Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On fear.

A couple of weeks ago, my mom was hospitalized with severe stomach pain. The doctors were worried, thinking it was an infection, and I looked at flights to Tennessee

There's a clarity that comes with real fear, for yourself, for your family or loved ones. We wear our fragility like the Emperor' new clothes. We don't even notice it unless someone or something points it out, and then we become shocked, embarrassed at our nakedness.

I'm very lucky here. I know that. I'm happy with the life I've built in Boston. But when I say I love my job or that I love this city, it may be true, but it's true only to a point. Love comes in degrees. And I was ready to hop on a plane.

I don't think it would surprise anyone who knows me if I said I was and have always been a mama's boy. I feel no shame in saying that, because if you had a mother like mine, you'd be a mama's boy or girl too.

What openness I have in my heart is directly from her. When I was young, we read together folktales and myths from Asia, Africa, America, and Europe. And from her, though I never gained a single system of belief, I learned that all beliefs can be beautiful, that all of the ways people try to make sense of a world that can be cruel and harsh and absurd, carry with them their own depth, their own hurt and beauty.

I liked Coyote from Native American tales and Br'er Rabbit from Uncle Remus, Loki and Prometheus of Norse and Greek mythology. I liked figures who were always a step ahead, who understood where the chips were going to fall and who seemed to outwit not only the other characters but the world at large. It is no coincidence that these sorts of characters are the fire bringers, the ones who take nature's ultimate symbol of chaos and transform it into humanity's symbol of innovation, creativity, and control.

In "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself," which is an extended essay and interview with David Foster Wallace, there's a part that describes Wallace and Jonathan Franzen discussing the purpose of fiction, and they decide finally that it is to stave off loneliness. I would go a step further and say that writing, the creation of narrative, is there to stave off death.

It allows us to give meaning and understanding to all the things we cannot control. We all get the phone calls we don't want. We each come to a point where we are forced to understand the tiers of our lives and the order of our loves. I am very lucky, and very happy to say that my mother is feeling better. What ailment she had seems to have passed over two nights in a hospital bed. She is home. She is well. And I am in Boston, still a little scared, still, when I think about it, sad.

But I tell stories. That is what I do. And though I know doing that will never truly control what I fear, that it will never keep everyone I love safe, I can hope that occasionally the attempt is beautiful. And maybe that's enough.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Reading Moby Dick

While riding the train to and from Washington, DC, last weekend there were a lot of things that distracted me from reading; the amazing and weird scenery, the snack car, people yakking on cell phones around us, breaking my sunglasses, the train breaking down. I held Moby Dick in my lap for quite awhile before I cracked it open. And then I found it hard to concentrate and kept reading the same sentences over and over thinking, what is this guy talking about? I need a dictionary. I remembered the enthusiastic Melville customer from a couple of weeks back who had told me to simply read the first chapter and then I'd know whether or not I'd like the book. I read the first chapter. Uh oh. I was confused more than awed. But, not one to give up on a book so easily, I put it away and decided to pick it up again when my brain was in the right place.

Two weeks later I am on chapter 18 and...I love it. Ishmael is FUNNY. He is downright silly at times and that's not something usually advertised when Moby Dick comes up in conversation. When Queequeg comes into the picture their relationship is cemented so quickly and sweetly that I was right there with them in bed talking deep into the night. The so-called savage and the open-minded, Presbyterian would-be whaler - who knew such tenderness could develop between them? Ishmael is so respectful and non-judgmental that I wish more people could be like him right now, in the real life of 2010. Of course, I'm only at the beginning - they're not even on the ship yet - I have yet to see how they will change once the plot gets going. But I have a crush on them both right now.

I also downloaded a dictionary for my iPhone that I've been consulting frequently. Not only am I not really (more like not at all) up on my Bible references but there are plenty of wonderful, antiquated words that need defining. Thank goodness for that particular technology. It would be a bit much to carry around Moby Dick and a dictionary on the bus. But I can't get through certain passages without it.

It's going well, this reading of Moby Dick. My mom, an avid reader, was shocked that I voluntarily chose this monstrousest, "ponderous" book, but I'm glad I've got some 527 more pages to look forward to.

In the words of the landlord of the Spouter-Inn, Grub, ho!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Moving Day. Again.

Like most of Allston, Brighton and Brookline, I am moving Sept 1st. This will officially be my 22nd move in my 28 years of life. I think this is pretty common for my generation of misplaced- roaming- nomadic- Gypsy -perpetually-adolesce-ed peers. It's one of our strengths.
I have spent the last few weeks performing a fierce moral inventory of all the things I own. I donated 6 bags of clothing to Rosie's place, because at any time you can find three different sized wardrobes in my closet. I gave my niece and nephews a box of trinketty stuff I once thought was ironic or kitschy.
Then I got to my books. Hundreds.
I am selling a lot of them back to the Used Book Cellar. I am donating some, and keeping the ones that would cause me great trauma to part with. Deciding what that means is the difficult thing. Books aren't just things you read, they are little artifacts that decorate and warm your life. They are loaded guns on your shelf waiting to trigger a series of memories. They are trophies, and guide books, and proof of a life spent in thought, and seeing, and appreciation for ideas--- and the world around you.
Yet- I need to make room for new books, new ideas. I need to send some of my babies to other homes that can give them more attention than I can give them.
If you are moving too, feel free to come by the UBC and sell us your babies. (I mean books no angry letters please.) The buy back times are Wed- Sat 10-4pm. If you want cash, it's 15% of the list price, store credit- you get 20%.
Sigh. Back to packing.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Skippy Dies.

by Paul Murray.
longlisted for the Booker Prize.

It better win.

I am being pulled inexorably through this story of a Catholic boys' school (with all of the wonderful narrative potential that that implies). It is the most thoroughly modern piece of storytelling that I have encountered. This Murray guy has boys pegged, girls pegged, their teachers pegged, their moms and dads pegged, and he has their drugs and their sex pegged, their curiosity and their stifling boredom pegged, and beyond those things, those things that he has control over, he has me nailed to the wall with the most compulsively enjoyable yet chilling book I have read since...I can't remember one like this.

It's the best fictional study of the modern teenager you will read. I want to read it again and I'm not even halfway through. I'm reading these pages, and as a father I find myself hoping that my boy will be something like this character, that my daughter will find her way to not becoming like that one, and that both of them will either avoid or be strong enough to stand up to that one.
And I am thankful I don't have to go through it again, but at the same time I would give anything to go through the chapter I just read.
His first kiss.
Paul Murray is faithful to each and every character in his story. When a writer achieves this level of imagination, compassion, and focus...this book needs to be read.
It's coming into the store soon.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rain+Coffee+Reading = :)

Splashing boots.  Toes wiggling in wet sandals.  Drenched Gortex rain gear. Mirage of colors resembling umbrellas.  Every other hand enveloped around a coffee...aah!  It feels a lot like the pacific northwest around here.  Those of you who know me will probably know that I often miss the west coast mountains and -- yes I know I'm crazy -- the gray, wet northwest misty weather.  I'll take a week straight of rain over the hot, humid sun any day.

Another thing that reminds me of the northwest corner of the US are independent stores, and Brookline, in this respect, is very much like that.  There are so few chain stores lurking around every corner here (well, until you hit the streets of Boston...).  There's something weird about one-stop shopping.  Sure it's convenient at times, but I don't think you have as many choices nor do you have the benefit of an experienced staff.  Need a game?  Stop by Eureeka, they'll be glad to demo a game for you.  Are you crafty with paper or want to try bookmaking?  The Paper Source is right down the block.  Whether on the go or hanging out, Peet's brews a fabulous cup of coffee -- with or without the fancy extras.  Ice cream?  There are quite a few places that have their own unique flavor and feel -- not to mention the bajillion wonderful restaurants around here.  And, of course, the Booksmith where we aspire to hand you the books that you want, not just the titles that are popular.

As I wandered around Brookline this past week doing various things, I realized that the collage of independent businesses really gives this town a unique appeal.  Imagine if every town was run by chain stores -- the same ones you have in your town, would be the same ones in your grandparents' town, and at the vacation spots you pass through.  Wouldn't seeing the same places -- all around the world -- get boring and repetitive?  I mean at that point, why even go out of town?  Part of the fun of traveling is exploring all the different places and stores.  You learn so much about the town that way!

I think independent and locally owned businesses encourage people to be themselves rather than follow the example of the greedy corporates who only care about your money and world domination.  Okay, maybe that's an overstatement.  Maybe...  But local businesses aren't cookie cutters.  (Did you know that the books at your local chains, like Borders and Barnes and Noble, aren't exactly influenced by the local public?  It's all popularity contests and overplayed marketing schemes.  Their merchandise is ordered in an office somewhere in a different state.  They don't even know their customers.)  Local stores let people explore the community, connect with others, and learn that long forgotten virtue of respect.  There's also that small town feel, where you can slow down and enjoy the moments -- something many frantic people should stop and experience -- in this crazy, fast paced world that we live in!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

mockingjay is a beautiful word

It is, and thank you Suzanne Collins for coining it, and for writing the Hunger Games books.

There was a kid, a young man at the door this morning. Lisa and I were at the front of the store, talking about child-rearing and working vacations, and it's a full 50 minutes before our opening time, and this guy is hesitantly shuffling back and forth, kind of back on his heels, and when we realize he has a question I go over and unlock the door, "Hi. uh, yes?" Looking right at me, but perhaps startled at my appearance nonetheless, he softly rattles out that he's here for something, and gestures at the Mockingjay release date sign in the window. "Well, we're not open for another 50 minutes, so..."
"Oh, I know, I'm waiting."

The Harry Potter era, ensconced within the Books are Dead era, which was itself enveloped by the Readers are a Shrinking Minority era, gave the distinct impression that if a book was going to capture the attention of that distracted, medicated, shiftless mass of American children, it had to be HUGE, with MASSIVE PAN-MEDIA potential, and have a MARKETING PLAN that would ensure that there is NOT ONE CHILD LEFT BEHIND once the tsunami of print, television, internet, and radio advertisements wash the record of all other current children's books from their memories.

We decided to sell him the book and once I got one of the registers up I "Psssst''d him in the door and he grinned like maybe you would have grinned at 12 or 13 years old, and you're out in Coolidge Corner before the shops are even open, on your own, and the guy is gonna let you get the book before anyone else, because you showed up. Lisa asked him if he'd been up all night, probably noticing his shaky hands and nervous mumbles, and I didn't catch his response, but after he'd left (and I had locked the front door behind us, and neither of us went before him to let him out, so he's heading for escape with his prize and awkwardly gets pulled up short, pulling and pushing on the locked double doors) she told me that he had wanted to stay up all night, to go to the Children's Bookshop at midnight.

But his mother wouldn't let him.

Bedtime. Homework. Behavior. Consequences. perhaps Health.

Who knows, and one of the best lessons that fatherhood has taught me is that rushing to judge other parents whom you've never met based on what you see happening right now in front of you is a dodgy, dangerous thing to do, and you will almost always be wrong.
So I'm not going there, but where I am going is that the marketing machine has indeed been working on the Hunger Games. But in spite of that, between HP and HG kids have been reading. Other books. It's doable. Kids can and still want to read and be told stories and find stuff out and look at pictures and comic books and be proud to get that book before everybody else, because feeling like you are getting into the new place before anyone else in the world is a special, lasting feeling.

If you have a baby or a pre-school age child, put a book with pictures, any book with pictures, you don't even have to buy one, it could be whatever is on your shelves, a gardening book or a field guide to amphibians, and put it in front of them.
If you have an older child, a "reluctant" reader, as they might be called in the whatever biz, pick up the book you are currently reading and start holding twenty minute reading sessions after dinner at the table. (You are reading something right? If not, you have NO RIGHT TO JUDGE YOUR CHILD'S READING HABITS. This will be good exercise for you, too.) People learn by doing something themselves, or by watching and listening to others. If your kid isn't going to pick up a book, and they don't want to listen to you, then all they have to do is sit there while you read out loud. If you don't see their interest perking by the third week, then go figure out something else.

Don't take anyone else's word for the unique nature of your child.
Allow them to engage in the world on their own terms.
Let them go out at midnight to the bookstore if they really want to.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

All day long I'd biddy-biddy-bum....

Paul's last post got me thinking about Fiddler. My brother sings this part of the song whenever we talk about winning the lottery. Which we do...a lot. He actually is quite convincing...and even a little moving when he sings...but what does it mean to "biddy biddy bum"?

For me, Biddy-biddy bum means poetry, and reality television. Today, at the register I thought a lot about dress shopping, AND HOW AWFUL I AM AT IT. Sorry to yell but it's true!
What do I need a dress for ?... (You may be asking yourself?) Well , I am going to sunny- warm Pennsylvania to attend my fella's sister's weddin. Yes, I did consider a pant-suit but I'm not quite ready to give in to the inevitable segregation of my generous thighs.
The point is, when I go on vacation these days it always seems to be for some family party, holiday, event, trial. I look forward to the day when I can peruse our ever expanding magazine collection (that Dana is gardening into quite the selection) and pick out a magazine like this one that the lovely Katie is holding, and read it....without a tinge of irony.
Well, It's getting to be about time for me to buy some spanx knock-off brand supportive undergarments and chap-stick so I can really do it up for this nuptial vacation.
See you at the shelves!

Franzen's Freedom

You may have seen  Jonathan Franzen's face on the cover of Time magazine this week.  After a rather long hiatus, he has a new novel coming out in Sept.  The title is Freedom.  Preliminary buzz is that it's really good.  You may remember his previous book, The Corrections, which was a big bestseller.   Freedom is not available for sale until Sept., as far as I am currently aware.  It's certainly not in my store yet.  A little known frustration for booksellers and readers is that sometimes the publicity around a book release precedes and builds a good deal of momentum well before the book's arrival.  Eager readers come in wanting to buy the book only to be told it won't be out for some number of weeks yet.  In the book trade there is something known as the laydown date aka the on sale date.  Said date is plastered all over the boxes and is a strictly observed "law" by booksellers or at least it's supposed to be and usually is.  

Imagine my surprise, as I read the Boston Globe's account of President Obama's visit to a bookstore on Martha's Vineyard, to see listed among his purchases the new Franzen novel, Freedom.   Obama is known to be a voracious reader who doesn't have much time off from work.    Maybe someone gave him their galley aka advanced reading copy.  Maybe the article was incorrect on this one point.  Maybe executive privilege trumps laydown dates.   I fault no one, absolutely no one, in this departure from the usual protocol.

My bottom line here is that it's very exciting to have an author on the cover of a national news magazine in the same week that it's a news item that the President went to a bookstore (an independent one!) shortly after arriving at his vacation site and bought a bunch of books.  With all the recent "news" about the death of the physical book,  it's refreshing to hear some other bits of book news.  Have a great vacation Mr. President and happy reading!

Friday, August 20, 2010

tradi-shuuuuun, tradition. TRADITION!!

When I started working here there were certain closers (night shift managers) who would have everyone collaborate and come up with five or so words, chosen at random or because of trickiness in their meaning or usage, which had to be worked into the closing announcements which we broadcast over the intercom fifteen minutes before closing. Everyone had their own way about it, but my favorite was when Kyle had to take up the challenge.

Kyle, when he finally left the store, struck out for Plymouth Plantation, where he donned a Pilgrim hat and grew out his beard, all the more authentic for being just a scraggly, patchy cloud under his chin. He was born to be a Pilgrim, I don't think he would mind me saying that. After his first season, he stayed on after the Plantation closed to visitors for the winter in order to spend a month making charcoal in the traditional, laborious way.

Kyle picks up the phone, hits the intercom button, and breathes in and out, collecting his thoughts. He quietly clears his throat and says something like "For many years, people, well, laypeople, I should say, have put a good deal less than what one might call rigorous thought into the subject of baleen, which is the flexible filtering structure found in the mouths of certain species of whales."
And he goes on, in excess of five or more minutes, to describe the various uses of baleen, such as whips, corsets, and finally, tools to crease paper. And so to books, and to this bookstore, and to the fact that the door will be locked in a moment or two.

I loved that.

I've been here a long time, and I often do miss the old days.

If you have one, tell me a good Booksmith memory.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gotta Love Cosby!

This past week I stumbled over an interview with Bill Cosby on the Today Show. There were a lot of points of conversation in this video, but what I found interesting was Cosby's words of wisdom on reading. Cosby has always been a wonderful advocate on reading and for kids being kids, but his words will never grow old. Check it out.

But first, an old clip [btw, just substitute "Western Michigan" for "Boston"]:

Anyways, on the Today Show, the interview went from his death rumors to kids today. With so much technology in the world and overwhelming situations, what's a parent to to do? According to Cosby, "You say, look, you need to put this [the game] down for a little while. They'll be plenty of time for that. This is a thing that is called a book and we're going to read the book. Because, I've found that children given the opportunity to be taught correct behavior -- good behavior -- and an education love reading books. They LOVE it!"

All in all, kids who read feel wonderful about themselves. And, reading does not make victims, rather, it creates winners.

Today Show clip:

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Have book, will travel

I've got an eight hour train ride ahead of me this Thursday and I'm going to read "Moby Dick." I won't, as I usually do when I travel, bring seven different books, wind up reading only one and lug around the rest as dead weight in my bag. Okay, so maybe I'm bringing one other book but I can't help myself; I'm halfway through the second Steig Larsson book ("The Girl Who Played With Fire") and I know I'll need to indulge in that at some point. It's too delicious to leave behind.

Anyway, I was inspired to finally read the great Moby Dick by a conversation I had at the register with two fellow booksellers and an enthusiastic customer. Both the customer and my co-worker raved about Melville's story so much that it lit a fire in me and I decided to commit. I admit to being a little intimidated by the size, but size is nothing if you love a book. I was told that there might be some boring bits in the middle, but that overall the narrative is excellent. I think I can handle that. I love Dickens, after all.
Being a visual person, I was also swayed by the gorgeous Penguin edition with the awesome woodblock art on the cover. It's always nice to carry around a bit of art with you on your travels.

I really WANT to like Moby Dick. I'll report back after my trip and let you know how I feel about it. Sixteen hours on a train (to Washington, DC and back) should give me enough time to at least get halfway through.

Have a good week!

Monday, August 16, 2010


I'm very late to the Sporcle party.  I first heard about it at a family gathering a few weeks ago and was treated to a quiz or two.  Topics tend to be things you think you'll find easy.  Don't be so sure.  And in the way of new things, I've now stumbled upon it several times.  The most recent siting was in Shelf Awareness, a terrific book industry email newsletter, on Friday.   There was a link to a Sporcle quiz on identifying book titles by their covers.  Slam dunk, thought I.  Actually, there were two I couldn't get in the time allotted.  Sheesh.
There are other book quizzes which are great fun.  And lots of other fun stuff.  I know none of us do other than work stuff on work computers, but at home sometime, give Sporcle a try.   Or test your friends if you have one of those modern devices which connects you to the internet via a little thing you hold in your hand.  And speaking of modernity, I left my "how to link" instructions elsewhere, so must now advise you to Google Sporcle and Shelf Awareness.  Sorry.  I'll continue to work on my computer skills and memory.   Wish me luck.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cutting your bangs in a commercial means you are empowered.

There are currently two commercials wherein a young woman, as a gesture of agency and freedom with just a dash of whimsy, cuts her own bangs. The first is for the birth control Yaz, and the second is for Dove clinical strength deodorant. In both of these ads the young woman, empowered with the confidence and spontaneity inherent in a good smelling armpit and a vacant womb, decide the perfect expression and celebration of their acquisition is to cut their own bangs! Such free spirits!

I mean, it's great-- bangs...I have em, I support em... what have you...I just don't appreciate that they have become a symbol for female empowerment. I mean watching a lady leap triumphantly out of a voting booth probably wouldn't sell as much birth control , and seeing a woman freezing her eggs to pursue a career in engineering probably wouldn't inspire many teens to buy floral anti-perspirant but there must be a middle ground....sigh.

I just finished reading Women Food and God by Geneen Roth. http://www.brooklinebooksmith-shop.com/book/9781416543077

I was reluctant to read it, but Oprah insisted and I didn't want to be on her bad side again, so I bought it. It was unreal. It was the most moving, challenging and insightful book I have ever read that deals with women and their relationship with consumption. I normally shudder at the thought of new-agey self-helpy books, but Roth split my mind open. I often think that women, myself included, spend too much energy trying to fix something that isn't broken; worrying about weight. Roth reminds us that we don't have to go to India to be more mindful, and that our relationship with hunger and satiety is a direct correlative of our core beliefs, attitude and relationship with life.

So, instead of cutting your bangs- pick up this book and start a truly empowering personal coup against the diet industry. Eat when you are hungry- stop when you are full. The new feminism.

Friday, August 13, 2010

it doesn't matter what they read.

You can work in a good bookstore and turn into a real book snob. It's hard not to, in fact.
You work all day to find the best book for person after person, trying to make that connection. Part of that job becomes steering people away from lesser books in order to get them into greater ones; part of the job is spotting the books that you don't have to read because you've read them before, or ones so like them that you get sick of the site of that cookie cutter outline. And publishers help you out with their cover designs, they really do, thanks guys.
Posers seem to wear a certain style of jacket, you know?

But work in a good bookstore long enough and you start to move past that. Sure, I try just as hard to get Petterson and Ormondroyd into people's hands, but I no longer let someone's decision to walk out with a dragon tattoo on the crack of their breaking dawn get me down.
And, as a lot of parents would probably attest, this is one change of perspective that has been aided by lessons taught to me by my children.
Jackson has taught me that just because all of the flaps and pull-tabs have been ripped out, that doesn't mean a book is dead. We've had a copy of Maisy on the Farm for most of his almost four years, and he has gutted it. There is not an interactive bone left in this lift-the-flap/pull-the-tab disaster area. But he still pulls it off the shelf at bedtime like it's a long lost friend, and dutifully, lovingly, pretends to go through every motion.
And now little Libbie has taught me that IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT THEY READ. She loves her brother's old board books, especially a sweet little one about a train.
Jack is a born train freak. It's genetic. One day he saw a picture of a train and he was a goner. I don't even think he had ever ridden on one yet. It was this obsession, waiting, coiled in his cortex, and when it sprung, or sprang, it stayed that way. And Libbie has adopted it. She'll flip through the pages, and each time she sees that little shiny black train rolling through the fields, she'll jab her forefinger on or near it, look into your face, contract her brow, and BELLOW.

Who knows if she even really likes trains? She's reading it for the same reason that this customer just bought the first Stieg Larsson...because everyone else has. For the same reason the Stephenie Meyer's books are read...because everyone else reads them. In her case, everyone else is Jack, Jess, and I. She can follow our lead for as long as she wants, because I believe that someday a page will turn and she'll read some words that will act like a big vaudeville hook, and they'll jerk her off track and onto a whole new reading journey.

And it will happen for everyone, and it might happen for you if you'll just take my damn word for it and read David and the Phoenix right now, today.
Or Fathers and Crows.
Or Tropic of Capricorn.
Or Lucky Jim.
Or Small Lives.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bedtime! (but I wanted to...)

Life is full of interruptions. Guess what? So are some books.

Check out these new picturebook titles released just this week:

Read to Tiger by S.J. Fore and illustrated by R.W. Alley

How can this boy ever finish his book with a tiger who practices his karate, dresses up like a bear, and rides a train around the couch? It's one interruption after another.

The first time I read this book, I could not contain my laughter! The antics of this playful tiger and this boy's determination to finish his book is too good to pass up.

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

Little Red Chicken knows his bedtime stories so well that he keeps interrupting his father. It's not to be rude or anything, but he believes he's saving the characters -- like Little Red Riding Hood and Chicken Little -- from dangers that lay ahead. But, will this chicken ever go to sleep? After all, he "can't go to sleep without a story!"

Monday, August 9, 2010

Blue Hour Press

fr. their website: "Blue Hour is dedicated to bridging the gap between the beauty and tradition of print with the accessibility and possibility of the web, releasing digital chapbooks that are satisfying, respectable, and innovative."

I love Blue Hour. Such craftsmanship and dedication! Such spot-on, excellent, and witty spurts of writing. I cry tears of blood whenever they release a new title. They are that good. Here are a few of my favorites:

{click for fullscreen view!}

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Jabberwocky, Because It Matters...


Just seemed like a nice day to revisit this. It might be important for the cultural moment. Sigh.

Friday, August 6, 2010

On Being Young and Writing

In the next few months we have two authors from The New Yorker's Top 20 Under 40 list coming to read. Gary Shteyngart is hitting the Coolidge on September 15th, and Dinaw Mengestu comes to the store on October 25th.

Both of them are wonderful writers, and I'm as thrilled as a very thrilled person to get to see them read. But the whole 20 under 40 thing (20 writers under 40 years old) has me thinking. What role does age play in writing? Should it play a role at all?

Unlike music, writing has no real prodigies. If you search online, you can find videos of Yo Yo Ma playing his cello at an age where a full-size cello would dwarf him. But if you publish a great book when you're 21 (as James Joyce did) you're considered a boy-genius. Forty is still very young in book years. And for 30, I think the technical term is whipper-snapper.

There's something comforting about this. It's hard to become a pop-star if you're past your 20's. You can't become an NBA player if you start practicing after you turn 18. I remember when I passed the point where I realized that getting into the Olympics would never be an option for me (although from my high school wrestling career, this had really been obvious to everyone for quite some time). However, the shelves of our store are full of books by people who put pen to paper after having retired or started and quit careers. There are slews of parents, grandparents with debut novels and short-story collections. Writing is an exercise that promises to grow with you and that always remains open.

But why, then, do we seem to prize youth in writing, when it has no effect on the quality of the books? Why does the publisher see the need to clarify on a dust jacket that the author was born in 1978, when if they were born in 1958, their age would not be included? Do we hold young authors to different standards? Should we?

And what do you do if, like me, you're still at that awkward stage of life where having the skills to write a strong book is extremely rare? With every year that passes, I get closer to the deadline for writing prodigies. Am I doing enough to get there fast enough? Should I even be worried about that? One of the 20 under 40 is younger than me already. Will I see the age of 40 some day whiz by and shatter my dreams of being a New Yorker prodigy the same way 22 shattered my dreams of being an Olympian (only with much more effort on my part)?

I don't know, really. There's no way to tell if what you write will ever make a splash. And even if you did know, there would be no way to tell whether it would make a splash at 30 or 40 or 70 or 90 or perhaps after you're already gone, as it did for Dickinson or, more recently, Steig Larsson.

But there's something comforting about that too, if you think about it. And if I do enjoy reading work by young authors, maybe it's because I get to see them growing too, in the same way that I know my work is growing. And maybe the authors who do make it to the limelight when they're young are lucky in that they don't need to have that anxiety any more. They've made it. They're safe, like the kids who sit down first in a game of musical chairs.

But I wonder if they don't have their own anxieties to deal with. Perhaps they struggle with the idea of being a "young writer." When that phrase becomes ceaselessly attached to your work, does it color the way people view your work? How does one write under the burden of being a talented young writer? For Shteyngart and Mengestu, the answer seems to be "very very well," but I wonder how many young writers have been scuttled by worrying over that phrase.

There's so much worry to be had with all of this writing business. So much anxiety for such a massive leap of faith. It's a shame I love books and words so much. Otherwise, I would forget all about this and just work on power-walking instead. Who knows? I could be an Olympian yet.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


The new Clementine book is here! For those of you not familiar with this curly-orange-haired third grader, just picture Ramona Quimby with ADHD!

Clementine is the kind of kid who has a talent for trouble. She is constantly being told to pay attention, but who can with so many new ideas and interesting things everywhere? She never means to cause uproars, she just finds herself in the midst of them. And, in this new book, she definitely has her share of dilemas. But, she learns that people see past her antics and can see her for who she really is.

Clementine is one character who is on my must read list for every kid (and adult). Typically though, I don’t just-simply recommend my favorites. Why? Because as great as a particular novel may be, it may not fit what the child needs or wants to experience.

That’s why, when I am handselling, I ask about the person the book(s) is for (What do they like? Not like? What books have previously interested them?). To me, it’s not a book to sell. It’s the book, because I want my customers to walk away with the right book for its recipient. Evan was right, our business is people, not just books.

So, why should Clementine make her way to everyone’s reading list? She holds a universal truth… No one is perfect. It’s what you do with your antics, talents, and mistakes that matter.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I like birds

I like birds. This is a fact. (This is also the name of a great song by the Eels, which you can listen to here while you read.)

On Mondays I volunteer at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln. I work in the Wildlife Care center where we feed and clean up after a couple of woodchucks, a baby opossum, two rabbits, numerous (and always multiplying) mice, several ducks, turtles, a crow and a raven. In addition, we take care of the raptors and other birds on Bird Hill, a collection of injured and rehabilitated birds that live year round in the sanctuary. And this is the best part for me. This is when I get to be up close and personal with three barred owls, two red-tailed hawks, a tiny yet vocal kestrel, a great horned owl and a pair of suspicious broad winged hawks. Oh, and there's also a crafty and watchful turkey vulture who peacefully cohabitates with a pheasant (who is much like a chicken, but has a screech that'll startle the pants off you if you aren't expecting it,) and a talkative crow who craves meal worms and has been there for decades. How I love "my" birds!

Yesterday I hand-fed one of the barred owls. This is unusual for an owl, if you know anything about owls, but this one is used to humans and allows us to be a little familiar with him. What an utter delight it was to hold a dead mouse up to his beak as he gently leaned in to take it from my somewhat tentative hand. I never thought I'd be casually handling dead mice but if you work with birds, that's part of the job. I suppose for some that's the gross-out part of working with animals, besides the copious amount of waste they produce (especially ducks,) but one gets used to it pretty quickly.

Bringing this blog post around to books, I credit Wesley the Owl with preparing me for this volunteer gig. In this fine and excellent book, which I've been recommending for years, Stacey O'Brien describes in beautiful detail the daily life of a barn owl, including what he eats and how to prepare it. For you more squeamish readers I won't go into detail, but let's just say that our fine feathered friends eat rodents and sometimes these mice have to be in...small pieces.

I felt so in-the-know on my first day when the staff explained the diet and feeding process for the birds. I already knew! I was then surprised to learn that not a one had read the book, but by the end of the day I think I'd sold a few of them on it. It's actually not a hard sell. The book is just wonderful.

"Wesley the Owl" also inspired me to pursue volunteering in the first place. I was thinking of that as I drove home yesterday afternoon, kind of marveling at it. One day I pick up a copy of a book with a cute bird on the cover, a year or two later I'm in a cage with a beautiful owl learning to trust him just as much as he's learning to trust me.

Monday, August 2, 2010

We don't sell books.

I'm going to tell you a secret. Our business is not selling books.

I realize that's a book you have in your hand. And yes, I know you bought it from us. Okay, so you're on page 253...and how did you get to page 253 without buying a book, and how did you buy the book if we don't sell books? Yes, it's a fair argument to make.

Well, we do sell books. But it's not our business.

And in your heart of hearts, you know it's not our business. And you like what is our business enough to support us. And I find that so groovy it hurts.

We're just like that indie coffee shop that makes a mean mocha and even draws a leaf in the foam. But really, their business isn't selling coffee.

Or we're like that weird vintage store where you cannot find a blow-up poster of a model wearing low-rise jeans to save your life, but you can ask the clerk for a recommendation, and she will give you a hat that fits your head so well that you forget you're wearing it when you go to bed.

We're like a certain theater that still reminds you, before you even cross the lobby, what makes going to the movies special.

We're like a pizza parlor where the owner will sit down and have a soda with you so he can tell you a story while you eat (Richie's in Washington Square, you have my undying pizza devotion).

The thing is, I grew up in a world of chain stores and strip-malls. I remember sitting on the hood of my parent's car in a Target parking lot, arguing with my friends about what we could do and coming to the answer that we could go to the mall or do nothing. And we hated the mall so much by that point that we chose nothing. We spent more hours talking as the sun went down, then piling in the car and going to IHop for breakfast, because it was midnight, and that's what you did at midnight in suburban Arizona.

The thing that makes big stores appealing is what makes them terrible. The sameness of everything. In the south of France, I have sought out McDonald's because I knew their bathrooms would be the same as the ones in America (no hole in the ground will do to receive the remnants of a Big Mac, those chemicals that cannot be digested).

But growing up, I could drive to any number of stores. And they all felt exactly the same. It didn't matter if they had books on their shelves or groceries or electronics or bedding. I could talk to someone with a crisp polo shirt, who would sell me whatever product they had and then try to sell me insurance for it and a special credit card and an extra large popcorn rather than a large or a small (Only fifty cents more. You'd be an idiot not to). I have sold such things in such shirts. Back then my business was selling.

Even our houses, where I lived, were all the same--built to one design: house after house after house. Cookie-cutters.

At one point, my family moved. Not far, but far enough for me to find a store that mattered, someplace interesting. The first day I visited Changing Hands, I spent 100 dollars on books and lit mags. I didn't particularly need either (I have never needed more books in the strictest sense). But I was overjoyed, and I felt richer than I was. I asked the people behind the counter what they recommended and they said names I didn't know. I asked them what they thought of a book in my hand, and they told me they didn't care for it, but that they knew other booksellers who did. I bought a small muffin from their cafe, and they did not offer me an up-sized coffee or an insurance plan.

And I spent hours there, just browsing and reading and knowing that I was somewhere important, someplace that didn't just sell books like they were boxes of cereal or used cars.

I love my neighborhood in Boston. I can get everything I need from people who are there for more than just selling, whose business is people, whose business is making a unique and authentic experience.

And I love that you love my neighborhood too. And my store. And my business.

(Oh, but by the way, we do still sell books...so come here for books too.)

Moby Dick v. Moby Dick

Moby Dick vs. Moby Dick. One is a conceptual masterpiece that transcends all definitions of modern art. The other is a remarkable book written by Herman Melville. Head to head, how do these two behemoths of the western canon stack up? J.P. Jones is, well, any other character everyone, too, forgets about, like Stubb. Jimmy Page could wine and dine the pants of Captain Ahab (plus Page has two fully functioning legs). 'Gonzo' Bonham IS the Whale for crying out loud. And Robert Plant vs. Ishmael is a push.

This would all imply that Robert Plant was deathly afraid of being swallowed up by either Bonham himself, Bonham's drum kit, or Bonham's drumming. Possible, but quite unlikely. No clear-cut winner here.

Moby Dick the book gets a few points for its harsh depictions of good & evil through various macro- and micro-battles (Man vs Nature, Ahab vs Handicap Accessibility, etc) But "Moby Dick" the song comes back hard with a drum solo, especially in live versions, that brutally, yet majestically, beats the battle of life or death down to a meager 23 chromosomes. Bonham's kick drum and toms are like the very wombs that bring forth life. Yet the man ended up drinking himself silly. Like the mighty whale, his own exuberance was his downfall. If only the two could've learned to chill out once in a while, or channeled their rage. Then again, no whale, no story. No rum for the drummer, no drum solo of life. Still have to call this even.

That being said, Moby Dick the book boasts quite a wildcard in the character of Queequeg. He is the savage royal descendant who's more christian than the christians. I'm not quite sure who Queequeg would represent to Led Zeppelin. Maybe The Who or later on, Jethro Tull. Both of whom appeared to be quite unique in their approach yet in the end could bring the thunder with the best of 'em. The Who & Tull, like Queequeg had a dark, serious core sandwiched with two slices of raucous humor. Neither displayed any inhibitions. Still a toss-up.

Reading Moby Dick is equally as enjoyable as listening to, or even viewing (as is the case when watching the live footage from the concert film "The Song Remains The Same" complete with the 'Bonham Dream-Sequence') "Moby Dick".

In terms of size, Moby Dick the book clocks in at 864 pages (Modern Library Ed.). "Moby Dick" the song, if you were to transcribe it on paper, and have Rockwell Kent, too, display its beauty through block prints, would end up being (roughly) seven volumes with each volume totaling just a shade under 960 pages each (according to an MIT logarithm).

Bingo! We have a winner. "Moby Dick" the song (live, or otherwise) is better, though not by much, than Moby Dick the book.

So there you have it. Though not in the most well laid out manner (i'm typing this while sitting awkwardly in a chair in the one corner of my house that gets Wi-Fi), hopefully I have laid the groundwork for quite the discussion.

forgive me handsome sir...

I was shelving with about 60lbs worth of hardcovers in my arms when I saw a tall handsome fella browsing my section. As any red blooded American coward would do I weaseled over his way to feign shelving for that section. When I looked over his shoulder, I saw that he was reading from a Nook. You know, B&N's answer to the kindle. My heart skipped a beat and I thought to myself...."why is it always the pretty ones?" nah-- what I really thought was..."say something say something!" so I said something. This is how the conversation unfolded.

me- Oh hi! (bats eyelashes a little too ardently) are you browsing from our aisles and buying from them? (chin pointing to his device since hands are holding 60lbs of books)

handsome- uh, (long uncomfortable pause) I guess so...

me- so the thing is, we want you here and all, but if you don't buy from us it'll be hard to provide you with this browsing opportunity you seem to be getting a lot out of...

(ok I didn't say that)

I really said...

"if you only buy from them-- stores like this could go away"

handsome- (nods head a bit too rapidly, smiles (sigh)) and says --

yea, I know

And so I waited till he went downstairs (to presumably get away from me...) before I shuffled over to Paul to recount the affair (in 3 minutes or less Dana I swear)

Progress is good. Change is good. Technology is good.

Awareness is great.

Being aware of the people around you, how they are surviving, how they buy their food, keep themselves clothed---these are the details that matter....how we live. Your money is your vote.

thanks for your support.

(I promise my next post will be less commerce-y)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

See you in September.

Today is the day that tickets for our September events at the Coolidge Corner Theatre go on sale!

Gary Shteyngart
Wednesday, September 15 at 6 p.m.

Per Petterson
Thursday, September 16 at 6 p.m.

William Gibson
Wednesday, September 22 at 6 p.m.

Michele Norris
Thursday, September 23 at 6 p.m.

Tickets are $5 each. You can purchase them by calling 617.566.6660 or dropping by our front register.

And all of our September listings are up - check 'em out here. Among the highlights: Booksmith's very own Ric Amante!

Box O' Books

Each year around this time, my sibs and families gather in Ipswich, Ma. where our Dad lives. Everyone but me lives in Virginia except one niece and family (newest member born 7/28!) in Atlanta. It's precious time and, nowadays, about the only time we're all together. There are numerous traditions we observe. One is the box o' books I bring for everyone to sift through.

The books are galleys or ARCs (advanced reading copies) sent out by publishers to get some buzz going on upcoming titles. Friends and family love this jump on the general reading public. They also get a kick out of seeing what a not yet fully edited book is like - makes we who are not editors feel good about our grammar and punctuation skills. All enjoy starting our own predictions of the next notable titles and then watching to see if they pan out. It's a fun benefit of knowing someone in the book biz.

My brother likes Bill Bryson's upcoming At Home which is full of amazing word derivations based on homes of long ago. And, being by Bryson, the book is hilarious, as well. A fave of my sister-in-law (such a wierd term - she's really just a dear sister - no law required), is Gail Caldwell's exquisite new memoir, Let's Take The Long Way Home. I also loved it and you can hear the author read and discuss the book at our store on Tues. , Aug. 17 at 7:00 p.m. - no tickets needed.

Yay! I learned how to link! And in the process noted two fine books about "home" which brings me right back to being with family. Excellent.