Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Flotsam & Favorites

What does The 99 Critical Shots in Pool have in common with Flotsam, a wordless children's picture book? What could possibly connect Patrick Hamilton, the long dead thriller writer who penned the play Gaslight, with the ultra-hip contemporary author Nick Hornby? Is there really a great book out there that talks about the Church of the Evolved Lamb?

The answers to all of these questions are in the first annual readers' favorites issue of Kash's Book Corner. I solicited titles from friends and colleagues, with the result being a remarkably eclectic list. I started with the intention of uncovering the great books of 2006, but soon discovered that no one, besides book critics, has any idea of what year a book was released. In the end, what does it even matter? Instead, we have a list of great books that were read in 2006.

Here's the list, in no particular order:

99 Critical Shots in Pool by Ray Martin and Rosser Reeves was the selection of one of my esteemed sales reps who has been playing pool with his wife this past year. "It's not for everyone, but if you know only one or two critical shots and want to learn a lot more, this is the book for you! There is no plot to confuse you, and there are no characters to remember. And when you finish, you can give yourself a name like 'The Viper,' or 'The Meatman,' or 'The Plague from the Hague.'"

Flotsam by David Wiesner was the pick by one of our children's room booksellers. "You fill in your own words in this fabulous picture book that blew my mind."

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton is just one of a great series of titles, according to one of my university press sales reps. "Europa Editions is really growing on me - they are something like the wonderful New York Review of Books series of found classics, and my favorite of the few I read this year was Hangover Square, a World War II era thriller."

It turns out that Nick Hornby recommends books as well as he writes them. His collected book journal, Housekeeping Vs. Dirt was the favorite of one of our booksellers, who said, "I read five other books because of what he wrote, including all of the Marjane Satrapi books."

Where can you go to worship the evolved lamb? Well you will have to read Android's Dream by John Scalzi. It's one of four science fiction books that made the list of the most voracious reader that I know. Despite many books to choose from, he managed to narrow his list down to four books. That's like the rest of us trying to name a favorite chapter of the year. He reads that much. Here are the rest of his Sci Fi titles: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, Rollback by Robert Sawyer (one of the few science fiction authors that I personally enjoy) and Widdershins by Charles de Lint.

The only other person to pick a science fiction title was a long-time colleague at the store. She reads all of the books that the rest of us pretend we don't enjoy, like romances and horror novels. Her pick, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, doesn't come out until the Spring of 2007. "It's an absorbing epic with realistic storytelling about an orphan with an aptitude for magic who goes to a university to become an alchemist." When I asked her where it took place, she looked at me as though I were an alien and said, "not in our world."

My assistant, an Indian-born Tibetan with a love for movies, gave his highest possible praise to Jimmy Santiago Baca's memoir A Place to Stand. "It's like a Bollywood movie, but it's real. He grows up with the gangs and he goes to prison. It's incredible. Just like Bollywood."

Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund was the favorite of one of our marketers. "I went to Versailles and I didn't like it because they herded you through the rooms like cattle. Through this book I saw the rooms in a different light. Also, I really liked the writing."

The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian garnered a rave review from our staff manager. "It's an epic story that's a total redux of the Biblical flood. He brings in theology, his personal experience and his research. It's incredible."

The Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick was "well written and well researched," according to the store's history expert. "He didn't have preconceived notions about what the story would be, and he isn't always politically correct. The first generation got along but the second generation forgot all of the lessons and that led directly to King Phillip's War. There are so many parallels to George W. Bush. They thought God was on their side and that they didn't need diplomacy."

Despite being out of print, Grey is the Color of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya got a hearty endorsement from an old friend. "Ratushinskaya was a Russian political prisoner sent to Siberia. Grey was the color of the uniforms and pretty much the color of Siberia. She was a poet in her native language, so the writing is also good with a lot of symbolism. It's just a great story about human spirit and resilience."

My Penguin rep profferred two Penguin titles, Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb and The Rug Merchant by Meg Mullins. I don't blame him for cheering on his home team since Penguin puts out a lot of tremendous titles. And what else can he read when he has so many books on his list every few months? Here's what he has to say about these two novels:

"Sweetness in the Belly is a loving and affecting look at Islam from the point of view of an English orphan raised by a Sufi prophet, come of age in Ethiopia at the time of the revolution there, and living as an adult in an immigrant enclave of London. The astoundingly genuine voice makes it difficult to remember that it's fiction. And, it is a viewpoint on Islam that is lacking in most of what we see and hear; that is, that there is solace and peace to be found there, if one knows how to look."

"The Rug Merchant is the story of two very unlikely lovers, an Iranian immigrant rug merchant in New York and a college girl from a conventional and reasonably well-off American family. At once sad and sweet, it is a gentle and touching story of a love that can never truly be. The poignancy of the ending is superb."

My friend, the author Louise Ross, went a step further than my Penguin rep by self-promoting her novel Baking at Midnight. She wrote, "For local readers who enjoy chic lit, Baking at Midnight is great fun, a light read, and it has been a Boulder Bookstore bestseller!" Louise's book was easily the store's most successful self-published book of 2006. That's saying a lot since we get dozens of self-published titles every month.

Other titles that were mentioned:

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld.
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov.
One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson.
Wolf Brother (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness) by Michelle Paver and Geoff Taylor.
Fallen by David Maine.
Kill Me by Stephen White.
Fever and Spear (Your Face Tomorrow trilogy) by Javier Marias.
Dance and Dream (Your Face Tomorrow trilogy) by Javier Marias.
Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills.
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemerovsky.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.
River Secrets by Shannon Hale.
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. (928 pages, by the way).
Anomaly by Anne Fleming.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace.
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.
Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost.
Postwar by Tony Judt.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Armenian Question

My grandfather, who died earlier this year, was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. As a child, he escaped from Turkey with his family and spent his formative years in Marseilles, France with his mother and two siblings. In France, he organized dances, sold newspapers and became a tailor to earn money. His father finally saved enough to bring the rest of the family to America in the late 1920s.

In Philadelphia, my grandfather began a career as a tailor. He soon opened a dry cleaning location and the rest, as they say, is history. My uncles and cousins still run the operation, which has grown and changed many times over the last 75 years. During his long career, my grandfather helped bring many Armenians over from Turkey. My childhood holidays seemed like a long procession of thickly accented people thanking him, eating with him and always laughing as they pinched my cheeks.

My grandpa (left) with his younger brother Clem in 2004.

When I visited him at his office in Philadelphia every year -- he worked up until the end of his life -- we used to go across the Delaware river into New Jersey for lunch with various uncles and cousins to his favorite diner. One of the highlights for him during the meal would be to speak to a Turkish busboy or waiter in their native language. He took real pleasure in these conversations. He'd turn to us after the conversation and tell us something about the waiter: "His family's from Istanbul," or "He was a lawyer in Ankara."

A few years ago, I asked him how he managed to get along so well with these Turks given the enmity that existed between them and the Armenians over the years. "You were there during the worst time," I said. He turned serious very quickly. The twinkle in his eye became a steely gaze and I worried that perhaps he was finally going to carry out his old threat of pulling my ear. "These kids don't know anything about what happened. They didn't have anything to do with that. They're trying to make a good life for themselves here."

That was his attitude in a nutshell. He was always looking towards the future. He was unwilling to put the sins of the father on the sons. He was looking for common ground, not things that divided people. The rest of my family does their best to emulate this attitude. I can't say that they are as successful as he was, but at least they try. I also do everything I can to take this lesson to heart in my own life. Heck, I even try to extend it to the Republicans I know.

This is perhaps why I read Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul with a mixture of fascination and alarm. The Armenian-Americans in this new novel don't resemble my family at all. I have always known that many, perhaps most Armenians, didn't take the same attitude as my grandfather towards the Turkish people, but to see them portrayed in such a harsh light was a shock. Shafak's Armenian-Americans have so thoroughly bonded around their hatred of the Turks that it colors their whole perception of the world. It reminded me of the Cubans in Florida, waiting for Castro to die so that they can reclaim their place in a society that doesn't really exist anymore.

Shafak has written a courageous novel that looks at the Armenian-Turkish question from many different angles. She has faced trial in Turkey for using the word genocide when referring to the -- well, genocide -- of the Armenians during World War I. The novel focuses on an Armenian-American family in San Francisco and a Turkish family in Istanbul; the two are connected when a young woman from the American family travels from San Fransisco to Istanbul. Most of the contemporary Turkish people in her novel are ignorant of the events of the past, though some have swallowed the government propaganda and accuse the Armenians of exaggeration. The Armenians who live in Istanbul have moved on from that horrific time, finding a way to survive and even thrive in the multicultural milieu of modern Turkey. It's the haunted Armenian-American characters who can't move on.

I imagine it's a true portrayal of many Armenian-Americans based on the constant stream of literature I receive in the mail from various Armenian groups. They track every utterance from the Turkish government on the genocide, pressure the U.S. Congress to force Turkey to recognize the holocaust, and always object to Turkey's possible entry into the European Union. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to see Turkey acknowledge what happened during World War I, but I have no interest in building my identity around it.

In fact, in terms of making the world aware of what happened, nothing could be better than what is occurring now. Turkey tries to prosecute its top novelists, including the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pumuk, as well as artists and even cartoonists for mentioning the holocaust, and each time it makes world news. I sometimes wonder if Turkey did an about-face and held a ceremony honoring the slain Armenians, if everyone would just start ignoring the genocide a month later.

All of the politics seem like a theoretical exercise to me. In my everyday life, the one real issue that occasionally comes up is how should I respond to a Turkish immigrant. Do I identify myself as an Armenian and risk an awkward conversation? Do I stay silent and ignore the similarities of our cultures and our shared and painful history? On a recent trip to Chicago, a cab driver with a thick accent was going on about how family is the most important thing in life and you should cherish your wife, when something in how he phrased the words made me think of one of the many good-natured lectures my grandfather had delivered to me over the years. I asked him where he was from. "I'm from Turkey," he responded.

I hesitated for a moment, worried that he might be wary of me, before telling him that I was an Armenian. He turned completely around in the car, his face lit up with joy, despite the fact that our lives were in jeopardy as he careened down Michigan Avenue facing backwards. "Where did your family come from?" he asked. "Near Ankara. A town called Yozgat," I responded.

The rest of the trip flew by. He told me of his children: "Real Americans." I told him that I wanted to visit Turkey and see my grandfather's home. He said that I would love it and that the Turkish people were very friendly. I asked him where I could get the best Turkish or Armenian food in Chicago, and he lamented the lack of good Turkish cuisine in the windy city. "You know, the best food is the Lebanese place, Fattoush, a few miles from here. They have everything."

Sure, I could have kept my mouth shut when he told me that he was Turkish. Perhaps, I could have berated him for what happened in 1915. Instead, I did what I thought my grandfather would have done in the same situation. I greeted him with openess and focused on how much we had in common. We had a great conversation, and later in the week I took some colleagues out for a wonderful meal of shish kebab. My only regret is that I couldn't talk to the waiters in their native language.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Notes from the Christmas Front

The Misunderstood Jew?
Christmas is just three weeks away and Jesus is nowhere to be found on the retail floor. Sure, it's all very friendly and polite at this point. The clerks are still energetic and the customers are in high spirits because they are finding almost everything they want. Still, even though a Christian spirt of brotherhood prevails, I wonder what any of this shopping mania has to do with a religious holiday.

In the past, I would have rolled my eyes at the thought of a retail Jesus, but I just spent four days among theologians, seminary students, and professors at the Academy of American Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Trust me, there is a lot of money to be made in selling Jesus. I don't mean the kitsch Christ or the politically co-opted savior. I'm talking about the serious pursuit of trying to decipher Jesus' teachings and his times.

I worked in the HarperSanFrancisco booth for the event, and there was a fully stocked section of Jesus books. One was Ben Witherington's What Have They Done to Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History -- Why We can Trust the Bible. Of course, Witherington's HarperSanFrancisco stable mate, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (by Bart Ehrman), might prove a useful retort, making the point that putting our faith in the veracity of the bible might not be a great idea.

We also sold Marcus Borg's new biography of Christ, if you can call any book about Jesus a true biography, titled Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. But the surprise hit of the meeting for us was The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine. It would be an exaggeration to say there was a Harry Potter-like excitment around these books, but The Misunderstood Jew did acheive a level a devotion usually reserved for Lemony Snickett or Kurt Vonnegutt.

When I returned to the store, I can honestly say that with the possible exception of Misquoting Jesus, which came out last year and was helped immensely by Ehrman's humorous but informative appearance on the Daily Show, these books didn't even register a blip on the consciousness of our customers. Yes, it is true that Buddhism seems to be Boulder's dominant religion, at least as far a book buying is concerned, but I know there also is a large Christian community here. My wife has shepherded me into a few different churches, and they are always packed during the holidays. By the way, my advice for people getting dragged to church a couple of times a year is to get the person dragging you to opt for Palm Sunday over Easter Sunday. It's much less crowded and the sermon is less predictable.

The one thing in short supply at the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting seemed to be books on Satan. I had one customer in Washington ask me if there were any HarperSanFrancisco books on Satan's evil. I jokingly replied, "No, but we've got a few on the good Satan." Not getting the joke, he perked up and asked me where they were. Now, a book on the positive qualities of the Devil might be something we can sell at both next year's AAR/SBL show as well as in the store as a fun little Christmas gift.

What are the Big Books?

The other day I was lamenting the fact that it was now December and it was impossible to tell what books were really going to take off during the holiday season. One of my assistants, who has worked on and off with me for 10 years, told me I say the same thing at the same time every year. Maybe so. But in a year that seemed so loaded with big fall titles, it seems distressing that none of them have captured the public's imagination.

I thought we'd be selling Charles Frazier's 13 Moons like crazy by now. Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope is strong, but it's no Marley and Me. In fact, Marley and Me, which has been re-issued in a slow-moving, fancy illustrated edition, is certainly no Marley and Me. Jimmy Carter's new book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, is selling steadily, but it's hard to believe it will come close to equalling his much more universal bestseller from last year, Our Endangered Values.

I'm personally keeping my fingers crossed for Annie Liebovitz's A Photographers Life 1990-2005 because it's an absolutely magnificent book by an orginal artist that deserves widespread distribution and is truly a bargain for $75. I would also like to see Bill Bryson's memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, take off because the more of Bryson's humor that there is out in the world, the better off we will all be.

What's Out

There are a few books that we, and everybody else from what I can tell, are having a difficult time keeping in stock. A few of them, oddly enough, are titles that if not anti-religious are at least irreligious. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins finally came back in after a hiatus of a couple of weeks. Dawkins, a heralded Oxford scientist, takes aim at most religions in a fairly scornful manner that makes Sam Harris' two books Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith seem fairly tolerant of religious views. Surprisingly, all three are selling so well that we are having trouble stocking them. Interesting presents to put under the tree.

This year's Man Booker prizewinner, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, has been out of stock with the publisher, Grove Press, since it won the award. We snagged enough copies for it to make our bestseller list last month, but now we are just waiting for the reprint. While I can forgive Grove Press for coming up short on Desai's surprise hit, I find it hard to feel warm toward McSweeney's for running out of Dave Eggers' What is the What. McSweeney's puts out wonderful books, but they don't seem to have a clue about the business of publishing. How can you run out of Eggers' book in less than four weeks? Isn't this their cash cow? On the children's side, the delightful picture book The Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes is gone until after Christmas. Oh well, there's always Doctor Seuss.