Sunday, September 28, 2008

Klosterman, Hodgman and Lardons

The word "lardons" on the menu of The Blue Star in Colorado Springs caused me a bit of concern at a Simon & Schuster author dinner last weekend. I was trying to find a meal that fit in with my dietary restrictions (I don't eat land-roving animals) and had settled on the scallops. However, the seared scallops, in addition to being served with creamed corn and pear relish, also featured Saint Germaine lardons. The word lard, or anything related to it, generally strikes fear in most vegetarian or semi-vegetarian hearts.

What was I to do? The shrimp came with pork, the special fish (a tuna) was sold out, and I was trying to avoid the summer squash cappelletti since I'd had noodles for lunch and summer was over. I conferred with my wife, and she guessed that lardons was a type of French cheese. I didn't believe her. Finally, I broke into the conversation at the table and said, "Does anyone know what lardons are? Saint Germaine lardons?"

I was met with quizzical looks from the dozen people at the table. Just as I was beginning to despair that I might have to rely on the waitress, who didn't seem to know that andouille sausage was not a vegetable, one of the dinner's featured authors, John Hodgman, came to the rescue. Hodgman, who many might recognize as the human P.C. in the Apple computer commercials, whipped out his iPhone.

Hodgman dramatically held up his iPhone for all to see and announced over his shoulder to the rest of the diners in the restaurant (who weren't paying any attention to our table), "I am using my iPhone."

Within seconds, Hodgman had our definition. "Small strips or cubes of fat or bacon. It's bacon," he said as he dramatically put his iPhone back in his pocket. I was disappointed. What was I going to eat? This dinner at the Mountains and Plains Independent Bookseller Association Show had already caused me more heartburn than usual for a trade show event, and now that I was in Colorado Springs, I didn't see a suitable entree.

Originally, I was supposed to go to a Random House dinner at The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs' fabled hotel. That invitation fell through in a terribly embarrassing fashion. After the rep proffered the invite, I asked him if it would all right if I brought my wife with me. She's accompanied me on dozens of these dinners over the years. He hemmed and hawed and said that he only had eight places and if an extra one opened up he'd be happy to invite her. In fact, he was relatively sure that a bookseller from Utah was going to cancel out on the meal.

I apologized for being a pain in the neck, but my wife, who is nearly eight months pregnant, wouldn't be too happy about being stuck in a Colorado Springs hotel room, while I went to dinner without her. My rep, who is actually the first person I ever bought books from as a new buyer in 1997, said he'd let me know as soon as possible if she could attend.

A few days later, I still hadn't heard from him when the Simon & Schuster rep called me and asked if I'd like to have dinner with Chuck Klosterman, the author of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. I could hardly believe my luck. Klosterman has been a personal hero of mine ever since I read his article and interview with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant in Chuck Klosterman IV. Anyone who would ask Plant why he sang, "I'm gonna give you every inch of my love," in the Zeppelin song "Whole Lotta Love," rather than using the metric system in the lyrics, was sure to be a hilarious dinner companion.

"When is the dinner?" I asked. The rep suggested Friday night, which was when I had my tentative Random House dinner. "Can Emily attend?" I asked. The rep said she would be happy to have Emily along. In fact, she was looking for more people for the dinner because they were scheduling it so close to the trade show that most booksellers already had plans.

Once I knew Emily could go, I said yes. I didn't call my Random House rep to see what was going on with his dinner. I didn't have the courtesy to tell Simon & Schuster that I needed to find out about another engagement. No. I just thought, "Dinner with Chuck Klosterman. I'm going. Thank God, I have a way out of the Random House party."

Well, I didn't get off the hook that easily. The phone rang early the next Monday morning and it was my venerable Random House rep on the line. "Arsen, imagine my surprise when I was in Utah last Friday and I ran into the Simon & Schuster rep. She said you were planning to go to her dinner," he said. I felt the blood rush to my head.

"I can explain. I was just about to call you," I said into his rueful chuckle. "I hadn't heard back from you and she had room for both me and Emily."

"Sure, sure," he answered in a perfectly calm voice. "Run off with Simon & Schuster. Take up with them. Here I was telling everyone that you and Emily were coming to our dinner."

I apologized profusely, and mercifully he let me off the hook with just a mild ribbing. Perhaps anger would have been easier to handle, because I still feel very guilty about the whole thing.

On Wednesday, just two days before the dinner, things got even more complicated. I was sitting down to buy the frontlist from my Penguin hardback rep when I got a call from the Simon & Schuster rep. She wanted me to know that Klosterman's friend, and fellow speaker at the Mtns & Plains author breakfast, John Hodgman, was also going to attend the dinner. Now, some astute readers of Kash's Book Corner might have already asked themselves: what was Hodgman, the author of the Penguin bestseller The Areas of My Expertise and the forthcoming Penguin title More Information Than You Require, doing at a Simon & Schuster author soiree?

Unfortunately, I did not think of the awkwardness of all of this and blurted out to my Penguin rep that I was going to have dinner with John Hodgman. Oh boy, that set him off.

"Shouldn't Penguin be setting something up with him if he's in town for dinner? Shouldn't I have something set up?" he asked incredulously. "I've got to deal with this." He was clearly agitated, and I could see that the sales call was going downhill quickly.

I implored him to do nothing. "I'm already in trouble with Random House for this dinner. I don't need any more problems. No one can know that I told you Hodgman was going to dinner with Simon." Grasping at straws, I suggested, "Perhaps you could get an invite. They're looking for people because they are setting it up so late."

Well, he never did get an invite because with the two marquee names attending one dinner, Simon didn't seem to have any trouble filling the table. It turned out to be one of the most amusing author dinners I ever attended.

Klosterman, a tall, gangly guy with a full beard and slightly messy hair, who seemed to have Red Bull coursing through his veins, held court on rock music and other topics. We briefly touched upon his new novel, Downtown Owl, but he seemed on much more comfortable ground discussing the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks. At one point during dessert, we were having a discussion about first concert experiences, and he recalled that his first show was seeing the metal band Ratt.

"I think I still have the ticket in my wallet," Klosterman said. He thumbed through his wallet and found a small ticket and looked at it appreciatively. "How much do you think it cost in 1989 to see this show?"

A bookseller from Durango, Colorado guessed $12.50. Klosterman was impressed with the guess and put the ticket down on the table. It was a show with three bands, and it cost less than $15. My, how times have changed.

Hodgman was more reserved than Klosterman but just as funny. I guess you don't get a regular role on the Daily Show if you can't entertain people. His humor was droll and often unexpected, but always clever. We got in a long discussion about the pros and cons of children's television with Hodgman passionately opposed to the new-look Sesame Street.

Hodgman showed his serious side in a conversation with Emily, a middle school teacher, about failing schools and highly recommended Paul Tough's new book Whatever it Takes. Tough profiles Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, and his efforts to not only educate poor children but to eradicate poverty by restructuring the educational system and providing radical levels of support to parents and families at home.

Perhaps the most humorous moment of the evening happened away from the table when I headed towards the bathroom. In front of the bathroom, I ran into a young female sales rep, who shall forever remain nameless. She was attending a different author dinner at the restaurant, and was just waiting there by the men's room. I asked her what she was doing.

"I saw Chuck Klosterman go in there," she said pointing to the door of the men's room. "I really want to meet him so I'm waiting for him to come out."

I wanted to tell her that she could just come over to our table and any one of the booksellers would be happy to introduce her to Klosterman, but I just couldn't ruin the moment for her by making it that easy. After all, she had worked up the gumption to follow him to the bathroom in order to get a private moment.

When my entree finally arrived that evening, I noticed what appeared to be shriveled beets or overly roasted red potatoes on my plate. I had ended up ordering the scallops, without the lardons. Just as I was about to try one of these strange looking beets, I heard Klosterman yell from across the table, "Hey, I think you've got my lardons."

I looked up, and he had a plate of scallops (actually just three scallops, good thing Simon & Schuster was paying) and it was free of the offending meat. We traded plates, but before Klosterman's food was back on the table, Hodgman was asking for a taste of the treasured lardons. He took one into his mouth, savored it and looked over at me.

"They're really good," he said with a devilish grin.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Woodward & Friedman

Bob Woodward and Thomas Friedman don't have quite the same ring as Woodward and Bernstein, but this September the two journalists have been linked. Both their new books came out on the same day and both were greeted by media coverage that was able to break through the wall-to-wall election news. Also, both journalists seem to maintain a dose of objectivity and neutrality in their books that is highly unusual in today's polarized book market, which routinely features partisan warriors like Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Michael Moore and Bill O'Reilly.

Woodward's The War Within chronicles the Bush administration's "secret" history over the last two years--most notably the discussions around the military surge in Iraq. It is Woodward's fourth book on Bush and his cronies and it follows the damning State of Denial. Plan of Attack, published in 2004, is a more mixed view of the administration, while the sycophantic Bush at War, detailing the first few months after the 9/11 attacks, was the low-point of Woodward's career in retrospect.

When I saw the subtitle of the new Woodward book (A Secret White House History 2006-2008), I wasn't sure which was the more absurd idea--that someone in the Bush administration would still tell Woodward a secret after the publication of A State of Denial, or the hubris of Woodward himself in believing he's actually being told valuable secrets.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded, meanwhile, is Thomas Friedman's take on how global warming and America's wavering sense of national purpose are inextricably connected. Friedman's previous book (the blockbuster The World is Flat) has become the primer for many people on globalization. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, has a reputation as a somewhat fair-minded centrist. If he were a politician, he'd be the world's most unrepentant flip-flopper. He has championed every side of the Iraq War over the last five years. He was for it before he was against it three times over.

I was thrilled last Monday when these two books came out. September is usually a slow month at the store, compared to the tourist-filled days of July and August. Two huge sellers just might provide the spark we needed to extend the busy summer season a few more weeks, I hoped. We cleared off the cart directly across from the registers of the eight different books that were occupying it, and filled it up with The War Within and Hot, Flat, and Crowded. We flung the doors opened and waited for the frenzied masses to snatch up copies of the new titles.

Well, we waited and waited through the morning. I was particularly hopeful for the Woodward book because he had appeared on 60 Minutes the previous evening. Nary a customer came in inquiring about his book, but we did sell a couple of Friedman's in that first hour before I headed down to shipping and receiving to help out.

While I was down in S & R, I heard an interview of Friedman conducted by Terry Gross, the host of National Public Radio's Fresh Air. It was fascinating to listen to, although very familiar if you've heard Al Gore speak about public policy in the last few years. Friedman made a powerful case for the necessity of government leadership to free us from our oil dependency. He made a passionate argument that changing light bulbs and driving hybrid cars wasn't enough to lead us out of the morass that we are in.

He railed against John McCain for missing over a dozen votes on a critical bill to extend tax credits for alternative energy--the bill failed to pass by one vote (59-40) while McCain sat in his office and refused to cast a vote--and pointed out the absurdity of the delegates at the Republican National Convention chanting "Drill it! Drill it!" To Friedman, that's the worst thing that we could do in this situation. We don't have nearly enough oil to drill ourselves out of the problem. He talked about how happy the Saudis, the Venezuelans, and the Russians must have been to hear that chant instead of a focused attempt to develop alternative energy.

When Terry Gross asked him about this fall's election, that's when Friedman went from passionate crusader to shameful waffler. Barack Obama is saying all the right things and has great information on his website, according to Friedman, but The New York Times' resident mind reader doesn't think that it's really an important issue for Obama. Friedman's not ready to commit politically, even though the whole premise of his book is that bold, immediate, political action is needed. Friedman wants someone willing to take on the challenge of the leading the world to energy independence, but he's unwilling to rule out a man who couldn't even be bothered to vote on the issue. Friedman wants to leave the door open for McCain and Sarah Palin.

Still, at least people were talking about Friedman's book. A friend of mine sent me the link to the Terry Gross interview over the weekend and many other people, including customers, seemed generally interested in his idea of connecting our dependency on oil, the increasing globalization of the world, and the United States' propensity for getting into foreign policy disasters. He's offering people something new to think about.

The Woodward book, on the other hand, seems to elicit no interest from people in Boulder. Perhaps people don't want to hear how the brave and courageous President decided to implement a surge against the advice of many of his colleagues. Perhaps we are reminded of just how badly Woodward misjudged W in Bush at War and don't want to see him getting snowed once again. Perhaps we just don't want to look backwards at Bush anymore and want to move into the future.

In Boulder, the response to the two books is clear. We have sold 43 copies of the Friedman book, and just four of Woodward's. In fact, if Woodward's book doesn't turn around it will be one of the worst single buys in my 11 years as a front-list buyer. I brought in 100 copies based on the 134 hardback copies of State of Denial that we sold. I've never had to return 90% of a buy that big before.

Nationwide, it's not so cut and dry. I noticed this morning that Hot, Flat, and Crowded was the number 2 book on, while The War Within was number 9. Maybe there are just that many Republicans scanning Woodward's book to see if he published their dirty little secrets. But if that's the case, our sales won't pick up here at the Boulder Book Store.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Books That Made Me Happy This Summer

This post is supposed to be about what a pathetic summer
it has been in book selling. Sales were sluggish, the election stole away media coverage from books, there were no blockbusters, Kindle this, Kindle that, blah, blah, blah. I'm sure most of you could fill in your own depressing financial details.

My various titles for this entry included, "Summer: The Season That Wasn't," "The Dismal Season," "Where's Harry Potter When You Need Him?" and "Doesn't Anybody Read Around Here?" My abandoned lead paragraphs quoted T.S. Eliot, took potshots at Dick Cheney, bemoaned the Phillies season (hey, they are only two games out, despite not hitting), likened the AmazonKindle to kindling and even asked for readers to come and volunteer at the store until sales picked up.

No matter what I wrote, my finger kept pressing that delete key. The truth is that I'm just not that down about books right now despite the wounded economy and the mind-numbing Presidential race. I had an amazing summer of reading new and old titles. Many of my vacation days were spent sprawled out on beaches and couches enthralled by the prose of John Updike, Richard Bausch, Michael Frayn, P.G. Wodehouse and Rivka Galchen.

Even when I wasn't on vacation, I found myself running home to read after work. I read snippets of novels while walking down the street (that drives my wife insane), tying my shoes, cooking dinner and eating breakfast.

How could I write a depressing blog when there's just so much literature out there that invigorates me? How could I only dwell on the negative when books have been my sustenance for the past three months? I couldn't. Instead, I'll talk about what books I love and hopefully inspire someone out there to pick up a book (preferably at the Boulder Book Store) and read.

I've added a couple of lists to the left-hand side of the blog. I figure it's about time I learn how to use these fancy Blogger features. After all, I'm supposed to lead a seminar on how to blog at the regional independent booksellers show in a couple of weeks.

The first list is my favorite novels since 2000. The usual suspects are to be found, including Philip Roth, Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan, but hopefully a few of the more obscure picks like Percival Everett, Susan Choi and Judson Mitcham will spark some interest. The second is an annotated list of my favorite books of 2008 that also includes a few surprise picks, including the fantastic memoir by Michael Greenberg (I usually don't go for memoirs), Hurry Down Sunshine.

Here's a look at some of the books that really captured my imagination this summer:

Asia For the Price of a Paperback

I'm currently engrossed in Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace. The scenes Ghosh depicts of the teak business in the late 19th century are harrowing. It's hard to imagine elephants and men engaged in a magnificent struggle against nature in order to get the teak trees out of the mountainous forests of Burma. Ghosh humanizes history in the manner of a great movie without resorting to cliched or one-dimensional characters.

Earlier in the summer, I had the pleasure of meeting the dapper Ghosh at a party in Los Angeles. He was there to promote his new book Sea of Poppies. We were in a crowded restaurant with dozens of other booksellers and several other authors. I gravitated toward him, because I was trying to avoid the embarrassment of meeting debut novelist Rivka Galchen. In an earlier blog, I mentioned Galchen's fetching author photo as the most convincing reason to read her book. Despite my efforts to avoid her, my assigned seat turned out to be directly across from Rivka.

Ghosh and I exchanged pleasantries about the weather, London and book parties before I worked up the nerve to ask him about a scene in his previous book, Hungry Tide, that I was quite taken by. In the scene, two people strap themselves to a tree in a typhoon in order to survive. Only one lives through the night. Ghosh leaned in towards me and confided that he has been asked about that scene before. We talked for awhile, and I thanked him for introducing me to people and parts of the world that I could never see on my own.

John Updike Redux

The reading highlight of the summer was without a doubt John Updike's Rabbit Redux. I read one Updike novel a year, and I am reading them in order. I must say that this one was my favorite so far. The character of Skeeter, a black activist and small-time drug dealer, is immensely engaging, profane, comic and tragic all at the same time. I read an old hardback copy of the book that I found for $15 in Half Moon Bay, California in late March. I waited until my annual beach vacation in Cape May, New Jersey to crack open the 37-year-old novel. As the waves lapped at my feet, I was transported back to the turbulent summer of 1969.

Updike creates a rich world of jostling characters where whites and blacks are always on edge in the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Brewer. Rabbit's wife has left him for a used car salesman. Rabbit is far from lonely, though, because in addition to his 10-year old son, Nelson, he has taken in a beautiful white teenage runaway named Jill. She was foisted on him by a black co-worker who was scared that the presence of a white woman staying a black person's house might bring unwanted police attention. Things get really complicated when Rabbit starts harboring a young black man, Skeeter, who is wanted by the local police.

In the evenings, Skeeter lectures this ad-hoc family about the coming revolution. In Updike's vision, black power has infiltrated the white suburbs, drugs have found their way past the manicured lawns, and interracial sex is happening in the 1950s love seats. All of this occurs while Vietnam and the moon landing are constant sources of distraction and even amusement on the television.

Rabbit seems to tolerate everything, but he's an outsider, a conservative family man at heart. One of my favorite lines comes when Skeeter is preaching to Rabbit, the runaway, and Nelson about what will come after the revolution. Replacing the old order with something new fascinates Skeeter more than the inevitable revolution itself. Rabbit is only half interested in these night rants. "'And you're the black Jesus going to bring it in,'" Rabbit mocks. "'From A.D. to A.S. After Skeeter. I should live so long. All Praise Be Skeeter's Name.'"

In Rabbit Redux, you never quite know if a character's comments will be met with laughter or violence. It's a community of people that are on the edge. They are all just one word away from wounding each other. Somehow, Rabbit manages to muddle along and befriend the people you'd most think he'd offend. That tension between humor and aggression drives the whole work.

Peace in a Time of War

Richard Bausch's new novel, Peace, is an extraordinary and touching World War II story. It's a small book, really a novella, that conveys both the horrors of war and also what bonds people together. I found it to be thoroughly engaging. I read most of it on a plane ride, unable to put the book down even after we landed and people were heading into the terminal.

Bausch puts us on a mountain side in Italy during the German retreat of World War II. Three American soldiers are led up the hillside to scout the Nazi position in a driving rainstorm. They are led by an old man who may or may not be a fascist sympathizer. During the climb we come to know the three soldiers and how they got to this moment of their lives. They are continually debating whether to report their commanding officer, who killed a woman in cold blood just hours before the trio left on this mission.

Peace is essentially a chamber piece, with the four characters speaking to each other and also maintaining internal monologues. The men are haunted by both their good memories of home and their bad memories of the war as their mission wears on and the rain turns to snow. We come to know Captain Marson the best of all the characters, and it his how he handles his own ethical and moral dilemma at the end of the novel that truly makes this work one that resonates beyond its specific setting.

She Makes Portnoy Look Tame

Steerforth reprinted Fredrica Wagman's 1973 novel Playing House earlier this year. It would never have occurred to me to read this relatively obscure work, except that the new edition featured a foreword by Philip Roth. Roth is not a blurb slut or someone who writes a lot of forewords, so I figured this novel must be something special for him to take his time and single it out.

Wagman writes in an impressionistic prose, and it isn't always easy to figure out what's going on with her characters. The crux of the story is the narrator's childhood incestuous relationship with her brother. That relationship hovers over the rest of her life, but not in quite the way the reader would expect. Well, perhaps a seasoned therapist would expect it, but not me. Roth perfectly sums it up in the opening words of his foreword.

"It would appear from Playing House that the prohibition forbidding sibling incest is designed primarily to protect impressionable children against sex thrills so intense, and passionate unions so all-encompassing and exclusive, that life after the age of twelve can only be a frenzy of nostalgia for those who have known the bliss of such transgression."

Wagman's novel is an incredibly intense, almost feverish read about a woman's life that is spiraling out of control from the moment the incestuous affair ends. No one measures up to her memories of her brother. She nicknames her doting and steady husband, who would spare no resource to save her, The Turtle. Even her children are mere shadows passing through her life.

The siblings never renew their relationship after childhood, but each appearance of the brother leaves the reader with a queasy feeling. It almost seems as though things would be better for the narrator if they got together. Her efforts to replace the brother sexually take her to territory that Roth's most notorious character, Alexander Portnoy, never tread.

It's a disquieting read, to say the least. Probably one that I will never recommend to a book club. But one that made me think, pondering the nature of writing, madness and love.