Friday, December 31, 2010

The Year 2010 in Review, Bookstore Style

Well, we've been a bit remiss about the blog lately. But the reason is a good one: we've been so fantastically busy with the holiday season that there really hasn't been a dull moment in which to blog. I thought this would be a good time to take a look back on how the store has changed in the last year. You know how fast a year can go by, so that it's hard to really encapsulate everything that's happened to you? That's how I feel about the year at the store. We've tried so many new things and changed the store layout several times- you learn a lot the first year in a new location about the flow of the store and what people are looking for.
So, here are just some of the many highlights from Old Firehouse Books in 2010. We started two new book clubs, one for mysteries and one for nonfiction. They join our Open Book, Untitled, and science fiction book clubs. These clubs are always open to anyone who cares to come- you just have to read the book! (Hint, hint, for those who have resolved to meet new people/read more/ just generally enrich their lives in the new year.) I got to unleash my inner chef in several different food-related events at the store: we partnered twice with our wonderful neighbors, Happy Lucky's Teahouse, in a high tea and a tea and cookies event, worked with Equinox Brewery for our BBQ and Beer event, and with 10,00o Villages in an event centered around the book Hungry Planet. I hope to do more food events next year- they are lots of fun. In other event news, we got to host some incredible authors in the last year, including C.J. Box (one of the nicest guys EVER), Craig Johnson, Laura Resau (a Fort Collins treasure), Margaret Coel, the outstanding science fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi, and the fabulous Connie Willis. I feel so fortunate to have met some of the best writers of our day. And that doesn't even include our partnership with the library to host signings by leading lights such as J.A. Jance, Pam Houston, and Jonathan Shors. In other writerly events, we sold books at the Northern Colorado Writers' conference last spring. We also worked with Fort Collins Reads to help bring Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, to Fort Collins in November. Working with Fort Collins Reads is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my job.
What else did we do? I got to hold several talkbacks at Openstage Theater plays, leading question and answers sessions for the cast after a production. I get to do this a couple of times next year as well. We hosted NANORIMO writers in November- a lovely bunch, if I do say so myself. And we held our 30th/10th/1st year anniversary party in June. In case that's confusing, its 30 years as a store/10 years with current ownership/1 year at our current location. And we said goodbye to some well-loved and much-missed staff members: Tegan, Bonner, Kara, Paxton. They are really irreplaceable, but we were also extremely fortunate in our crop of new employees: Tara, Keller, Nathan, Beth, Elizabeth, and Cam. And we have our veteran staffers Revati and Kelsey helping us maintain our high standards.
Physically, the store changed a lot this year. We moved the trade counter from the second room into the third room for easier access through the alley. We're also extremely happy that the alley construction, which took all summer, is now finished. We expect much traffic through our back door next summer. The biggest change has been the addition of our events space in the back of the store. I don't know how we managed without this space before. We've used it for everything from author events to art shows in the last year. Just last month we changed how our front desk is oriented in the store, and are still getting compliments about that change.
My goals for the last year were to increase the caliber and quantity of our events, which we've done, and do a thorough inventory of the store, which we've managed. In the following year, my goals for the store are to streamline our book returns process (books can only stay on the shelf without selling for so long), and to take another look at our credit policy. Plus I'm always brainstorming about moving sections around so they make more sense.
It's now hard to remember what it was like back at our old location on South College. We essentially started over again when we moved the store- everything is so different downtown. But we love where we are, and wouldn't change it. We've had a steep learning curve, and we couldn't have done it without the support of our customers, who have been patient when books were moved from where they expected and gracious with all the foibles that running an indie book store can bring. Fort Collins truly has an amazing base of people who are willing to support local businesses, even when the strictly pocketbook thing to do is shop at the big places or online. We do our best to make our store valuable to the community, with great book recommendations, awesome events, and partnerships with community organizations. But our customers are our greatest treasure. I hope you had fun picking out books at the store in 2010 and that we'll see you some more in 2011. We plan to be here for many years to come, and you make it all possible.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tips for Last Minute Shoppers

The count-down is reaching it's end. Without warning your twelve days of Christmas have suddenly become six, and we aren't open on Christmas day so it's really more like five. By now the panic has set in. Have you even started your Christmas shopping yet? You have an entire extended family to provide for and YOU HAVEN'T EVEN STARTED YET?!? WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH YOURSELF?!? Okay, now that we've panicked, let's go through a few tips to get us through the last minute rush of holiday shopping.

Tip #1- STOP PANICKING! SERIOUSLY! CUT IT OUT! Okay, done? Good. Take a deep breath. And another. One more. Don't forget to exhale! Have you exhaled? Okay. Now just continue this pattern because no one can buy presents if they've fainted.

Tip #2- Go to the bookstore. Old Firehouse Books is best (hint hint.) If there is one place where you can buy everyone on your list a meaningful present, it's here. You could go to some stupid chain and buy everyone some garbage for them to stick in their closet and forget, but I wouldn't recommend it. We have an amazing variety that can provide for both Grandma and Junior in a way that will expand their minds or provide some hearty entertainment. Remember: no one's life was ever changed by a scented candle.

Tip #3- Once you get here, DON'T PANIC. I know there's a lot of books, but we are here to help you. The biggest difference between us and Amazon is that we are living human beings who also know the importance of breathing. We can work with your budget, since we provide a wide selection of used books, as well. We also have a broad knowledge of our inventory, so we can find the perfect book based on the interests and passions of your loved one.

Tip #4- If you're a little shy, or the bookstore is packed with other last-minute shoppers upon your arrival, there are other options. For example, located just across from the biography section are our Staff Pick Shelves. These two cases are filled with books that we have read and loved. If you're shopping for someone who reads a lot, I'd suggest finding a shelf that has a book or author that you know they've enjoyed. From there you just have to take a look at the seven other books available on that shelf and trust that their similar tastes will do the rest.

Tip #5- Maybe you're shopping with a plan. If this is the case, I wonder why an organized person such as yourself has waited until the final five days to do your shopping. I'll just assume the best and imagine that you were in Antarctica for the past two months. If this is you, call ahead! We can be reached at 970-484-7898 and over the phone we can find your books for you and put them in a nice little bundle behind the front counter. This way you can waltz right up to the counter and be assured that all your book choices are there.

Tip #6- GET MOVING! We're open 9am-8pm today (Monday) through Thursday. On Friday (Christmas Eve) we'll be open 9am-5pm, but this day is reserved for the kings and queens of true procrastination. The sooner you get in the better, though, because with every passing hour we lose more awesome books to people less lazy than you.

Tip #7-On second thought, if there's one thing school has taught me, it's that only good things come from procrastination. You're already online, so just enjoy the following booky article and relax. We'll see you eventually! I mean, really, there's another five whole days left!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Google EBooks are here!

We're very excited to be able to announce that Old Firehouse Books is now able to sell you ebooks! Google EBooks has just rolled out their new platform, and is allowing independent bookstores to take part in sales. The process is incredibly easy. You can look for books on our website just like always. Just hit the tab for "Google Ebooks" and you'll be looking for titles offered in that format. These e-books can be read on any e-reader but Kindle and also can be read on I-Pads, Androids, and other smart phones. I just downloaded one to my Samsung phone. To buy e-books on the I-Pad, download a free app from the Apple Store. Android Market also has a free app to facilitate downloads.
Questions? Give us a call or an email! Now you can order e-books from your favorite indie store in time for Christmas!

Monday, November 29, 2010


Old Firehouse Books is hosting a story-telling competition for First Night!


(232 Walnut St.)

December 31st, starting at 7:30 and running 'til around 10:00.

An epic, no-holds-barred storytelling extravaganza!

Okay. So. Basically, here's how it breaks down:
We need TEN contestants to break it down, storyteller style. This means each contestant will participate in two rounds, each five minutes long. For the first round, the storyteller can read from a written story. For the second, however, the storyteller must recite the story completely from memory (Dun dun DUN!)
Each story will be judged by the audience and a guest judge to decide who moves on to the next round. In the event of a tie, there will be a tie-breaking story-telling fiesta (to be revealed upon ties.)

Doesn't it though?

You betcha.

I know, right?


And here it is.

Storytelling Competition!
7:30-10:00 December 31st! First Night!
We need TEN contestants! First come first serve!
Two Stories! One Written, One Memorized!


Friday, November 26, 2010

Little Nuggets of Book Gold

Have you ever read a passage from a book that was so perfect, so astute, so well written, so pertinent to your life that you just couldn't contain yourself?

Without any control on your part, you emitted some little squeak or squeal, your hands starting clapping or you shook your head in excitement?

I hope this has happened to you. Because it happens to me all the time, and if this isn't a common thing I very well might be losing my mind completely, or at least muscle control. I recently had such an experience (multiple times, actually) with Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Sum consists of forty vignettes about fantasized versions of the afterlife. Once you get past the fact that these stories are about death, you realize how well they reflect the lives we lead and the choices we make. They reflect our lives so well, in fact, that I have found myself in this squealing, squeaking, clapping state of semi-insanity at the end of almost every story. At a slow point while opening the store one morning, I picked up a copy of the book to see if it was worth purchasing. I found myself in a mini-fit at the end of the first story, that's how excited I was to read the whole thing. I was shaking my head, pounding my fists on the counter, squeaking to myself, glad the story was empty. Of course, I had forgotten that the tea shop next door was open. One of the workers there rushed over after witnessing my display to make sure I was alright and not having some sort of epileptic fit brought on by literature. Well, that was embarrassing.

It was embarrassing, but I'm not ashamed. (I see those as two very different things.) While I wish he hadn't been witness to my little spasm of book love, I wouldn't ever deny myself the pleasure of reading a book, or sentence, or even a word that is so perfect I really cannot contain my excitement. Finding those little nuggets of book gold are always worth it, even when the guy next door happens to see it.

Congratulations, Fort Collins

This is a big thank you to all the people who came to hear Garth Stein at the Lory Student Center (about 800 people), who read Art of Racing in the Rain, who discussed the book at their book clubs, who checked it out from our great libraries, who purchased, lent and borrowed the book, and all of us who laughed and cried while reading this book. In our one, admittedly small store, you bought enough copes to have purchased 4% of all Art of Racing in the Rain sold in all independent bookstores in the country. Way to go! Special thanks go to the committee of dedicated volunteers who worked so hard to organize, raise money, and make sure all the events were great. Once again so many of us can thank the few who do so much to make our lives especially comfortable.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Time to Get Cookin'

So we are fast approaching one of the biggest food days of the year. I happen to be a cookbook afficianado (some would say "junkie") and so I thought I'd share with you some of the favorite cookbooks to enter my kitchen in the last year.
First, an old favorite made new again: The Essential New York Times Cookbook. This book compiles recipes from the era that the Times first started (late 19th century) and goes right up to the trendiest sort of new cuisine. I just bought this book for myself as an early Christmas present and have found several recipes to make in the next couple of weeks. The choices range from a Pork and Squash Stew in Coconut Milk to Chicken Paprikash to Eggs with a Chorizo/Date Paste. Plus, this book is a food nerd's dream, due to the timelines in each chapter that talk about food trends- how salads went from suspending everything in Jell-o to the minimalist microgreens of the nineties. Lots of cream, lots of butter, and lots of goodness.
Next, here's a great party cookbook: Fiesta at Rick's by that great interpreter of Mexican food, Rick Bayless. I've got a crush on him. This book has the best guacamole recipe I've ever tried (with sun-dried tomatoes), a killer chipotle-glazed baby back rib recipe, and will tell you how to dig a pit and roast an entire lamb in your back yard, if you like. Since this is a book geared toward parties, there are menus planned and large portion sizes planned for you. Plus a great section on drinks for margaritas and mojitos galore, plus a limey and spicy beer if you want something a little different.
If you're like me, you spend a lot of time thinking about dessert, so I've got two dessert cookbooks for you. First is Rustic Fruit Desserts. The book is organized by seasonal availability of fruit, so you can make a Rhubarb Fool in the spring, a Stone Fruit Tea Cake in the Summer (and you should definitely do that), a Maple Apple Dumpling in the fall, and and a Cranberry Upside-Down Almond Cake for the holidays (hmmm....). Chocolate is my go-to dessert, but I find myself going to this book again and again for desserts when I have guests. Much as I love chocolate, it's hard to beat an Apricot Raspberry Cobbler just out of the oven with vanilla ice cream on top.
Finally, I've got to talk about the new Gourmet Cookie Book. You may be aware that magazine was forced to close its doors last year. The silver lining of that dark cloud is that they are now working to release many of their recipes in book form. This particular little gem showcases one cookies recipe per year that Gourmet was publishing from 1941 to 2009. I'm cooking from this book for our Tea and Cookies event that will be happening next Wednesday at 6, in partnership with the awesome Happy Lucky's Teahouse, our lovely neighbor. I had to choose one, just one, recipe to make from this book for samples. Would it be Currant-Studded Madeleines from 1952, Mocha Toffee Bars from 1987, Strawberry Tart Cookies from 1993, or Ginger Shortbread with Ginger-Infused Frosting from 1999? Because of the tea factor, I've ended up going with the ginger shortbread, but you could buy the book and try all these recipes, plus more!
So these are a few of my favorite things. Come by and let me know what your favorite cookbooks are- my shelf can always hold one more!

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Spoiler Challenge (contains spoilers)

So, recently, I've tried to read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It came highly recommended to me by my friend and coworker Kelsey. She'd seen the movie, and said that it was--to paraphrase--fantastic. Not wanting to spoil the premise for me, she said something like "READ IT, DUDE!" or "READ IT BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!" or maybe "DUDE TOTALLY READ IT!" (this is how I hear Kelsey's voice in my head.)When Never Let Me Go showed up on our shelves, I decided to give it a try.
Now, when Kelsey said "READ THIS BOOK I AM TOTALLY SERIOUS," she very purposefully didn't tell me anything about the plot. This is a book that is better if you don't have any inkling of what the book is about, she told me (or rather, "THIS IS A BOOK THAT IS BETTER IF YOU DON'T HAVE ANY INKLING OF WHAT IT'S ABOUT") So I took her word for it. And I could not be happier that I did.
See, with the advent of modern media, it is almost impossible to remain unsullied with regards to the content of a book. Spoilers strike like lightening. I will never forget the day that I broke the news to my friend's eight-year-old-brother that Dumbledore dies at the end of Harry Potter #6 (I hope you already knew that.)And honestly, I think that this is one of the biggest tragedies of the modern story.
There is so much in a story that relies on the audience not knowing what's going to happen. Tension, drama, surprise-- everything that makes a book interesting relies on the reader's ignorance. If you know what's going to happen, you might as well not read the book.
I don't have to watch Soylient Green now because I know it's people. I knew that, by the end of 1984, someone would end up loving Big Brother. I grew up fully aware of the fact that Darth Vader was Luke's father. And the tragic part of all of this is that the premise depends on my ignorance. Without my ignorance, The Empire Strikes Back is kinda just a movie with a really slow lightsaber fight in it.
So for Never Let Me Go, I decided to change it up a little bit: as an experiment, I bought the book knowing only what the cover looked like. All I had to go on was Kelsey's recommendation and the title. I didn't even read the back cover, and I loved it.
Reading a book without knowing what was in store was like riding a roller-coaster you've never been on before-- every twist and turn was fresh, each plummet felt new, and it was great.
The most interesting part, I think, is that I honestly wouldn't have read Never Let Me Go if I'd read the back cover. It's not something I'm usually interested in (not one of my typical genres, if you will.) But because I didn't know what I was getting myself into, I found an excellent book that I was honestly surprised by.
So, my challenge is this:
Pick up a book that someone's told you to read without asking what it's about. Once you find it, don't read the back, don't read the inside cover, and don't read that little sample-page that they put in before the real book starts. Instead, read starting from the first word on the first page, as a whole and unspoiled book. I'm sure the author would appreciate it, and I know that you will, too.


PS- Kelsey does not actually talk like that.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My Journey Into Insanity and Adolescent Literature

If you have been following my blog posts since August, you are well aware that I have been buried in adolescent literature since the summer. That meant 9 required texts and our choice of an additional 3,000 pages before December 2nd. Let me repeat that: 9 books, 3,000 pages. That's something around 5,000 to 6,000 pages of adolescent literature. Approximately 5,500 pages of young adults complaining about their teenage problems. That and textbooks. And nothing else. Since August.

Okay, it wasn't all that bad. And I am more than happy, overjoyed in fact, to announce here that I AM ALMOST DONE!!! I've read all 9 core books and I have something like 2,965 pages read, analyzed, and ready to go. I have to say I am a bit disappointed that the last book I read didn't quite make those final 35 pages, but I'll just flip through a Goosebumps or something over break.

One thing that has been made extraordinarily clear to me since I started this insane literary adventure is the amazing variety of adolescent literature available. I read books about magical lands where the only bad thing that happens is the disappearance of a couple princesses (The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.) I read about a horrible dystopia where no one makes it past the age of 25 (Wither by Lauren DeStefano.) I read about rape (Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson,) about teenage alcoholism (The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp,) about growing up on a reservation (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.) The variety was astounding, not to mention the huge range in age appeal. It seems like every age has a series of books that would appeal exactly to them, and then within that series a variety of topics, issues, and themes are covered. This is pretty amazing considering that adolescent literature as we know it today has only been around arguably since 1967 when The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was published.

And despite all of the complaining I have loved doing over the past four months, I also learned that adolescent literature can be good reading for adults, as well. Some of the most intriguing plots I have heard of for a while are coming out of adolescent literature right now, and they usually read a lot faster than any adult novel. They are meant to entertain a generation that was brought up with YouTube, so you know they have to grab your attention as quickly as possible.

Continue reading the Old Firehouse Blog for the second installment of my journey into insanity through books. Next spring I am enrolled in Shakespeare II and Modern British and European Drama. I will read nothing buy plays from January until May. That's right. I did it to myself again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bookstore jet-setting

Going anywhere for the holidays? If so, Lonely Planet has found some of the best bookstores to visit in the world. Drop us a line from Beijing!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Movies and Books

I admit, I pretty much always think the book is better than the movie. It's hardly a fair comparison, really. A book gets 300 to 800 pages (more, if it's Gone with the Wind) to set your imagination on fire, describe characters, get inside their heads, and take you to strange and beautiful places. It's hardly fair to ask a 2 to 3 hour movie to accomplish the same thing (although there is some beautiful cinematography out there).
That said, recently I have seen a few movies that I think compare favorably to, or even beat, the books on which they were based. Take Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Swedish movie did a fantastic job of paring down a 600 page book, losing no important plot threads, and getting to the heart of the mystery faster than the book did. Frankly, part of what I tell customers with this book is that you need to get through about 100 pages of backstory before the book really takes off. Which it does! But the movie makes that 100 pages unnecessary.
So, I've got a link to a reader survey that comes up with seven movies that are better than the book. What do you think? Did they miss any? Was the book better than the movie after all?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Two Halloween Treats!

Happy Halloween to all! We are just about to hand out candy for the Tiny Tots Halloween walk through downtown. (We just might have some candy left over, if you stop by later.) In honor of the holiday, I've got two things of interest for you. First, have you heard of All Hallow's Read? It's a tradition that Neil Gaiman, he of the spooky Graveyard Book fame, is trying to start. In short, for Halloween, what's better than giving a scary book to a friend? It lasts longer than candy and isn't as fattening.

Next, a trick from our friends at Bookpeople:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Science Fiction's New Hero

Where do I even begin to describe the heights of my enthusiasm for Paolo Bacigalupi and his work? It turns out that not only is he a fantastic guy, full of wit and intelligence, but those qualities also translate to his writing. Well, the intelligence does at the very least. While seldom funny, his books are unnervingly astute when describing the direction we, as a people, are going, as well as what makes us at our core human.

Bacigalupi’s young adult book, Ship Breaker, took me to a place so horrifying and raw that it could only be rooted in truth. The story, which follows a boy named Nailer, sucked me into a world of a grimy, poverty stricken, future. And while that future was bleak and alien it was also familiar, which was why it was able to touch me the way it did. Chronicling the plight of a poor boy that makes his living stripping wires out of the air vents of huge beached ships could have been dull. Or worse, unbelievable. But I never doubted the world Nailer lived in, nor his motivations. When the book becomes part adventure and part an exploration of family and friendship I found myself unable to pull myself away. It is rare that I devour a book as swiftly as I did this one.

Bacigalupi’s debut novel, The Windup Girl, is no less stunning. While I found the book taking a while to get moving, it was easy to stay on board just to find out more about the world being revealed. As well conceived and insightful as Gibson was when he introduced us to the Sprawl back in the 80s, and as thought provoking as Dick was when he caused us to examine our humanity through Replicants. This is a book that forges ahead into a new direction, indicative of our current times. Critics are calling it Biopunk. I’m calling it terrifying and brilliant. I would tell you what the book is about, but part of the beauty of the book is figuring that out for yourself.

So here it is in short: If you like science fiction, read these books. If you want to examine where we might be heading, read these books. If you want to think about the world we live in, and what makes us human, read these books. If you want to look at the world in a different way, read these books. And heck, if you just want to get lost in a good, well written book, read these books. I’m going to follow my own advice and pick up a copy of his short story anthology, Pump 6, next time I’m at work.

Old Firehouse Books currently has signed copies of all of Paolo Bacigalupi’s books. Get your copy before they are gone.

- t

Friday, October 15, 2010

What the Cool Kids Are Reading These Days

At some point, I’m not certain precisely when, the adult population decided to take teen literature seriously. More than that, teen lit became the hot new thing. My initial impulse is to point the finger at J.K. Rowling. After all, the Harry Potter phenomenon was larger than anyone could have anticipated. Suddenly people old and young were rushing to bookstores, lining up around the block like the Beatles were back on tour.

Still, at some point adults had to pluck copies of Sorcerer’s Stone from their kids’ hands and take their stolen tomes to the beach or the dentist’s office. And this happened in mass. And then those people owned up to the fact they were reading “kid stuff” to their friends and got them to try it. And so on, and so forth. But the question remains: why did so many adults turn to teen lit? Or perhaps the question could be rephrased like this: why did so many adults turn away from traditional adult lit?

I have a friend who theorizes that the boom in teen lit is just symptomatic of the dumbing down of society. I might have lent this theory more credit if I wasn’t in the thick of it. Teen lit readers aren’t stupid. In fact, they may just be on to something.

For a long time teen lit was ignored and a lot of edgy cutting edge stuff squeaked in that might not have made it years ago. While contemporary fiction continued to crank out yet another book about divorce or racial strife, teen lit was digging into universal questions like how to belong, be happy, or survive in a changing world. The appeal is broad and the audience broadened to match. And the genre is currently exploding. If you can’t find something in teen lit that appeals to you then you simply aren’t looking. I’m speaking now from experience.

Sure, I read Harry Potter. And I tried to read Twilight to see what the big fuss was about. I try to keep up as much as I can with lit pop culture, but I never really took teen lit that seriously. It wasn’t until I started reading through things in the teen section that I made a surprising discovery. There’s some dang fine stuff in there!

While I still read plenty of “adult” books I now have a healthy stack of teen lit at home as well. I dare say I’ve brought home more teen books this past year than I did when I actually was a teenager. Right now I’m hip-deep in Paolo Bacigalupi’s teen book Ship Breaker, and it’s easily the rawest, grittiest book I’ve read all year. (Which will likely change once I read Windup Girl as I understand it, but the statement stands.)

If you already read teen lit then none of this is news. But if you don’t I’m here to let you in on the secret. Don’t count teen books out because they are marketed differently. And don’t cheat yourself by dismissing them. The next time a friend, or a friendly bookseller, hands you a teen book do yourself a favor and consider the possibilities. You may be happily surprised.

Teen Read Week is October 17th through the 23rd.

- t

Monday, October 11, 2010

Calvin & Hobbes Makes You a Better Person.

It's scientific. 100% scientific.

It is rare anymore to find a syndicated comic strip--that is, one in wide publication with a consistent audience--that has the depth and soul of Calvin and Hobbes. I don't know what it is, really; perhaps the slow confinement of the Funnies page between the police-blotter and the Sudoku that author/artist Bill Waterson was so fervently against. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that no syndicated author has the courage anymore to draw stunning full-color vistas with twigs the way Waterson was wont to do.
Regardless of the reason, Calvin and Hobbes still has the ability to astound me, even as (especially as?) an adult.
We recently ran across all of our old copies of the books as my family was cleaning out the house for a garage sale. Flipping through them, noting as I did my old green-crayon signature on their covers, I began to skim a few strips.
One in particular I remembered from when I was a child: Calvin, playing with his transmografyer--no, of course I don't remember how to spell it--turns himself into an elephant. 'Oho!' says Young-Keller, 'He's turned himself into an elephant! And now he and Hobbes are playing in the mud! How droll.'
Adult-Keller reads the strip. As Calvin (an elephant) and Hobbes (a tiger) are playing in the mud, Suzie--Calvin's female nemesis--comes up. Calvin shouts "Guess what we are, Suzie!" After a pause, he continues: "The Republican Party and Tammany Hall!"
Adult-Keller stops, stunned.
'What?' he thinks. 'Was that just a reference to the corrupt political society that was run by William M. "Boss" Tweed in mid-nineteenth century New York?'
'... Yes. Yes it was.'

See, no other syndicated strip that I've personally encountered has the guts (or, frankly, the brains) to write a joke centered around obscure American-history trivia and make it funny (believe me: I don't do it justice.) Especially a strip written about a six-year-old and his stuffed tiger.

But don't lose heart! There are inheritors of the Calvin and Hobbes tradition!
Though comics in the newspaper may be dying out, standalone comics are just beginning to hit their stride. Check out The Best American Comics 2010 collection (edited by Neil Gaiman!) for a start. Depending on your tastes, move on to Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw or Blankets by Craig Thompson. Both are excellent! Or, if you're in the mood for something a bit more (maybe a lot more) fantastic, read Watchmen by Alan Moore and see what all that movie nonsense was about.

There is no reason to languish in the land of Family Circus! The universe of good comics awaits!


(P.S. Sorry, Family Circus fans. I didn't mean it.)
(P.P.S. Yes I did.)
(P.P.P.S. At least it's not Marmaduke.)

At Home

Bill Bryson bought a Victorian parsonage in Norfolk England in which he lives. In this book, he uses the rooms in the house as a platform to jump into descriptions of life in Britain from Roman to modern times. Perhaps this is a trend. Toby Lester in The Fourth Part of the World uses an ancient map as a platform in a similar way. Each room in the house is a chapter in At Home and each chapter describes a wide range of history appropriate to the room. For example, The Kitchen describes the economic impact of the rarity of sources of spices for Europe and its influence on European exploration. That may sound like dull reading but it isn't. Bryson spices up (pun intended) the text with clever turns of phrase and funny, or should I say spicy, anecdotes. I was charmed. Try this book and if you're not yet a Bryson fan, you're likely to become one. Also a great Christmas present for a father or Bryson fan.

~ Dick Sommerfeld

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Literature for Adolescents in a Post-Columbine World

I return to you again, with more news from the world of Adolescent Literature novels (see my post from September 27th if you don't know what I'm talking about.) The last one I completed was After by Francine Prose, which I chose as my book to revisit, a requirement of the curriculum. Again, I was surprised at how quickly I became enveloped in the novel. I was also surprised to find that I was a much darker 13-year-old than I seem to remember.

After takes place in a fictional reality (oxymoron, I know) where another school shooting takes place after Columbine. This massacre, however, occurs in Pleasant Valley, Maine and the consequences quickly become more drastic. Under the guise of "helping students cope" with the disaster, the government begins sending "grief and crisis counselors" to every high school. These counselors are there to serve a much darker purpose, however, and quickly begin implementing rules that are much more severe than necessary. Before long, the high schools begin looking much more like police states and students are being shipped away from home indefinitely for even the most minor infractions. Tom and his friends find no one to turn to for help, since their parents seem to have changed overnight into brainwashed robots. It is up to them to find a way to escape their high school without losing everything, including their lives.

Now this book may seem incredibly bleak, especially for a young susceptible teenager, but do not underestimate the abilities of the young. If you read Tara's blog below about banned books, adults are consistently trying to protect teens from the "big bad books" out there. Teens know what is going on, no matter how hard we try to protect them. Allowing teens to read books like After will make them feel empowered and more than likely spark the bibliophile within them.

I would also recommend After to many adults. Eleven years later, it is easy to forget about the effect Columbine has had on schools and students alike. Most of today's high schoolers were only 3 to 6 years old when Columbine happened, so those tragic events that effect their lives daily seem as real as anything out of a history book to them. While it is important to honor the memories of those lost or permanently scarred from the Columbine massacre, it is even more important to consider what steps schools are taking to prevent these events from happening again. After provides a narrative for what high school felt like for those students who were not directly involved. The plot may be exaggerated and overly dramatic, but then what in high school isn't?

Adults interested in After by Francine Prose should also consider Columbine by Dave Cullen as a non-fiction supplemental text. Both can be found at Old Firehouse Books.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Every year the last week of September is Banned Book Week. I clip on my banned book pin, I read up on what books are currently in danger of being pulled from schools, and I get ranty about the rights of readers and writers. Free speech! Literature to the masses! Down with censorship! And yes, I believe in all of those things. Strongly. But it occurs to me that not everyone knows what I'm so up in arms about.

We live in a glorious culture, one where if you want to you can stroll down here to the bookstore and buy any of the books that were banned this year. It is fantastic. And it leads people to ask me, again and again, what it means to ban a book. After all, it's right here on the shelves. Customers can put a banned book right in their hot little hands and take it home. How forbidden could it possibly be? Turns out quite a bit if you don't have the means to buy your books.

When a book gets banned it is pulled from libraries and schools. Sure, some retailers (I'm looking at you Wal-Mart) will refuse to stock a book if it is banned, but most chose to listen to dollars rather than angry letter writers. What this means is that we are removing those books from a significant portion of our population and culture: the poor and the young. Think about the books you read in school. The books that impacted you, shaped your life, and helped you grow into the person you are. Now recognize that the odds are at least one of those books is banned. Possibly several of them.

Banned books are rarely as inflammatory as the now notorious Catcher in the Rye. In fact, most of the books we placed on our banned book shelf this week are indistinguishable from their non-banned peers. A Light in the Attic? Banned. To Kill a Mockingbird? Banned. The Diary of Anne Frank? Banned. (For being a "downer" no less.) Blood Meridian, one of the most horrifically violent books I've ever skimmed (I'd say I read it but I couldn't face it)? Not banned. These books have the sole distinction of aggravating the wrong person, and that person fought to have them silenced. And that person succeeded. Or did they?

So long as we, as readers, educators, writers, booksellers, or just plain old conscientious citizens, continue to fight for our right to read we cannot lose. If you hear about a book being challenged write a letter of support. Defend your schools and libraries. And read. Read read read, and share those books with everyone you can. Our freedom to read is one of our most precious rights. Revel in it. Defend it. And fight for it when need be. The children of the future will thank you.

- t

*To learn more about Banned Books Week visit the American Library Association.*

Monday, September 27, 2010

Experiences in Adolescent Literature or Why Haven't I Grown Up Yet?

This semester I decided to enroll in CSU's Adolescent Literature course. This has been an interesting experience because:
a- Adolescent Literature is generally (always) easier to consume than Chaucer or Keats.
b- We get to revisit at least one book from our own adolescence.
c- This class will consume all of my free reading time until finals are over in December.

The reading is easy, but nonetheless time consuming. In addition to the 13 predetermined books assigned, we are required to read an additional 3000 pages of adolescent books of our choosing.

So don't be surprised if every blog post between now and December 17 is talking about adolescent books. And don't be surprised if you come into the store one day and I'm throwing a fit because Jimmy texted Janie, but she IMed me that she didn't like him, and no one sat by me on the bus ride to school, and my parents don't understand me AND NO ONE EVER WILL EVER EVER. Just kidding.

I am beginning to realize, though, that there is still a lot of teen left in me. I didn't expect to enjoy the books we've been assigned as much as I have. The last one, in particular, struck a chord within me. Black Box by Julie Schumacher was beautifully and dramatically written, ideal for any teen, especially girls. This book tells the story of Elena, whose older sister Dora is placed in the hospital's psychiatric ward after an attempted suicide. Elena struggles with how to tell people at school where Dora is, how to keep her own life in balance after her family's upheaval, and ultimately feels responsible for "saving" her sister. I was surprised to find that I was crying by the time I finished. Recently my younger sister has had to deal with problems that no one should have to handle, and I related to Elena's sense of helplessness and inner-conflicts.

Black Box isn't the only one of these books that has touched something within me. The others have either reached the child-like part of my soul that I had been neglecting or made me consider that maybe I'm not as grown up as I like to believe. The issues handled in Schumacher's book reached me at the age of 21, and I think the message would have still reached me if I were thirty years older. We are not all as wise and mature as we like to pretend. Often we feel like outcasts, misunderstood by those closest to us, and many other emotions usually deemed "teenage." I shunned these books before because I assumed that I had learned everything there was for an adolescent to learn, but I am still vulnerable to the world. While these books may be simply written or have a 16-year-old protagonist, they still offer solace, advice, and most importantly, permission to admit that maybe I'm not as grown up as I appear to be.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Oh God! No More Elves!" Or, An Argument for Genre Fiction

Being an English major and working in a bookshop is an interesting combination.
If I had to make a comparison, I'd say it's like visiting Disney world, applying for a job there on the off chance that they'll hire you, and then being handed a mop and a bucket with the instructions, "Wait at the bottom of Space Mountain."

What I mean is, in being instructed how to write, you learn all of the dirty little secrets that plague the literary world. Like working at Disney World and learning that Mickey is just a guy in a suit. The most distressing secret to me, I would have to say, is the advice "If you want to be taken seriously, you won't write genre fiction."

It's not just advice, either: in the creative writing department, it is strictly forbidden to write anything 'genre' for a class. Professors tell us specifically that genre fiction has no place in their English department.

When I first learned this, I was crushed.

For background: I grew up with genre fiction. My Dad read me Hubbard's Battlefield Earth when I was four. My favorite books when I was learning to read were Star Wars offshoots and the Chronicles of Narnia. When I discovered Dungeons and Dragons, I read nothing but the Forgotten Realms books. When I was in High School, there was a period where all I read was H.P. Lovecraft. My favorite author is still Neil Gaiman.

I love genre fiction.

But here is my Professor, telling me that I can't write anything that even comes close. Apparently, the realism fixation that started with Hemingway hasn't quite left us. So I learned to like Raymond Carver and Jack Kerouac, finding solace in the arms of Cormac McCarthy and nonfiction comic authors like Alison Beschedel. They're all fantastic authors; I could easily recommend any of them to most anybody.

Slowly, I came to resign myself to the fact that the Top Fifteen Bestseller lists had an average of three books concerning either the Holocaust or Post-Colonialism at any given time. With authors like Nicholas Sparks and Kathryn Stockett dominating the charts, it seemed like there was no hope for genre fiction. My professors were right. And it seemed I was all right with that. Maybe literary realism wasn't so bad, after all.

But there was something missing.

After a while, I began to crave spaceships. I wanted sword-fights. I wanted a good ol' zombie invasion.

Which brings me to my point: I can appreciate realism. I really can. But there are some things it just doesn't do for us, like post-apocalyptic wastelands and dragons. It's my opinion that the strength of so-called 'genre' fiction lies with the theoretical: there are some things that Hemingway just can't get across with drunken expats and crippled ambulance drivers.

Genre fiction allows for speculation into things that just couldn't happen, otherwise. In doing so, authors of genre fiction can explore the symbolism of a particular fantastical aspect to its fullest extent; using things that don't exist, genre fiction can shine a brighter light on the things that do.

I believe it is folly to state that you won't be taken seriously if you write genre fiction. I mean, look at Kurt Vonnegut or Haruki Murakami: their books aren't exactly "true to life," but Sirens of Titan and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are two of the most poignant and emotionally charged books that I've ever read. One of them has space-ships. The other has unicorns.

In other words, genre fiction is like getting a job at Disney World and realizing that, even though you have to clean up little kid spew, Space Mountain is still a pretty rad ride. Every so often, it's worth riding even though all of the serious Disney World employees are standing back with their arms folded saying "I can't take you seriously. You ride Space Mountain."

Guys. Come on. You work at Disney World.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Trailer for the Next Big Blockbuster

You may not have known that the powers that be make trailers for books, much as they do for movies. These trailers are designed to fascinate, titillate, and otherwise raise interest in the book.
So, Ken Follett has a new book coming out. It's Called Fall of Giants, and is the first in a trilogy that spans the twentieth century. You may already be a fan of Ken because of his historical doorstopper, Pillars of the Earth, and its sequel, World Without End. I myself enjoyed these two books immensely and am very much looking forward to his new series. So, click on this link to learn more about this book. Sure to be a great holiday gift! You can read it very quickly yourself before giving it away! (Sorry, Mom.)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Hugo Winners, or, Aren't We Smart!!

So the Hugo winners have recently been announced. If you are an SF/F geek like I am, you've been waiting for quite a while to see who will be honored. This is the big one for science fiction, just the the Edgars are the big one for mysteries. And we've got the Pulitzer and Man Booker for the more literarily minded of us. Speaking of which, I'm reading Wolf Hall now, and I'm charmed.

But this is about the biggest fan-voted award for science fiction. The reason that I'm crowing is because we have already selected the winners for Best Novel, Best Novella, and Best Novelette as book club selections, long before the awards came out! Check it out, if you will, in our book club section of our website.

This month, our Strange Worlds book club is reading Peter Watts' first book, Starfish. He just won Best Novelette for The Island, which you can also read for free on his website.

This month, our Traps and Trenchcoats mystery book club is reading The City and the City by China Mieville, which tied for Best Novel with Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl, which we are reading NEXT month for Stange Worlds! I am swooning because Paolo Bacigalupi will be here IN PERSON on October 25 to answer the question of what it feels like to have your first novel win the Locus, Nebula, Hugo, and Jack Campbell awards. Also, he's very cute. (Don't worry, Paolo, I'm married. I'm just sayin'.)

As if all this madness wasn't enough, we will be reading a selection from Charles Stross in January for Strange Worlds (Glasshouse). He just won Best Novella.

Plus, two of our other author selections, Roger Zelazny and Octavia Butler, were just inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame this year.

So, in short, our science fiction book club rocks. We've got incredible taste and the ability to select the biggest and best authors for your reading and discussion pleasure before anyone else has figured it out. You are welcome to come visit our merry crew- we meet at the store on the second Thursday of every month at 6pm. We're friendly. Live long and prosper.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Choose Your Own Book

Who else remembers Choose Your Own Adventure books? Was there anything cooler in the 80s and 90s? Forget the slinky or the Rubix cube, pass me a box of those slim, white-covered tomes. Never has the second-person point of view been so popular and beloved. You could go anywhere or do anything. How else could you pilot a space ship and then go on to become a prisoner of the dreaded ant people all in the same afternoon? Now that’s magic.

For those of you who missed this phenomenon, Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books allowed you to become the protagonist of the stories. At the end of each scene you got to choose what course of action to take. Do you hide from the goblins or go in sword swinging? Do you try to rescue the martian slaves, or do you take up trade with their captors? The choice was always yours. And often, if you picked a “poor” path, you died gruesomely. Hence the need to read with your thumb in the pages as you skipped around. If you were a cheater like me that is. What can I say. I tended to explode from my own heroics.

Part of the charm of CYOAs was the re-readability of them. Sure, one story was usually a short event, but you could read the same book over and over and it would be different every time (assuming you changed things up). As I aged I found myself wishing they made something similar for adults. I even toyed with the idea of writing one myself, but other pursuits always won out. A few authors did try, but never with much success. (Example: Pretty Little Mistakes by Heather McEltatton.) Why adult CYOAs never took off will always be a mystery to me. I suppose videogames had something to do with it, but that is just a guess. Well, imagine my surprise when I heard this week that there is a growing popularity online for what are being called word games, which are in all rights grown-up CYOAs for the digital age.

Choice of Games just released their newest contribution to the realm of online CYOA reading, Choice of Romance. While I don’t read romance novels I think the idea of a CYOA romance is sheer brilliance. How many times have you chastised a character for going with the wrong man/woman? I know I have more times than I can count. So here is your chance to set it straight. Think the Duke is a tyrant and prefer the soldier? The choice is yours.

So my question now is this: are we finally ready for adult CYOAs? Will the trend reach a resurgence? Will I be happily clearing shelf space in the future for a new section? Or should we renounce all of this? Keep books squarely in the realm of the passive, and leave our adventuring for other modes of entertainment? What do you think?

If you’d like to read new and exciting adult CYOAs, turn to page 42.

If you’d like to read only standard books, turn to page 11.

(Note: CYOAs came out in 1979 and they continued to release new titles until 1998. You can still order reprints both through us and through their new publisher, and we currently have several of the lovelies in stock here at the Firehouse, if you are so moved. Happy reading!)

- t

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gender, Genre, and the Politics of Book Reviews

"As it stands, thrillers and mysteries and speculative fiction can get daily reviews, or considered in the NY Times Book Review round-ups. Chick lit gets ignored, unless it gores one of the paper's sacred cows (note to self: don't mess with Anna Wintour!). Romance gets ignored completely...and that, I think, is the most damning argument about gender bias at the Times. How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn't exist on the paper's review pages?"
- Jennifer Weiner in a recent Huffington Post interview

There has been a lot of talk recently about whether or not female writers are getting the same respect and coverage as their male peers, especially when it comes to reputable media such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, or the Atlantic. While this has been brewing for ages (some might even say since writing was invented), the argument has been bumped to the foreground recently because of the New York Times' extensive coverage of Jonathan Franzen. With book review space so limited it caused an uproar when the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) covered Franzen's new book, Freedom, twice in seven days. When he made the front cover of TIME the same week things blew up.

On the surface this seems to be an argument of whether or not certain books are considered Literary or Commercial. Literary novelists (such as Franzen, Foer, or Irving) get reviews, magazine spots, and advertising. Contrarily, commercial novelists (such as Picoult, Wiener, and Weisberger) don't get the critical attention, but they do get the sales. It can be argued that the more commercial writers just write populist fiction devoid of real substance, while the literary authors write fuller books that speak directly to the human condition. There's just one problem with that: the two overlap more than most acknowledge. And when the line gets drawn it is often drawn right between the genders.

It has been pointed out that if a man writes about family and work it is literary and cutting edge. Worthy of being lauded. Whereas if a woman does the same the book is called a "beach read" and doomed to the classification of chick-lit. This gets particularly sticky when you consider that the former books are getting hailed in the media while the latter are ignored entirely. Compound that with the fact that more women buy books than men and it becomes suspiciously sexist.

Do I, personally, think there is a sexist agenda at the NYTBR? No. Do I think there is some pretty serious gender inequality going on? You betcha.

I, for one, do not read chick-lit, romance, or beach reads (however you wish to define the boundaries). It should be noted that I also don't read books with the same themes, written by men, and classified as Literary. However, as both an academic and a reader of sci-fi and fantasy, I am sensitive to the shunning of genres as low-brow.

Weiner makes an excellent point when she points out that, "by willfully ignoring commercial women's fiction, the Times has made itself, as an institution, an unreliable narrator." When you chose to cover male dominated genres such as suspense and horror, but then chose to exclude female dominated genres such as romance, you are admitting your bias openly. You are saying that one type of genre writing is worth reading while another is not. And if the genre you are ignoring happens to be dominated by women, both authors and readers, you will be presenting a poor knowledge (if nothing else) of gender politics.

So what do you think? Should the NYTBR spend more time reviewing other genres, and give more attention to chick-lit writers? Should they even things out by ceasing to cover genres like horror and just stick to what is considered Literary fiction? Or is this whole thing one big miscommunication built on misperceptions? I for one vote for more book reviews overall so that every genre can get its day in the sun.

To read more about this visit this article on GalleyCat and read the full interview of Picoult and Weiner on the Huffington Post.

- t

Friday, August 13, 2010

Existentialism in Reading (or WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!?)

"I went back to the sofa and started reading the rest of Anna Karenina. Until that reading, I hadn't realized how little I remembered of what goes on in the book. I recognized virtually nothing-- the characters, the scenes, nothing. I might as well have been reading a whole new book. How strange. I must have been deeply moved at the time I first read it, but now there was nothing left. Without my noticing, the memories of all the shuddering, soaring emotions had slipped away and vanished.
What, then, of the enormous fund of time I had consumed back then reading books? What had all that meant?"
-Haruki Murakami, "Sleep" from the short story collection The Elephant Vanishes

I read this short story my freshman year of college and this quote has haunted me ever since. There is a disturbing honesty behind it that I usually try to ignore. As a general rule, any book I've read more than three months ago becomes a blip on the radar. Even if I were asked now to compile a list of every book read so far this year, I would struggle in doing so. If prompted, I can recall general themes, or maybe a scene that I enjoyed, but usually this requires a long hard stare at the cover first or a brief skimming of the description on the back. I don't think I'd be able to name a single character from any of the books on my pick shelf by name.

I know I'm not alone, either. Many of our customers can't even keep track of which books they've read and which they haven't. Covers, titles, and authors all start blurring into one gray mass of literature.

So what, then, of the enormous fund of time I consume by reading books?
It took some thought, but I'm convinced that this time wasn't wasted. First and foremost, I love reading. And I would much rather not remember literary characters' names than not remember which episodes of Jershey Shore I've already seen.
Taking this even a step further, however, I may not remember a character's name, or even the general plot of a novel, but something sticks with me subconsciously each time I pick up a book. Murakami's short story "Sleep" is the perfect example. I have no idea what that story is about as a whole, or even most of the other stories in that collection. It's been three years since I picked that book up last and still the quote above stuck with me. It planted itself deep in my mind and that is something irreversible, even if I can't remember the name of the character who said it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Go Ape

I never read Water for Elephants. It made a huge splash. It was recommended highly by people I know with excellent taste. It was written by a fellow NaNoWriMo participant. It even has elephants. And still, I never found the time to read it. So when an advanced copy of Sara Gruen’s new novel, Ape House, showed up in a box of goodies I snatched it up tout de suite. I was not going to miss the boat again. I have to say I’m glad I finally got on board.

I have a tendency to soak up fast-paced action packed media. I like explosions, car chases, and wise cracking anti-heroes. This book has none of that. Okay, I lied. It has an explosion. The book literally gets going with a bang. And from that point forward I was hooked. Car chases or no.

I would warn that this review has spoilers, but the main engine of the book is not the plot. On the surface it is a simple story: Woman teaches apes to communicate. Man meets apes and has a change of perspective. Woman loses apes. Woman, and Man, quest to get apes back. Nothing world shattering here. Fortunately the real heart of the story isn’t the plot. The plot is a skeleton to hang all the good meaty stuff on. And the meaty stuff is plentiful.

The people, and indeed the apes, are the real show stealers in Ape House. Every minute decision, feeling, conversation, and thought all add depth to the people of the story. The main characters are John Thigpen the journalist, his wife Amanda the failing author, and Isabel, who regards the apes as family. Then there are all of the secondary characters. Scientists. Rivals. Opportunists. And they all have their own problems and unique ways of interacting with the world. Also, let us not forget the apes, who have their own personalities and desires. All of these varied people become real throughout the crafting of the novel, and it is their lives that captivated me. It was one of those rare books that left me wondering about the characters when I was finished.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the greatest triumph of Ape House isn’t the characters, or even that I found it thoroughly entertaining. It lies in the fact that it shows so much by saying so little. Over and over it shows us our nature, and the nature of our ape cousins. This is a book that makes no effort to conceal its agenda. It shows us how very human the great apes can be. More interesting however is that it also shows how very ape we humans can be. By the end of the book man and animal become indistinct. And therein lies the argument the book makes so eloquently: are we really so different? And if we aren’t, then what?

I must say I am both reluctant and excited to pass on my copy of Ape House. It seems a shame to give it up, but I can’t wait to talk to someone else about it. The hole it has left on my shelf has been filled though - I’m pleased to say I picked up a copy of Water for Elephants. I feel confident this time I will get around to it.

Ape House goes on sale September seventh.

- t

Monday, August 9, 2010

What? Classics? GOOD?

It has struck me recently that classics are good books.
And not just in the "YOU SHOULD READ JANE EYRE BECAUSE IT'S LIKE A CLASSIC AND SUCH" way, either. Classics, it turns out, have usually done something to earn the title, and I think we often forget that.
Don't get me wrong. I dislike Great Expectations as much as the next person. Perhaps even more. It's tough to appreciate a book with archaic diction and sentence structure (Especially Dickens' syntactical train-wrecks. Hoo golly. [Yes I know he's a master of the English language. I don't care.])
But once you get past the frustratingly obtuse turns of phrase, you begin to pick up on the emotional brilliance of these writers. Deep psychological examinations of traumatized characters coping with the events of the story. Regardless of how cliche the specifics have become, the emotions transcend centuries.
Take Shakespeare, for instance. I used to hate Shakespeare. "He's over-rated," I would say, "A complete hack. He wrote for money, that's it. Sure, he was good in his time, but we're past that now."
And then I read Hamlet again.
Something you never notice about that play is how blatantly, how strikingly, and how gut-wrenchingly unhappy it is. Hamlet's soliloquy, the one that begins "To be or not to be, that is the question..." is about suicide.
Today we see as melodrama; something to be ridiculed and poked fun at, ever since Mel Gibson's garbled rendition that ignored an entire scene and ruined Hamlet's reputation for an entire generation, spawning the skull-holding cliche that still haunts us today(I'M NOT BITTER NO NOT AT ALL.) My first memory of Hamlet was when it was 'performed' on the cartoon Animaniacs one bright Saturday morning sometime in the early nineties. Hamlet was performed by Wakko, in a faux-British accent that grated on my nerves even then.
I laughed. It was funny.
Just play that back in your mind for a moment. I laughed. It was funny.
This just goes to show how much we, collectively, don't understand Hamlet.
For contrast, here is the beginning of the actual soliloquy:

"To be or not to be– that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause."

Hamlet is saying that death is preferable. End your troubles. Sure, go on with life; suicide might not be worth it. But, then again, what if it is?
I mean, holy crud.
And then there's the whole issue of whether or not he actually means it or if he's just pretending in order to throw off his fiance Ophelia who's been used to gauge Hamlet's madness by her father Polonius who is the right-hand man of Claudius, the King of Denmark (who we all know killed Hamlet's father and married his mother, just for kicks.)
Just about the point where Hamlet accidentally stabs Polonius causing Ophelia to go mad with grief and drown herself, I remebered that the play Hamlet was totally awesome.
That's the problem with classics: we see them so often that nobody remembers how rad they are. The list doesn't stop with Shakespeare, either. Everything from Hawthorne to Dostoyevsky is worth reading. Forget Twilight, read Wuthering Heights. If you're looking to be depressed, read The Sun Also Rises. For comedy, A Confederacy of Dunces.
It turns out, there's a reason that your high-school teachers made you read these books. People have been feeling the same emotions for generations upon generations. Sometimes, an author finds the best way to capture those emotions with words; when that happens, a classic is born.
In short:
Read classics. There's a reason they're good, even if you know the story.
Except Dickens.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

We're hiring! Or: thoughts on bookstore life

Working in an independent bookstore is the best job I've ever had. EVER. I love the environment, the customers, my co-workers, and the feeling that we are building something of value to the community. After all, we help make available knowledge, entertainment, and a sense of community. I've had other jobs, even other careers, I've sold pets, men's ties, and movie tickets. I've been a counselor and an educator. But the biggest miracle of my life has been that I turned what started as a way to pay for grad school into a vocation, in the broader sense of the word.

And we're hiring! You're welcome to go here and fill out an application. But beware: more than a love of reading is necessary to work in a bookstore. In fact, it's highly unlikely that you're going to be reading much, if at all, at work. Here's some thoughts on life in an independent bookstore from the manager of the Twig Bookstore in San Antonio:

"It is a fantasy to think that you can sit behind a counter and read until a customer comes up to pay for a book. Bookselling requires physical and mental stamina. Ordering books requires poring over catalogues with publishing representatives, vendors, and authors. These days a bookseller must have a comfort level with various computer programs from point of sale programs to search engines and publication designs. Boxes of books come daily that must be unboxed, received, and shelved. Organizational skills go beyond alphabetizing. Marketing books once they are in takes retail and design sense. Shelves must be culled of books that are not selling and returned to the publishers or authors. And there is always dusting and sweeping to be done. Oh yeah, and then read, read, read. I used to feel like all I had time to read was the back of a book. After a year as manager that has improved somewhat.

"I have found booksellers to share a common ideal about the world. We care deeply about our communities, about the power of the written word throughout the centuries, the importance of sharing the stories of our human condition. We are finding and even creating new ways to connect with each other, between various organizations and businesses, in partnerships and special projects."

To this list of things to do I would add: playing detective for vaguely remembered but much-desired books, holding back the chaos of the children's section, being ready for whatever questions or problems arrive at your counter and going the extra mile EVERY TIME, and being pretty whippy on the computer too.

Still the best job I've ever had.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tweed vs. Polyester (and Zombies?)

Anyone can tell you that what is old will eventually be new again. Our culture is constantly recycling itself. I remember one summer I raided my mother's closet for fashion gems from the 70s, which were the height of cool all over again. I find it particularly interesting is when this happens with literary culture. Watching as Hollywood releases yet another remake of Dracula, and then observing the subsequent rush to read the original novel. And how many versions of Hamlet have made it to the silver screen now? I've lost track. Perhaps the most intriguing phenomenon I've been witnessing, however, isn't just a resurgence of classics, but rather a poppy and youthful reinvention of them.

It used to be (at least in my recollection) that books like Jane Eyre were approached with a certain dread by teens. Classic British literature was dusty and dry, something you skimmed because it was assigned or because you wanted to flesh out your reading list. Somewhere along the lines this changed, and suddenly such books are the height of cool.

It’s tricky to pinpoint the exact time that this transition occurred - when classics got that extra bubblegum oomph that launched them from the Ivory Tower and into mainstream pop culture. Was it Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet? Or perhaps a better springboard could be Clueless? Whenever it happened, it is in full swing now. And the mash-ups and cultural spins that have followed are numerous and colorful. When you start running across things like Jane Austin Fight Club and faux Brotë sister action figures on YouTube you know the phenomenon has gone from in-joke to mainstream satire.

The media is saturated with references and spoofs, and our books shelves are no exception. We have mash-ups aplenty: Pride and Predjudice and Zombies. Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters. Dawn of the Dreadfuls, and let us not forget the newest addition: Android Karenina. And then there are the remakes. Just this week I came across and advanced reading copy of Jane by April Lindner (due out this October), which is described as, “a modern retelling of Jane Eyre with an iconic rock star twist.”

It has taken me a while to settle on my feelings regarding all of this. Part of me finds it delightfully comedic and appealing. Still another part (I suspect the part that got a degree in English) finds it all somewhat disheartening. After all, must we really add zombies to make literature appealing? There is this though: people are reading classics again. Sure, they may be chopped up or retold, but people are reading them. Isn’t that better than them not reading them at all?

What do you think, dear readers? Is this just the next step up on evolutionary ladder for literature, a fine blending of popular culture and literary culture? Could it simply be a trend that will come and go like the bell-bottom jean? Or is it a slip down the rungs, another step deeper into the “dumbing down” of reading that some fear has taken hold?

- t

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Jose Luis Borges

This 20th century, blind poet/essayist from Argentina was, I believe, ahead of his time. Check out his surrealistic essays, mostly less than one page, in Dream Tigers to discover that he was the consummate flash fiction writer, 50 or 60 years before the term was invented. I don't know how the man managed to evoke memories of places and people using just a few sentences, perhaps because I'm not a world-class writer...

Respond if you have opinions about Borges! I would love to hear alternative points of view.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Dead Beautiful" review

Here's another great review by Kathleen Ivy, this time delving into a debut teen novel.

Dead Beautiful by Yvonne Woon is a highly readable tale that is likely to appeal to fans of such writers a Libba Bray and Lilith Saintcrow. Renee Winters is “every girl” and yet still displays character and backbone when confronted with moral dilemmas and unnerving circumstances that would send most sixteen-year-olds screaming into the night. (Which would not be a wise choice anyway, considering what is out there.) Dante, her enigmatic crush, certainly seems like the answer to every young girl’s prayer – but is he really? That is just one of the page turning questions. What is the curse that seems to haunt the grounds of Gottfried Academy? What actually killed Renee’s parents? How did Renee find her parents, and why is she seemingly drawn to find dead things? Why did Renee’s grandfather insist on her attendance at the academy and why did he leave her among strangers? What are the school monitors up to with their secret meetings? Confused and alone, Renee seeks answers to the mystery surrounding her and their intrinsic link to her own identity. Will she find them before it is too late, or will more people have to die lost in the twisting tunnels beneath Gottfried Academy?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I Book, You Book,...E Book?

"To me, a book is a book, an electronic device is not, and love of books was the reason I started writing. I don't have a word processor, e-mail, any of that stuff. I write in longhand mostly, then put it on my typewriter as I go along. I don't have any interest in any of that electronic stuff, but I'm going on 85, and won't have to worry about it too much longer."

--Elmore Leonard, quoted on his website.

There has been a lot of talk about e-books in recent years. Those who are on the bandwagon talk excitedly about digital conversion and having any book you might want at the press of a button. Naysayers turn up their noses at the technology and worry that this may be the last nail in the coffin for the publishing industry. And booksellers? Well most of us try to adapt as much as possible and keep a watchful eye.

Amazon recently reported that they sold three times as many e-books for the Kindle in the first half of this year as they did last year. Then again, independent booksellers are reporting that their sales are up 1%, which is in line with other retail sales for the year. It seems that while e-books are exploding there are still some people steadfastly holding on to their paperbacks.

E-books seem like a perfect invention for those that spend a lot of time travelling. When I imagine the ideal e-book consumer I think of someone like George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, who is constantly on the move. For me the main appeal is the lack of weight and space that a Kindle would take up in a bag when compared to a stack of traditional books.

I’m a technophile. I love my laptop, iPod, email, and cellular phone (when it works). I spend a lot of time commuting, and hauling books with me to and fro. On the surface I seem to be a great candidate for such a gizmo. And yet, when asked if I wanted such a thing I can feel my lip curl in distaste. For me reading a book is more than ingesting content. It’s the feel of the pages in my hands. The smell of the paper. The finality when I turn that last page and close the cover. It’s a rich tactile experience. It’s the reason I printed all my online reading in college. Reading from a screen just isn’t the same. At least not for me.

I have friends on both sides of the fence. Friends who love their e-books intensely and friends who would sooner die than read Jane Austin on a screen. So what do you think? What’s your opinion? Are e-books the future, or will there always be a place for print?


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

For the Writers

Working in a bookstore I must say I was surprised to discover I was only one of two writers on staff. (A high-five goes out to my fellow coworker and compatriot, Kelsey.) While I know that obviously not all readers are writers, it is fairly true that most writers are readers. If ever there was a place to nestle into in between bouts of madness, err, authorial genius, it is surely a bookstore – I didn’t suspect I’d be one of the few (the proud?) to land amidst the stacks. Yet here I am: the resident oddball poet and novel scribbler.

It wasn’t long after I read my first book that I wrote my first short story (a saccharine tale about a girl that fell to Earth in a raindrop – every bit as youthful and trite as you probably imagine). For me writing and reading are intertwined, and both are as normal and necessary as breathing. And so I compile this entry for my fellow wordsmiths. Whether you pen novels, poetry, short stories, essays, letters, or even the occasional lengthy diary entry, I salute you. After all, without the writers this store would have remarkably empty shelves.

William Safire's Great Rules of Writing:

Do not put statements in the negative form.

And don't start sentences with a conjunction.

If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.

Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.

Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.

De-accession euphemisms.

If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.

Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.

Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.

For a more serious list of guidelines, Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, has a list of Ten Rules for Writers that she recently shared with the LA Times. You can read them here.

And if you just want to waste a little time and have a giggle check out the I Write Like site and have your writing analyzed and compared to a famous author.

- t

Monday, July 19, 2010

Eye Love

Last week I got Lasik surgery. Well, not exactly Lasik, but PRK which is something very similar except the healing process takes longer. For those of you who aren't in the know, Lasik surgery is an operation involving lasers (awesome) that permanently corrects the vision of the patient.

Besides average fears and nervousness, I was most afraid as an avid reader. Anything that messes with my eyes is scary. I couldn't help but think of Jose Saramago's novel Blindness, in which an entire city is stricken by (what else?) blindness. The horrors in that story are so fantastic yet realistic that they stuck with me throughout the procedures. Fortunately, everything went perfectly, which is good because I can't even imagine how difficult it would be to learn braille.

To be fair to all the eye surgeons out there, I was being a tad dramatic. The odds of anything detrimental to my sight happening was astronomical. My eyes were, however, unable to focus properly for the first few days which meant I spent that whole time unable to read. Sick days were never the end of the world to me because it meant I had the perfect excuse to kick back for a day to sleep and read. Illness without this excuse was painful.

The long wait is finally over, though! As of this morning I was officially reading-ready and I was almost disappointed to get called out of the waiting room this morning just as I was beginning to sink back into my book. My vision isn't 100% quite yet, but just you wait for that to happen-- I'll be reading over your shoulder from miles away! I guess the "deep message" behind this "profound blog post" is don't take your vision for granted-- that alone gives you the perfect excuse to read as much as possible today!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Want To Know a Secret?

The real secret to Todd Mitchell’s book, The Secret to Lying, is that while it is shelved in the teen fiction section most adults would probably find it just as enjoyable and relevant. The story follows James Turner as he attempts to find a balance between who he is and who he wants to be. Invisible and ignored, James gets an opportunity to reinvent himself when he goes to a new school. His yearning to be noticed leads him to lie about his past and who he is, and as the lies snowball his eccentric bad-boy persona balloons until his true self becomes all but lost.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about this book is how radically it departs from what one might expect. While the plot is fairly typical, the prose and world it is set within are not. James frequently retreats into his dreams, which are far more bizarre and Burroughs-esque than one would ever expect. Disturbing and strange interior worlds mix with James’ crafted lies to form a collage of teen apprehension. When the only real thing in James’ world is the friendship he forms online with an unnamed person, reality becomes strangely fragile, vacant, and reflective, like a house formed of mirrors and windows.

While part of the charm of this book is in the characters and their adventures, what really makes the book pop is the snappy dialogue, solid prose, and honest heart. At its core this book is a foray into the absurd mixed with the grounded reality (and pain) of finding oneself and growing up. For a book all about the lies we tell to each other and ourselves this may be one of the most honest books I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

- t

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Another Post on Movie Adaptations

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!!! If you haven't read The Road yet (are you living under a rock???) or seen the movie (definitely more forgivable) you might not want to read any further.

So, I finally did it. I rented The Road, sat down, and watched it. The whole thing!! I've been meaning to do this since it came out in theaters. I'd been following the progress of the film online before the many postponed release dates.

The first 90% of the movie was great. Suspenseful, emotional, and quick-moving, I sincerely enjoyed it. Then came the ending. Oh, the ending! Why, Hollywood, why?!?! I was barely able to control my scoffing when, at the conclusion of the movie, the boy is united with a family that had been "following them all along" including a mother and son I could have sworn we'd seen get hacked up earlier in the film. This wasn't right at all, so I determined to put my complaints to blog-form and tear the ending apart.

This is when things started to get funny. I sat down this morning, with the movie fresh in my mind and grabbed a copy of The Road off the shelf in order to reference the REAL ending. I was shocked to find that the movie HAD represented the "real" ending, almost word for word with the exception of a few corny lines delivered by the mother.

Had the two years since I'd read The Road been enough time for my brain to completely reshape the ending? I didn't think so, because I remembered discussing what I considered the "ambiguous and unclosed ending" with friends. I think, instead, that Hollywood is not to blame, but rather the conceptualizing of any written form. Basically, because I didn't trust the people at the end, I saw their appearance as ambiguous. When screenwriter Joe Penhall read the end, he must have seen the people as a force of good.

The problem with movies based on books is not always boiled down to poor adaptation. It's more that reading is so personal that no director can tap into our heads enough to portray scenes and characters the exact way we imagined it. No adaptation will ever please everyone simply because everyone related to the book in a different way.