Thursday, January 29, 2009

Love is in the Air

Well, it's not quite February, but some of our customers are getting ready for Valentine's Day a bit early. Check out these two young men figuring out How to Talk to Girls. Figure that out guys, and you've got it made!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Passed away today.

On Charlie Rose, after his book Terrorist was published:

Here's a quote from the interview I quite like. He and Charlie are discussing the use of Arabic in the book:

"There's a certain mystery to a language you don't know, a certain beauty even—I don't know. Maybe it was a bad idea."

That post em-dash stuff was just sort of thrown in there. I love the fact that Updike happily admits to his own authorial fallibility there. "What the heck do I know? I'm just John Updike."

When an author dies, many readers—possibly out of a feeling of guilt—decide the time is right to familiarize or re-familiarize themselves with that author's work. I would like to suggest that readers who feel like they would like to become better acquainted with Updike's work also consider reading Nicholson Baker's remarkable book on Updike and his influence on Baker, U and I.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Our Little Love Peddler

Our very own Elizabeth, from the Gifts o' Love Department, has been busily constructing a virtual Ziggurat of romance: mountains of Seattle Chocolates' Assorted Chocolate Truffles in heart-shaped boxes, heaping piles of traditional Necco Sweethearts ("BE MINE") red & white Nerds Rope, rubber Love Rats, and on and on.

And don't forget books! How to Talk to Girls, by nine year old Alec Greven, from Collins, is just full of the kind of advice only a man of his years and experience could have to give. The Art of Romance: Mills & Boon and Harlequin Cover Designs, by Joanna Bowring and Margaret O'Brien, from Prestel, is a fabulous, full-color romp through the glory days of the chaste booty lit. of an earlier era. Dating Makes You Want to Die, But You Have to Do It Anyway: Getting Through the Absurdity of Dating with Your Soul Intact, by Daniel Holloway and Dorothy Robinson, from Collins Living, may help you survive the Season of Passion. And finally, Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak, by Writers Famous & Obscure, edited by Smith Magazine, from Harper Perennial, is full of six-word wisdom like this from Matt Ruff, "She knows what my Kryptonite is."
So stop in and consult the Love Peddler. She's waiting to hook you up.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Big Ol' Box o' Lincoln

While this hardly mitigates the dustjacket design, seeing The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now, in a boxed set from Library of America, goes a long way to making me happier about trying to sell the book.
I've been trying to get the two volumes of Speeches and Writings back into the store in time for the Bicentennial, but I hadn't had any luck. Now I understand why. Redesigned with red and blue covers, and boxed with the anthology, they make a handsome, if a little on-the-nose design for this bran new presentation.

The two volumes of Lincoln are about the best presentation of Lincoln's words I've ever seen. They are certainly the best and most attractive collections of Lincoln that I own.

At $99.95 the new set is expensive, but had I not already bought separately the three books in it, I would be saving my pennies to get this one some day soon, before it disappears.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Their Lincoln (and Ours)

Eric Foner is exactly the kind of history professor from whom I wish I could take a class; erudite, serious and excited by his subject.  Reading his books, particularly A Short History of Reconstruction and Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, I've become convinced that if there is anyone who can teach me what it meant to be alive in America then, and what the lives of Americans then might and ought to mean to us now, it is Eric Foner.  

His book  The Story of American Freedom is one of those titles I have been pressing into the willing and reluctant hands of customers and coworkers since it's original publication.  I know the title sounds like one of those well intentioned freshman Seminars, taught in an anonymous, drafty lecture hall by some dessicated old party with a slide projector, and actually conducted by weary TAs roaming the aisles with dusty pages of "supplemental readings," but you must trust me when I tell you, it is actually one of the most breathtakingly wide-ranging and scintillating acts of American intellectual history I've ever read.  Reading Foner as he traces the progression of "freedom" and "liberty" through our history, is not unlike spending time, at least as I imagine it, in the personal library of a great bibliophile and conversationalist who darts from his chair every few minutes to produce the exact text he's been quoting from memory, just to show you yet another surprising instance of our mania for, and wildly contradictory usage of, the great watch-words and shibboleths of representative democracy.  It is the author's enthusiasm, as well as his scholarship, that makes him such good company.

Now, for the Lincoln Bicentennial, Eric Foner has edited a new collection of popular essays from noted scholars -- no mean trick in my experience as a reader of history -- on subjects ranging from his own thoughtful consideration of the embarrassing topic of "Lincoln and Colonization," to James M. McPherson's brief summation of "A. Lincoln, Commander in Chief" (which I highly recommend if you don't intend to read McPherson's recent full-length treatment of the subject, reviewed in an earlier posting here.)  Foner's new book is called Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, from W. W. Norton.  In addition to Harold Holzer on Lincoln and art, and Mark E. Neely, Jr. on Lincoln and the Constitution, there are names less familiar to me and essays I was surprised to find myself enjoying thoroughly.  David W. Blight, for example, I did not know.  The very title of his essay, "The Theft of Lincoln in Scholarship, Politics and Public Memory," made me jumpy.  That word "theft" has the spin to it of literary-theory and "historiology" --id est gab about rather than history written.  But it actually proved to be one of my favorites in the collection; taking on the Lincoln pietists, bully patriots, politicians and revisionists all at a go!  Now I must find Blight's latest book, A Slave No More; Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Narratives of Emancipation, from 2007, and put my embarrassing suspicions to rest.

I would encourage anyone interested in contemporary Lincoln scholarship to seek out this new collection, without a worry that the common reader will find anything therein but consistently well written, thoughtful, and "theory"-free American history of the best kind. (Foucault, for example, is blessedly absent entirely from the index.  Can I get an "Amen?")

A Room of Their Own

If you've ever wondered about the rooms where writers go to work, check out this feature at The Guardian's website. The latest shows novelist Sebastian Faulks' office, complete with his cameo of Tolstoy.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Holzer & Company

In an earlier post, I already expressed my deep displeasure at just how awful the design of the dustjacket is.  But, as I suspected I would, I've now become convinced by the contents that I shall have to have my own copy of Harold Holzer's new Library of America title, The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now.  It is a rich and varied collection -- boy howdy and how.

Where else, exactly, can one find, between two covers, H. L. Mencken's sobering and mirthful essay from his Prejudices: Third Series, in which one finds the "Lincoln legend" so perfectly described as "... a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost," and also Langston Hughes' poem "Lincoln Monument: Washington?"  Holzer has bundled together a wonderfully eclectic collection of people, from contemporaries to biographers, from cartoonists to politicians; from H. G. Wells to Dale Carnegie (!), from Emerson to E. L. Doctorow, and on and on.

Better yet, Harold Holzer has written a brief, often quite pithy preface for each entry.  This from the introduction to Woodrow Wilson's contribution: "Left entirely unmentioned in Wilson's eloquent address were slavery and emancipation -- omissions that were not surprising in light of Wilson's segregation of black government employees and his effusive praise for D. W. Griffith's racist screen epic The Birth of a Nation."

Unlike some earlier anthologies from the Library of America, and here I'm thinking specially of their truly weird collection of Sermons, this volume, in the very capable hands of Harold Holzer, manages to present the familiar and the unknown -- at least to me -- in an entirely satisfying and endlessly surprising way.

As tributes go, this is one of the best, if not the best to date on the occasion of the Bicentennial. 

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Further Thoughts on Stacey's Bookstore and the Passing of the Independents

Since my first posting on the sad news that Stacey's Bookstore in San Francisco had announced it will be closing in March after 85 years in San Francisco, I've been following the story online and through friends in San Francisco.  On Facebook I was encouraged to discover a "grassroots" effort organizing to "Save Stacey's Bookstore."  I've also heard from many people, online and off, expressing shock and dismay at the news.  On behalf of Independent Booksellers everywhere, let me extend my thanks to all the good people out there who care about where they buy their books and from whom.  What we do, and the opportunity to do it, depends on just such thoughtful, community-minded patrons.  We have always been, and continue to be grateful for your support, and your business.  And if I may still presume to speak for the booksellers at Stacey's, I'm sure they are just as grateful for the many new and familiar voices joining the chorus now rising to try to save that venerable bookstore.

In my reading online, I have also discovered just how many people there are out there who seem to misunderstand the nature of just what it is we do; assuming, for example, that the prices of the books we sell are a matter of choice for independent retailers, that discounts to customers and variety of selection are dictated exclusively, or even primarily by considerations of profit and promotion, and that even the continued viability of independent bookselling is ultimately more a matter of management and competition than it is a matter of cultural or community significance.  Let me try, in my own unbusinesslike way, to address some of these points, as briefly and as well as I can in this space.

Without becoming too mired in the jargon of bookselling and publishing, let me just begin by suggesting that the whole business of books is, has always been, and Gods willing, will always be an irrational, impractical and frankly foolhardy enterprise.  The suggestion that anyone can, or has, or ought to make a proper, well organized, smooth-running machine of Market Capitalism out of writing, printing, publishing or selling books, is as familiar, and touching to booksellers, however humble, as it is to anyone else who may have spent their lives in the service of books.  Many a better man and woman of business than me has been broken on that wheel.  Business, and in particular the business of books, has seen many an entrepreneur rise and fall in the tide of print.  Many have made fortunes, or at least reputations as innovators and great capitalists from books, from the man who opened bookstalls in Victorian train-stations, to the popularizer of classics in paperback, to Jeff Bezos of   Each is to be well remembered and applauded for their contributions to the culture as well as for their business acumen  and willingness to risk their own and other people's money in such, for the time, questionably profitable gambles.  But for every innovator in publishing and selling, there have always been hundreds or possibly even thousands of less daring souls, readers and retailers, bibliophiles and buyers and tradesmen more like... well, me.

We no more set the price of a hardcover from Random House than we determine the value of stock.  And we live, as do the independent publishers, the freelance writers, editors and translators, and, it would seem, the readers and collectors of less established, or well remembered authors, on the narrow margins of solvency, not because we are reckless or stupid or undisciplined, but because what we love is the company of books more perhaps than we do the business of books, and will, it seems, often as not, sacrifice, to our own ultimate ruin perhaps, the latter to secure the former.

A short discounted title from an academic press on an obscure subject?  But surely, Stacey's must have at least a copy of such a book on the shelf when, and if, the right customer comes in to find just such a book?  Else how will the reader know he or she needs it?  Not one, or even a few of the newest or the best books on Lincoln for the University Book Store, but all the titles we can get that might be worth having when we set up a display table to celebrate the Bicentennial of his birthday, else are we not doing a disservice to our customers and to the writers and scholars who have labored to preserve our history and his memory?

And if we can not discount the New York Times Bestsellers list as a result, or choose to promote our own selection instead... And if we can not sell every bestselling new children's title at prices to compete with Costco, but choose to celebrate the PNBA Lifetime Achievement Award winner Alexandra Day by carrying every available title in multiple copies instead... 

That is the value that is lost in the passing of Stacey's.  Those who criticize or sneer at the incompetence of the independent bookstore in the face of the more elegant and profitable business model of the chain store, or whose purchasing is dictated by the automated suggestions provided by the wizardry of online marketing, rather miss the point.  We do not do this, and Stacey's did not do what they did for 85 years, because we, or they, hoped one day to be rich as the result of of our labour.  We, and they, did and do consider ourselves rich in the books and authors we've known, the customers we've met, the generations whose reading and opinions we've cultivated and cared about, in the culture we've supported and sold.  We simple booksellers, in all our enthusiasm and old-fashioned amateurism, have done what we do because we believe, ultimately, more in the supremacy of the word than the dollar.  

And if that sounds too grand for such as us, perhaps it is.  We are ultimately peddlers, not artists.  But do please at least give us this: should Stacey's, and all like it, be allowed to go, do you really think the world will be a more art-full, or a better place?  Or will it be, simply, a more profitable and convenient market?  Nothing wrong with that, of course.  As you like it.

Meanwhile, my thoughts and my heart go to Stacey's and all who still love the books, and the booksellers therein.  

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dog of the Week

This is Sydney. She genuinely enjoyed sniffing the store thoroughly. She also seemed to enjoy her cookie, once it had been thoroughly sniffed. She was about as friendly as a dog can possibly be without actually bursting.
Good Dog, Sydney!

Cliff Mass Brought the Sunshine

Cliff Mass is here! Join our favorite Weather Guru while he signs books, answers questions, prognosticates and has a nice kibitz with the folks.

And, he cleverly arranged for the sky to clear (presumably only while he's here in the bookstore, so hurry in before the fog rolls back.

In the Bleak Midwinter

This morning in Seattle the sky is paper white. Coming in to the bookstore, Brooklyn Ave., as I cross it, disappears at either end in a fog as dense as pipe-smoke. At this hour of the morning -- early for a Saturday -- University Way is empty but for baggy-kneed runners and a very small lady walking a very small dog. The occasional crow with a bagel too large to be lifted from the gutter semaphores threats to rival diners real or imagined. The air burns just a little with each breath taken.

Now this is Winter in Seattle, as I've come to enjoy it. Not that mess of snow and ice we had in December. This, this is what winter weather is meant to look and feel, and even smell like in the greatest city in the Northwest.

Someone, and I think we all know who I mean, still has a great deal of explaining to do. Cliff Mass (his very name suggesting geologic time and the grand mutability of nature,) will be here at the bookstore today at 1PM to sign his book, Weather of the Northwest. Cliff Mass, our local weather Magus and hero of the booksellers' Christmas. Drop in to get a signed copy and tell him about the sand in the streets and the rain in the Scablands.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Follow-Up Question for Michael Downing

A new question from the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club for our author Michael Downing, about his novel Breakfast with Scot. Nick & Co. wanted to know if Scot -- the little boy inherited by the central characters Ed and Sam -- was based "on a real boy." Herewith, Mr. Downing's response:

Michael Downing: As a preamble to my response, I should say that I don't subscribe to the mystical school of writing. I'm never attended by a muse. I'm so conventional that I don't think I really understand what is real about magical realism.That said, I have to say Scot invented himself. It's true. I didn't intend to write a book about a boy. I had latched on to Ed and Sam and the intention to write a comic novel about nosey neighbors--something I know something about, as I have long been one of them.It's gets more complicated. I had actually signed a contract to write Shoes Outside the Door--a narrative history of the San Francisco Zen Center, the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia in the history of the world. After several months of research and interviews, I realized it was going to be a much bigger project than I'd understood--not least of all because I understood that I didn't understand the first thing about the 5,000-year history of Buddhism, never mind trying to get a handle on the slip-knot of zen.I got depressed and wanted to cheer myself up, and that's when I decided to stop and write a comic novel. The only thing wrong with the many first drafts I ditched was that they weren't funny. Then Scot turned up. He entered my imagination fully formed. He was wearing some really bad red corduroy slacks and dragging a boa. I had no idea who he was or what he wanted with me, but he'd just stand there is his slouchy, hands-on-the-hips way and stare, occasionally widening his eyes to convey his astonishment at my failure to introduce myself and get him a cold beverage.Maybe he was an amalgamation of boys whose flamboyant bravery I'd admired. Maybe I hauled him out of my fear that he was the boy people saw hiding inside of me. Whoever he was, he made it clear he wouldn't go away, no matter how often I raised my eyebrows or sighed audibly to let him know I was too busy to entertain visitors.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

An Interview with Michael Downing, Part Two

Further conversation with Michael Downing, author of Breakfast with Scot, the first book being discussed in the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club. To read Part 1, click here.

Brad Craft: Religion is at the center of some of your earlier books, but not so much Breakfast with Scot.

Michael Downing: I’m very bad at religion. I gave it up when I realized my practice was a fantastically complicated method of wishing it weren’t so.
I’m not unaware that one of the few tenets common to religions around the world is the illegitimacy of GLBT people—in fact, it seems to the one of the criteria for ascending into the ranks of the so-called Great Religions of the World. It also helps to have a lot of preposterous advice for women. And I know this has made for a lot of misery. But I wanted to get at something that resides well below the level of stupidity and hate and codified bigotry.
I nixed religion in the neighborhood for two reasons. First, I could. Second, I wanted to place Sam and Ed and Scot in a benign world—a world in which more people than not are trying to get it right. (Cambridge really seems like such a place to me.) I’d read a lot of novels about gay people whose identities were formed in opposition to the culture. I got interested in what was at stake when gay people were embraced by the culture—what was at stake for gay people and for the culture.

BC: Our Book Club host, Nick DiMartino is, to use his own word, "obsessed" with first-person narrators.

MD: I share Nick's obsession.

BC: Your earlier novel, Perfect Agreement and Breakfast with Scot both have narrators who seem to share, for want of a better term, a gay sensibility; bemused, ironic, self-consciously, almost preemptively, self critical.

MD: I love the phrase preemptive self-criticism. It conjures up the cartoonish image of somebody constantly punching himself to beat everybody else to the punch. It's funny while it's happening -- and then you see the bruise.

BC: You've said elsewhere that you "wanted to write a genuinely comic novel about shame."

MD: In the most highfalutin terms. For what it's worth, I wanted to make the literal text of the novel transparent. This was in part a measure of how deeply I had fallen in love with the declarative sentence. And it was also something about my own sense that Scot -- all of us, I guess -- was first and foremost a kid, not a cryptogram or a problem to be solved. I figured if the literal text was plain, readers would be in the position all of the other characters -- especially Ed -- are in whenever they encounter Scot: staring at the obvious and turning it into a Rorschach test.

BC: And a first-person narrator, in this case Ed, puts the reader in Ed's position.

MD: The simple answer is that both Perfect Agreement and Breakfast with Scot are novels about community and the first-person narrator created a natural tension. Both Mark Sternum (the narrator of Perfect Agreement) and Ed are reluctant to surrender their singular sense of themselves.
Also, I think I might feel most confident as a writer—maybe I mean, least self-conscious—when I am inhabiting a character who wants nothing more than to talk, talk, talk to the reader. Frankly, nothing makes me weak in the knees like a good conversation. My most rewarding and intimate relationships are fueled by conversation. After a dinner at our house on the first night of a long weekend with several long-time friends, a relative newcomer said he felt like he’d been shipped off to Camp Can’t Shut Up. That’s my idea of heaven: Camp Can’t Shut Up.

BC: Ed is also very funny. I was reminded of other funny first-person characters, like Bertie Wooster. Ed seems to me to have something of that same innocence when we first meet him...

MD: I am a devoted Wodehouse fan. I’d love to think something of him rubbed off on me besides the ink from all those Penguin paperbacks. And I think it is very generous of you to call Ed innocent. If you mean, Ed is one of those people who is constantly astonished that the rest of the world still is not behaving as he would prefer, I agree.
My sense is that the quality all the characters (in Breakfast with Scot) share is almostness. Sam, as a chiropractor, is almost a doctor. Ed, as an editor at an arts magazine, is almost an artist. The neighbors, the Burlingtons are almost a family. Sam's brother Billy is almost Scot's father. Scot is almost a boy. And so on. You get it, I'm sure. The tragic (or more often in bad novels, melodramatic) version of this quality is a sense of fraudulence, of course. I liked the idea of almostness because it gives credit for people trying, for having ambitions and hopes, for taking a shot at something -- love, style, a neighbor's window -- even though they have bad aim. Unlike fraudulence, which is a lonely, unspeakable secret we carry, almostness is something others can do something about, should they be so inclined. Fraudulence gets solved (if it ever does) by the self. Almostness is susceptible to others, to the possibility that completeness is not a singular achievement.

BC: Nick and others have all asked about the movie made out of Breakfast with Scot.

MD: I am so grateful they made it -- I mean both that it got made and that it got made by that particular creative team and not any of the previous people who'd optioned it and seemed not to understand that it was meant to be funny -- that I am a bad reporter. I know that the screenwriter and director and producer were very nervous about showing me the first draft of the screenplay because of the hockey business (the character of Ed goes from being an arts magazine editor to being a former professional hockey player in the movie) -- which I really loved, oddly. It seems to me a genuine idea, and it also had the virtue of turning the project into an adaptation, not a film version of my novel. I love the cast. I wish we had more time with the women characters, each of whom struck me as spot on, as portrayed in the movie. I totally admire Noah Bernett, who plays Scot, and the choice to cast a kid who was not conventionally cute or elegant. I didn't love the choice to make him a great skater. I preferred the idea that Scot didn't come with any compensatory skills or adroitness often assigned to outcasts. And though I didn't love the choice to put Ed (renamed Eric in the film because Tom Cavanagh, who played him, was too identified with his TV show "Ed" -- really) in the closet, though I thought Cavanagh was superb, and I think he put on the screen something really new about what a man will do to himself and everyone around him not to feel what he is feeling.

BC: When are we going to get another novel from you?

MD:All I want to do is finish my memoir, I’ll Make it Up to You, and write a novel. I've been waylaid by the facts for way too long.

BC: Has being labeled a gay novelist limited you at all? Gay fiction seems to be disappearing as a bookstore genre.

MD: As for limits—well, I think the project of my life has been learning to love my limits. I really don’t think my career has ever been adversely affected by my being a gay man or by my choice to write about gay people. There have been three editions of Breakfast with Scot and my publisher is bringing out a new edition of Perfect Agreement at the end of this year. Frankly, the only thing holding me back is what I don’t do every day.
As for “gay fiction”—it occurs to me that genre is a lot like gender. I don’t trust the various categorical distinctions, and I really never think about them while I am writing. I mean, who feels confident about drawing the line between fiction and nonfiction these days?

BC: Thanks, Michael. We'll be checking in again I'm sure before we're done with Breakfast with Scot. Any last thoughts today?

MD: For now: David Geffen throws a million-dollar party for Barack Obama before anybody thinks Obama has a prayer of being elected and two years later Obama invites Rick Warren to say a prayer at his inauguration party—that’s a sublime gay novel just begging to be written.

And a River Runs Through (the Store)... and Sits

This is River. He's only three months old, but look how good he is about sitting for a photograph without even getting a treat.
Good boy, River!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

An Interview with Michael Downing, Part One

Michael Downing is the author of Breakfast With Scot, the first selection of the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club, meeting every Wednesday at 6PM, at Dunshee House, and hosted by our own Nick DiMartino. The novel was made into a movie of the same name, that played here in Seattle just this past Fall. Downing is the author of three novels before Breakfast With Scot, including Mother of God and Perfect Agreement (soon to be reissued,) as well as plays and two nonfiction titles. What follows is an email Q & A based on questions that have already come up in our ongoing Book Club discussion. More to follow in Part Two.

Brad Craft: Thank you for agreeing to do this, Michael. It means a lot to be able to ask questions of the author of our first selection for the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club. Now then, family seems to be the topic, or at least the setting for all your fiction to date. In Breakfast With Scot, that family consists of a young gay couple, Ed and Sam, and Scot, the 11 year old of whom they become the guardians when his mother dies. In the novel, neither Ed nor Sam seem to have much family, other than the reprobate brother of Sam who leaves Scot with them.

Michael Downing: For starters, I most wanted to write about gay men whose relationship to the past was not traumatic. In practical terms, the absence of extended families made Sam & Ed more receptive to their neighbors -- and more vulnerable too. I mean, Mildred (an older neighbor who befriends them) might have been a little less bold had she noticed a woman of her age in the mix next door.
I also wanted to keep the scale of the novel small -- the lived time is something less than four months -- to preserve the fragile, indeterminate quality of the whole enterprise and of Scot himself. One way to do this was to give both Sam and Ed relatively uncomplicated pasts. This also increased their agency, I think. It put the burden of choice -- their choices about Scot, I mean -- squarely on them in the moment. Finally, I wanted to establish their reasonableness quotients so that most readers would want to be aligned with them -- and find themselves in the peculiar position of having to make judgments and decisions that would affect Scot's sense of himself.

BC: And yet, you have given the boys an extended family of sorts, a "family of choice," consisting of friends and neighbors. Many of us have created just such families in our own lives.

MD: That phrase "family of choice" was absolutely in the air while I was writing (this book,) but the comic possibility I saw was in the inverted idea; the problem of being embraced by families we don't choose, families who choose us. That's really the basis for Ed's brief against Scot during the first half of the novel. Suddenly, Ed finds that he's part of a vast, invasive, opinionated, extended Cambridge family. (The novel is set in Cambridge, Mass., where Downing still lives.) It's as if Ed has been adopted against his will.

BC: We're curious about your own family. The bio. on your website mentions your partner of twenty years.

MD: My pal Pete and I have been together for 25 years -- my bio. needs updating, I guess. We have both always been welcomed into each other's families. Lucky us, huh?

BC: Indeed.

MD: And we've lived in Cambridge forever -- a choice I never regret.

BC: And the rest of your family?

MD: My family story is not easy to summarize -- but whose is? For starters, I am the youngest of nine kids, and my father died when I was three. I'd say more, but I'm madly writing the last bits of a memoir these days, and I have to conserve my words. My childhood figures prominently in the first half of the book, and the second half is about a genetic diagnosis that recently complicated the familiar story of my life. The book's called I'll Make It Up To You, and it will be published at the end of this year.

BC: We'll all be looking forward to reading it. To get back to Breakfast With Scot, we noticed that Scot is yet another "lost" child, an orphan or all but an orphan, and that this seems to be a recurring theme in your fiction. Any thoughts on why that might be?

MD: Here's all I know: orphans and castoffs and castaways instantly evoke my pity and my envy. That's an unusual double-header.

Selections on Natural Selection

Beloved Helene Hanff, of 84 Charing Cross Road fame, when confronted by a book of excerpts from the sermons of John Donne, pleaded with her beloved bookstore to find her a complete edition of same. She knew her chances were slim. Having detailed her struggles to cobble together the full text on her own, she closed her letter with the following:

"i am going to bed. i will have hideous nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labelled Excerpt, Selection, Passage and Abridged."

I am, as always, with Helene. And yet...

There's a new anthology of Charles Darwin's work, called Evolutionary Writings, from Oxford University Press. Now I hate excerpts, selections, etc., as much or more than most, but this is a handsome hardcover and includes The Autobiographies, which one never sees in a hardcover of any kind. And there does seem to be quite a lot in this one fat volume.

I may have to have it. Still, by way of recommendation, I'm neither more nor less likely to recommend this book than I am the book Edward O. Wilson edited and introduce, From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, from Norton. In the case of the latter, besides Wilson, the book also boasts complete texts, BUT all bound together in one handsome but cumbersome brick. (Not that I didn't have to buy the book when it came out, but I've honestly never tried to read it after I read Wilson's introduction -- just too clumsily made to rest on the chest at night or carry on the bus.)

At least the new Oxford is reasonably sized for bus travel and late night reading in bed. But ultimately, one might simply be better off with individual and unexpurgated paperbacks, much as I hate to admit it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A. Lincoln Comes to Seattle

Thanks to our own Stesha Brandon and the good folks in our Events Department, we will be hosting no less a personage than Ronald C. White, Jr. on January 27th, at 7PM, right here in the store. This is exciting news. A. Lincoln: A Biography, Professor White's new book, was just released today and has already received glowing endorsements from the likes of James M. McPherson, Daniel Walker Howe, Harold Holzer and Jon Meacham, author of the bestselling American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House!

I've only just begun White's book, but I am excited already at the prospect of hearing so eminent a scholar speak on the 16th President. His earlier work includes Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural and The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words.

It should be a very interesting evening and I encourage everyone with an interest in Lincoln to come out to the bookstore to hear this author. I've just started his book and find myself sailing through to page 159, which leaves me only 517 pages yet to go -- and I fear the book will prove to be all too short.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Past & Present

It can be quite discouraging, reading and recommending GLBT fiction.  The gay audience for fiction seems to be aging, and the younger generation seems not to find short stories and novels as vital to their understanding of themselves and our common gay culture as we did and do.  Perhaps as a symptom of the wider culture's abandonment of print in favor of electronic media, or perhaps as the direct result of publishing's growing reluctance to support gay literary fiction as the primary focus of gay writing as an art form, but for whatever reason, gay fiction seems to have devolved largely into an increasingly genre-driven ghetto of YA, fantasy and porn stories.

A very interesting discussion on the subject has started online at, featuring two of the more successful gay authors of today, Michael Jensen and Brent Hartinger.  The interviewer and the writers all seem to assume that the great days of gay literary fiction are past.  They may be right.  (I'd prefer to think that they're wrong, and I suspect they would too.)

Meanwhile though, our own Nick DiMartino continues his effort to preserve and promote the best of GLBT fiction in the ongoing Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club -- meeting weekly at Dunshee House, every Wednesday at 6PM.  

Our first book, Breakfast With Scot, is proving to be the subject for a fairly wide ranging discussion of issues of gender, class and gay humor, as well as a grand excuse for homemade eatables, chat and good, multi generational gay company.  Author Michael Downing has agreed to answer our questions and has already provided us with a good deal to think about from our very first exchange with him.  (Keep an eye on this blog for more from the author soon.)

Please come by and check it out.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Another's Civil War

Taking the briefest of breaks from my Lincoln reading, before taking on the newest full biography, A. Lincoln, by Ronald C. White Jr. (to be released January 13th,) I turned to Walt Whitman tonight, and his experience of the War, it's devastation's and losses, personal and public.   A new book, Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War, by Robert Roper, tells not only of the great poet, but of his family, and in particular two younger brothers who fought in the war.  It is a valuable story, and well told by Roper.

Like most American families, Whitman's was deeply effected by their experience of the War.  Unlike most American families though, the Whitman family had a genius among them.  While the letters, largely unknown to me before, exchanged between the brothers and with their mother and reproduced here, are poignant and very interesting, it is of course to Walt and his poems that one turns to find their experiences, and the experience of our people, memorialized in unforgettable verse.

And Walt Whitman's own experience, nursing and caring for, and genuinely coming to love the soldiers he met in the army hospitals he visited every day, as detailed in an earlier and wonderful book, The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War, by Roy Morris Jr., produced in Whitman, our greatest poet, some of his greatest, and most heartfelt work.

So tonight I find myself reading and rereading Whitman's poems.  And one poem, "A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim," haunts me as I see our soldiers again in war; young, older, even my age, and for the most part never seen but in a formal photograph, in uniform, in the paper when they die.  Here is Whitman's poem:

A Sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray'd hair, and flesh all sunk about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?

Then to the second I step -- and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?

Then to the third -- a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you -- I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here he again lies.  

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Lincoln Q & A

Back in 2000, Gerald J. Prokopowicz published All for the Regiment: The Army of the Ohio 1861 - 1862. Now that is exactly the kind of Civil War title I actively avoid; military history, narrowly focused, the kind of title marketed to Civil War "buffs." Well, I'm no kind of war buff. Having read Shelby Foote's 3 volumes, I really have no interest in reading other titles on the subject. And yet...

I think someone gave me the Prokopowicz. I don't remember how long I had it. Finally, one very long weekend, for want of other history to read, I picked it up and read it straight through. It is not a brief book. It was, however, a fascinating story, crowded with well-intentioned disaster, interesting men, and beautifully told.

Now Professor Prokopowicz has done another very good thing indeed. Did Lincoln Own Slaves? And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincoln, from the Vintage Civil War Library, has just been published and, as the title explains, it does a great service by answering all the questions, large and small, that tend to needle readers, teachers and anyone interested in Lincoln. Well illustrated, well organized, and well written, it is, at only $14.95, a considerable resource for so reasonable a price. Drop into it anywhere, and you're likely find something you either didn't know, couldn't remember or never thought to explain with such brevity and sense.

Used Lincoln

Just a reminder: we carry a variety of Used Books, including, for the moment, pretty interesting collection of Lincoln & Civil War titles. These are usually just single copies, so once a title sells we might not see it again for a very long time (we've sold the complete Sandburg about four times, in various conditions, for example -- though naturally we don't have any sets now that the Bicentennial approaches.)

Friday, January 09, 2009

Abraham in Sound-Bites

I love Brian Lamb. How can you not? He's like that high school coach who ends up teaching History because the regular teacher is on maternity leave; he's prepared, got lots of notes, fires off questions like he's drilling plays, and he always seems uncomfortable and enthusiastic in equal parts. If you don't watch "Booknotes," hosted by C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb, you are soooo missing out. It is a great program, particularly for history buffs, among whom Mr. Lamb can clearly be numbered. He's not quite a TV personality, despite years in front of the camera, and that only adds to his charm.

Periodically, C-SPAN gathers some of Lamb's "interviews," or friendly interrogations might be more apt, into a kind of a book. Now, they've gathered excerpts from C-SPAN many wonderful Lincoln broadcasts, Booknotes interviews and the like into a new book, Abraham Lincoln: Great American Historians on Our Sixteenth President. It isn't really a book, at least not a book of essays, though that's what the clever editors are calling these interview responses and the like. Think of it more as a souvenir of Lincoln chats with some of the best -- and one of the worst -- folks in the field. Every entry is basically a bite-sized summery of remarks on a particular theme, say Lincoln on religion, by a particular historian.

There are a some genuinely bad choices here. The cover, yet again, is an over-designed cypher reproducing the revised Lincoln portrait on the new five dollar bill. All well and good, but faced-out on the shelf, there's nothing to tell you what the Hell this book is! Worse, included without comment is an "essay" from the reactionary fringe economist and "neoconfederate" favorite, Thomas Dilorenzo, on "The Lincoln Cult." This is like including neo-Nazi David Irving in an anthology in tribute to Churchill. Indefensible and offensive.

So, this book is not meant to be so much a serious bit of scholarship as it is a celebration of C-SPAN's ongoing and wonderful participation in the Lincoln Bicentennial. Enjoy it as a companion to the programming, but beware of the psuedo-historian included.

More Lincoln Remainders

And the Lincoln Bargain Books keep coming! Two delightful kids' titles from DK: Abraham Lincoln: A Photographic Story of a Life, by Tanya Lee Stone, $2.98, and Abraham Lincoln & the Civil War: Ultimate Sticker Book, $2.98.

Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Abraham Lincoln's Killer, by James L. Swanson,
in hardcover, for only $7.98!

The Trials of Mrs. Lincoln, by Samuel A. Schreiner, in paperback for only $4.98.

One Man Great Enough: Abraham Lincoln's Road to Civil War, by John C. Waugh, $7.98.

Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, by Allen C. Guelzo -- two time winner of The Lincoln Prize -- $7.98, in hardcover.

The Lincolns in the White House, by Jerrold M. Packard, in paperback for only $5.98.

Again, just a reminder on remainders: these books are available for only a limited time, so if you want to get copies at these prices, you need to get in quick before they're all gone.

We'll see more Lincoln Bargain Books soon, but don't wait or these won't be here when you come in.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Difficult Mrs. Lincoln

Poor Mary Lincoln. In her lifetime she became a figure of ridicule, pity and even disdain. Her reputation since has hardly improved. Most often she's been treated, at best, unsympathetically and at worst, she's been portrayed as a harridan, a mad woman and at the very least a considerable pain in the neck.

It wasn't until fairly recently, with the influence of Feminism in historical biography, that the poor woman has really found any friends in academe at all. Her most recent would be Catherine Clinton, who's new biography, Mrs. Lincoln: A life, has just been published. Clinton seems to have the requisite sympathy for her subject -- perhaps even to excess, considering her eagerness to answer every criticism quoted from contemporaries (and there's quite a chorus.) But however kindly meant, Professor Clinton's portrait indulges in the inexcusable habit of fictionalizing; dropping into Mrs. Lincoln's consciousness like a bird into a bath and then flitting off again, without quotation, reference, or any explanation of how the good Professor came to know so exactly the thoughts and feelings of her subject. Worse, Clinton, in her determination to rescue Mrs. Lincoln from her critics, is not above offering contradictory theories to explain the lady's excesses. One unintentionally funny example comes immediately to mind. Describing Mary's entirely understandable prostration at Lincoln's deathbed, Clinton explains how central being there for the moment of death was for the Victorian family, particularly the spouse. Mary Lincoln never got over missing the moment of her husband's passing. Clinton blames everybody in the room but Mary, as if the lady was denied her rights. But it took Lincoln hours to die, and in that time Mary regularly fainted and or became so vocally, wildly distraught as to have to be escorted from the room, thus spoiling the carefully stage managed tableau, and offending the solemnity of the occasion. Well, Clinton, blusters, Mrs. Lincoln was of Irish descent, and Irish ladies, it seems, tend to wail and keen!

It's all too much of muchness.

For a better, if no less sympathetic portrait, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, by Jean H. Baker, is a superior book in every way (one has only to compare the treatment of Lincoln's death in both.) Professor Baker's prose is less overheated, her research better integrated, and her understanding of her subject better grounded in the realities of daily life in Lincoln's White House and the period in general. No book I've read has ever come closer to making me, if not fond of Mrs. Lincoln, at least less likely to dread her recurrence on the scene. Recently republished with a new preface by the author, this would be the one to read.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Lincoln Remainders

Our Discount Books buyers have been scouting for Lincoln books, and the first few are in. Remainders, for any who might not know the bookseller lingo, are titles the publishers are discontinuing so the remaining stock is sold off at a higher discount, meaning lower prices for readers.

The prices are great, but the quantities are limited, so if you want any of these, you'd best hurry in before they are gone. (Once they're gone, they're gone for good.)

Just a few titles:

Holland's Life of Abraham Lincoln is one of the first major Lincoln biographies, published not long after Lincoln's death, by the founder of Scribner's Magazine. $7.98 in paperback.

Lincoln in The Times: The Life of Abraham Lincoln as Originally Reported in The New York Times, edited by David Herbert Donald and Harold Holzer -- two names that should be familiar to Lincoln readers (and to readers of this blog.) $8.98 in hardcover.

Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle to End Slavery, by Richard Striner. $9.98 in hardcover.

Black Men Built the Capital: Discovering African-American History in and Around Washington, D.C., by Jesse Holland -- referenced in a number of recent articles about the incoming administration and the changing face of the Nation's capital. Only $5.98 in paperback.

Many more to come, so keep an eye on this blog and the Bargain Books tables in the main lobby!

tell all your friends!