Friday, January 28, 2011

Till human voices wake us...

What's the difference between reading a book and listening to a book? If you've listened to a book, can you say you've read it? Or do you have to say, “Oh yeah, I've listened to that.” The words themselves don't change, but your consumption of them is different.
I've been listening to audiobooks ever since I can remember, when they came on cassette tapes in giant cases from the library, or sat atop their accompanying books, encased in plastic, hanging from racks in bookstores (remember those?). My favorites were Roald Dahl books, especially Matilda (read by Jean Marsh) and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (read by the author), but I also had a tape of traditional Scandinavian folk tales which were sometimes too creepy but did the trick in a pinch. After my parents stopped reading to me every night, I would put on a tape and drift off. I dreaded the jarring sound of the big black play button snapping up at the end of the cassette, and learned to anticipate it and stop the tape just in time. Listening to stories by myself, over and over again became a habit long before I began to appreciate music or movies or TV. Remember the list of books that Matilda reads (at age 4) when she first starts going to the library?
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
The Old Man and the Sea by Earnest Hemingway
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Good Companion by J.B. Priestly
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Animal Farm by George Orwell
I will always love how Jean Marsh read that list; as though she was repeating the names of her own children. (Trivia tangent: Jean Marsh played Mombi in Return to Oz, one of my first film obsessions.)
Now I've always got an audiobook in my regular reading rotation. The last one I finished, Room by Emma Donoghue, was read by four people, including an uncanny imitator of a five year-old boy. That's my recommendation for a strangely riveting listening experience. I still haven't finished Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, because every chapter is like its own wonderful short story, and I can't stand to hear it end. My roommate came home one day to find me listening to Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Fortunately, nothing shocks her. I finished a lot of chores while listening to Steig Larsson's Millenium trilogy, and was enthralled by Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders. My first encounter with Neil Gaiman happened last year, while listening to his Graveyard Book, which he narrates beautifully. And did you know that Sissy Spacek reads To Kill a Mockingbird? It took me a while to recover from hearing her read, “You can pet him, Mr. Arthur. He's asleep.”
The thing about audiobooks is this: either you're hooked or you're not. My addiction seems to be particularly advanced. If I know I'm going to be taking a long drive, I start to worry about finding the right audiobook for the trip. Podcasts sometimes satisfy, if there aren't too many dishes to do or clothes to fold, but what happens when Ira Glass or Dan Savage or Jonathan Goldstein start wrapping things up too soon? Despair. I don't advise this level of dependence, but why not mix it up a bit? For the next book on your must-read list, give your eyes a break. The pleasures of being read to are not lost. Now who has my next audiobook recommendation!?!!?


Thursday, January 27, 2011

In Praise of Illustrators

We just got a bag full of beautiful F&Gs. These are advance copies of picture books, so called because they are "folded & gathered" instead of bound (but I always think it sounds like a curse, like "Effin' geez!"). I was all set to do a post about my favorites, except they're not coming out until May or June, and it seems cruel to get y'all excited about books you can't lay hands or eyes on until practically summer. So I decided I'd just let you know who will have great picture books coming out in 2011, and in doing so run through their other books that we love so much. It seems like practically all my favorite illustrators will have new picture books this spring.

1. Sophie Blackall, who in my opinion can do no wrong, will be teaming up with author April Stevens for an awesome book about a baby learning to talk. Blackall's illustrations are pretty much my favorite kind of thing: straddling a line somewhere between pretty and weird, so it never gets too cute or too ugly. She's responsible for the illustrations in Ruby's Wish, a favorite of mine, and the brand new---auugh! hold the phone! I am actually interrupting myself for real, not as a funny literary device, because while I was searching for that new book's title, I just found Sophie Blackall's website Missed Connections, where she illustrates missed connection ads from newspapers. Now I don't want to finish this post, because I just want to go scroll quietly down her website FOREVER. (And oh lord she has an Etsy shop where you can buy prints of them! I mean, never mind. Don't click that. I want all of them for myself).

2. Okay, I'm forcing myself to move on. And I'll do it by going to someone I love almost as much as Ms. Blackall: Yumi Heo. She does these bright, goofy illustrations that I just love, and she'll be illustrating a picture book by one of our favorite authors around here, Lenore Look. Look has the magical power, bestowed only on a select few, of writing really authentic kids' voices. Her kids sound like kids when they talk and narrate, and they sound like real, whole beings, not just one-note quirk factories or silly aw-kids-are-sooo-funny cutie pies. This collaboration is making all of us at the Kids Desk very, very happy. In the meantime, check out Look & Heo's Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding.

3. An illustrator who we're all pretty dang attached to is Chris Raschka, of Yo? Yes! fame, whose watercolors are swoopy and wiggly and expressive, and whose text is usually superb, although this upcoming picture book will be wordless. If you want to see a bookseller get all dreamy-eyed, just ask my boss about Raschka. It's really endearing to see someone get so swoony for an artist.

4. Did anyone see Planting the Trees of Kenya, Claire Nivola's book about Wangari Maathai? If it made you want to spend a lot of time looking at pictures of Kenya's rolling green hills and bony cows and expansive sky, you'll have somewhere else to turn now. A picture book set in Kenya by Kelly Cunnane and Jude Daly is coming out, and it made me go look up everything else Daly has illustrated. Turns out she's married to Niki Daly, a fellow kids book illustrator and author. See her illustrations in Way Up and Over Everything, where everyone is skinny-limbed and graceful and the trees look like they're wearing hats. Looooooove.

Um, I don't want to stop, but I actually have to. We have to close up shop around here and I have non-digital duties to attend to. If I had more time I'd go on longer about Giselle Potter's new one (she the illustrator of the lovely The Boy Who Loved Words) or nonfiction superstar Meghan McCarthy's new picture book. She's been featured on here at least once before, with Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum. Suffice it to say, just when I think all the rad picture books in the world have been written, there are more on the horizon. So hold your breath for the new crop of picture books, or better yet, start falling in love with these artists now, so you can be as excited as we are come spring and summer. Yippee!

--Anna, Kids

Monday, January 24, 2011

Something Norwegian This Way Comes!

I feel like I often start posts with something along the lines of "have you heard about this?" This time, I'm just going to say that I love graphic novelist Jason, and local publisher Fantagraphics (for doing the Lord's work and publishing his books here in the States).

While perusing the staff recommendations of a bookstore some years ago, my friend K. and I came across something that looked promising recommended by someone we'd come to trust implicitly. That something promising was Low Moon, graphic short stories written and illustrated by Jason (it's a pen name, by the by).

What immediately struck me (dare I say, both of us) was the simple, clean lines of his work. Every single line not only had a reason to be there, but it felt absolutely essential. While he occasionally makes use of color, he traditionally uses a pallet of simply black and white. His style is really, in every way, something of a shock to the system for me. I'm used to highly detailed works where artists are flexing a bit, really trying to show you what they're capable of. With his minimalist style, Jason impresses in a more understated way, but in a way that sticks with you. His anthropomorphic creations express so much with so little. Even in their failure to emote, they pull feeling(s) from you, the audience.

Appropriately, his art style isn't the only thing about Jason that makes him so distinct. His stories and the way that he chooses to tell them manage to somehow surpass the inherent beauty of his illustrations, which, in case you're skimming, is no small feat. With titles like I Killed Adolf Hitler and Werewolves of Montpellier, the former of which includes a spoiler in the title while the lattermost involves something of a werewolf battle royale in France, you can tell he's going in some fantastic directions. Even so, he manages to build worlds with rules and logic that you just understand. Aliens, Elvis impersonators, cavemen, zombies, pterodactyls, and pop culture references all fit perfectly into Jason's worlds. While at a glance the art could be seen as simple, the stories are anything but. You'll find highly nuanced short stories, collections of silly comic strips, and ultimately highly rewarding literary experiences awaiting you in his oeuvre.

As an aside, it should be noted that Jason will 'learn ya' things you wouldn't expect to learn. For example, did you know Dolly Parton originally wrote "I will always love you," a song that has been attached to Whitney Houston since The Bodyguard? This is something I gleaned from Why Are You Doing This? If you're a fan of this brand of random knowledge gain, I'd also recommend checking out the author's blog (with a name like Cats Without Dogs, how could it be bad?).

It should also be noted that much of Jason's work is brilliantly wordless. I can't stress how much I love, admire, and respect illustrators talented enough to pull off such an undertaking. As a fun little project, you should totally write a story, then convert it into a series of illustrations. While you do that, I'll be stroking this computer monitor, which is canvassed with pages from Jason's forthcoming short story anthology, Athos in America.

Oh! And to anyone who thinks they're too literary for an artist such as Jason: climb down from that horse! It's just so high. You might like The Left Bank Gang, as it features Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, and Joyce as graphic novelists. They also pull off a serious robbery. Some of them die. Gertrude Stein's there, too.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Don't Miss This Stop!

End of the line.”
“I said, 'end of the line!'”
I finally realized that I was being addressed, looked up, and it sunk in. I'd missed my bus stop. I had missed it by a lot.
That scenario has played out only a couple of times in my career as a bookseller at University Book Store: once when I was reading the YA novel Hunger Games; another time when I was rereading the sexy vampire novel Sunshine (for the third or so time); and now. I shook my head---in humor and disbelief---and then answered the question that the driver had put to me.
“What are you reading?”
“It's called the Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, and it's the start of a series called the Kingkiller Chronicles.” And, I thought, even though the main character's name is almost unpronounceable (Kvothe), it is well worth checking out.
Pat, Mr. Rothfuss, is scheduled to appear for a book signing event at University Book Store on March 1st, which coincides with the unveiling of his second book, The Wise Man's Fear. And I put this to you dear reader: the challenge to read his first book before that so that you can take part in this great occasion. It is bound to be an evening to remember.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I am far away from Seattle at the moment: Palm Springs, CA to be specific. And while the Pacific Northwest is bracing for snow showers followed by rain, the Coachella Valley's forecast is for clear skies, sun, and daytime highs in the 70s.  And still, I feel a bit homesick.  This has little to do with the great people surrounding me at the moment, and everything to do with the fact that there is no bookstore within easy reach.

I have plenty of reading material, or at least enough to get me through my stay--three volumes of the great Sean O'Faolain's short stories, which include some of my favorite stories ever, "Midsummer Night's Madness" and "The Heat of the Sun."  But there is something about the confines of a bookstore that brings me solace when I am away from home.  Seattle is blessed with a preponderance of bookshops. I could recount hundreds, if not thousands, of times I sought comfort in their walls from some travail of life.  Searching for, if not always finding, a book that would console whatever was troubling me at the moment--the ever thrilling promise of new discovery. And if not something new, then maybe revisiting an old favorite, even if I could find it on my own bookshelf at home.  Somehow, reading such a passage in public, in the open, made it feel more vibrant, more immediate.

My heart leaps whenever I read Virginia Woolf's climactic passage from To The Lighthouse, where James lands the boat, and his father says triumphantly: "Well Done!'" Or, in Persuasion, the letter Captain Wentworth sends Anne, love rarely rendered more passionately:

You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and  resentful I have been, but never inconstant.

Five years ago, I was in Clermont-Ferrand, France to attend its Festival of short films.  It was cold, snow piled into grey slushy drifts throughout the city, the sidewalks barely passable.  But across from the main film venue was a bookstore.  It didn't matter that nearly every volume in the store was in French (there was a small English language section), I spent most of the time between screenings there, trying to stay warm, and exploring the strange, almost otherworldly, books. I don't speak French, but I got a kick out of picking up a copy of Mark Twain or Don DeLillo, and seeing that it was translated from "Americain."  Not English, American.  Or French translations of H.P. Lovecraft's work, wherein the author bio on back begins, "Reclus, malade, misanthrope et √©minemment mat√©rialiste," which translates to "Recluse, invalid, misanthrope, and imminent materialist." Only in France would such a description sell books.

Last year in Palm Springs, there was a small bookshop that specialized in Latino-themed books, t-shirts, and souvenirs, but also had an eclectic, yet very interesting selection of English titles, both new and used.  Isabel Allende shared shelf space with Irvine Welsh ... I mean literally, the same shelf.  James Joyce, Mervyn Peake, and John Grisham were sandwiched in-between.

It has since relocated, to where I don't know.  The only books I've found are at the grocery store next to the magazines, mostly mystery series and romances, neither are quite my cup of tea. In another week, I'll be back in Seattle, where I can just march down the stairs from my desk and be comforted by thousands of books, if I so desire.  But till then, my biblio-loneliness persists.
-Dan, Events

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Black and White Make Gray

As readers, we all have gaping holes in what we feel we ought to have read by now. It's this constant feeling that we're behind that, for me at least, causes us to read when we'd rather sleep, eat, socialize, or otherwise relax in some mindless way. Perhaps instead of playing a video game. We all have different routines.
That said, we all have these gaps. I'm saying it's universal, and by reading on you're agreeing with me.
You know what this is building toward, right? My own literary shortcomings.
As I've said before, I'm not particularly strong or current when it comes to books of a series. This would include any of the most beloved series of the past century, but seems to resonate with people in a different way when I say that I've never read the Harry Potter series.

Before you ask how I work at a bookstore, how I'm alive, or any of the like questions, allow me to explain. When the first book came out, I had already jumped the region between Young Adult and Literary Fiction, and I was reading the likes of Twain, Swift, and Hawthorne. In my own mind, I had left that realm and had no reason to look back. Fantasy has never been of particular interest to me, either. Sci-Fi, sure. Technology and aliens receive a reasonable intellectual investment because I grew up in a Star Wars household. Children training to be wizards and witches didn't really appeal to me as a child, or as an aging child (what others might call an adult).
It didn't help that I was in high school when the first two movies came out, and being a white dude with a fair complexion, scruffy brown hair, and slightly rounded glasses earned me the comments along the lines of "oh mah gaw, you look like Harry Potter!" Then 'Griffindor' stuck as a nickname, and all signs pointed to avoidance with a side of disinterest.

Around the time of the sixth book was released, I remember many friends giving the series a push and telling me I had to read it. Fresh off of not seeing the third Lord of the Rings movie on principle (no title could warrant that amount of Oscars, a stance that I maintain), I felt "what could it hurt to miss out on this?" Working at a bookstore for the past four years, I'm sure you can imagine this series has been recommended to me more than once. More than a few dozen times is probably accurate. I did work the midnight launch of The Deathly Hallows, after all. And yet I felt completely comfortable with my ignorance.
Someone very close to me, however, had planted an interest in the movies deep down in my heart. They were fun and light. Nothing revolutionary, but a better way to spend my time than with the latest Michael Bay flick (eat it, Bay!). Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, it wasn't until the sixth film that I really started to feel like there was more going on in this world than the films were conveying. This thought hadn't previously occurred to me. In my head, they were always "those kids books." How complex could they be, right? I've heard about books/series like the Hunger Games trilogy, Going Bovine, His Dark Materials, the Chaos Walking series, and etc. so I've had some idea of how mature YA lit. is getting. Harry Potter had just always seemed on the light, fluffy side of things to me. Ohh, what a fool I was...
As you might imagine, I'm officially reading these books now, and beyond the sheer enjoyment of the prose itself, I'm enjoying the conversations these books start. I recently had the misfortune of spending some time in the hospital, and had two conversations that went a long way in both distracting and comforting me. Talking to the nurse at the registration desk about the series after she called me 'Griffindor' was a departure from my high school response of "yeah *forced smile* likeI'veneverheardthatbefore *mumble mumble mumble*." Then, when the anesthesiologist saw that I had one of the books in my hand, the conversation stopped being all business, and instead he wanted to tell me about his strict ritual of seeing the films in theaters with his best friend, and the pact they made to do so. He also gave me some encouragement and advice in regards to the the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix. He said that I "just need to get through it, because it's about to get so good." It has also led to conversations with co-workers that have been a ball. I'm not sure I've ever discussed any book or series to this extent, and never can I remember it being this much fun.

Basically, I feel like I'm on the inside of something where it's worth being on the inside. The diehards are much more fun than those taking a principled stand against the series. So if you think it's something you may not hate, give it a try. In fact, even if it's something you think might not be up your alley, you should still give it a try. I'm proof of the "what do we know?" factor. Here I thought I was too adult or too high-brow for this series, ultimately above it somehow, and now I can't wait to go to the Harry Potter: The Exhibition over at the Pacific Science Center and my eventual pilgrimage to the Harry Potter theme park in Universal Studios.
In the meantime, I think I'm just going to walk down to Kids Books and let Anna punch me in the liver.


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