Thursday, May 19, 2011

Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Around graduation time (and believe it or not, the season is almost upon us) we stock up on Dr. Seuss's classic Oh, the Places You'll Go! It's a pretty popular graduation gift, and while the idea of a picture book as a grad gift is really charming, once you see the same book go out the door a certain number of times, you kind of wonder what alternatives everyone's missing out on. This year our graduation display, instead of being just a huge stack of OtPYG, is a wall full of great gift ideas, and I wanted to share them in case anyone wants to get started shopping early. (If you still want to get Seuss, we are totally fine with that. No snooty bookseller looks, I promise. Just take a second glance at these before you make up your mind.)

Knuffle Bunny Free
by Mo Willems
If you've been following and loving the Knuffle Bunny series, this one could make you feel a little weepy. Parents have gone pretty misty after reading this book in the store, and with good reason. Trixie's spent the last couple books getting separated and reunited with the beloved bunny. But in this one, as Trixie gets older, it may be time to let Knuffle Bunny go altogether. A note to Trixie from her dad at the very end is the real tearjerker.

All the World
by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee
This extra large picture book is a fun read-aloud for three- to five-year-olds, but works really well as a graduation gift because of its beautiful art and its simple poetry about the world around us. Seriously, it gives me goosebumps every time I sit and read it through. Maybe because I have a lot of family memories that look like the ones in the book? It opens at the beach:
Rock, stone, pebble, sand
Body, shoulder, arm, hand
A moat to dig,
a shell to keep
All the world is wide and deep
and closes on the line, "All the world is all of us." It's swoony.

by David Ezra Stein
Stein's illustrative style is the kind of simple, splotchy watercolor that keeps surprising you with its expressiveness (Raschka comes to mind as a similar talent). In Pouch!, a little joey named Joey is wanting to leave his mama kangaroo's pouch, but keeps getting scared by the new creatures he meets out in the world. Every time he sees a new animal, he cries out, "POUCH!" as he hops back to mom in full freak-out mode. Finally, he meets another joey, and before they can each run to their mothers, they realize there's nothing to be afraid of. The second-to-last page says they "hop, hop, hop, hoppity-hopped everywhere!" And if you look closely, you can see a mama kangaroo peeking out from behind a tree, looking on with both pride and a little hint of losing-your-kid-to-the-big-wide-world grief. You can see it in her eyebrows, I think. How does he do that?!

by Mélanie Watt
For people who are nervous, shy, scared, or just graduating into a frightening world, Scaredy Squirrel is here for you. He never leaves his tree. His main fears are: "green Martians, killer bees, tarantulas, poison ivy, germs, and sharks" (so we have a lot in common). He even has a first aid kit in case of emergencies. But when he falls out of the tree one day, due to panic from the sudden appearance of a bee, he finds out something fabulous about himself that he never knew.

Other titles that are fun for grads of all ages are: My Book about Me, by Dr. Seuss and Roy McKie; Forever Young, by Bob Dylan and illustrated by Paul Rogers; and President Obama's picture book Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, illustrated by Loren Long.

Non-picture book options for older grads are coming this way soon. Keep in touch.

-Anna, Kids Books

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Something nasty in the woodshed, you say? Let's go take a look!

When recommending books to people, I often run into an annoying little problem. You see, it isn't terribly important for me to like characters in novels. Most of the time, I am apathetic towards “likable” characters, and they create a sort of negative space which is filled by the context of their situation. I can think of a few exceptions (to prove I have a heart): basically every character from To Kill a Mockingbird; the kids from Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy; the butler Stevens in Ishiguro's Remains of the Day. Writing about good people isn't that interesting, though when done well it really stands out.

While forming my early literary tastes (still forming, still stubborn) I often tried to convince my mom to read the books I was excited about. I raved about them, but only later did I realize how bad my advertising techniques were. She would ask, “But do you like the characters?” And I would have to admit that no, I didn't like them, but that wasn't the point! I loved books because of the philosophy, the imagined worlds, the foreign newness and the unexpected nostalgia. All the books I loved for those reasons also happened to be... somewhat disturbing. So, I have to own the fact that I enjoy creepiness, strangeness and moral ambiguity in my fiction.

Few authors manage to completely withhold value judgments, to write fearlessly about how people live, and those who do also tend to invent characters who echo our darkest selves. There is a spectrum of privacy in novels, which I think is not entirely within an author's control. We can only stand to reveal so much about clandestine things, scary things, humiliating things in real life; when a character is written, authors can reveal a little more by showing what they do in secret. But have you ever been reading a novel and thought, “that's not really what that person would say!” or (especially in YA), “in real life those teenagers would just start having sex right now?” In those moments, I wish I could call out the authors and demand to know what they're so afraid of. Then on the other hand, really honest writers make you cringe, make you turn the page with one eye open, anticipating, dreading what you know is coming next-- because you hate to admit it, but these things have happened before.

Last week I met author Donald Ray Pollock, who wrote the short story collection Knockemstiff, released in 2009. His new book, The Devil All the Time, comes out on July 12th. I loved the book, but I'm now confronted with my old problem: how to recommend something that is-- at least on the surface-- a book about bad people doing bad things? The blurb on the back of the book tries this angle: “...a novel that marries the twisted intensity of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers with the religious and gothic overtones of Flannery O'Connor at her most haunting.”
If I had creative control, that would read more like: “A novel that marries the hopeless corruption of P. T. Anderson's There Will be Blood with the poetic depravity of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird.”

The writing is great; understated, showing just enough so that your imagination is left to fill in details. The concept of “weaving” storylines and characters gets thrown around a lot, to varying degrees of success and relevance, but Pollock has truly mastered his chronology. He takes his time establishing connections between characters, trusting the reader to piece things together. The whole thing is just intense; although at first I had to stop after every chapter to collect myself, I eventually got so sucked into the story that I read the last 75 pages with feverish momentum.
Maybe there's already a name for this kind of writing, but I'm still trying to define why I like it. I think there's a moment-- sometimes a few pages in, sometimes halfway through-- when I realize that an author is not going to hold back. There's not going to be any omniscient code of ethics, no invisible hand to guide you through the story. You are like a stationary witness in a dream, and finishing the book is like waking up and realizing that the meaning you desire is arbitrary. What a thrilling challenge!
It would be easy for me to choose which friends to recommend this book to. But with strangers, I think it saves time to get right to the point. So, what factors contribute to your enjoyment of a novel?

(The title of this blog is a reference to Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, a brilliant book that truly has something for everyone.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Get Your Dystopian Fix

I've been having nightmares for years. Going to sleep is not something that I look forward to like I used to when I was dreaming of hugging dolphins and meeting the Dalai Lama. A large part of this is probably due to the fact that I have been focusing on dystopian fiction for some time now, definitely since I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

The Road really spoke to me ... and the storyline, characters, and prose has continued to reverberate in my soul. And while I do recommend it and the following books: I also include a caveat that lets the reader know, in no uncertain terms, that the material included in these fictions may well be fodder for nightmares of your own.

(Good) dystopian fiction that I recommend off the top of my head (meaning that this is not an exhaustive list):

I am Legend by Richard Matheson ... A classic. Really quite different and, in my opinion, better than the movie. This should be included in your Dystopia 101 course materials.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy ... No doubt this is well on its way to becoming a classic. Fans of the genre: if you haven't read this then you need to now! Kudos to C.M.

(pictured at beginning of blogpost)

Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh ... Great title. This book has a contemporary feel to it with characters that you might find traveling with you on your bus route (or in your carpool lane on your commute to work) ... Will McIntosh stretches what is ailing us nowadays, pumps it up a bit, and brings on the dark side of humanity. I am not alone as a fan of this book.

Angels are the Reapers by Alden Bell ... Current staff pick of mine, and recently a nominee for the 2010 Philip K. Dick award. I love Temple, the main character, not only is she a kick-a-- heroine, but she is deeply troubled by what it means to be human.

Enclave by Ann Aguirre ... Highlighted favorably in my last blog.

Drylands by Mary Rosenblum ... Brought in parapsychology before it was all the rage, as in the plethora of paranormal romance that now graces the shelves of scifi/fantasy, and did it well.

And finally, Burn Down the Sky by James Jaros (coming out sometime in the near future and I was unable to find any good cover art for you to look at.) This is twisted like Ms. Atwood's Handmaid Tales, with an even more perverse twang that not everyone will want to grapple with, hence this book comes with an 'R' for restricted (yes, I know this is a movie rating.) I don't want to upset folks with the material, but it was still well-written.

--Jan, aka Nightmare Girl

Friday, May 13, 2011

*** Judging a Book by Its Cover ***

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” ~William Shakespeare

What's in a name? Apparently quite a bit according to Feiwel and Friends, who recently changed the name of Ann Aguirre's first YA book, formerly known as Razorland, to Enclave. The rationale, according to Ms. Aguirre's blog is that Feiwel wants her book (possibly the first in a trilogy) to have a broader appeal, hence they changed the cover art too.

I gladly read Razorland with its cool cover showing a pair of tough, punky, futuristic teens standing strong against all obstacles. Now would I have wanted to read Enclave? With its generic front cover and horror-bent, somewhat subtle claw-hand with nails dripping blood on the back? Hmmmm? I hope so, because Ms. Aguirre's book is a good read and I remain curious about her characters Deuce, Fade, and Tegan even now.
Soooo, I was waiting for Razorland to come out, because I knew that I'd recommend it to those readers like me who like dystopian tales, with kick-a-- characters (“For fans of Hunger Games,” per Publishers Weekly), but it eluded me. And if I hadn't randomly picked up a new copy of Enclave I would never have known what happened.

Still I wonder how Kit Reed feels about her recently released book title being co-opted? Her book came out in paperback to rave reviews (i.e. Connie Willis is a fan of Ms. Reed's writing) last August and it too deals with an edgy set of characters with an unknown future. I can certainly understand a publisher wanting their book to appeal to larger audience, but I wonder about the etiquette in choosing a name or names to use.

I definitely can get past all of this … and I recommend that you do too, so that you can make room to sink into the wild world, one distinctly different from our own now, that Ann Aguirre portrays.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

When Did I Get Like This?

I just spent a lengthy vacation in Honolulu, which is, by many orders of magnitude, the largest city in Hawaii. I assumed that it would have at least a few bookstores to roam, and didn't think too hard until I got there about where I would browse for books when I got the urge (not that I needed to, since my suitcase was fully one-third packed with books). In fact, I forgot that I would have the urge to browse for books. I had it in the back of my mind that I'd look for bookstores and/or the nearest library as soon as I got my bearings, just for fun, but I forgot that I would start to feel strange, unmoored, feverish, and claustrophobic if I couldn't find a house-of-books pretty soon. I visited a chain bookstore in the mall to ease the pain, but it wasn't my fix. I found the downtown library, and sat on a shelving stool in the B's of fiction, devouring Aimee Bender's Willful Creatures until my time was up. But I was a visitor and couldn't get a library card (are there visitor library cards? I didn't actually check). I knew I'd need to have books to carry around, and I'd made the terrible decision to bring too many serious and dark books with me to a beautiful place. The mood didn't fit, I needed a refill, I needed to wander some stacks, and I was getting itchy.

I had mistakenly anticipated stumbling upon bookstores accidentally on a regular basis, like I do in San Francisco, but this city required a search. Thank the internet for IndieBound, which you should use if you ever find yourself in a similar situation. IndieBound has a big red button on their website that says "FIND BOOKSTORES and other indies" and when you click on it (or on that link, you're welcome lazies) you can enter your address or zip code, a radius (50 miles, for example) how many results you want, and BAM! out pops a list of independent bookstores near you. I had known about this theoretically, but had never had to use it, and was both heartened and a little worried to see one result for my whole island: Rainbow Books & Records, near the U of H at Manoa. I mapped a bus route and went forth to smell pages (cliche or not, you know we all actually do it).

This is what I found:

A little shop hidden in a strip mall, tall messy shelves painted in rainbow order (the store was too small for me to get red in the frame) with stacks of books in front of and on top of them. There were a couple of scattered stepladders, almost no other customers, and they were playing The Cure. It was heaven. Even though they shelve all their books horizontally (seriously, what?), it was fun to wander through, or rather to spend hours wandering, touching favorite spines and almost giggling with relief at finding those friends sitting, waiting for me to see them, waiting for me to hold them and open them, waiting for me to take them home. I was lucky to have instant text message access to a friend who could recommend the perfect mass market mysteries, and I had to search through pile after pile to find the right ones. The kids section had somehow merged with humor which had bled into graphic novels, so I was finding Pippi Longstocking next to Margaret Cho next to Marjane Satrapi, which I can't say feels entirely wrong. Without meaning to, my eye would catch on local authors— Sherman Alexie, David Guterson, and I almost whispered "Hi" out loud. I found books I was compelled to take down and find certain pages in, reading poems I already know almost by heart. It was more comforting than I'd ever expected.

I know I work in a bookstore, and I know I've always loved reading and books, but I have no idea when I became this sort of a person: I cannot feel comfortable without regular access to a decent bookstore. And even though it makes me feel a little crazy, it also feels sort of like a passport to calm. It's a secret thrill to know when I set foot in the door, no matter what city I'm in, that I'll feel a little bit home.

So mahalo for saving me, Rainbow Books & Records (they don't have their own website, as far as I can tell, so I can't link to them). If you're ever on Oahu and need an indie bookstore fix, they are, like us, located on University (Ave, not Way), which I found very amusing. Aloha!

-Anna, kids books

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Demetri Martin In Store Saturday at 6:30!

So, maybe you've heard of this Demetri Martin fellow? If you have not, go find out using the internet (or phone a friend). I'll wait.

Okay, so Demetri Martin has written a book, and he's coming to the store to promote it this Saturday at 6:30. It's called This is A Book, and like much of his comedy, it is really really funny. Good, right? Funny person writes funny book, yay. But just like Tina Fey's new book, Bossypants (which you should go read immediately if you haven't already), there's something super duper great about this that is not quite contained in all the author's other forms of entertaining-you-with-jokes. This is, I'm quoting the jacket, "prose comedy," a phrase that makes me want to barf but is describing something that it turns out is awesome if done well. The book has sections of prose but also graphs and charts, drawings, and a crossword puzzle where every answer is just the letter A repeated a certain number of times (it made me laugh out loud repeatedly, then marvel at the fact that I was laughing at the same punch line over and over again).

I kind of don't want to excerpt anything here, because I don't want to ruin the funniest parts, but I also want you to get all intrigued and come take a look at this book (see how difficult a book blogger's job is? You should buy me a beer). Below are some things inside of it that made me really incredibly happy (and/or laugh so hard I cried and ruined my eyeliner. Seriously, Mr. Martin, you owe me some eyeliner).

Palindromes for Specific Occasions:

Gently informing a DJ that there is a problem with the sound system:

No music is, um, on.

A comment said to a friend about the size of his old jeans, after he's lost a lot of weight:

Massive Levis, Sam.

A guy explaining to his friend how he feels about operas as he accidentally runs into a beehive:

See, bro, operas are poor--Bees!

Optimist, Pessimist, Contortionist

Take a look at this glass of water.

OPTIMIST: The glass is half full.
PESSIMIST: The glass is half empty.
CONTORTIONIST: I can fit both of my feet in there, no problem.

We found a lump on your neck.
OPTIMIST: It's probably just a cyst.
PESSIMIST: Oh God, I'm going to die.
CONTORTIONIST: That's my toe.

Your luggage has not yet arrived from Phoenix.
OPTIMIST: I'm sure it'll be here soon.
PESSIMIST: It's gone.
CONTORTIONIST: I know. I'm inside it.

Describe yourself in two words.
OPTIMIST: "Hopeful idealist."
PESSIMIST: "Cautious cynic."
CONTORTIONIST: "Fisherman's knot."

Protagonist's Hospital

DR. BARNES: We've got a Caucasian male, gunshot wound to the shoulder. Minor injury.
DR. STONE: Okay.
DR. BARNES: We're treating another Caucasian male who has a gunshot wound in his arm. It's not serious, though. He is actually in excellent physical condition despite having been in a high-speed car chase for hours after being shot.
DR. STONE: Sounds familiar.
DR. BARNES: Yep. Now, in those beds over there we have three Caucasian males, two of whom were shot in the leg, but only in the fleshy part and not near any joints.
DR. STONE: And the third?
DR. BARNES: Knife wound.
DR. STONE: Let me his shoulder?
DR. BARNES: Right.
DR. STONE: So, these patients are essentially all fine then?
DR. BARNES: Yep. And every single one of them also has an incredibly high tolerance for pain.
DR. STONE: Uh-huh.
DR. BARNES: And, incidentally, they are all remarkably good with quips, even while receiving medical treatment.
DR. STONE: I've seen a lot of that lately.

If this has not made you want to come see him talk, then probably either I've mistyped it or your eyes are broken. Either way, give it the benefit of the doubt and come anyway. He'll just be chilling in our little events space upstairs, you get a priority signing line ticket if you buy the book from us, and the event is free and open to the public. Here. Saturday. 6:30. There, I've said it three times now. See you there!

-Anna, kids books

tell all your friends!