Monday, November 30, 2009

What's a Monster to do?

Hey Flower!

How do you feel about things that go bump in the night? Me, not so good. I am a coward. I am Chief Coward from Cowardville. I avoid scary movies and scary books and scary people too. much I was looking forward to reading Peter Ackroyd's new book  The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein the F-word frightened me off a bit. But then the lure was too strong and I caved.

In this retelling of Frankenstein on that famous ghost story filled night when Mr and Mrs Shelley were staying with Byron and Mary thought up her monster, the monster was already there. Ackroyd places Victor Frankenstein among the guests. Frankenstein and Shelley are old friends having gone Oxford together. For all the visits the novel gets from the great men of the age, it's Victor's God playing life that is center stage.

Frankenstein's obsession to create a new man, a perfect man does and doesn't happen. He is of course able to give life to his corpse but it is a Monster he has created. Frankenstein isn't the only one in this new family who is disappointed. The Monster blames his creator for his unhappiness and cruelly destructive behavior. Not much new there. What Ackroyd does make new or at least brings back to the forefront is the tragedy of Mary Shelley's story.

While Casebook didn't have the appeal for me that other Ackroyd novels have like Chatterton and Dan Lemo and the Limehouse Golem or his amazing biographies of Charles Dickens and Thomas More, it is a very interesting book. It has Ackroyd's trade mark attention to research and literary references. Peter Ackroyd does make you smarter, but this time a little less fulfilled as well.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Twas The Day Before Anything

Oh Flower!

I know. Another Thanksgiving Eve has come and gone, right? Where does the  time go? I hear you. It's been a blur. Seems like only yesterday. The days flew by.

Holiday Eve's are great. I love them. There's all the illusion that you still have time to get things done plus the anticipation of tomorrow being a holiday. Eve's are all about what the future can bring. Eve's are hope. Eve's are the last of your alone time for 24 to 48 hours.

So I hope you had a fantastic Eve and that Thanksgiving Day is even better!! I'm thankful for you, Flower. Happy, happy Thanksgiving! And. Take notes on all that happens tomorrow so I can hear every story and I will do the same for you.

Thankful  for hundreds of things,

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Me Cleaning House

Hi Flower!

I was in the mood to clean, but not clean so that I had get up and move around. A more restfull clean. So I dug a book out of one of the many I-Want-To-Read-This-Someday stashes around my house and came up with  The English Passengers.

My favorite books have many beginnings. Desperate characters and stories that start out all over the place and then somehow through author magic come together. The English Passengers is like that. There are narrators a plenty, each telling their own and the group's story.

There's Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, whose once great family has been declining in fame and money with each successive generation, and his crew trying to get ahead by smuggling cheap French brandy and tobacco. The Reverend Wilson is expecting to find the Garden of Eden in Tasmania. Dr. Potter is working on a thesis explaining the superiority of the Saxon race over all other peoples. The most fully drawn and compelling character is Peevay, the child of a Aborigine and the white convict who raped her. His descriptions of the colonist's atrocities, and his innocent suffering as the settlers try to both 'civilize' and wipe out the Aborigines, juxtapose the unbridled arrogance of the colonists.

Author Matthew Kneale has handled the epic of this novel very well. He has strong control over the scope of the story, his characters and plot. The English Passengers was a terrific read. A page turning historical novel in which no princesses appear. A lovely change of pace. I think you would like it.


P.S.  And look it's another Booker finalist, who knew?

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Kiss On The Hand Might Be Quite Continental But Oprah Is a Book's Best Friend

What do you think, Flower? Could Oprah's talk show retirement and the success of electronic readers be the double whammy death knell that ends Independent Bookselling?

 It's no secret that for the past 25 years Oprah has sold tens of thousands of books. You and I both know that from personal experience. Does she sell as many as she used to? No. But. She is still a book's best friend. There is nothing on this planet like an Oprah book endorsement. Do not underestimate her retail powers. The Force is strong with this one.

There are books bought by Independents on the promises of sales reps that the author has been booked on Oprah or that there is Oprah interested. There are other media venues out there for books and they reach as many homes as she does. But. If the book buyer for a store is told that a first time author (who they might ordinarily have passed on) will be on Oprah they will buy a few cartons of that title. If the book buyer is told that the same author will be on the Today Show they will by a few copies of the title.

Digital books? I have had the use of the Sony E-Reader and Kindle and I am not impressed. I don't want to read a book that way. I love to read and I love books. Books. However, many, many other people are thrilled by those devices. Their sales and those of digital books are one of the few areas of publishing where sales are on the rise. Of course changes in technology will come and those changes will bring other format choices but digital reading is here to stay.

Neither of these events is going to help Independents or Publishers for that matter.

For the Independents the Holy Trinity of handselling, customer service and the customer being able to leave the store with thier purchase (instant gratification) have been the day to day mainstays of their survival since the Internet reared it's ugly head. Now that digital has it's foot firmly in the door there's another easy way to get books without going into a bookstore. This will definitely cost stores some sales but how many?

Can Independents come together in some cost sharing way and get digital book downloading stations in their stores and then be able to sell these books? I don't know. First of all I have no idea if the technology between the different devices is proprietary or compatible to downloads from anywhere. If that is the case then stores would not have to pick just one device to support. Second if cost is an issue who will help them pay for it? The companies who make the readers or the publishers themselves? Seemingly neither one of them need bookstores to sell their wares. It's all easy-peasy on the Internet. Unless Publishers want to grow their digital sales for backlist and midlist titles and first time authors. That's where the Independents handsell skills become necessary. These are the kinds of titles that publishers spend zero dollars supporting so who better than a bookseller to move them?

Barnes and Noble had the bucks and 'boldness' to go out and purchase an electronics company to build them their own digital book reader, the Nook. ~~~I'm calling a time out to say what a craptastic name that is. The Nook. It sounds like a bar your parents went to.~~~ Good for them. They are trying to keep the customers they already have by offering them what Amazon and Sony has been offering them for a couple years now. So a reactive decision and not a forward thinking one. They still get some points.

According to B&N press releases they are just about to sell out of all the Nooks they have for in time for Christmas gift giving. They do not say how many they had to sell in the first place. Selling 30,000 would be very different from selling 300,000. Amazon has used the same flirty ways. They also have not told us how many Kindles~~~I'm calling another time out to say that Kindle is also a stupid name. Nook wins the craptastic honors because along with being stupid it also makes you feel like Winnie the Pooh saying it.~~~they have sold. Why is that? Both of them will tell you how many copies of a book they sold at the drop of a hat. What is the mysterious strategy behind not revealing the numbers of digital readers sold?

So what do you think? I'm positive that an Oprah-less basic cable option will hurt book sales, but Independents will survive it. The digital book revolution? I believe that will come to hurt more than losing the Oprah effect. It's time once again to scramble my friends. I'll still be there exploring and shopping.

What about Publishers? Publisher's consistent inability to successfully sell what they manufacture is staggering and now that Oprah the Sales Goddess is exiting millions of homes what's a publisher to do? Time to put your thinking caps on kids. And then there's digital. OK it's sales without printing, shipping and returns but it isn't going to solve the bottom line problem--- you are not growing your consumer base.

Sorry to say,

Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's Begining To Feel A Lot Like Bing


Have you (by choice) listened to any Christmas music yet? Is your car radio tuned in to the all Happy Holidays all the time station? No? Shocking. Me? Oh you know it baby! I have been harmonizing with Bing for at least a month now and the radios at home and in the car jingle all the way.

I have always adored Christmas music. What's not to love? It's jolly and made to sing along to, right? So all my little guys have heard more holiday tunes than your average bears--and never complained by the way. When O was little she would ask me to put the 'Bing Frosty' music on. Wrong, but so right. Of course that is what we have called Bing ever since. We don't have many conversations about him, but naturally he does come up.

Christmas books are a big deal for me and mine as well. We have many favs but one of our fav-i-est is The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. It's a less traditional Christmas tale because Christmas isn't the primary focus of the story. It takes place on the holiday and it touches on all the best emotions that Christmas offers. Do you know this book?

Stop me if you've heard this one. It's midnight and all the toys in the shop come to life. Sounds very familiar doesn't it? It's a favorite childhood fantasy and one that many stories have wrapped their plots around. The best version of it by far is The Mouse and His Child.It's Christmas time and a wind-up mouse and his son break the rules, are expelled from the toy shop and begin a quest to find a new family.

The two best pieces of advice I ever got came from this book: "no one is ever completely self-winding" and "be happy."

Following Advice,

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

To Siberia and beyond!

Hello Flower!

Reading a book called To Siberia at this time of year in my barely heated home is an act of will, let me tell you, Flower. I won the book on a giveaway at Goodreads a couple of weeks ago. Excellent! Siberia has been sitting on my desk since it arrived like a shiny icicle beckoning to me.

One of the treasures of reading is the From Out of Nowhere Novelist of Distant Shores. It's a treasure because the 'sudden' success of the foreign author is usually only sudden in the English speaking world. In the native land of said author there has almost always already been a few books and success. In 2007 Per Petterson won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his excellent novel, Out Stealing Horses. Up to that book he had not been published in the U.S. The deserved success of that novel and the award lead his publisher to bring out one of his backlist (See! I told you that's how it works.) novels. To Siberia was originally published in in 1996 and here this past September.

Siberia is a dream destination in the novel. Our young, nameless narrator longs to go there on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She knows it will be very cold there but she will be warm because the people all wear furs. What draws her to Siberia is what she imagines to be Siberia's endless, clear plains. Her older brother Jesper, to who she is "Sistermine" the only name she has in the book, dreams of going to Morocco. Neither dream seems likely to come true at the start of the novel given that their family is living on a shoestring in the isolation of a small Danish seaside town in the years just before WWII.

The family is an extended, eccentric one. Grandpa is a roaring character with suicidal tendencies, Aunts and Uncles are variously prosperous, proper, grasping, fisherman's widows and factory workers. The parents of Sistermine and Jesper are the best but luckless hunchback carpenter for miles and a housewife hymn writer more married to her religion than her husband. With both of them distant and closed off, Jesper and Sistermine cling to each other for warmth and support. The relationship of brother and sister is the charm of the novel. They live in each others pockets. Together they have adventures, read and unite themselves to keep out their parents disappointments and expectations and the other children's happiness.

Time becomes the great intruder in To Siberia. The respite of childhood ends and Jesper and Sistermine come of age as WWII begins and the Nazi's take over their town and lives. Jesper and Sistermine both fight in their own ways. As the war escalates Jesper joins the Resistance and the separation of brother and sister begins. Jesper is forced to flee Denmark and the Gestapo and Sistermine is left to isolation and the realities of occupation. The rest of the novel details Sistermine's own flight from Denmark. As time passes and she moves from place to place always trying to save money to get further away from unhappiness and intolerance the thought of reuniting with Jesper is her only goal.

Petterson's writing is pristine. There is not a word out of place. As you read his novels you experience the lives he invents. His quiet but forceful prose demands your attention. He reminds me of Carol Shields in that way. When you open their novels you are going on a journey through their characters lives. That's good news. Better news? We will probably be seeing more of Petterson's older work over here.

Not chilly on the inside,

Friday, November 13, 2009

Happiness = Hilary Mantel

Flower, hi!

If you pick your favorite book of the year and it's November the 13th are you going out on a limb? Are you risking reputation and relevance by throwing December's releases to the wind? Years of bookselling tell me no. December is a month for sure fire bestselling authors who can rise above the Christmas crush, short run art books and hundreds more self improvement books than need to be published, shelved and ready for their few sales in January and return trip to the publishers come March. That still leaves the rest of November but too bad. I know what the best novel of 2009 is.

The best book of 2009? Can I have a drum roll please? It's Wolf Hall by my girl Hilary Mantel! Is anyone out there surprised? I doubt it. I have already detailed my love and ownership of Hilary Mantel and my excitement at her winning the 2009 Man Booker, right? Is there anything left for me to say?

The Tudors seem to be the Kennedys of England. There are countless books written about them and with a few exceptions they don't seem to be very bright. I was fearful that Wolf Hall was going to be yet another Tudor novel. After all this is the cradle to death of Thomas More story of Thomas Cromwell. The right hand man to both Cardinal Woolsey and Henry the VIII. What could be more Tudor than a novel that centers on Henry ridding himself of Katherine of Aragon and the Catholic Church?

Cromwell was a man without a past. He was an outsider of which almost nothing is known of his childhood. How does the son of a less than nobody rise to be in the privy chamber of a King of England? Mantle creates a beguiling anti hero out of what history warns us was an ugly back stabber. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is a realist. He has inched his way into position and notice in order to politically and monetarily raise the prospects of his extended family. Cromwell uses what skills he's learned, what his spies can tell him, the money his deals make and the greed of courtiers to rid himself and the crown of impediments. The heartlessness of his on the job plots juxtaposed against his love of his family, his apprentices and all of his staff makes him a rich, complex character.

How much of the life of Cromwell that Mantle gives us is fact? The early years are speculation. How he rose from suspect beginnings in Putney, England around 1485 to working for a substantial Florentine banking family in Italy in 1512 without having connections and a formal education no one is sure. Is this lack of knowledge any different from novels about other historical figures? No. Why bring it up? You have to in Wolf Hall. Mantel has done such an amazing job in creating a full realized Cromwell that every utterance, every thought passes as gospel pulled directly from the great man.

Part of the success of this novel lies in the peculiar way Mantel has worked out writing this book in the first person/third person. Although Cromwell is telling the story (which would be in the first person) he refers to himself as "he" thorough out the book. I have read more than one review of the book that labels this as an impediment. I can't say that I found that to be the case. From the start there is a rhythm to the writing (and all those pronouns) that keeps it all in check. Events from the past are turned over in Cromwell's mind as he watches a young lady in waiting play with the buttons on her dress and weighs the various efforts the Boleyn's are using to maintain their hold over the King while discussing hunting with the Duke of Norfolk. In the brilliance of Hilary Mantels gifts all this happens at once. Reading Cromwell's story is not this happened and then this and then we did that and on to chapter three. You follow the tapestry of Cromwell's life: the sad past he carries with him, his philosophy, his love of family, his sarcasm and his intense desire to bring about what his King wants. It's as though the reader can float above the events of Cromwell's life to see the full picture of the man and his times. The intimate history and the greater history are both within your comprehension. It's an understanding you are awarded with because Mantel writes so well.

The history of the period is so well documented that only way left to make it interesting any more is to come in through the side door as Mantel has done here. It's all from Cromwell's point of view but that's not to say that all the other major players aren't here as well. Some of the best writing in the book are the scenes between Cromwell and More. The Anything For A Shilling Nobody vs The Saint. The cast list in Wolf Hall is enormous and Mantel is able to control them and their history. No small feat. As you read through the entire 650 pages (And not 1 is to be missed!) Mantel fills you in an all you need to know about court life, the whims of a King, the economics of the cloth trade, etc. She is able in the most casual way to make you understand the personalities of all the characters: “Anne is brittle in their company, and as ruthless with their compliments as a housewife snapping the necks of larks for the table. If her precise smile fades for a moment, they all lean forward, anxious to know how to please her. A bigger set of fools you would go far to seek.”

To have a writer that you have introduced people to for years win a prestigious award is a thrill and I'd like to thank the Academy. What's more important than the statuette or the cash for the author in my gigantic retail heart are the sales the award will bring. There is lots O'publicity when you carry the day and the votes for the Man Booker. Wonderful. The better news is that every bookstore now wants copies, many copies of your award winning title and your backlist. Ka-ging! For years I had clenched my little hands together, squeezed my ears shut and wished that Hilary Mantle would move to a U.S. publisher that would spend a little do-re-mi publicizing her and now--MAYBE-- I don't have to do that anymore. Thank you Man Booker!

Thank you Hilary!

P.S. The cover? Blah. It has a very 1970's murder mystery feel. The British cover? Worse.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Election Day!

Good Morning Flower!

It's Election Day. A great day. I walked over to my Town Hall about 30 minutes ago and voted. I like going first thing. It's quiet, the room has that early morning overpowering coffee smell and the volunteers aren't feeling so harried that they don't ask you how your Dad is and what you think about how slow the road work by the bridge is going.

In my district we aren't voting for Senators, Representatives or any town changing propositions. It's all the local positions that we decide on: town council, county clerk, town supervisor town judge, etc. The Biggie in our local elections for me are the 2 open positions on our School Board. That I think is huge.

In my opinion/observation people run for School Board when they have 1 ax to grind. When little Susie was nosed out of the county spelling bee finals it could not have been because she lost fair and square. Of course not. The rules were wrong, the judges were selected unfairly and the had the match on a Tuesday for goodness sake and how could Susie have been expected to do her best on a Tuesday???? I have to get elected to the Board and change that immediately! What? The district is facing a budget shortfall? The 4th graders at Chester A. Arthur Elementary School can't pass their state reading exam? Ummm....I wasn't aware of those problems.

  School Boards have a substantial amount of local power over the lives of  thousands of children. That is as important as a Senatorial election. It's crucial to choose who you think will do the best for these children. Do you want the candidate who will solve their child's issue and then rubber stamp whatever the Supervisor wants? Would you rather have the other person who will also solve their child's problem but then stay engaged in all the other hundreds of issues?

How lucky are we to have elections and then to have those elections stick? It ain't perfect but I'd rather have this than anything else. I will never understand why a large chunk of the citizens of this country don't vote and if you are one and I find out? Expect a stern talking to.

Thrilled to vote,