hate all my employees. Relatedly, Brokelyn posted a bunch of really uncomfortable-looking photographs of customers buying books at a bunch of independent bookstores in Brooklyn.
Saw tons of people reading on the train today, but couldn't identify any of the books without being like, Show me what you are reading. It's for my BLOG. Creep.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

SOLVING YOUR PROBLEMS THROUGH BOOKS (BUT NOT SELF-HELP LITERATURE) AKA INTELLECTUAL & LITERARY SELF-THERAPY (EPISODE 1)

SUB-PLOT: LIGHT READING TO HELP US COME TO TERMS WITH OUR FATHER ISSUES (OR HOW TO DEAL WITH THAT PESKY ELECTRA COMPLEX)!

Sometimes we don't have enough money to go to the therapist... and sometimes we're afraid our therapist might be too much like our father. So don't waste money you could use to buy a single malt and risk finding another father figure when one is enough! I offer this reading to you instead:

1) Sigmund Freud Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
(See: Oedipus complex)
While Freud only refers to it as the female Oedipus attitude it's the initial point of reference for a problem that once had no name (and we're not talking Betty Friedan here..) so use this as a starting point to really understand that complicated relationship between you and your father.

2) Carl Jung Collected Works of C. G. Jung
(See: "Psychoanalysis and Neurosis")
Hey! Thank you Jung for allowing woman to have their own name for parental issues, and not inverts of the male counterpart. Without you, we'd still be depending on derivatives of the Oedipus complex to find the complicated sources of our daddy issues.

3) Sylvia Plath Ariel
(See: "Daddy")
This is the most flagrant of her Electra complex themed poems, but start here and delve into Sylvia's personal relationship with her father and hopefully find a bridge to yours.

4) Anne Sexton Transformations
(See: "Briar Rose")
An interpretation of the classic Briar Rose tale-with an electric twist. Finish Transformations and attempt to read any fairy tale with out psychoanalyzing it. I dare you.

Time is up for now! Come back next week and we'll delve into some more deep dark issues via books!

P.S. The bill is in the mail.

My Top Ten Films Adapted From Novels #6: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (AKA Blade Runner) By Phillip K. Dick

"We need ya Deck. We need that old magic." Delivered with potent creepiness by character actor M. Emmet Walsh, is one of the many reasons why I have an affinity for this Sci-Fi classic. Directed by Ridley Scott and adapted by David Webb Peoples, Blade Runner is a feast for the eyes and its story makes you think long after the credits roll. Harrison Ford is Rick Deckard whose job is to track down and kill replicants, thus the name Blade Runner, who have come back to earth seeking to find who created them. Some might see it as just a cop movie on the surface, but it's more than that. In between the gripping action and suspense, is the question of where do I belong in the world? Where do I fit in? Is a Deckard a replicant? What happens to Deckard and Rachael? You be the judge.
As I sit here in the dog run on 4th Ave I wonder: what is the classic literature about dogs? I KNOW books about dogs exist, but I've never read any.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Houellebecq and Pop

"I'd like to thank Michel Houllebecq for his great f***ing book!" So shouts Iggy Pop during a May 2009 show in Paris. The book, Houellebecq's Possibility of an Island (2005), is a somewhat depressing tale of love and life. And clones. Boy meets girl, boy and girl are sort of happy together, boy grows disgusted with world, girl ages, they drift apart, boy joins religious cloning cult, planet ravaged by nuclear war, boy's future clones write diaries. The usual stuff. Dissolution of humanity through technology, disappearance of emotion. Fun! But seriously, Iggy Pop is right as always, and this is a great book - if sometimes a horrible, horrible downer. There's a good message in there. Go find it.

What's more, art begets art as they say (Do they say that? They should). Iggy Pop's 2009 album Préliminaires was inspired by The Possibility of an Island, and it is also, in keeping with the theme, great. More jazz-oriented and a lot more quiet than most of his other stuff, it is a satisfying departure and suits the tone of the novel perfectly. Pop's crooning of "Les feuilles mortes" is haunting, as is his rendition of the other standard on the album, "How Insensitive." "I Want to Go to the Beach" and "Spanish Coast" are downright depressing, playing on themes and emotions pulled right from the book. Dogs feature prominently in the novel, and one of my favorite songs from Préliminaires is "King of the Dogs"; but there is also "A Machine for Loving," which is just Iggy reading a passage from the book in which the narrator's dog dies. It is difficult to read, and even more chilling when heard. Now I've made myself sad. Still: read the book, get the album. You'll agree with us.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Did They Live Happily Ever After or Not...?

Only in New York City will you honestly be able to walk down Ninth Avenue on a rainy Sunday afternoon and see something as frightening and interesting as this... I mean, is the recession so bad that even Snow White and Prince Charming can only make collect calls? Or have our divorce rates skyrocketed to the point that Snow White and her Prince Charming could not live happily ever after, after all.

I would love to know the man/woman behind the genius of this. First off, where in the world do you find a cut out of Snow White? And this is not a cardboard cut out, but a child size, wood cut of Snow White. Even though the dress is not Snow White's typical attire, it is a real fabric, following down to the dirty street.

So, is someone trying to make a point with this? Is it art expressionism? Is it a gag? Or did someone just have a bratty child with them and decided they were not worthy enough to have their woodcut of Snow White? Who is genius behind the "Phone Booth Snow White"? If you know the answer or have seen him/her on your own account, please let me know.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What's In A Cover?, part I

November 18th -- that's a couple of days from now -- is International Science Fiction Reshelving day. Or, at least, it it was. ISFRD was canceled for being, well, a pretty bad idea, but here's the idea in a nutshell: A ton of the books that we consider "Literature" are indistinguishable from sci-fi, and that's a problem. Case in point: Nobody would look for The Time Traveler's Wife in the sci-fi section, and "time travel" is in the title, for crying out loud.

There's something respectable and New York Times Book Review-y about The Time Traveler's Wife. It's got an arty picture of a little girl's feet on the cover. John Varley's 1983 time travel novel, Millennium, has some kind of girl in a futuristic catsuit jumping out of some kind of nutty time portal thing with a robot in the background. They're probably on some kind of spaceship, too, by the looks of it. Not exactly a New York Times Notable Book.

The catch is that there's some kind of vaguely insulting value judgment behind what gets shelved where, and how classy its cover looks. Who gets to decide whether or not to present a book as pulpy nerd-fare or Kakutani-bait? Margaret Atwood once famously took exception to classifying her novel, The Handmaid's Tale, which is about a dystopian theocratic future-world, as science fiction because sci-fi was about "talking squids in outer space."

The idea behind ISFRD was that on November 18th, activists around the country would go into bookstores and re-shelve books like The Time Traveler's Wife in science fiction. It was, of course, a noble but terrible idea, which is why it got nixed; I have a hard enough time stopping people from mucking up my precious book order without having to worry about ideologues that I half-way agree with.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Atwood later softened on her "no sci-fi" stance. Next week, we'll take a look at a couple really great novels that straddle the line between "genre fiction" and "literary fiction." I promise it won't all be about time travel.
Books spied on the R today: an embarrassment of riches. Too many to list. Favorite: Boss Tweed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Positive Review, Statement of Fact


Full disclosure: this is from a starred review. And to be clear, this is not about David Baldacci. The man sells a number of books, none of which I have had the opportunity to read, so I am without the ingredients to form an opinion. This is about the ubiquity of the blurb and the hilarious results that can occur as a result. I alarmed a number of people on my morning commute with peals of laughter over this advertisement for True Blue.

I think a fun game to play would be to blurb a classic like a new release. It could last the ride to work or the rest of your life, depending on how hard you played.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday roundup

ITEM: Consumerist offers some strategies for not getting trampled to death during the crowding on Black Friday. We're having our own Black Friday sale here which, we can assure you, will be free of fatalities.

ITEM: Amazing holiday gifts for people who love books, courtesy of Etsy.

Savage Encounters

Yeah. We got our copies of the new set of Dungeons & Dragons miniatures today: SAVAGE ENCOUNTERS. I haven't opened my boxes yet, because if I did it without my girlfriend, she'd kill me, so that'll have to wait until later. I haven't even used any of the minis in my game from the Legendary Evils set, but it's not possible for me to be unexcited about this.

Yesterday I gamed with Erica, our newest employee (in our store) who is our cat-like druid (in our game) and I almost immediately got the entire party killed. Good times.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

My Top Ten Films Adapted From Novels #7: High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

The newly single man with broken heart manifesto. No one delves into the mind of the male species like Nick Hornby and when it comes to the subject of the breakup, nothing but pain, insecurity, and hilarity ensues. Adapted by the same writers who gave us, Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack plays thirty-something record shop owner, Rob Gordon. To many he's the grown-up version of Lloyd Dobler, which I can understand. A recent breakup with his long time girlfriend Laura has him recounting his top five list of breakups to examine what went wrong. Through this journey comes an awareness of fear. Fear of what a man's limits are in a relationship and conquering that fear as not to let it hinder what could be with that special someone. Not only for Cusack's character is this a revelation but for his two record shop employees the rock snob played by Jack Black and the understated underachiever Todd Louiso.

I would have to say my favorite part of the film is its ending sequence giving us all thoughts of the somewhat antiquated notion that when we fall in love it will be forever.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Neglected Classics: The Fannie Farmer Cookbook

Originally published in 1896 as The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, this comprehensive and instructive volume is one of the foundation stones of American cuisine. It also introduced a number of seemingly basic concepts like standardized measurement to home cooking. Before Fannie Farmer you might be called upon to put in as much salt as a sparrow would spit or a king's handful of sugar. Maybe people weren't eating only gruel but Fannie Farmer did make cooking better, which is exactly what it's done for myself and will likely do for you.
The current edition, updated in 1996, offers modern day cooks updated versions of the recipes with instructional advice on ingredients and utensils for the modern kitchen. Much like the far more lauded Joy of Cooking, all commonly available ingredients have a breakdown on types and guidelines on buying, storing, and preparing. Unlike that other worthy volume, and the thing that makes this book far more deserving of universal use, Fannie Farmer is committed to providing simple guidelines and straightforward recipes. It will also have you flipping back and forth through the book in the middle of preparing your dinner far less than the heavily cross-referenced Joy of Cooking. As part of it's commitment to everyday use, and unlike most cookbooks which turn their noses up at the very notion, this book will tell you how to get some mileage out of your microwave and save some kitchen time while letting you know when the results of microwave cookery will be unacceptably inferior (generally always, but you don't actually need to spend an hour baking that pumpkin for a pie, ten minutes in a microwave and the result is indistinguishable).

The recipes are not the most artful iteration of the dish but are usually the simplest and, for the novice cook, easiest to prepare. They function almost as a basic course in ingredient usage, after a week you'll find yourself better understanding the basic properties of things like butter. This is the book that will make an amateur baker out of a Hamburger Helper cooker and will also serve well as a reference for the more experienced cook who should find the recipes easy to modify to personal tastes.

Books spied on the train: Trouble in High Heels, Christina Dodd.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Seconds of My Life, Jamel Shabazz

Seconds of My Life has the photography of Jamal Shabazz with text by Lauri Lyons. This book is basically a scrapbook of pictures that Jamal Shabazz has taken over his life. It has photos starting from the 1980's, when Hip Hop was becoming popular in music up until the new Millennium.

This book truly captures New York City and Brooklyn through years of new fashion and new phases of music. In the 1980 section, we see our modern day Brooklyn, pushed back through time. The fashion, the lifestyles, the hair, are different. We see people dancing, posing, in cars, in the streets, gang members and even the subway system, when it was more littered with graffiti art.

In the 1990's section (entitled: A Time of Change), we see what a difference a decade makes. Even though we're in the same settings: the parks, the subways and Union Square, the fashion has changed. Men now have Afros and their pants have become more baggy and lower. Women are now wearing small tight "bootylicious" skirts and shorts. We see breaking battles in the street, even down to their single piece of cardboard and overly huge boomboxes. We see the death over Tupac, Biggie, and Big Pun. He also captures Puff Daddy's club scandal. We now see graffiti art becoming a little more mural like, instead of a signature. Even the music scene has grown showing kids involved in school programs. Capturing bits of pieces of not only his life, but all the people around him.

As we hit Y2K and beyond (2000-2007), he hits the school scene with school bands and dance teams. He also, once again, has capture the change in fashion where we see velor track suits. He also touches on the ethnicity side of the city focusing on Native American traditions, African traditions and even a little Puerto Rican Pride Parade. We see children being children, playing in the streets and having fun together. The graffiti art is now full blown works of art, showing portraits of celebrities. The music and the culture have combined as one to form this great city.

At the end, he captures true photos on the day that will not be forgotten in this country, September 11, 2001. There is one photo over all, that captures it all called "At A Loss". This photo is a shot of volunteers, fireman, and policemen cleaning up the aftermath with one fireman in the front, gazing over the mess. In this piece you can hear the silence of the city, even though people are working. You can breathe the dust from the debris. Pictures of the newspapers and the protesters against the war, showing even a sad clown holding a banner that says "Study War No More". A mother with a folded American Flag to show her child's death in, "How Many More Must Die?"

This book truly captures the essence and culture of New York City.

Indie booksellers week! Kick off party.

“The value of indie bookstores is the value of the humane.” Joseph O’Neill, Netherland

Hey! Next Monday is the beginning of the first Independent Bookstore Week. And heads up: Shakespeare & Co. is an independent bookstore, and one of the Independent Bookstores of New York City. Hoo-rah for us and for Brooklyn.

Last night I went to the kick-off party at powerHouse Arena, which is half bookstore, half Roman Colosseum and skate park. I've been there a couple times before. It's a wild and very pretty space, though mostly a frontlist-only store. Also enormous. It was neat event; I snarfed up sandwiches and beer and pocketed a couple Vertigo galleys. I'm pretty excited about the Peter Milligan one, The Bronx Kill.

Michael Greenberg gave a shout-out to Shakespeare & Co., and the other speakers were fine too. I have to say I sometimes feel a disconnect with some "indie bookstore" people, a few of whom sound to me less interested in making sales and running a store than in curating a collection of books they like, to ultimately like-minded people. There are good arguments for indie bookstores, but a lot of the language I heard last night was pretty abstract lovey-dovey stuff, like you usually hear from people with very obscure hobbies, yacht enthusiasts for example. There were also many wistful reminisces about "that old indie bookstore on ____ street" (usually followed by "that went out of business in ____").

Not to disparage our bookselling comrades in arms!--there is a very real sense in which we are all in the same tiny, tiny boat. Although when a speaker mentioned that most big-box bookseller chains were no longer expanding and were in fact planning to close more and more of their stores, a little cheer went up and I thought, "Why are people cheering the idea that this business is shrinking like Colorforms? None of these corporations are closing stores because independent booksellers are kicking their keisters."

I grooved on the Q&A with John Sargent (yeesh, that Wiki article stinks), CEO of Macmillan Publishers, because his was the most direct, straightforward and unsentimental attitude towards the subject. When asked if he would get get tough with retailers like Amazon.com and B&N , whose predatory pricing wars indie booksellers could never hope to match, he basically replied, "Those companies make us buckets of money. We're in the business of selling books." POW. Which should be a no-brainer, right?, but is hilarious as a "tell it like it is" statement--which is what I think it was taken as by some folks--at what was basically a TRADE CONVENTION.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Post-Brown: Four Novels To Read Now That You've Finished The Lost Symbol

A couple of weeks ago we tipped you off to a few places to head if you liked The Da Vinci Code (and its recently released, titanic sequel, The Lost Symbol). If you're one of the bazillions of Americans tickled by Dan Brown's brand of historical detective/conspiracy drama, here are four books that might satisfy your appetite until the next billion-dollar Dan Brown heavyweight rolls off the assembly line:

The Rule Of Four, Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
The Rule Of Four is a no-brainer for "what's next" -- and while it was the New York Times #1 bestseller upon its release back in '04, it never quite became the pop culture juggernaut that Da Vinci became. The focus of the history-mystery is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a notoriously labyrinthine book published 500 years ago in Venice, and four Princeton students' mission to unravel its various mysteries. The Rule Of Four will satisfy readers disenchanted with Brown's sometimes questionable history; the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is a very real and very awesome book, and Caldwell and Thomason -- Princeton and Harvard graduates, respectively -- are much better at making clear to the reader where fact ends and fiction begins -- a frequent criticism of Brown's pop-history approach.

Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco
Eco is a heavyweight in the field of "professional smart guys" and he practically invented the history-thriller that put Brown in the top 1% tax bracket. Foucault's Pendulum, which predates The Da Vinci Code by about a decade, hits a lot of the same notes -- secret codes, museum intrigue, the Knights Templar -- and is even more meandering and erudite than Brown's novel, running everywhere from kabbalah to Cthulhu. Foucault's Pendulum is a ton of fun, but was also written as a satire of the sort of super-thick conspiracy theory that makes up a good part of the allure of Brown's novels, but the density and complexity of the plot will reward readers who can untangle it. Foucault's Pendulum was originally published in Italian, but has been available in excellent English translation since 1990 or so.

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
A perennial favorite here at the store -- like most of the literary output of half-crazed book wizard Stephenson -- Cryptonomicon, which weighs in at 918 pages and seems more suited to use as a doorstop or murder weapon, looks like a challenge and it probably is. Its equally ginormous plot, which runs from World War II to the present day back and forth, jumping between nearly a dozen protagonists, is about as dense as it sounds. Plus, Stephenson isn't afraid to step back from the plot to spend ten pages explaining concepts of cryptography and computer hacking. But -- and trust me on this one -- if you commit to Cryptonomicon you'll come out a different person. A better person. A person with great biceps from hauling a copy of the book around, too, but a better person in general. Cryptonomicon is more tech-heavy than some of the other contenders in the genre, which will be a boon to some and a bane to others, but Stephenson's tongue-in-cheek tone -- less relentlessly deadpan than Brown's and less professorial than Eco's -- will make help make it all worthwhile. Stephenson, better known for his works of science-fiction, hews pretty closely to reality. Mostly. You'll find out. Plus, if you like Cryptonomicon you won't go hungry for long: Stephenson's epic, The Baroque Cycle, revisits many of the same themes and characters, and is (somehow) about three times longer.

The Club Dumas,
Arturo Pérez-Reverte
I'll be up front: The Club Dumas is the basis for the bizarre 1999 Roman Polanksi thriller, The Ninth Gate, which is more or less faithful to the plot of the novel with a few notable exceptions. But -- hear me out. The Club Dumas sticks much closer to the detective noir to which the modern crop of historical fiction owes a lot of its conventions. It's a bibliophile's mystery novel, revolving largely around the questionable authenticity of an original manuscript by Dumas. There's also some Satanism. If you've seen the movie, much of the first two-thirds of the novel will seem familiar, but the loving affection paid to the obsession with rare books and the complexity of the narration (like many of my favorite novels, the narrator is actively involved in the plot and is frequently unreliable and sometimes outright deceptive) make for a pretty good time. On the downside, the protagonist, Corso (who had the benefit of looking like Johnny Depp in the film) is kind of a repugnant dirtbag, and whether or not you can tolerate him will probably determine whether or not you can tolerate the novel.