Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Smithsonian Magazine

Smithsonian Magazine is a great general interest monthly magazine. Each issue features articles about events in American history, world or environmental issues, science or nature, travel, and art and culture. The current issue, June 2008, has pieces on Great White Sharks, the almost civil war with the Mormons in Utah, the golfer John Montague, and small private museums in Europe, as well as shorter pieces about artifacts at the Smithsonian Institute, sightings of rare species, and musical and artistic culture from around the world.

One of the founders of Smithsonian Magazine, Edward K. Thompson, a former editor at Life describes his vision for the magazine this way:

The magazine I envisioned would stir curiosity in already receptive minds. It would deal with history as it is relevant to the present. It would present art, since true art is never dated, in the richest possible reproduction. It would peer into the future via coverage of social progress and of science and technology. Technical matters would be digested and made intelligible by skilled writers who would stimulate readers to reach upward while not turning them off with jargon. We would find the best writers and the best photographers.

The variety of topics means that there's always something of interest in every issue and the writers are nearly always successful in imbuing whatever they are writing about with a sense of importance. Each issue also presents a range of article length and depth so there are pieces perfect for passing time in a waiting room or on the train and pieces perfect for an afternoon of reading at the cafe. Furthermore, the magazine is a great resource for people who have a general interest in history or art or science but aren't so focused as to seek out specialty magazines.

Because of its scope and accessibility, Smithsonian is a great magazine to flip through if you have no idea what you want to read.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cook's Companions from Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and No Reservations, is my favorite food writer. What I like most about his work is that rather than trying to tantalize readers with illicit descriptions of food, like much of what passes for food "journalism" on the Food Network, or assassinating careers like so much food criticism tends to do, Bourdain writes to convey an overall experience that has its source in food. He seeks an expansion of awareness and consciousness and the vehicle for that expansion is food.

It's a very literary perspective, so when he lists his favorite food books in The Nasty Bits, I put them right on the pile. Here are his four "cook's companions" in his own words:

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell was a revelation to me when I first turned its pages. Within I encountered Orwell's descriptions of his life as a plongeur (dishwasher) and prep cook at the pseudonymous Hotel 'X' in 1920s Paris and of his later misadventures at an undercapitalized and slightly shady bisto.

Nicolas Freeling's The Kitchen takes place in the late 1940s Grand Hotels in France. Describing his rise from lowly commis to chef, the author creates lovingly detailed portraits of chefs, sauciers, grillardins, entremetiers, patissiers, and commis. For its enduring relevance and accuracy to the world of cooks, Freeling's entertaining, near-perfect re-creation might just as well have been written today.

The king-hell, jumbo foodie bible, however, the Talmud and Dead Sea Scrolls combined, has to be Emile Zola's gargantuan masterwork, The Belly of Paris. This is a work of fiction set in the then spanking new central market of nineteenth-century Paris, Les Halles...Zola describes an entire universe of food, traveling through the bowels of the marketplace, describing, beautifully at times, the live poultry markets, the fishmongers, the produce vendors, butchers, charcutiers, and market gardeners of that time. Once again, the reader will be surprised by how little has changed.

Finally, there's David Blum's painfully hilarious Flash in the Pan, a savage and painstakingly documented account of the life and death of an American restaurant...It's an invaluable book for anyone who's ever opened a restaurant, or worked to open a restauraunt, and a cautionary tale, filled with the kind of hubris, stupidity, vanity, and desperation many of us may have seen, at one time or another, in our own checkered careers.

I would also add Bourdain's book A Cook's Tour to that list. He may have made his name with the tell-all Kitchen Confidential, but he writes as a true artist in the essays that make up A Cook's Tour.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

These are Jane Dawson's words (even though it says posted by Ellen)...I want to share with you three terrific literary books for the spring/summer: Hillary Jordan, won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for her first book, Mudbound. This is a powerful story of racial prejudices tragically played out in the Delta region of Mississippi just as World War ll is ending. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, is a stunning first novel. Written with grace and lyricism you are swept away into the mute world of Edgar, his family and the dogs they breed and train. In The House on Fortune Street, one of my favorite authors, Margot Livesey, tells a poignant story through four interlocking stories. As you read this subtle, but telling novel you realize what a tangled web of experiences lives are and how chance plays such an important role. Take any of these books or all three to the beach, the mountains or wherever your summer hideaways are and fall under the spell of great writing and good story telling.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Unfortunates Back in Print

Two years ago, Dale, one of our buyers handed me a comp copy of Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe's brilliant literary biography of B. S. Johnson and it has been a frustrating two years since then. Coe's book won the Samuel Johnson Prize and stands as one of the great writer biographies I've read. As a result I wanted to rush out and get all the B. S. Johnson I could. Coe explains his reasons for writing the book in this interview. Unfortunately for me, and nearly everyone else who read the biography, most of Johnson's work was out of print.

B. S. Johnson was an avant-garde British novelist in the late 60s who sought to continue the linguistic projects of Joyce and Beckett, pushing the English language novel further along. Every time he seemed about to break into the mainstream with an innovative work, the reading public refused to follow where he tried to lead them, and as a result he fell into obscurity.

I eventually read Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry, Johnson's darkly comic story of a "simple man" who decides to keep a strict account of debits and credits with the world, determined to pay back the world in kind for any deductions from his happiness. The result is an act of mass terrorism, but along the way Johnson dazzles with subtlety, clever meta-fiction, and thrilling diction. On one page, two characters exchange insults, passing the words "trituration," "helminthoid," and "cryptorchid," before reaching an "eirenicon." Along the way Johnson's novel predates the office comedy by perfectly capturing the sense of spending one's time in busy work. "At eleven or thereabouts Christie was told by Wagner to go over to Wages Section and fill a void there for the rest of the day." And along with the wordplay, the humor, and the experimentation, it has some of the best word-for-word writing I've ever read.

I nearly danced when I saw a copy of The Unfortunates at the bookstore. The Unfortunates is Johnson's infamous "book in a box." All of the chapters are bound separately and, with the exception of the first chapter and the last chapter, can be read in any order. Developments in printing technology, Coe's biography, and perhaps the literary advances of subsequent writer's in terms of the format of the novel (I'm thinking specifically of Mark Z. Danielewski
and Steven Hall, but writers like J. M. Coetzee, David Foster Wallace, and others probably helped too.) have paved the way for The Unfortunates to come back into print and to leap to the top of my reading pile.

Why I Love My Job Reason # 2

Every so often, when I least expect it, I get real-time validation for what I do.
Most of my time is taken up with looking at catalogs, reading printouts of inventory, looking up books and, in general, doing the behind-the-scenes stuff required by any bookstore to keep it alive.
With such a great front desk staff, I'm not out on the floor very often and, consequently, miss a great deal of discussion with customers about books.

But Monday. Ahh Monday.
One of the booksellers came to the back to say that there were some ladies out front who wanted to talk about mysteries. Whoa! Drop everything else. Someone needs me to talk to them about books!

And, there they were. Led by Robin Paul, twelve ladies from the Carey Memorial Library in Lexington on a field trip!

We promptly appropriated the round table in the back of the store and I grabbed a bunch of books from the shelves to begin our discussion. And, it was a discussion. I don't think that I chose any one book that some one in the group didn't know at least the author. Amazing!
I've invited them back anytime since I think they have a lot more to recommend to me than I was able to give them.

It was great fun and, even though I think I would have done better with some advance thought, it worked well for me and, I hope for them!

Read on , ladies (and let me know any new authors you come across).

By the way - reason #1? BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS

Monday, May 12, 2008

Henry Winkler/Hank Zipzer

Henry Winkler was at our little book store this Mother's day! I think we had about 180 people, with kids sitting on the floor up front. Winkler talked about how hard it was to get through school with undiagnosed dyslexia. He was here to promote his children's series Hank Zipzer: The worlds greatest underachiever. The series is inspired by his childhood experiences with a learning disability. He was so encouraging to the kids telling them that "If you will it it is not a dream". He got D's all through school and here he is- a writer, actor, producer, director...and most important an inspiration to kids with and with out learning difficulties. I was really very impressed with him as a person, so very sweet and kind to everyone in a very genuine way.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Another Unforgettable Dubus coming in June

I haven't exactly been combing through publisher's catalogs on a monthly basis looking for something new by Andre Dubus III, BUT when I first became aware that he had a new book coming out in June 08, it was a very good day. I am still haunted by House of Sand and Fog and I suppose the movie images have something to do with that. However, Dubus can spin a tale laden with atmosphere like few others. Once again in The Garden of Last Days Dubus has included the Middle Eastern sensibility and culture in his cast of characters. One of the four main characters is Bassam, a 9/11 terrorist who is availing himself of the services of April, a stripper who works in a seedy club in Florida. These two along with A.J., another client of the club, and Jean, caregiver to April's daughter are on an inexorable path to self-destruction. Reading this hefty volume was to be conflicted on a daily basis! I couldn't not pick it up but I somehow dreaded it because these characters just kept digging themselves in deeper with every move. I was in sympathy with some of them because their motivation was justified in that instant. But with the benefit of hindsight one could see how mislead and misinformed their actions were. He is just one hell of a writer in his ability to get under the skin of his characters and in being a keen observer of human behavior. For more on what inspired him to write this novel and about the guy himself, check out the video above.

Dubus will be reading at the store on Tuesday, July 29 at 7 pm. I can't wait.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Mameve is Launched!

On Thursday, April 24th we had a celebration for the launch of our very own Mameve Medwed's newest release Of Men and Their Mothers. What a night it was! The place was packed and Mameve did a fabulous job reading and fielding questions! A humorous and vastly entertaining story of mothers, mothers-in-law, sons and lovers. When questioned Mameve pronounced her mother-in-law "the worst" and Howard, her husband and always the gentleman, allowed as to how his mother-in-law was the most wonderful in the world. If you want to share your best or worst mother-in-law story check out Mameve's website, and just click on the link! Pick up a copy of Mameve's latest for your summer reading pile along with her other titles now available in paperback.

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