Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Our Blog has Moved!

. . . & we're so sorry we forgot to tell you! It's been a whirlwind for us here at the University Book Store but rest assured that book recommendations, reviews and general bloggy nonsense from our booksellers await you here!

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Two Booksellers GChat About Short Stories

 Anna:  Hi Seija!

 Seija:  Happy Short Story Month!

"Please, allow me to fetch that for you."
 Anna:  Yay! I'm so excited, I just found out about short story month and it's a perfect time to celebrate because I've been swimming in my love of short stories recently.

 Seija:  Me too!  We just finished Poetry Month, short stories seem like the logical next step.  By September maybe we'll be in Epic Fantasy Series Month.  Not sure if that's a thing...

 Anna:  That does seem like the logical next step. Poetry is language simmered down so succinctly and short stories have that same quality.

 Seija:  Totally.  Short stories have always had a magical, mysterious quality for me.  Like poetry, sometimes I'm in just the right mood for the emotional gut-punch that the best ones deliver.  I was trying to think about when I first discovered short stories, and it was probably middle school or early high school with some classic like "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson.  Do you have any memories of when you were first affected by a short story?

 Anna:  Ah, "The Lottery." Definitely a classic. You know, I didn't give much thought or attention to short stories for awhile. I started picking up some anthologies--one in particular I loved, The Art of the Story edited by Daniel Halpern--and I would read stories just to familiarize myself with certain authors' work. It's a great introduction for the non-committal reader. I thought I could just read a story by Margaret Atwood, finish it, then turn the page and dive into an Alice Munro story. But whenever I finished a story, I had to stop and just think for a long time. That's when I understood what you are talking about--the emotional gut-punch power of short story writing. What about you, do you have some early stories that really impacted you?

 Seija:  I loved the short stories of Ray Bradbury, collections like I Sing the Body Electric, when I was a teenager; they have this incredible melancholy mixed with a humor I can only describe as something like Americana Ironic.  I was also really into watching The Twilight Zone, and a lot of Bradbury's stories were adapted into episodes of that show.  Also I looove Margaret Atwood.  Did you ever read that one called "Death by Landscape"?  It's about these two best friends at summer camp, and one day they go on a canoe trip and one of them disappears, and her body is never found.  That story is so beautiful.  I like the disturbing stuff though, not sure if you knew that about me ;)

 Seija:  Also in that Atwood story the two girls have a ceremonial burning of a maxi pad.  That made me feel like I should've gone to camp!

 Anna:  That's great! I haven't read that one. It sounds like there is some eeriness in that story, which is definitely one of the things I like about the form. There is always so much left unexplained. A lot of mystery, a lot to interpret, a lot of negative space, if you will.

 Seija:  Yes!  Negative space is right.  Isn't it great that we both know what that means, even though any "space" we're talking about is purely abstract in our minds?

 Anna:  At least we think we both know what that means. I could be understanding something completely different than you, but calling it the same thing...

Seija:  So I just finished this great new collection called Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee.  It was kind of perfect.  I was able to read about one story a day, and I read them in order, which is unusual for me.  But there were so many sentences and whole paragraphs that hit that literary sweet spot where I just had to sit back and sigh and go "oh yeeeeeah."

 Anna:  WAIT. You read stories out of order? You mean in a collection by one author? OUT OF ORDER?!

 Seija:  oh HELL YES!  I absolutely judge them by their titles and length and pick at random.

 Anna:  Wow. I have a certain reverence for the collection as a whole. I'm really into interpreting the flow and order and how all the stories fit together. It's like an album...there can be an arc to the whole collection.

 Anna:  That being said, I do know that stories should be able to stand on their own.

 Seija:  That's a good point, and there are some collections that have an arc, and characters that reappear and so on.  I think a lot of the way I read short stories has been colored by the fact that I wrote so many of them in college, and analyzed them so deeply.  I know a lot of the time, choosing an order is about flow, but it's different for each author.  And who knows, maybe the author and the editor disagreed on the order.

 Anna:  True true. Maybe you are just inserting your own curatorial touch by picking the order for yourself. So...tell me more about the Rebecca Lee stories...I love a story where the language is so good, you want to underline every other paragraph...were there particular subjects she focused on?

 Seija:  Yes!  She writes really ambiguously moral characters.  There's one story where a girl in college in the 1980s during the Cold War plagiarizes an essay from an old book she finds in the library.  Her professor calls her out on it right away, but she denies it, and then she begins to manipulate him.  It's very unsettling.  Then there's another story about these young architects who are at a retreat at this famous house.  Not much happens in that story, but it's so atmospheric, and it turned out to be my favorite.  All the stories are told from the first person, and I had that weird experience of not knowing in some cases if the perspective was male or female.  It was as though she remembered my own dreams that I had forgotten.

 Anna:  Woah. I recently read Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. First of all, what an amazing title! It's of course a nod to Raymond Carver's “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but it has such a curious and odd twist because he replaced 'Love' with 'Anne Frank.' The titular story was one of my favorites. He loosely followed the form of Carver's story--2 couples in a house getting drunk together and ranting about big heavy topics. But what struck me about Englander's story was that there was a vivid sense of movement—the four characters went to different parts of the house, sat on the floor, stood in a circle, danced around in the backyard and their continuous conversation shifted with these movements. The story is about religion, Jewish identity, history, marriage, trust...

 Seija:  Sounds like he writes good dialogue, which is incredibly hard to do.  Ok, you have to go!  We could keep this going for a while!  Real quick: who are some of your favorite short story maestros?
Anna:  I know, I feel like we just got started!! My favorite short story authors are probably not from any obvious list of great short story writers, buuutttt I loved Junot Diaz' new book This is How You Lose Her. Talk about a collection with an arc and a lot of intertwined themes! Plus, one of the stories Miss Lora recently (and extremely well deservedly) won a British short story prize. Did you even know there was a prize for single short stories? I love the world we live in! Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche wrote an incredible collection called The Thing Around Your Neck, where she was able to convey such a deep sense of emptiness in her characters. I read it a few years ago, but I can still feel the loneliness and confusion those stories evoked in me. I also love to listen to the New Yorker Fiction podcast. There is a Barthelme story read by Salman Rushdie and the whole story is in questions! Amazing. Okay...I could go on and on...Your short story maestros??

 Seija:  Off the top of my head: Algernon Blackwood (the uncanny in nature!) Jerzy Kosinski (not technically short stories but his collection "Steps" will give you ALL THE BEST NIGHTMARES) shout out to Flannery O'Connor; Clive Barker, Lovecraft, even Stephen King gets a nod from me.  I guess I love short stories in the horror genre.  But some of my favorites by these folks are the least scary, go figure.  Ok, thanks for chatting about stories, Anna!  Let's do this again some time!

Anna:  Yes! Thank you! We only just scratched the surface...

Chaos, Remembered

The police in the small town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, worried briefly in 1974 about a man seen prowling in the dark, the red glow of his cigarette floating along the back streets. He would pace for hours, heading nowhere in the starlight that hammers down through the thin air of the mesas. The police were not the only ones to wonder. At the national laboratory some physicists had learned that their newest colleague was experimenting with twenty-six hour days, which meant that his waking schedule would slowly roll in and out of phase with theirs. This bordered on strange, even for the Theoretical Division.

So begins Chaos, by James Gleick, which in 1987 more or less singlehandedly introduced chaos theory to the lay audience. Although this book is astonishing and needs no particular excuse to bear mention, I mention it now for a few reasons: first, when I recently saw a used hardcover in our Used Book New Arrivals, I was flooded with all those wonderful chemicals you've heard about - oxytocin, endorphins (maybe even a stirring in a cannabinoid receptor or two) - and when you feel that good, you want to share it with the world.

"Books are our passion."
Secondly, we've been awash in popular science these days, and many of the authors would do well to read (or re-read) Chaos and review everything it does right. Like Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine, Chaos tells a story about science without softening sophisticated concepts to meaningless paste, and finely balances the narrative (the humans, with their behaviors and motivations) with the science (the math, in all its brain-busting glory).

Your standard chaos theorist: "Boy, do I hate being right all the time!"
And think about how much fun society has had with chaos! From Jurassic Park's Dr. Ian Malcom to Homer Simpson's experiments with the Butterfly Effect (nerds will recall in season 6, "Time and Punishment"), chaos theory has given us laughter, tears, and a table overflowing with food for thought.

Before I close, it bears mentioning that James Gleick's latest book, The Information, shows clearly that this man does not shirk from the most imposing topics, and is still keenly observing, chronicling and educating the world 15 years later. That's it. That's all I've got to say on the matter. And if this post seemed to lack a coherent structure, then I thank you, dear readers, for indulging me this - ahem - chaotic aside.

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!


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