Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Night as a Book Giver

This past Tuesday was the 2nd annual World Book Night in America. World Book Night is a fantastic night, an event for which authors, publishers, bookstores and nerds team up to distribute free copies of books to members of their communities. The goal is to put a book in the hands of a "light to non-reader," someone who may not be able to afford the book, or someone who doesn't normally read for pleasure. I participated as a book giver last year in Port Angeles, WA and again this year in Seattle. This year I distributed 20 copies of Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith around Seattle's U-District and Capitol Hill neighborhoods.

I love World Book Night, and here are the two main reasons why:

(1) The pressure is off. When cash isn't at stake, it feels great to put a book in the hands of a peer. I get nervous, sometimes, recommending a book I loved to a customer. I've been given a good review, only to be disappointed myself. So it feels good to hand out books with a whaddhya-have-to-lose? attitude. And the soon-to-be reader is so much more likely to step outside of his or her comfort zone. I totally get it, I'm often strapped for cash and hesitant to spend my money on something I'm not sure about. (So many missed concerts! so many movies I didn't see!) WBN takes that financial pressure off, even the pressure of taste and preference. Most of my conversations went like this:

Me: Hey, are you interested in a free copy of a novel written by a Portland-based author?
Person: It's free?
Me: Yeah!
Person: Sure, why not!

Everyone loves free stuff.

(2) People talking about books, in the real world. I spend most of my time talking to people about books. That's who I am. I go out to coffee with someone, suggest we bring books and just get cozy for a quiet morning, then end up repeatedly blurting out how good my book is and reading passages out loud. I go out for drinks with friends and end up talking about Moby-Dick and race on the seas (stay tuned for a series of posts I'm calling "Blogging the Whale"). Seriously, that's what I do. But on World Book Night, I get to be that girl, but also change the course of a stranger's night.

Wrapping up my night as a book giver, I met a friend at a bar on Capitol Hill. I had three copies of Glaciers left, and spotted a small group of friends having a heated conversation about some band or some new album. They were smart, and you could tell they loved to get together and shout about things. It was a book club without a book.

I approached them and told them a bit about Glaciers, a little bit of the plot and the author. It's a dreamy nugget of a story about a librarian living in Portland. It's also a story about being a twenty-something today. About our misplaced nostalgia, about our love for thrift shopping and ephemera. And have you heard of Powell's Books? The author works at Powell's. And the book came out from Tin House, have you heard of Tin House? Their books are smart and smartly designed. Look at this gorgeous image of the actual cover!

So this cool group of friends could have blown me off, said no thanks and gone back to their original conversation. They could have taken a copy of the book, tucked it into a backpack and waited for me to creep away. But no!, they got really excited. One guy grew up in Portland, and loved the idea of reading a book set in his hometown. A girl there told me she hasn't read a novel since high school because she hasn't made the time for it. She loved the idea of this small, gorgeous novel and was curious how it packs all those themes into its pages.

Eventually, after a few minutes of excited chatter, I politely bowed out and headed back to my friend's table. As I walked away I heard them, still talking about books. One friend made the other promise to pass Glaciers on after he finishes it. They started to say how they should start a book club. And eventually they were arguing about books and had completely moved on from their previous conversation.


Monday, April 08, 2013

Between Books

It's a phrase I've heard often enough that when I finally stopped to think about it, I was sort of puzzled why I hadn't fallen in love with it earlier. It's an innocent evasion, fueled maybe by shame, maybe by shy honesty. Sometimes a reader will use it to prompt suggestions from a friend or neighbor. Sometimes a bookseller might use it to dodge the question.

I'm sort of between books right now...

Using the same gesture that we use to soften the reality of unemployment, it distracts with its tinge of spiritual journey. But when I first heard it for what it truly was, I was blown away by it. I pictured comically-large, Greek deity-like phantoms --- the books that we are between. The half-finished and abandoned Anna Karenina, a silent specter over the reader. The last biography you finished, its subject --- be it Cleopatra or Coco Chanel --- follows you like a handmaiden.

As a reader, you are between that book, that last book or that unfinished novel, and every other book you have yet to read. And as both a book lover and bookseller, I notice how physically true it is that I am always between books. I am between books on their way to their shelves, between books on their way to their readers, between books waiting on hold for their readers. I drink my coffee in the stacks between books, and I eat my lunch in the break room, between pages of my book.

In the evenings when I return home, I sleep between books! The books on my small bookshelf and the ones on my nightstand; the half-started book of poems, the advanced copy of a novella and my half-incorrect, scratched out and written-over book of crossword puzzles under my bed. I truly live between my books.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.


Thursday, April 04, 2013

Book Shelf Mix Tape

When I visit a book store for the first time and try gauge its potential, there are three sections I check right away: Science Fiction, Comparative Religion, and - most importantly - Used Book New Arrivals.
The Used Book New Arrivals speak not only to the character of the store itself, but also the customers who frequent it. The New Arrivals shelf becomes something of a mix tape, curated (subconsciously! How cool!) by both customers and book store employees, and at a glance opens a window to that particular book store's collective spirit - the community of reading tastes; titles that reach back and forth in time, and across genre; a beam of literary light passing through that unique book store prism, a spectrum spread before your very eyes.

That shelf, it can be chaotic at first glance - but stick with it. Stare at it for a little while and you'll see an image of the store in four dimensions. Stare a little bit longer, and you'll find a treasure worth taking home. Stare at it for years, and find your home filled with treasures.

And at what a price!


Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Last Three Books I Read

Something embarrassing has happened: I've been reading a ton of new fiction (circa 2013!) and neglecting one of the best parts of my job, which is sharing my recommendations on this blog.  Granted, I've written a few Goodreads reviews, but now that The Juggernaut That Shall Not Be Named has acquired the site, many of us in the Indie book world are reconsidering our relationships with Goodreads.  (Here's a summary of what went down.  Those of you active on Goodreads: do you plan on remaining a member?  How will this development change your activity?  Tell us in the comments!)
This blog, right here, is a free and open place to talk about books, and sometimes I get so busy that I forget how much I have to say.  So let's break it down!

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine
by Teddy Wayne
It's impossible to talk about this book without bringing up Justin Beiber.  Ironically, true Beiber fans will probably never read this book, and people who read this book may never attend a J.B. concert or buy one of his albums.  But somehow that teenage millionaire makes his presence known even in places like the office of an independent bookstore, as evidenced today when I overheard a few of my coworkers discussing a recent news story about Beiber's new pet monkey.  Comparisons were drawn to Michael Jackson and Bubbles (did you guys know that Bubbles is still alive?!), and there was an implicit, tragi-comic consensus that for a celebrity, owning a primate somehow signals the beginning of the end.  After reading Teddy Wayne's novel about a Beiber-esque prepubescent pop star, my reactions to conversations like these are twofold: first, I feel an intense need to put The Love Song of Jonny Valentine into everyone's hands.  Second, I realize that many people don't value the deep analysis of pop culture icons like I do.  Maybe the discovery of what lies beneath a manufactured fa├žade (corruption, superficiality, greed) doesn't have the same thrill for you as it has for me.  But there's more to this novel than the pulling back of a big glittery curtain.  It can be read as a parable of choice: what it means to be a parent and choose to put your child in the machinery of fame; what it means to emerge from childhood already a superstar, with a personal identity inextricable from a lucrative brand, and realize that there may be other ways to live.  This novel is sensitive and well-written, but it's also brutally honest about the world we live in.  It will make you reconsider the inner lives behind those faces on the tabloid covers, and that action is one that requires a worthwhile empathy.

The Rosie Project
by Graeme Simsion
This one's not out until October, sadly.  It would make the most fantastic vacation read!  I loved this as much as Bridget Jones' Diary, and it has a similar tone-- an incredibly awkward protagonist (how refreshing to finally have a romantic comedy from the male point of view!), a non-American locale (Melbourne, Australia) and a kind of slapstick humor that I think is probably very difficult to pull off for most writers.  With his debut novel, Graeme Simsion achieved a truly amazing feat: he wrote a book about relationships and gender dynamics without relying on gender stereotypes.  In fact, just about everything that happens in this story subtly challenges the old and tedious tropes of heterosexuality, without ever resorting to preachiness.  It's just very real-seeming people figuring out what they want.  I'm hesitant to reveal any more about the plot; you should really just grab a copy when it comes out and discover these unique and hilarious characters for yourself.  I found this novel to be a wonderful, optimistic surprise.

by Hugh Howey
Aaaaaand I read some Sci-Fi!  How did that happen?!?  Ok, this one's really more Post-Apocalyptic (can we shorten that already?  Po-Ap?  You read it here first, folks!) but it's becoming apparent with the raging success of this new series that no matter what your genre, a page-turner is a page-turner.  For me, Wool was one of those reading experiences that made me want to watch the movie adaptation IMMEDIATELY.  That reaction can have its pros and cons, but ultimately, Wool is a book I recommend, if mostly on the merits of an extremely original premise and some fascinating worldbuilding.  Howey imagines a future where all of humanity has been distilled into a few thousand, all living underground in a massive silo.  Their only means of travel inside the silo is a giant spiral staircase connecting hundreds of levels.  This image affected me more than anything else in the book, and I liked the idea of many generations living in a confined space, so much time passing that eventually the human perception of the universe becomes limited to a vertical tube.  I found the metaphors to be a bit simplistic (when the world is shrunk down into a literal microcosm, sometimes there's equally little to engage with on a more abstract level.) but the characters are well-drawn and sympathetic, and I was constantly skipping ahead to see what would happen next.  This is an adult novel, but I think teenagers will love it, too.

Now I'm reading a book called Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee (out in June), and I'm revelling in the delicious, familiar realm of literary fiction (PoMo!).  I'm nearly finished, and I can't wait to tell you about it.  But I'll save that for the next post!
Happy Reading!


Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Staff Rec's Keep Coming!

 Here are four more books that come with a University Book Store bookseller stamp of approval!

 The Expats by Chris Pavone is "an intelligent, complicated, yet easy read --- with a clever plot and a fast pace. I enjoyed it immensely!," writes Mary.
 Mary also recommends The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths! She says, "This series is so good. I read the first four books in a week. Ruth is a forensic archeologist living in a remote area of the Norfolk coast. Griffiths has created a unique & quite likeable main character, involved her in cases full of ancient British mythology and history and surrounded her with an interesting cast."

Kathy Z. shares her thoughts on The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker: "A coming-of-age story in a world coming to an end, this debut novel is moving and somber. but never despairing. It's also free of the violence and mayhem of many novels set in the near-future --- the world is ending not with a bang, but with a whimper. How would you organize your life if everything around you were changing, maybe ending? This is a beautifully written book, simple, but never simplistic, which will leave you with lots to think about. Appropriate for young teens as well as adults."

 And here's a staff review of Nell Leyshon's The Colour of Milk, written by Seija: "This will be one of your favorite books of 2013! Get ready to be charmed, sassed and devastated in equal measure by Mary, the protagonist and 'writer' of this Regency story that is decidedly anti-Austen. You will not soon forget this tale."

Want more staff reviews? Keep checking back with us. Also, if there is a book you absolutely can't stop talking about, tell us about it! Believe it or not, we're always looking for more to read...

tell all your friends!