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The Written Nerd

Confessions of an independent bookseller and unrepentant book nerd

Updated: 2017-10-01T05:27:47.016-04:00


Moving On, Moving Over


Dear readers of The Written Nerd, if there are any of you still out there,

As you may have noticed, I haven't posted anything here in almost six months. This blog served a great purpose for me for five long years -- from October 2005, when I declared my geeky book and bookstore love and my quixotic intention to open a bookstore. As you know if you've been reading me, that dream has come true. Which means any blogging time and energy I had is now dedicated to the bookstore. And to a degree, it also means that I don't need this outlet for my thoughts about book culture anymore, since I have coworkers and customers and a whole industry with which to explore them. Not to mention that there's a whole new generation of book bloggers who have a lot more interesting things to say!

So I'm officially signing off from The Written Nerd. This means two things:

1) If you are a publicist, please don't send books to The Written Nerd anymore. I get far more books than I could ever read through the bookstore (you can contact me there if you'd like to send me something or get in touch). If I do get books send to The Written Nerd, I'll know you're not actually reading my blog.

2) I'm still reading books, and I'd still like to talk about them, but in a much more low-key way. So I've started a Tumblr blog called A Small Book of Books, after the tiny notebook my first boss and mentor Toby used to record his reading. Feel free to read along.

Thanks to all of you whom I connected with through this blog -- I'm so glad you've been part of my life, and I love where we're all going!

2010 Year-End Roundup, and a Call for Ideas


Here are all the books I read (that I know of) in 2010, in crude alphabetical order. This doesn't include children's picture books, cookbooks, single-issue comics, magazines, or uh, the Internet. My own personal Best of the Year are highlighted in bold. And thanks to the superquick book search on (where, ahem, you can purchase any and all of these titles), you get pictures! The call for ideas is at the end.A. D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld (reviewed)Agents of Atlas by Jeff Parker and Leonard Kirk (reviewed)Air, Volume 2: Flying Machine by G. Willow Wilson & M.K. Parker (reviewed)Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly (reviewed)Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka, J. H. Williams, and Dave Stewart (reviewed)The Box of Delights by John Masefield: A Christmas book, quintessentially English in a Narnia kind of way, dreamy and eccentric and magical and stiff-upper-lip. Practically perfect.Cowboy Ninja Viking Volume 1 by AJ Lieberman & Riley Rossmo (reviewed)Folly by Marthe Jocelyn (reviewed)Freakangels, Volume 1 by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield (reviewed)Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel (reviewed)A God Somewhere by John Arcudi, Peter Snejbjerg, & Bjarne Hansen (reviewed)Half Empty by David Rakoff (reviewed)Hellboy: The Wild Hunt by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegred0 (artist) (reviewed)Hellcity: The Whole Damned Thing by Macon Blair & Joe Flood (reviewed)Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch (reviewed)The Hipless Boy: Short Storiesby Sully(reviewed)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (reviewed) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (reviewed) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (reviewed)I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly & JM Ken Niimura (reviewed)I Thought My Father Was God edited by Paul Auster (reviewed)Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan Howard (reviewed)Kill Shakespeare Vol. 1: A Sea of Troubles By Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col, and Andy Belanger: Hamlet, Richard, Juliet, Othello and everyone else converge in one world, and everyone's trying to get at a wizard named Shakespeare. Bloody and weird, but not too heavy to be lighthearted fun.Kraken by China Mieville (reviewed)The Madman of Venice by Sophie Masson (reviewed)Market Day by James Sturm (reviewed)The Midnight Folk by John Masefield (reviewed)The Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner (reviewed) Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (reviewed)New Orleans, Mon Amour by Andrei Codrescu (reviewed)Octopus Pie: There Are No Stars in Brooklyn by Meredith Gran (reviewed)Odd Is On Our Side by Dean Koontz, Fred Van Lente & Queenie Chan (reviewed)Old Mr. Flood by Joseph Mitchell (reviewed) Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley (reviewed)The Passage by Justin Cronin (reviewed)Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie (reviewed)The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (reviewed)Rasl Pocket Book One by Jeff Smith (reviewed)Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (reviewed)Scott Pilgrim Volume 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O'Malley (reviewed)The Sheriff of Yrnameer by Michael Rubens (reviewed)Superman: For Tomorrow Volume 1 and Volume 2 y Brian Azzarello (writer), Jim Lee, and Scott Williams (artists) (reviewed)The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel (reviewed)Summerland by Michael Chabon (reviewed)The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (reviewed)The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht (reviewed)Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham (reviewed)Two Cents Plain by Martin Lemelman (reviewed)The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris (reviewed)A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (reviewed)Werewolves of Montpelier by Jason (reviewed)What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (reviewed)When You Were A Tadpole And I Was A Fish by Martin Gardner (reviewed)Y: The Last Man, Volume 7: Paper Dolls by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Pia Guerra (artist) (reviewed)You Were Wrong by Matthew Sharpe (reviewed)(plus rereads, not reviewed: Scott Pilgrim 1-5 by Bryan Lee O'Malley, The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright, Take T[...]

All the Rest of the Books I Read This Year


Okay, so perhaps I was slightly overambitious, or just unorganized, thinking I would write about every book I read this year in order. Even though I felt like I didn't read nearly as much as I wanted to / ought to this year, the pile of read books grew much faster than my time to write about them (or inspiration to do so). So here's what I didn't get to write about before, but did read -- I can't remember any longer which order they went in, and the shortness that this last-minute approach will require does a disservice to some truly wonderful works, but there you go.To save time and space, instead of including pictures I've added links to the book detail page on whenever available, if you want to see a picture or read more about the book.Before the end of this month, I'll post the complete list of what I read this year, highlighting my own personal best-ofs, with links to where I wrote about them. Here goes the last round!A. D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh NeufeldThis falls in the "why did it take so long for me to listen when everyone I respect raved about this book" category. Neufeld's research is amazing, his characters compelling, his pictures of New Orleans before, during and after Katrina are cleanly, simply drawn but dead-on accurate (the ALP and I did some real-life comparisons to a couple of French Quarter bars), and I came out of this with a better understanding of the events of 2005 than I'd ever had before.Agents of Atlas by Jeff Parker and Leonard KirkThe ALP tossed this one on my lap recently when I needed bedtime reading. A great little "superhero team" adventure comic, with some unexpected twists and an Asian American hero -- great fun, especially if you're familiar with the Marvel Universe.Cowboy Ninja Viking Volume 1by AJ Lieberman & Riley RossmoThe premise is high concept ridiculous; the plot is nigh incomprehensible. But you cannot resist. One man; three personalities; three fighting styles; an evil corporation that trained him to kill; endless silly banter; crazy (literally) fight scenes. Awe. Some.Half Empty by David RakoffI felt as though my brain were getting sharper taking in Rakoff's wit and insight, at the same time I was melting with laughter. One of my favorite nonfiction books of the year, with Rakoff's cutting yet deeply compassionate take on everything from Rent to the Disney "Innoventions" house to his own cancer. And he is the nicest man in the world in real life. Read it!Hellcity: The Whole Damned Thing by Macon Blair & Joe FloodI've been waiting for this since the first half was published years ago by an itty bitty indie comics company. It's a noir set in Hellcity (which resembles New York in August, except with more demons) and Heaventown (which resembles Bedford Falls or some other imagination of Upstate New York in the spring). It's got rock and roll, battles between good and evil, love, redemption, and getting slapped with fishes. It is one of the best undiscovered comic books I know.Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry DeutschHooray for this book! I've never read fiction set among Orthodox Jews so insightful and entertaining. Eleven-year-old Mirka's troubles with boring chores and conflicts with her (ultimately nurturing and wise) stempother, as well as her epic knitting battle with a troll and the trickster move she learns to defeat it, feel both universal and unique. Great stuff in the world of appropriate-for-kids comics.The Hipless Boy: Short Stories by SullyI thought I understood this book when I thought it was autobiographical short cartoon pieces; upon finding out it's fiction I find it kind of rambling and unfocused, and frankly odd. Clever and sometimes poignant, but not exactly my thing. (And I find it kind of annoying when characters who have art-star friends and hang out in lofts complain of their lack of hipness. Like whatever.)The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsHoly cow.The Hunger Games: Catching Fire by Suzanne CollinsOh my gosh it gets better[...]

BBC Top 100


Aw, thanks, Russel. Now obviously the ALP and I had to test our mettle against this list. Next, I hope to post a list of this year's books.Instructions: Copy this into your NOTES. Bold those books you've read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started but didn't finish or read an excerpt. Tag other book nerds. Tag me as well so I can see your responses...1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen JSB, MJB2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien JSB3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte/b> JSB, MJB4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling (all)5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee JSB, MJB6 The Bible JSB (MJB)7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte MJB8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell JSB, MJB9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman JSB10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens JSB, MJB11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott JSB12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller MJB14 Complete Works of Shakespeare JSB, MJB15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier JSB, MJB16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien JSB17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger JSB, MJB19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger20 Middlemarch – George Eliot JSB, MJB21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald JSB, MJB23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens MJB24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams MJB26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh JSB27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky MJB28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck MJB29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll JSB, MJB30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame JSB, MJB31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy MJB32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens MJB33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis JSB34 Emma – Jane Austen JSB, MJB35 Persuasion – Jane Austen JSB, MJB36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis JSB, MJB37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere JSB39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne JSB41 Animal Farm – George Orwell JSB, MJB42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown MJB43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins MJB46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery JSB47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood MJB49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding JSB, MJB50 Atonement – Ian McEwan MJB51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel52 Dune – Frank Herbert53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen JSB, MJB55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon JSB57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens JSB, MJB58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley JSB, MJB59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon JSB60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez JSB61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck MJB62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov MJB63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt MJB64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold JSB65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas MJB66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac JSB, MJB67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding JSB69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville JSB, MJB71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens MJB72 Dracula – Bram Stoker JSB, MJB73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett JSB74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson75 Ulysses – James Joyce76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath JSB77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome JSB78 Germinal – Emile Zola MJB79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray MJB80 Possession – AS Byatt JSB, MJB81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens JSB, MJB82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell JSB83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro MJB85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert JSB, MJB86 A Fi[...]

Hey, Joe.


Joe Drabyak died on Friday. Long live Joe Drabyak.

I'm having a hard time getting my head around this. I sat next to Joe at a dinner in April. We compared notes on the appetizer. Everyone said he looked a little skinny but he brushed it off. That was only four months ago.

Forgive the maudlin bits for a moment. I can hear exactly how Joe said the phrase "Noir Bar." I can hear the way he would start a sentence hesitantly, as though it was just coming to him, and then deliver an idea so fluid and articulate it was clear he'd either just rehearsed the whole thing in his head, or he'd known exactly what he thought for a long time.

He presided over the meetings of the NAIBA board in a manner that was truly presidential: that is, he listened to everybody else. He was the voice of reason when things got heated. He wasn't afraid of new ideas, but he was a great respecter of everyone's concerns.

One of the ideas he supported was Emerging Leaders. He was a natural mentor to me and a lot of younger booksellers (as others have expressed), so the idea of providing a network for their education and support must have made sense to him. But that didn't stop him from teasing us about it. He wouldn't stop referring to himself and other over-40 booksellers as "Declining Leaders," despite my embarrassed protests.

What I'm sure he knew, despite his characteristic jokiness, was that that's not how we thought of him. He was an Established Leader. He was what we aspired to. He wasn't a store owner, he was a masterful professional bookseller, embodying everything we hoped to become.

He always joked, though. I think he joked most when things were serious. His emails after his diagnosis had us cracking up through our tears. There were a lot of groaners -- bad puns and silly costumes. That was part of the style. It must have been what made him such a good handseller on the bookstore floor -- he was like an old vaudevillian, making himself look goofy and winning everyone over.

I want him to be the Quizmaster for literary trivia again. I want him to be able to read all the book he ran out of time for. I want to ask him about the book that changed his life, about why he became a bookseller, about what he thought about on his solitary smoke breaks, about why he wasn't afraid. I didn't even know him that well.

I know what he wanted, though. He wanted to be Joe. And he is.

Someone who lives a life in books can hardly deny that some characters, some creators, live a long time after their deaths. Joe Drabyak put too much of his exuberant life in too many places for him to disappear. He helped create a new generation of booksellers. He taught us ideas and practices that will take on lives of their own. Not to mention his name lives on attached to characters in more than half a dozen mystery novels. I can imagine him twinkling about that, another great joke.

Hey, Joe. We miss you already. I hope we can live up to what you offered us.

Long live Joe.

A Pitch to Booksellers: The Fall Conference


We interrupt our sporadically scheduled book reviews to bring you this highly personal pitch, from me (Jessica/Book Nerd) to the booksellers of New York City and the mid-Atlantic region.I have to advocate for things I am passionate about -- if you're a bookseller you can probably sympathize. I wanted to make sure that you know all about the Fall Conference, this September 21 and 22, hosted by the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA). Like a mini-BEA or Winter Institute, the conference brings together booksellers and publishers from the mid-Atlantic region for professional education, networking, and book buzz to prepare us for the fall season in our stores. The cost is membership in NAIBA, which is $100 per store for a year, plus meals and hotel; discounted hotel rates are available (the conference is in Atlantic city, a cheap bus ride away). You can get all of the details about the conference here.I went to my first NAIBA conference when I had worked in a Manhattan bookstore for a couple of years, and it literally changed my life. The experience of being a part of the professional community of booksellers, and learning the best practices of the industry, as well as encountering publishers and authors face to face, gave me a new perspective on the work that I was doing. I wasn't just a retail clerk and shelver who loved to read -- I was part of a larger profession, and I had the potential to build a career and contribute to the industry conversation. I went back full of ideas for my store, and with some new thoughts about my future career.Not every frontline bookseller who goes to the NAIBA conference will want to go on to start their own store, but every bookseller has the potential to get something valuable out of it -- for their bookstore's success, their own career, and the future of our business. The education sessions we have lined up for this year (yes, I'm on the NAIBA board) are both inspiring and practical. And the opportunity to talk to other booksellers and publishers always leads to revelations about what we're all doing well and what we could be doing better. It's a great opportunity for store owners to get rejuvenated, and possibly an even better opportunity for staff to pick up new ideas that will make them better booksellers in the long term.I know it's a challenge to find the time, dollars, and scheduling flexibility to go to a two-day conference (we're sending three booksellers from Greenlight, and it has been logistically kind of tough.) So I want to tell you about three things that might make it a little easier, whether you're an owner or a frontline bookseller.1) Publishers are offering a total of 4 scholarships for frontline booksellers, which will cover all of the event/meal tickets for the conference. It's a random drawing, so drop your name (or a staffer's name) in the hat -- details here.2) NAIBA has changed its bylaws to allow professional booksellers whose stores are not members of NAIBA to join the association with a $25 membership. If you are a bookseller who would like to be part of this professional community but your store is just not into it, you can now take things into your own hands and come to the conference on your own at a reduced rate. Email NAIBA's executive secretary Eileen Dengler to learn more.3) If you are coming to the conference and you want to split hotel costs with someone, email me and I will try to hook you up with a fellow bookseller to share a room. No promises that things will work out, but we're all in this together and we can do our best to make it work.Okay, pitch over. Feel free to comment here or email me if you have questions, objections, thoughts, or ideas. I hope to see many of you at the Fall Conference, as well as in our stores this fall![...]

July comics roundup


There is a disturbingly large and teetering pile of books on a chair in my kitchen. They are books that I have read in the last couple of months, that I hope to one day get around to writing up for this blog. Many of them deserve lots of thought, ideally before I forget the reading experience. Also, maybe 50% of the pile is comics -- because I read them faster than straight prose, or because my reading is getting decadently image-dependent, or because it's summer and comics are my beach reading, I don't know. Anyway, despite the fact that several of these are serious books that could totally justify their own post, I'm throwing them together in a roundup, in the interest of getting them off the stack and saving the legs of my kitchen chair.Superman: For TomorrowVolume 1 and Volume 2By Brian Azzarello (writer), Jim Lee, and Scott Williams (artists)The ALP, a much more serious comics reader than I, is of the opinion that this one-shot Superman story is about how scary Superman could get if Lois Lane wasn't around for him to care about -- which would explain why some villain hasn't actually offed her, since no one could deal with the destructive power of a Superman unhinged by grief. I'll take his word for it. While this one had some good moments (especially one mind-bending moment of moral complication when Superman admits he could cure someone's cancer, but won't) I found it whizzed by pleasantly and at the end I wasn't sure how the problem (lots of people have disappeared with no physical trace) actually got solved -- it just always does get solved when it's Superman, dunnit? It's fun to read a superhero comic with a beginning and an end, but this one was a bit forgettable for my snobby literary tastes.A God Somewhereby John Arcudi (writer), Peter Snejbjerg, and Bjarne Hansen (artists)While this book is about the closest thing to a true masterpiece I have read in comics in ages, I will hesitate carefully before recommending it to readers. That's because it's also the most disturbing comic I have read in a long time -- the violence is bloody and has consequences, and the sheer existential chaos is unsettling, like reading about Columbine or Rwandan child soldiers. I actually thought about Columbine a couple of times while reading it, because the "why" of the horrors that happen is so unanswerable, in such a terribly familiar way. The premise: a happy-go-lucky, kind of slackerish dude finds that a catastrophic accident has left him with Superman-like (or God-like) powers; at first he performs some dramatic rescues, but the religious language he uses to describe his mission of good starts to sound a little crazy and he's acting kinda weird... and then he really snaps, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The narrator is the super-person's lifelong friend, an African-American journalist who covers the whole weird story; his character arc is rich and interesting too, a welcome human-scale drama running parallel to the sickening cosmic tragedy of the main story. Not for the squeamish, but I'd guess this book is going to become part of the conversation about "realistic" superheros, about the iconography of power and desire, and about the potential for what comics can do.Octopus Pie: There Are No Stars in Brooklynby Meredith GranHooray, comics about Brooklyn! I admit I was a leetle nervous that Octopus Pie would be too scene-y for my tastes (I think I remember picking up an earlier edition in an unbearably hip Williamsburg shop and putting it down again)... but this time around, it was funny and authentic and I was hooked. It's got that classic odd-couple charm: uptight, slightly surly Eve finds herself the housemate of superchill stoner entrepreneur Hanna (they were friends in kindergarten and their moms set them up), and wacky hijinks ensue. But, as ("Mr. Scott Pilgrim") Bryan Lee O'Malley observes about author Meredith Gran, "her jokes are a[...]

June YA Roundup


If I wrote these things more often I wouldn't have to cram multiples into one post, but my blogging is falling so far behind my reading I need to diminish the stack a bit. And I realize I've had a number of great YA reading experiences lately -- it's a category I don't read super-often, but that I tend to enjoy (if perhaps with an occasional smirk of superiority/relief that I am no longer a teen.)Follyby Marthe Jocelyn(Wendy Lamb Books, May 2010)This book and the following one I read "on assignment" -- I was asked to take part in a YA brainstorming conference call by our inimitable Random House children's book rep Lillian Penchansky, and these two books were our homework for the call. It was kind of a delight to plunge into something that I could read in a day, and the two works, while both historical fiction, were very different. Marthe Jocelyn's Folly was the better of the two -- the story of a 19th century British servant girl who gets knocked up by a dashing soldier (when that was both common and enough to ruin your life), it's told in first person by various characters whose dialects are both defamiliarizing and believable. The backstory of the book is fascinating too: Jocelyn found out that one of her ancestors grew up in a "foundling hospital" like the one in the story, and imagined his life and his mother's from there. Reading this led to a bunch of conversations about how of course, in whatever era you're born, you're a teenager and you're filled with desire, but in this era there's no sex ed and no birth control and no safety net -- in the case of a servant far from home, not even family or friends to take you in. I loved Mary Finn, smart and kind and resourceful but still screwed over; and I loved James, the boy in the foundling hospital whose story intertwines with hers -- his internal monologue contained some meditations on the lived experience of history that I wish I could quote (I gave my galley to a certain bookseller who is said to resemble the girl on the cover -- have to remember to ask her whether she liked it too.) And even the "cad" soldier, Caden, is sympathetic -- he's just a teen as well, and totally clueless about what to do. Though it's got no creatures of the night (as way too many YA novels seems to these days), this book is dark in the way real human life is dark -- recommended for the brave reader of any age, Folly is moving and eye-opening.The Madman of Veniceby Sophie Masson(Delacorte Books for Young Readers, August 2010)This book, while a charming adventure story with some resonant historical detail, reinforces my theory that YA is just where romance novels have migrated. Reading it had the slightly guilty pleasures of a historical romance: the dialogue is dramatic but not especially believable, the heroine is plucky, the hero is brave but tongue-tied about his passion for her, and it takes some life-threatening adventures to bring them together. Nevertheless, the context gives it some added weight: the British boy, girl, and chaperone are on a mission in Venice to thwart some pirates and find a missing girl, who happens to be a Jew from Venice's infamous Ghetto. There are echoes of Shakespeare's Shylock here, of course, and some not-too-heavyhanded analysis of what it meant to be a Jew in pre-Modern Europe. And yes, there are escapes by Gondola, fights in Venetian castellos, and enough twisted plots that the entire last chapter is devoted to explaining them. Great for a kid interested in this particular place and time, who doesn't mind some mushy stuff in between adventures.The Museum of Thievesby Lian Tanner(Delacorte Books for Young Readers, September 2010)This one is my favorite of the lot -- the kind of fantastic adventure I loved as a kid, that can still keep me glued to the couch on a beautiful weekend day, dead to the real world and immersed in the much more convincing world o[...]

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan


A Visit from the Goon Squadby Jennifer Egan(Knopf, June 9, 2010)Shop Indie BookstoresReading this book was a little like starting a conversation out of general politeness, and discovering that you're talking to someone you passionately want for a best friend.Jennifer Egan -- full disclosure -- is a friend and customer of Greenlight Bookstore. I'd hosted her before for events at other stores, and chatted with her and her kids at Greenlight, but to my own detriment I had never actually read any of her fiction. (Even though, as often seems to happen, it seems in retrospect like obviously the sort of thing I would like: the smart but not overtly political feminism of Look At Me, the Gothic nested stories of The Keep, etc. -- good storytelling in the service of big ideas, or vice versa, without sacrificing the one for the other.) It seemed like now would be the time to pick her up, though, since we're hosting her launch party for the book on Wednesday. So I opened the intriguingly titled A Visit From the Goon Squad earlier this spring.And found a new addition to my personal author pantheon.As I wrote for our recent staff picks email, A Visit From the Goon Squad is ostensibly (and quite effectively) about the world of rock music, and the intersections of the realms of commerce and creativity (and the dysfunctional folks who inhabit both). But it's really about life on Earth, in all its heartbreaking and maddening and rich and loveable complexity. It's about the mistakes of each generation, about being young and growing up, about adventure and domesticity, about interconnectivity and isolation, and (especially) about the brutality and kindnesses of time.And it doesn't hurt that it is structured in my favorite form: the novel as interlinked stories (cf. my pantheon authors David Mitchell, Charles Baxter, Joan Silber, and others). Some of those were published in the New Yorker -- trust me that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, though each story has its own poignant and complete miniature arc. One of them perfectly evokes being a young and foolish professional woman in New York City (ahem). One is written flawlessly from the perspective of a very young gay man, one about a record exec, several about the intersections of children who have grown up too fast and adults who are not very grown-up at all. One is composed of a series of PowerPoint slides and is alarmingly literate and moving. San Francisco, Italy, and Arizona make appearances, as do the 1970s, the 1990s, and a near-future that is the most believable I think I've ever read (wait till you learn what a "pointer" is). The meaning of the title is illusive, but when it hit me it hit hard, and shaped my understanding of the project of the novel in the way the best titles can do.And did I mention the damn thing is funny, too? Apparently Jennifer Egan is one of those rare authors who can quite literally do anything.I have already seen Jennifer post-Goon Squad reading, and gotten out of the way my mumbled fangirl admiration. Luckily she seems as delighted at how it came out as her readers will, and is in fact the sort of kind and smart and idealistic and charming author that you hope to find at the other end of your favorite novels.So, obviously, go out first thing tomorrow morning when it goes on sale and get yourself a copy of A Visit From the Goon Squad. Then, come out on Wednesday night and drink wine with the author. If these heights of happiness are not feasible for you, just get your hands on the book as soon as you can, and then find me so we can talk about it. In the meantime, I'm going to need to go back and read everything Jennifer Egan has ever written.[...]

The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel


The Singer's Gunby Emily St. John Mandel(Unbridled Books, May 2010)Full disclosure: Emily St. John Mandel lives in Brooklyn and I often run into her at literary events; she is an extremely likeable person and has been wonderfully supportive of Greenlight. And Unbridled Books is, in my opinion, one of the best of the crop of new independent publishers who are figuring out the best way to make this old-fashioned book thing work in a new economy, on a sustainable scale, building on the relationships between customers, booksellers, and publishers. So I was predisposed to like Emily's second novel, especially given the embarrassment of riches of bookseller quotes included in my galley.And perhaps unsurprisingly, like it I did -- but that doesn't mean the book itself is not an astonishing surprise. I read it one day when I was so sick I actually did have to spend most of the day in bed, so my memory of the reading experience is a little like a fever dream -- though that may not be entirely due to my state of health. Mandel has managed a heady, indeed dreamlike mixing of a sort of literary soul-searching amidst the ennui of modern Everyman life, and a rich and strange, violent and dangerous and globe-spanning storyline. If the tone is reminiscent of the post-Franzen and McSweeney's school of alienation and drift, the story is almost a boy's adventure novel, or one of the darker practitioners of thriller writing (Vachs or Connelly). It's disorienting and haunting, addictive and thought-provoking, and it doesn't go away when you're done reading.I like the way I summarized the plot on the Greenlight website, so I'll repeat it here: "From the sinister warehouses of Williamsburg to the soulless shining office towers of Manhattan to the sun-kissed ennui of the island of Ischia, Emily St. John Mandel traces the fortunes of would-be ex-criminal Anton and his associates through moving and astonishing interludes." Anton is one of those anti-heroes you find yourself almost unwillingly drawn to, in spite of his seeming inability to actually do what he wants or care for those he cares about. The fact that he finds something resembling a happy ending is perhaps the novel's biggest surprise, and it's not without its own attendant complications.But for me the most powerful thing about Mandel's second novel are the odd, very dreamlike images that have stayed with me. A shipping container full of scared Russian girls sitting in a circle, waiting for someone to let them out. A basketball on a dirty, glass-strewn Manhattan roof, surrounded by those shining office buildings. A white hotel looking out on the beach at Ischia. A warehouse in Williamsburg full of salvaged treasures. And of course, the image in the title, which is such a huge and weird and unexpected plot point that I didn't realize its significance until I finished the book and turned it over to look at the front again. I'm not going to steal from you the shock of that discovery -- you'll just have to get deep into Mandel's strange and haunting and very real world and find out for yourself.Note: Emily St. John Mandel reads at Greenlight Bookstore tonight, May 16, at 7:30 PM. You can RSVP on Facebook, or just show up.[...]

April Comics Post


Tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day, when fine comic shops nationwide will be giving out samples of the good stuff to all comers. In its honor, today's post is a flying tour of the comics/graphic novels I've been reading in the last few weeks and months.Y: The Last Man, Volume 7: Paper Dollsby Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Pia Guerra (artist)I've been working my way through Vaughan's magnum opus slowly for a while now. By Volume 7 the plague that killed (almost) every male mammal on earth is old news, and the implications of a women-only society are playing out in unpredictable ways, while Our Hero Yorick Brown tries to find his girlfriend and help find out how to bring back the other half of the species. Despite the occasionally annoying fact that in an all-women world the hero of the comic is still a dude, Vaughan's writing and Guerra's art always make for good adventure storytelling, and a bit of food for thought afterward. Imagine the implications for Israel, for example (women soldiers) or the Republican party (few women leaders but lots of political wives) or the Catholic church (no women in power but lots and lots of nuns). I'll add my voice to the chorus that says this is one of the seminal graphic novel series of our time. And it's often funny, too.Air, Volume 2: Flying Machineby G. Willow Wilson (writer) and M.K. Parker (artist)This series was hand-sold to me by Amy at my great local, Bergen Street Comics, and it's a winner. With a unique premise (the technology for flight powered by thought, developed by the ancient Mayans and sought after by all kinds of powers) and a cool heroine (Blythe, perky enough to be a believable stewardess despite her fear of heights, and brave and bewildered enough to be a believable heroine), not to mention an affecting romance/mystery and a resonance for anyone who's ever been nervous on an airplane, it's got a lot of cool, original stuff going for it. I liked the first volume a bit better than the second (as the concept of "hyperpraxis" flight gets explained it becomes a bit less believable), but I'm on board (get it?!) for this series, and delighted to find a new creative team with such great storytelling mojo.Freakangels, Volume 1by Warren Ellis (writer) and Paul Duffield (artist)Another Bergen Street Comics purchase, this one was actually a result of reading Ellis' comic serialized for free online. There are superpowers, yes, but the kids holding them are unlikeable and screwed up to varying degrees, and they seem to have brought about the end of the world and also be preventing it somehow. The British dialogue is cheeky and evocative, and while the Freakangels are sometimes kind of scary like a group of teenagers on the sidewalk, I'm intrigued by the post-apocalyptic Steampunk vibe and the potential for this story. (And yeah, I prefer reading it in book form.)Hellboy: The Wild Hunt by Mike Mignola (writer) and Duncan Fegred0 (artist)I love Hellboy. (So much so that I always stock Mignola's comics in the bookstore, even though almost no one seems to buy them.) He's a working man's hero, doing his job well with a foul mouth and shoulders sagging with fatigue, and always trying to transcend his origins (i.e. as the son of Satan). And Mignola's depth of allusion to world mythology makes for both great, accessible storytelling and something you could spend years mining. This stand-alone volume tells a couple of stories related to the recurring legend of the hunt in the sky (for a stag, giants, a herd of cattle, whatever) and how Hellboy gets mixed up in them, and what they may imply for the future of his world. It's dark and moody and heartpounding, and I read it twice.Jack of Fables #44by Matthew Sturges & Bill Willingham (writers) and various artistsMy love of the original Fables series by Sturg[...]

The Sheriff of Yrnameer by Michael Rubens


The Sheriff of Yrnameer
by Michael Rubens
(Pantheon, August 2009)
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In a bit of a cheat today (come on, I've got to get outside in the sun!), I'm pasting this review in its entirety from an email I sent to a colleague in the book industry. I read it more or less concurrently with Old Mr. Flood, and it provided an entirely different set of pleasures.

I read The Sheriff of Yrnameer on my lunch break at the bookstore over the course of several weeks. To be honest, I picked it up because I eat lunch in the back room with the galleys, and it had that funny name and a brightly-colored cover. Lucky me that I picked up the one book from the piles likely to keep me enthralled in small doses for so long (and sometimes the lunch break ran long if I was at a particularly exciting bit.)

The Sheriff of Yrnameer reads like The Magnificent Seven as written by Douglas Adams, with Han Solo as the hero. It punches all the right buttons for a space opera / romantic comedy / postmodern sitcom / satire on commercial culture. The recurring gags become like inside
jokes with old friends, and the ending, though I expected it to be enjoyably predictable, was genuinely (and enjoyably) surprising. It also shares with my favorite book of last year, The Gone-Away World, an underlying critique of inter-galactic corporations that is pleasantly affirming to a small indie business owner.

Though I did once or twice rue the wisdom of reading it while eating (some lunches are not made to go with descriptions of insectile bounty hunters), I was thoroughly delighted to make such a discovery: a book both warm-hearted and irreverent, morally high-minded but not above the appeal of the gross-out, silly and sexy and secretly serious all at once. And the author is a Brooklynite -- of course. I can't wait for the paperback (which comes out in August of this year) so I can handsell the heck out of it to everyone who asks "Don't you have any FUNNY books? With a happy ending?"

Old Mr. Flood by Joseph Mitchell


Old Mr. Floodby Joseph MitchellForeword by Charles McGrath(MacAdam Cage hardcover edition, April 2005)Shop Indie BookstoresA wise bookseller once taught me that right after reading something really, especially good, it's a good idea to read something completely different, as a sort of palate cleanser. After The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Passage, I felt the need to read something that was definitively not a big fat novel of an unfamiliar world. Luckily, my hand trailing over the unread riches of my bookshelves landed on Old Mr. Flood. As a small collection of three short semi-nonfictional pieces about a downtown New Yorker, it was exactly what I had been wanting.For some inexcusable reason I had never read Joseph Mitchell before, though he's one of those authors you feel you know all about without reading him (the same way I thought, mistakenly, that I knew what Michaelangelo's David looked like before I saw the real thing). Apparently he is the sort of writer other writers go back and reread when they need to remind themselves how this whole business of stringing words together ought to work. This volume came into my possession at a launch party at a bar for MacAdam Cage's reissued edition (I was the offsite bookseller), where I heard Eli Wallach read Mitchell's words in a precisely appropriate grizzled, humorous old man sort of way.The cover is a photograph of an old man at the remnants of the Fulton Fish Market, where the pieces about Mr. Flood are set; it's natural to interpret this as a representation of the title character, but in fact the photo is of Mitchell himself. As Charles McGrath points out in his illuminating introduction, Mr. Flood is not only a composite character of men Mitchell had talked with at the fish market, but also "an alter ego, who has countless things in common with his creator", including a fondness for drink, a graveyard sense of humor, and a love of seafood. (Despite his derision of "goormys", aka gourmets, I kept thinking Flood/Mitchell's sense of what's good to eat has a lot in common with contemporary foodie wisdom: he's not interested in vitamins or processed bread, just food as fresh and natural as he can get it.)Mr. Flood, a retired demolition man who has taken up residence in a hotel near the fish market in the early 1940s, is very old. The subject of imminent death is one often discussed or irritably avoided. But he's also irrepressibly full of life, somehow immortal -- much like the fish market and the New York harbor life itself, which was on its way out even as Mitchell wrote about it. The stories should be depressing, but I found myself laughing out loud quite a bit, and tugging on the ALP's sleeve to read him the good parts. The writing is quite astonishingly good, even as it effaces itself in service of the textures and details and talk and tools and mannerisms of its subjects. I've since been seeking out more of Mitchell's pieces, which are thankfully now readily available, and observing the world with his eyes and thinking in his language -- which is a sure sign that a writer has really gotten to you.I'm going to take the liberty to quote in full my favorite passage, which I read out loud to the ALP -- I'm hopeful that Mitchell's publishers and estate won't take it amiss. It's got a bit of all the good stuff that the book delivers: humor, dialect, the texture of details, and good food writing. One warning: I gave up eating any meat for Lent, but this bit made me crave oysters something fierce. As soon as Easter comes, I'm going in search of a place that serves oysters just like this. As a cure for a lingering cold or a spell of bad weather or the uneasiness of mortality, it seems you could do worse.Mr. Flood snorted agai[...]

The Passage by Justin Cronin


The Passageby Justin Cronin(Ballantine, June 2010)Shop Indie BookstoresReading Justin Cronin's The Passage was a wonderfully weird experience in so many ways. For one thing, there had been foreshadowing for weeks: my business partner, my Twitter friends, fellow booksellers, the Winter Institute buildup, EVERYTHING and everyone seemed to be telling me to read this book. Not only was it being read by everyone whose tastes I share, it sounded like just the sort of thing I would like. Literary adventure with a soupçon of the supernatural? Yes please thankyou.Weirder though, I'd read Justin Cronin's previous book The Summer Guest -- way back when, when I was young and poor enough to need the $45 they could pay me, I even reviewed it for Publishers Weekly (login required, sorry). I loved that novel, a piercing but gentle story of a family and its secrets over a summer at a fish camp. But it was a leetle hard to picture that rather quiet literary writer penning something that sounded like, from what people were telling me... a vampire apocalypse novel.But I needed another big fat novel for a plane ride, so I jumped in, salivating with anticipation. And what an freakin' incredible ride it was. It starts with the very first sentence:"Before she became the Girl from Nowhere -- the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years -- she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy."It opened up a world to get lost in. I had to come back to that sentence a number of times as the story got bigger, more epic and labyrinthine, and I needed to remember where we came from and where we were headed.I love the backstory of this novel, as put forth in the "Dear Reader" letter at the front: that Cronin asked his young daughter what he should write about next, and she said "Write about a girl who saves the world." An unlikely challenge for the average writer of literary fiction -- but Cronin was up to it, with a vengeance. Not only did he write this novel on the full apocalyptic epic scale, but it's the first of a trilogy -- a huge world-building exercise, with heroes and villains and massive set-pieces and romance and destiny and life and death.I don't want to talk much about the plot, other than that first sentence; I'm sure many reviews will come out that outline the story structure, but it was such a pleasure to read in breathless suspense and near constant surprise that this early on I don't want to spoil it for anybody. My impression about half way through was that it reminded me a lot of Dean Koontz, whom I loved as a teen -- adventure with a scrim of sci fi and a Joseph Campbell-ian hero to root for. But Koontz's morality was always a tad too schematic, his bad guys too obviously bad, his emphasis on the value of home and hearth almost a little right-wing, and his dialogue not especially convincing.Cronin is showing us what happens when a writer who has cut his chops on stories of families and relationships takes on an operatic fantasy epic. The villains are sometimes monstrously horrifying, sometimes pathetically well-meaning, sometimes just driven and short-sighted. The social interactions -- the love affairs, the family life, the camaraderie and power shifts of extreme danger -- are exquisitely observed. And the action scenes leave nothing to be desired, except maybe the ability to read faster. At times, yes, it seems a little too overdetermined that the good guys will live through the horrors that have killed countless others -- but it would hardly be a satisfying adventure story (at least in Volume One) if they didn't.What I appreciate most about what Cronin brings to this heart-pounding epic is the Big Themes, which grow on you gradually rath[...]

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoetby David Mitchell(Random House, June 2010)Shop Indie BookstoresAnyone who has ever read my blog, or ever met me, stands a good chance of having heard me talk about David Mitchell. It's rather satisfying, at my age, to have discovered my Favorite Living Writer. Ever since Cloud Atlas left me slack-jawed and inarticulate with its puzzle structure and fearlessly ambitious plots and astonishing humor and humanist compassion and heartbreaking truths -- okay, even before that, when I snapped up Ghostwritten and Number Nine Dream with the satisfaction of finding just what one wanted to eat, a meal that becomes a sweet memory -- and especially afterward, when I met the man at book readings for Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green and he turned out to be the kind, brilliant, self-effacing person you hope in your heart of hearts that your favorite authors might turn out to be -- David Mitchell has been my model for what writing and writers can be, and I have described myself truthfully if unflatteringly as a slavering fan. (That sentence was just because I could. Sorry.)But having a favorite writer also means you approach every new work of theirs with an inevitable trepidation: will it hold up? Will you have to love it half-heartedly, out of loyalty, or will it blow you away again? Will it move you in the same way -- or better yet, in a different way -- or will it be simply good, and not great?For this reason, after I had gotten Random House's postcard last fall announcing a new David Mitchell title coming in June, and after I had begged the publicist to consider Greenlight for an event*, and after Mitchell's wonderful editor David Ebershoff had stopped into Greenlight and we'd talked about our mutual love for the man, and after Ebershoff had, taking pity on me, sent me the bound manuscript for Mitchell's new book -- I looked at it on my shelf for about a month and a half before opening it. I told myself and other people I wanted to wait until I could set aside time to read it straight through, and that was partly true. But of course I was also nervous about whether he could do it again, and whether I could love like that again. Finally, on the plane to see my family in California for a post-Christmas vacation, I pulled the 8 1/2 by 11 thing out of my bag and started to read.So? What was it like? It was not like Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten; it was a single narrative thread, ostensibly, the story of a Dutch trading post in Japan in 1799 and following. I noted with satisfaction that it was written in third person, a first for Mitchell -- he had noted at a reading I attended that he had always written in first person, since he "wouldn't know where to look" without a single perspective, but that third person sounded like a challenge he should set himself -- and look here, he had. I also noted, as no doubt reviewers will, that one thread of this narrative involves a European (in Jacob de Zoet's case a Dutchman, in Mitchell's case an Irishman) falling in love with a Japanese girl (in de Zoet's case, Orito Aibagawa, a young surgeon in training who has a scar that makes her unmarriageable, but not unbeautiful; in Mitchell's case, his now wife and mother of his children, whom I know nothing more about). Here the similarity ends between Mitchell's biography and the story, but it is a telling detail -- I think during Mitchell's time in Japan he fell in love with Murakami and a kind of Japanese-ness as well as with the woman he eventually married, and Japan looms large in his pantheon of influences. There is an outsider's tenderness and frustration and fascination and longing and homesickness in the book that rings true t[...]

Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly (Felony and Mayhem Part 2)


Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly (Felony & Mayhem, May 2009)
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As I mentioned in the previous post, a large part of the charm of the "Vintage" mysteries published by Felony & Mayhem is the immersion in the past. For a sense of the Agatha-Christie-only-more-so appeal, I can't say it better than F&M's modern back cover copy from Arrow Pointing Nowhere, part of the Henry Gamadge series:

"Take one grand house, stuff it with staff, and make it home to several generations. If they send their sons to Oxford and occasionally knock each other off, you've got a country-house murder mystery, that classic of English crime fiction. But if the boys are at Yale, odds are that you're reading a New York mansion mystery -- a genre largely invented and perfected by Elizabeth Daly."

Yep, only the boys go to college, and all kinds of extended family share the mansion with the servants -- it's a whole different world.

But with Elizabeth Daly's books, the exoticism off the time period is only part of the goods: the other part is Henry Gamadge. If Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade were a bit more bookish and a little less alienated, he might resemble Gamadge (except he's got a happy marriage more like Nick and Nora Charles). He's ostensibly a professional expert in rare books, with a love for solving puzzles. More importantly, he's the kind of guy you want on your side in a pinch. Gracious, diplomatic, perspicacious, infinitely resourceful, quick on the uptake and on the trigger if necessary, Gamadge is your go-to guy if you're in a spot. I love his relationship with his wife Clara (a romance which actually comes about during one of the books in the series and sticks for the rest of them, which is a rarity) and with his assistant/co-conspirator Harold, who in this volume is back from the War on leave. Their mutual trust and profoundly functional relationships are always in contrast to the web of conspiracies, suspicion, and murderous intent found in the (typically rich) families they're called in to investigate.

In Arrow, Gamadge doesn't even know which member of the family he's working for. He's received a mysterious message and knows that someone in the Fenway mansion is in mortal danger -- but is it the generous but naive Pater Familias? The invalid former beauty who married in? The grim-looking paid companion? The amiable ne'er-do-well uncle? The strong-willed spinster? The mentally deficient grandson? (I love how you can tell he's "off" by the fact that he doesn't stand when someone comes into the drawing room.)

Gamadge will solve it, of course, though there's no guarantee anyone will survive to the end, and Gamadge and his crew end up having to do a lot more physical labor in the course of cracking the case than say, Hercule Poirot. I highly recommend curling up with this or any other book in the Gamadge series, just to see how it all comes out, and to enjoy the setting and the personalities that make this series so original and yet somehow inevitable.

Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham (Felony and Mayhem Part 1)


Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham (Felony & Mayhem, October 2009)Shop Indie BookstoresI will take a stand and say that the classic mysteries brought back into print by Felony & Mayhem Press (the brilliant publishing offshoot of downtown Manhattan's priceless Partners & Crime Bookstore) are one of the great small pleasures of my life. The ALP tends to buy the books in F&M's Vintage series for me, for special occasions or as a surprise, and these are always occasions for pure delight. Having read nearly every Agatha Christie novel ever written, it's wonderful to discover that I haven't reached the end of the treasure trove of early 20th century mysteries.One of the pleasures of the Vintage mysteries is the sense of culture shock -- or cultural discovery -- the Western world in their pages presents. Unlike Christie, who has been consistently in print and most likely edited to remain comprehensible to contemporary readers, the works of Elizabeth Daly, Margery Allingham, and the like retain the cultural specifics of their time. This means that stories of 1940s New York or Britain contain not only familiar extinct delights like dressing for dinner, men with hats, and hired help in even fairly modest households, but also rituals and niceties I can only speculate about. Why is it odd that the paid companion spoke that way? What does the state of the front lawn signify? How do you know that someone is wearing clothes that don't belong to them? What does it mean when the protagonists exchange significant glances over the train schedule, or someone's shoes, or the contents of an umbrella stand or a corner shop? It's like entering an exotic, highly civilized foreign country -- whether New York or London, the citizens' habits and traditions are equally unfamiliar at a distance of 80 years.The sense of dislocation is even more pronounced, but also eased somewhat, in Traitor's Purse, the 11th title in Margery Allingham's series featuring British policeman/gentleman sleuth Albert Campion. I'd never read any of the other Campion books when this one was gifted to me -- but luckily, in this volume Campion wakes up on page 1 suffering from amnesia, so he doesn't know his own backstory either. And not only is he trying to figure out who he is and what he does, but he's been plopped down in the middle of a mysterious matter of wartime National Security, and apparently someone wants him to hang for killing a cop. Then there's the matter of a woman named Amanda who aids him, whom he thinks may be his wife -- but who turns out to be his long-time fiance, who has just decided to call off the wedding. And in the meantime he has to make polite dinner party conversation with people whom he supposedly knows, so as not to give away his mission or his mental state.It's all pleasantly excruciating, and of course it comes out all right. The villain is satisfyingly obvious, but the scheme is quite original and not something that would have occurred to me as a matter of national security. The competence of Campion, his "lower-class" right-hand man Lugg, and his left-hand girl Lady Amanda (who sticks by him in his mission despite his having strung her along romantically for eight years, apparently), is gratifying in the extreme.My only quibble with the book comes at the end, when the plot has been foiled and Campion's memory has been finally restored. After realizing while amnesiac that he's been an ass to his fiance all this time, and having his deep feelings for her roiling under every action sequence, and after she's decided to take him back, their reconciliation is disappointingly perfunctor[...]

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris


Note to readers, if there still are any about: I've taken a long hiatus from regular posts on this blog, for the simple reason that I've realized the dream I wrote about in my very first post and opened a bookstore -- which, it turns out, takes up a lot of one's time and energy. But I miss flexing my writing muscles a bit, and I find that sometimes the best relief from the stresses of working in the book industry is the books themselves. So I'm returning to this blog and changing its mission just a little. Rather than speculating about the state and future of the book industry and/or chronicling the events of the literary world (both of which are done more competently by the bloggers streaming down the right-hand side of this page), I'd like to just write a little about what I've been reading. I'll try to write something about every book I read this year, more or less in the order encountered. I look forward to it as a kind of readerly/writerly practice. Hope it's fun for you too.The Unnamedby Joshua Ferris(Regan Arthur Books, December 2009)I didn't read Josh Ferris' breakout debut novel, Then We Came To The End -- and from what I've heard from other readers, this may have made it easier for me to love his second, The Unnamed. TWCTTE had a scrim of office humor and social satire, but laughs are pretty scarce in The Unnamed -- so readers who loved the first book and were looking forward to something similar in the second seem to be somewhat disappointed. I wasn't disappointed. If it makes any sense, I was blown away in slow motion.I started this book slowly, and later I had to put it down for a while, but not for the same reason. The story starts somewhat quietly, and it only kept me reading by the strength of his sentences and the odd believability of his privileged characters (a corporate lawyer and his pretty wife). Then it started to break my heart, over and over. The premise is pretty well known by now: the husband, Tim, is compelled to walk, far, often, and unexpectedly, and doesn't know whether his problem is psychological, physical, real or imaginary. As one review I read pointed out, this can be read as a metaphor for disease or for addiction, or just as a strange unexplainable thing all its own. Ferris' looping, time-shifting narrative, in which the condition flares up, recedes, seems to disappear, then comes back again with a vengeance, echoes painfully the cycles that physical or psychological diseases can follow. It all just keeps happening again and again, and the family strains against it, and the body screams in frustration, and the job and social life falls apart, and cures are promising until they're not, and eventually it ends, either in wellness or in death. Tim and his wife and his daughter, along with his law firm office mates and the minor characters he encounters, are painted with skillfull realism, but I think there's also a strain of fatalist magic realism through the story. Or maybe it's just that the disease/condition makes for an unwilling position of outside observation that makes all ordinary life seem strange and full of odd meanings, like a fever dream.I had to set this book aside for a while over the holidays, because things in the story started to get so bad I couldn't keep reading it and still be good company. (It was around the part where Tim and his body/mind start to argue with each other about the existence of God, and Tim's protest against the demands of the physical results in the loss of some fingers, and I realized that this wasn't going to end well.) I finally picked it up again in January and finished [...]

The holiday book drive you've been waiting for!


There is a joy in giving books. And if that joy can be combined with 1) getting rid of your old books so you can get new books, and 2) passing along the gift of literacy and literature to those who might not receive it otherwise -- well, that's some serious book giving joy.

This year the church I attend, Old First Reformed, is holding a book drive for a community of West African refugees on Staten Island, many of whom struggle with English and therefore with school and employment. The organization, African Refuge, is a more than worthy cause to unburden your groaning shelves, especially if you've got some children's or YA books amongst them. Details are below. The ALP and I will be schlepping a couple of boxes over there on Sunday; hope to see you there!

Book Drive!
To Benefit African Refuge After‐School
Please donate your ‘gently read’ or brand new books to help West African refugee
children who are now living on Staten Island.
For readers ages 5 – 17
Sunday, December 13th, 3:00 – 7:00 pm
Drop off at Old First Reformed Church,
7th Ave. & Carroll St., Park Slope, Brooklyn.
For more information: (718) 638‐8300
If you can’t make it on the 13th, bring books to the church office; use entrance on
Carroll St. Hours: Mon. – Thurs., 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, December 7th – 10th.

• The mission of African Refuge, a non‐profit organization, is to aid West African refugees currently residing in Staten Island. Because of the devastating civil war in Liberia, many of these refugee youths have missed one or more years of school, yet they are placed in classes in the NYC public school system based on their age rather than academic level. This has made it difficult for many of them to succeed in school. In response, African Refuge has set up an after‐school program. Go to to find out more.

The Other Giving Thanks Post.


On the Greenlight blog today we've posted a list of the people we have to thank for the opening of the bookstore. It's a very, very long list.Here on my own blog I wanted to say thanks to a few of those who helped me, myself, personally, get to this wonderful moment. These are the people I haven't thanked regularly in interviews -- the ones outside of the primary business development story, who nonetheless are the reasons I am here.To my mom, of course, for reading to me when I still just wanted to chew on the pages; for letting me check out the maximum number of library books every week; for telling me I could go to college anywhere I could get a scholarship, and sticking to that even when it meant going 3,000 miles away; for giving me a chunk of my inheritance early as seed money for the store; for talking to me on the phone every week, as I planned and cried and hyperventilated and obsessed and pondered and worked toward this dream; for being the first reader in my life, and still one of the most important.To my two younger sisters, for spending our childhood acting out our own stories (and putting up with me always having to be the king, president, or boss); for our own secret language made up of references to books, movies and inside jokes; for still getting excited about new books with me.To Miss Rumphius, for teaching me that you must do something to make the world more beautiful.To Anne Shirley, for teaching me that imagination creates the world.To my high school English teachers and principals, for making me enter speech contests (I got good at it) and write essays (that too) -- so that I could be a good spokesperson, a good host, a good writer, and a good reader.To my coworkers at Dean and Deluca on Rockefeller Center, for accepting me as a shift boss even though I was younger than most of them and we didn't all speak the same language (Wolof, Spanish, Gujarti, French), and teaching me what it's like to direct a team in a workplace.To L.B. Thompson, my favorite poetry teacher at NYU, for casually asking me if I needed a summer job, and landing me at Three Lives, the best bookstore on earth. (Also, for being the best critical reader of my poetry, while I was writing it.)To Jill Dunbar and Jenny Feder, the founders of Three Lives, for forgiving me when I was late (or forgot to show up at all, addle-headed college student that I was); for giving me my first taste of working at an independent bookstore; for showing me what a partnership could look like.To Rebecca, for being the partner I didn't know I needed, but totally did; for having all the strengths I don't (task planning, merchandising, negotiating, reordering, etc...); for always picking up the ball when I'm about to drop it; for telling me when my hair looks good or I've lost weight (but not the opposite); for teaching me more about being a bookseller every day; for calling me on my shit; for working and working on a relationship that's as tough as a marriage, and just as strong, and just about as important; for becoming my friend as well as my partner.And last, most, and always, to the ALP, Michael, husband for two years, partner for more than eight, for dating me even though I was an addle-headed book nerd; for always reading more books than I do; for that night when I was moaning over not getting into grad school, when he pointed out that the career I really loved was being a bookseller; for working office jobs he didn't love so I could do what I loved; for waking me up with coffee in bed every morning (every morning! even when I'm totally c[...]

Upcoming Event: Breakout


I don't often include pitches for others' events on this blog, but I've been thinking lately about the necessity of giving back, in light of all the support I've received for my own dreams. If you're a New Yorker, consider attending this event on Monday -- it's a great literary lineup, and a shot at hope for those most in need of it.The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space at WNYC Presents BREAKOUT: VOICES FROM INSIDE A partnership between PEN’s Prison Writing Program and WNYC’s The Greene Space Presented as part of “The NEXT New York Conversation” Series John Turturro, Lemon Andersen, Mary Gaitskill, Eric Bogosian, Jamal Joseph, and Sean Wilsey among others to read works authored by participants of PEN’s Prison Writing Program Monday, November 9th, 2009 at 7pm For more than 30 years, PEN’s Prison Writing Program has been dedicated to helping make the harsh realities of American imprisonment part of our social justice dialogue. PEN’s program has also been on the front-lines of prison reform, helping inmates in federal, state and local penitentiaries cope with life behind bars, gain skills and have a voice while they are there. The Prison Writing Program accomplishes all this through mentorships and an annual writing competition that receives between 20-30 entries per day from local, state and federal prisons—including from prisoners on death row. On Monday, November 9, 2009 at 7pm, WNYC Radio’s The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space’s monthly dialogue series, “The NEXT New York Conversation” partners with PEN to present BREAKOUT: VOICES FROM THE INSIDE, a night of literature and conversation. Luminaries from the New York cultural landscape – writers Mary Gaitskill, Eric Bogosian and Patricia Smith, along with actor John Turturro and writer/performer Lemon Andersen, among others–will read pieces chosen from the best of the winning manuscripts of the Prison Writing Contest, and from the extraordinarily moving diaries that men and women have written as part of PEN’s collaboration with the Anne Frank Center, USA. Proceeds from the evening will benefit PEN’s Prison Writing Program. The event will be streamed live on the web at The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world; there are hundreds and hundreds of prisons across the country and, as of 2007, these institutions housed more than 2,300,000 inmates—70% of whom are non-white. Nearly 1 million of those in prison are serving time for committing non-violent crimes. Sadly, the situation is not improving. The second-annual Prison Writing Benefit Reading will help to raise much-needed funds to enable this important program to continue into the future, but also to help the prisoners see themselves in a new way: as writers. The NEXT New York Conversation, sponsored by HSBC, “The World’s Local Bank,” is WNYC’s The Greene Space’s multiplatform dialogue series featuring a collective of changemakers, newsmakers, tastemakers and New Yorkers, sharing their values about interesting topics that are reshaping, redefining, and re-imagining our world in the 21st century. Monday, November 9, 2009 at 07:00 PMDuration: 2 hours Tickets can be purchased at Ovation Tix ( Collaborator: $75 Friend: $50 Collaborator ticket covers the expenses of one-on-one mentoring services between a PEN member and an incarcerated man or woman for one year. This premier ticket includ[...]

An Open Letter to IBNYC Bookstores: NAIBA: It's Not Just for the Suburbs Anymore


The NAIBA fall conference is a week away -- and lucky you, it's not too late to register. Stephanie Anderson (Bookavore) and I recently sent a joint open letter to NYC bookstores about the value of the conference -- it's reproduced below. Hope to see you in Baltimore! As two NYC booksellers just starting our careers, we've recently observed two things: 1) Attending the fall regional booksellers conference hosted by NAIBA (New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association) has been incredibly good for our professional development and for our bookstores. 2) Very few New York City bookstores ever send booksellers to the NAIBA conference. Why this contradiction? We speculated about the possible reasons that New York City bookstore owners have not been attending the regional conference or sending their employees, and thought about some answers. The result is an expression of what we've found worthwhile about the NAIBA conference, and a modest proposal to NYC stores to consider sending a bookseller to the conference this year. "It's too expensive."This is an understandable reaction, especially in this economic climate. But as we all know, it takes money to make money. And more importantly, the education offered at the NAIBA conference can literally add money to your bottom line. For example, the session on "Capturing Coop" (Sunday, 3:45) alone could make your store enough money in a year to cover the cost of transportation, hotel, and conference registration for one bookseller or more, depending on your store. The " Online Right Now" lounge (Sunday and Monday), where experienced booksellers offer free one-on-one help with blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media, could grow your customer base exponentially. The Pick of the Lists sessions (throughout the conference) could give you the tools to handsell dozens of books that might otherwise languish on your shelves. You could save the $100 registration fee (which admits up to 8 booksellers) by not going. But that would mean you're accepting the much greater loss of the potential profits the NAIBA educations sessions can create for your store. "I already know this stuff."Send your staff instead! If you've been in the business for 5 or 10 or 20 years, you might feel like you have nothing new to learn. But chances are you have younger booksellers working in your store who would benefit hugely from participating in this forum for professional development and community. Both of us (Stephanie and Jessica) found that our first NAIBA conference literally changed our lives: we went from being retail employees to feeling like members of a professional community, and our subsequent involvement in our stores and in our industry was the result. If we want our bookstores to prosper for years to come, it's worth investing in our frontline staff – the Emerging Leaders of our industry. You might find you have an incredibly talented and motivated bookseller right under your nose. "I can't take the time away from the store."The NAIBA conference is two days of being able to think about your store overall: the Big Picture. It's a time to talk to your colleagues and realize that your problems are similar and that you can share solutions. It's a chance to step away from the daily sales and profit margin, and think about where your store is and where it's going. It can be hard to justify carving out time from your daily routine. But it may be the only way to keep your store fro[...]

Bookselling Generations


This is all related to Greenlight Bookstore, but it's more a personal observation than a business one -- and it's all a bit scattered -- so I'm relating it here.

Greenlight Boosktore feels to me like the "next generation" of bookselling, in the best way. This is driven home by how involved the "parents" -- the generation that precedes us -- have been in helping the store come together.

Over the last few weekends, Betty and John Bennett (formerly of Bennett Books) and Susan Avery (formerly of Ariel Booksellers) have come to the store to help us with painting, book receiving, etc. These are folks Rebecca and I think of as our "bookseller parents" -- they've mentored us, counseled us, taught us, and set us an example of what a great bookstore can be. Though both of their stores are now closed and the owners have moved on to other literary projects, it felt like a seamless passing of the torch.

In addition, Cynthia of Archivia Books and other New York City booksellers have come out to volunteer and teach us what's what, helping to add another store to their ranks and building our community.

Last week Toby Cox of Three Lives -- my former boss at the first bookstore where I ever worked, the store where I fell in love with bookselling -- came to check on our progress. Three Lives will always feel a bit like home to me -- it's where I come from as a bookseller, and Toby has been one of my greatest mentors. He's a Fort Greene resident too, and has advised Rebecca and I a great deal, so his opinion means a lot. To see him get excited about the progress at Greenlight is kind of like having your dad congratulate you on a personal project -- though Toby's not really old enough to be my dad, he's a bookselling father figure in the best way.

And it gets even better. All of our wonderful staff have worked in bookstores in the past, and two of them worked in stores founded by their parents. It turns out that Jesse's mom, who owns Wild Rumpus, and Eleanor's mom, who runs Inkwood Books, are friends, and have found out with delight that their offspring are now both working at Greenlight. We joke that they're the "bookstore brats," having grown up in the business, and it's great to have the connection to two such wonderful stores. And the other stores that our employees come from -- Legacy Books, Bluestockings, Goehrings, others -- have taught them the skills that make them the awesome team of booksellers that our store needs.

All of this adds to the sense that our bookstore is in so many ways the child of the stores that have come before us. Some of those stores are still going strong, some have changed or closed for various reasons, but all of them have been sources of inspiration to us, and have created the world that Greenlight is being born into. This isn't to suggest that the older stores are on the way out -- on the contrary, many of them are still teaching us new innovations, and we're delighted to join them. It's merely to reflect with gratitude on the legacy of those who have laid the groundwork for what we're doing, who have helped to bring us into the world.

Thanks, folks. We hope to do you proud.

Taking stock, setting off


Okay, so it's officially been over a month since I last posted here: my first and longest-running blog. I suspect anyone who's ever read The Written Nerd knows the reason why: my efforts have been shifted almost entirely over to the Greenlight Bookstore blog, and all the attendant activities and responsibilities of getting the bookstore off the ground. I thought maybe I'd have more time for blogging now that I don't have a "day job" -- but it turns out there's not a lot of down time in entrepreneurship. I haven't yet succumbed to the dreaded "bookstore owners have no time to read" syndrome (just finished A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, now working on Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind and China Mieville's The City And The City) -- but it does seem to be the case that bookstore owners have no time for personal blogging.For a little while I thought about officially retiring this blog. In a way, it's served it's purpose: I needed a way to work out my thoughts about books, bookselling as a business, the community of booksellers and publishers, etc. Now I'm on the verge of achieving the goal I confessed to in my very first post, back in 2005: owning my own store.This blog has played a surprisingly big part in all of that. Someone asked me recently "do you do all your own publicity?" The answer is that I don't do publicity; I just talk about the store all the time in all kinds of forums, and The Written Nerd was the first. It introduced me to the folks at NAIBA, who asked me to join the board and brought me into a circle of smart and dedicated booksellers; it brought me to the attention of publishers who mailed me books for review and now are enthusiastically supporting Greenlight; it somehow gave me the status of "expert" on social media, author events and graphic novels, and I've gotten the opportunity to speak on panels about those topics and meet all kinds of new smart people. I haven't done a lot of chasing down reporters to get them to write about Greenlight Bookstore; the coverage we've gotten has come about in large part from the previous connections and visibility that's happened through The Written Nerd, and for that I'm surprised and grateful.And this blog has also helped me to keep my focus through the last 4 or 5 years of wanting to open a bookstore, through the times when that seemed unlikely or impossible. I recently wrote a piece for the AOL small business feature The Startup about facing setbacks, where I quoted Laura Miller's recent book The Magician's Book (a critical study of C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia) about the power of stories to turn hardship into adventure. And what is a blog but a never-ending story? Here's some more from Miller's book, which I've been thinking about a lot lately:I was, of course, being sheltered by the traditional conventions of children's stories, in which the good are rewarded, the evil defeated, and the ending is at least partially happy. But getting to that happy ending was no picnic; along with the child heroes, I vicariously slogged through trackless forests and snowy wastes, took up arms against monsters, and wrangled with menacing adults. I was stirred by how much was epxected of the Pevensies. I wanted to be challenged in the same way. I wanted to be asked to give my all for a cause I could be sure was worthy. (And even at that tender age, I had an inkling that finding such a cause would be the hardest part of the quest.)I was the sa[...]

Link-mad Monday


* The Guardian notes various methods of organizing your bookshelves. (The ALP and I tend toward the author's own methodology, "according to where I can jam them.") (via Bookninja, who always leads me to the cool Guardian articles)* Literature In the Internet Age category, #1: I'd normally be skeptical of a trailer for a short story -- but the story is by Jim Shepard, the publisher is the very intriguing new multi-format literary journal Electric Literature, and the video itself is somewhat breathtaking. Watch.* Literature in the Internet Age category, #2: our Brooklyn visionary of the literary future, Richard Nash, writes in Publishers Weekly about Cursor, the new print/digital, publisher/community hybrid creature he's working on creating. I'm still wrapping my head around it, but it seems to come down to the fact that writers are readers and vice versa, and thus offering tools for refining and publishing one's writing while also selling the written works (and the rights thereto). Looking forward to seeing how it all plays out -- like ours, I imagine the business plan evolves constantly, and I trust Richard to come out with something fabulous.* Literature in the Internet Age category, #3: another visionary, Kevin Smokler (his anthology Bookmark Now! was one of the reasons I started blogging, AND thinking that bookstores have the potential to be viable and progressive) announces a leap forward for his brainchild, BookTour: author tour listings on BookTour will be automatically listed on the author's A****n page. I've had some interesting email volleys with Kevin and other indie booksellers this week about what this new feature, undeniably a publicity boon for authors, means for indies, and how we can continue to work together. Importantly, BookTour's partnership with site-which-shall-not-be-named does NOT prevent them from also showing this info in other places. And at the moment, indie bookstore data compiled from IndieCommerce sites does NOT appear (partly because they have to figure out how to filter out the "Jane Austen" and "Barack Obama" listings when a bookclub is listed; partly because the booksellers aren't sure they want them to). At some point they may reappear on Amazon, which would delight authors; at some further point, BookTour data may show up on IndieBound in some form, which would delight bookstores (cross your fingers for that). I'm impressed with Kevin's grasp of all the various stakeholders in this situation, and his commitment to continue to serve indie bookstores, as well as authors and readers.* Didja notice -- Greenlight Bookstore is now on IndieBound! Also, our storefront is turning green.* And finally: my scarily witty ex-colleague/successor Dustin Kurtz does some terrible things to books in the video below. If you notice the camerawork is a bit shaky and there are some snorty, chokey sounds in the background, it's because he let me hold the Flip camera and I was kinda laughing. He seriously did eat those book pages. Buy him a drink sometime. (And don't try this at home.) As he put it on Twitter, "booksellers are the new circus freaks." Long may we live in passionate weirdness.Okay -- back to the daily round (emails, faxes, applications, inquiries, catalogs, breaks for iced tea...)[...]