Powered by Squarespace

Sunday
Jun152014

Books, Writers and the Beautiful Game

"I have come to think that soccer lends itself to great writing because it thrives in the imagination, like so much of life. Great writers put themselves into the possibilities of the sport--pondering." --George Vecsey, Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer

The World Cup began yesterday and I must write about it. I don't mean I've been assigned to; I feel compelled. My connection to the beautiful game dates back nearly half a century to when I played in high school and college, as well as in summer leagues on teams that included Italian and Polish marble mill workers. In 1966, our high school coach took a few of us to Yankee Stadium, where we joined nearly 42,000 fans to watch the incomparable Brazilian legend Pelé and his Santos team beat Inter Milan of Italy 4-1 in an exhibition game.

American fans have taken some heat recently for their dubious "soccer snobbery" and "elaborate affectation," but I think my soccer street cred is still intact. I've loyally rooted for England (my team of choice and of ancestral heritage) since they won in 1966, though I never worry about using the terms soccer, game, field or uniform instead of football, match, pitch or kit; and I don't wear a team scarf.

Thus, from my little corner of the world's most popular sport, I offer a decidedly bookish, American take on the beautiful game. Here's what I've noticed lately:

There's a World Cup window display at the Book Nook, Ludlow, Vt.; and Powell's Books, Portland Ore., is having a 30% off sale on soccer titles.

Three Percent's World Cup of Literature is underway, pitting "representative books from all 32 World Cup qualifying countries against one another in a single-elimination tournament."

You can also back your favorite country's writers in the Penguin Cup. On being named to England's team, Fever Pitch author Nick Hornby commented: "My proudest moment in football and literature. I worry about this team, though. I know for a fact that Zadie has no left foot, and I'm worried that Austen won't give me the protection I need if their left winger has pace. Christie is prolific, though."

"For whom did Arthur Conan Doyle play football in the late 1880s?" This was one of the questions in the Guardian's football in fiction quiz.

"What if writing was like World Cup soccer?" asked Merritt Tierce in an Electric Literature piece headlined "Writers' World Cup."

"The run-up to every World Cup in recent memory has brought a deluge of books," the New York Times noted. "What began as a trickle after the new year has grown to the point where bookcases are groaning under the weight."

BBC offered a "book lover's guide to Brazil," featuring some of the host country's "eloquent and original literary voices."

In writing about Alex Bellos's revised and updated edition of Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, Jon Michaud in the New Yorker noted that an entire chapter is devoted to Aldyr Garcia Schlee, the designer of Brazil's signature uniform who "went on to become a journalist, university professor and novelist."

Ah, England. British player Frank Lampard, who has written several Frankie's Magic Football children's books, was asked whether he would write another one if England wins. "I have already written Frankie and the World Cup Carnival, but I would be happy to write another one IF we actually won it!"

Reality check: The Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago linked to an Economist article recommending three new books about the host country and pointing out that "holding the World Cup in Brazil, football's spiritual home, sparked many fantasies of samba-infused spectacle. Those illusions were shattered last June when protests swept across the country during a warm-up tournament; a year on the discontent still simmers."  

Writing for ESPN FC, Nick Hornby observed that the "smell of money around this World Cup is more unpleasant and more distracting than it has ever been.... Perhaps we are foolish, naive and self-deluding, those of us for whom the World Cup is an event that results in the glorious suspension of ordinary life for the best part of a month... But in an odd sort of way, everything that is so despicable about the contemporary game is a tribute to its power and continuing appeal."

Why did I feel compelled to add my thoughts to the World Cup frenzy? Maybe it's as simple as the recollection of a precise moment during the Summer of Love in 1967, and the sound of the ball when I caught it just right with my instep on a corner kick and sent it arcing toward the crowded goal area, as if tossing chum into a pool of sharks. One of my teammates executed a perfectly timed leap above the roiling surface to meet the ball, and just a flick of his head sent it to the upper right corner of the goal, beyond the outstretched arms of a desperate keeper. Then the celebration erupted with almost unbridled joy and (for just an instant, in Hornby's "odd sort of way") with love... for the beautiful game. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2274.

Sunday
Jun082014

#BEA14: Translating Great Reads for More Readers

I'm not sure when it first occurred to me that I was hooked. Perhaps on Friday, as I saw a line of people gathering at the Melville House Books booth to meet Mariusz Szczygiel and get a signed copy of Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones). Or maybe it was Wednesday, during the panel "Case Studies: Successful Insight from Translators and Editors," when moderator Esther Allen cited a 2003 New York Times article headlined "America Yawns at Foreign Fiction." She then pointed out that Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book Three (translated by Don Bartlett), was the featured review in that day's edition of the Times.

"There's been a big change in the last 10 years," Allen said. Panelist and Penguin editor John Siciliano added that Entertainment Weekly had recently featured two stories on Swiss author Joël Dicker's The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (translated by Sam Taylor). "That was just astonishing to me."

Probably it was both of these moments, and many more, that drew me again and again to BookExpo America's Global Market Forum: Books in Translation events. What I loved about this year's program was that discussions weren't limited to: "What can we do?" They often focused on: "What do we do next and better?" And while Americans may not be reading enough books in translation (though I only heard the old 3% figure a couple of times, which is a record), they appear to be reading more each year.

"It's definitely a different time. It's kind of eerie," said translator Anthony Shugaar, who noted there is still a resistance to stories that do not fit preconceived notions of a country or culture. "It's definitely a huge change, but it's amazing how much baggage we're still carrying along."

Maria Campbell, owner of an international literary scouting agency, praised foreign publishers for becoming savvier: "How international books are presented to the American market has gotten better.... I think that the actual mechanisms have improved dramatically." She also said "publishers and readers are more adventurous" in seeking out fiction. "I sense even more since 2008... the financial crisis here was the beginning of 'let's look around and see what's out there.' " She added that 9/11 played an early role, as did websites like Words Without Borders.

"We also need a greater recognition of translators," Campbell noted. In fact, translators were at the forefront of many discussions. "It's not about the words; it's about what you get from the words," said Shugaar. Marcos Giralt Torrente, author of The End of Love (translated by Katherine Silver), said authors "need time for writing. We need time to find the right word. Maybe hours, maybe days.... We need translators who have time, too. They need to be paid... You can be poorly translated by a good translator who doesn't have time.... I feel very lucky because I've worked with three stars of translation.... What you ask of a translator is to recognize your own voice. I could recognize my voice. None of them betrayed my voice. None of them betrayed my style."

Editor Sal Robinson, translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones and author Mariusz Szczygiel with publishers Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians at Melville House booth

"Making Translation Work: The Author, the Translator & the Editor" featured panelists representing two publishers--Melville House, with translator Lloyd-Jones, editor Sal Robinson and author Szczygiel; and Europa Editions, with publisher Michael Reynolds and Marco Malvaldi, author of Three Card Monte and Game for Five (translated by Howard Curtis).

Lloyd-Jones offered a step-by-step explanation of how she puts together a presentation folder and said: "I've seen a lot of change in my career." Noting that she began when translators names were often not even included on a book, she spoke of the "professionalization of translators" and efforts to improve the business by translators themselves. "We have some good organizations.... I'm now mentoring younger translators in Britain."

Robinson observed that, "as an editor, you're a reader first. You ask yourself, Is this something I would pick up?" She also noted that translated genre fiction can have certain advantages when reaching out to an English-speaking readership: "Crime novels can sometimes tell you something about a society you can't get in another novel."

"Discoverability is the real challenge for the industry at the moment," said Reynolds, adding that a translated work "is very complex and takes a lot of effort and a lot of energy. So you have to choose the right author.... If there is an obstacle, it may be in the publishing industry itself rather than among readers."
 
Malvaldi noted that "something common in the country where you write can be new and uncommon in the country where it is published," a point Ann Goldstein, translator and member of the New Yorker's editorial staff, explored later in her presentation "How to Edit a Translation." For an editor, one of the key tasks is to consider obscure or unfamiliar references and decide how much help a reader needs, since translators would naturally be more familiar with the nuances of a particular language and culture. "The main thing is that you're dealing with two authors. The translator is also an author," she said.

"It's an immersion into another culture and a reading of signifiers," translator Allison Markin Powell, founder of the website Japanese Literature in English, told BEA's Books in Translation program coordinator Ruediger Wischenbart during the final event of the show. "I do try to gear toward a general reader.... I work within trade publishing. I'm looking for work an American audience might want to read."

And that, as it happens, is what we all had in common at Global Forum: the search for our next great read.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2269.

Sunday
May252014

Walking the Walk at #BEA14

"I'm walkin' here! I'm walkin' here!" --Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in Midnight Cowboy

Next week, those of us attending BookExpo America will become temporary commuters in a city that recently garnered exceptional marks for public transit and walking. According to 24/7 Wall Street, New York City, "where more than 10% of residents walked to work, had a Walk Score of 87.6, the highest in the nation."

We aren't required to hoof it out to the convention and back each day, thanks to the numerous Big Apple transport choices, including BEA shuttle buses, taxis and mass transit (though the still-truncated 7 train subway line and the often jam-packed, unpredictable 34th St. crosstown bus are barely useful). However we choose to get there, we most definitely will be walking while attending the show. And walking. And walking.

If you've observed BEA attendees before in their unnatural habitat (aka the Javits Center), you may have noticed a wide range of of walking styles negotiating their way through the bookish throngs. Since Sibley hasn't yet published a field guide to identify all of these varieties, I tried to assemble a sampling here to illustrate just a few of the walkers you're likely to encounter--or become--during your #BEA14 pilgrimage:

Stampeders: This can happen any time the herd is spooked by news of a celebrity booth signing or hot galley giveaway, but it is most pronounced during the opening moments of the show when the crowd speedwalks en masse from the first Book & Author Breakfast at the Special Events Hall to the main Exhibit Hall upstairs. Beware the frenzied escalator climber!

Salmon: It is one of nature's miracles, and actually quite inspiring, to witness the instinctive determination with which a person will sometimes attempt to walk against the prevailing current in an overcrowded publisher's aisle.

Broken Field Runners: Like football running backs, they dart left and right, move quickly to any open space, sometimes lower a shoulder and plunge through the onrushing line, always focused on the goal, however imperceptible and unimportant that may seem to those left reeling in their wake. Note: Tackling is now discouraged by show organizers.

Striders: They mean business. They move neither left nor right, but assume anyone in their path will step aside, and always keep their eyes trained upon something or someone really, really important waiting out there on the horizon. They are on a critical mission and you, my friend, are not part of it.

Grazers: In bookstores we call them browsers, but at BEA, grazing is perhaps a more appropriate designation for those who stroll casually from booth to booth, sampling the wares as if plucking leaves from trees.

Statues: If an object in motion tends to stay in motion, BEA walkers at rest tend to stay at rest, especially if they have rooted themselves to a spot directly in the line of traffic flow. They appear to be frozen mid-step, about to walk on, and yet... they don't, completely oblivious to the cresting waves of irritated colleagues breaking around them.

Predators & Prey: If you observe closely, you can often predict when an unwary attendee walking past a booth is about to be captured by the exhibitor. A similar drama develops when an attendee stalks a booth, waiting for just the right moment to corner a particular exhibitor who's been chatting with one person after another.

Hunters & Gatherers: Their walk is distinguished by a steady pace and a kind of sixth sense for where the best stuff--ARCs and pens and posters and bookmarks and more--is being distributed at any given moment. They are also exceptionally patient, willing to wait in seemingly endless lines at booth signings.

Pack Horses: Sooner or later, this is the fate for many of us, as we trudge back to our hotels laden with colorful, even sparkly, ARC-filled tote bags that belie the pain of our aching arms and shoulders.

Cattle: Well, you've seen BEA's Autographing Area. Wait, shuffle, wait, shuffle, wait.

Saunterers: You don't encounter them often, but when you do, they are sight to behold. To stroll at BEA is to go completely against the grain. They seem to be unaffected by the madness around them. You wonder why they are there at all, and sometimes, however briefly, you envy their calm detachment.

The Walking Dead: Best observed on the final afternoon of BEA, waiting for shuttle buses back to their hotels.

Soon we'll all be walkin' the BEA walk, but make sure to reserve a little extra time and shoe leather to explore the not-so-mean streets beyond the Javits Center. "If it's a beautiful day, I love taking walks," said quintessential New Yorker Pete Hamill: "The walks are always aimless." Sound advice. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2258.

Sunday
May182014

On Booksellers, Celebrities & Celebrity Authors

As another BookExpo America approaches, my thoughts have turned to celebrities. Not author celebrities, but celebrity celebrities (who, for BEA purposes, often mean celebrity authors). This year's BEA Book & Author Breakfasts include a generous helping of speakers whom you might be forgiven for considering celebrities first and authors second, including Neil Patrick Harris, Anjelica Huston, Jason Segel, Alan Cumming, Martin Short and Lena Dunham.

I'm not complaining, having watched booksellers, myself included, stalk celebrities in our own quiet way for a long time, including a pair of occasions when I witnessed Oprah Winfrey being engulfed by an adoring, bookish entourage. The first occurred in 1993 at the ABA convention in Miami, where I happened to attend a lush, downtown rooftop garden launch party for Oprah's soon-to-be-canceled memoir. Shielded by bodyguards, she moved across the floor within what was quite literally the eye of a party storm as the book crowd swirled around her.

photo: outcrybookreview.com

And in Chicago eight years later, the scene was repeated when she attended a BEA Author Breakfast where her friend Quincy Jones was speaking. Afterward, she left for a quick tour of the trade show. Her passage through the corridors from banquet room to convention floor became a procession, with Oprah leading and booksellers trailing in her wake.

On their home turf, most booksellers are generally more circumspect. The first unwritten rule at the bookstore where I worked for many years was that if you spotted a celebrity in the stacks, you left them alone and respected their anonymity unless they broke the ice first. The second rule was that it didn't count as a genuine sighting without credit card name confirmation.

Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane, Wash., sums up the "celebrity browsing" dynamic nicely: "Over the years, we've learned to expect a bit of celebrity here at Auntie's, and not just our own! Many community figures, actors, singers, artists and other performers are also avid readers. We don't stalk our visitors while they're here, but once in a while we feel comfortable requesting that we be allowed to take a photo."

I've noticed recently that the gossip media tends to be inordinately thrilled when it catches celebrities in bookstores:

"Taylor Swift shops at McNally Jackson, will save book publishing."
"Amber Heard celebrates birthday with Johnny Depp, couple visit a bookstore."
"Ellen Page strolls arm in arm with rumored girlfriend... Together, they hit up several neighborhood spots, including the McNally Jackson bookstore."
"She's one literary lady: Geri Halliwell wears grey trouser suit to visit a book store in North London
"Selma Blair cruises to the bookstore in carnival capri pants to pocket some great summertime reads."

Julianne Moore, BEA 2013

Generally, indie booksellers are content to practice a bookish version of catch-and-release when it comes to celebrity sightings. It's not that we don't care. No one could deny the buzz that sweeps through a bookshop when a celeb is on premises, so we're not completely jaded when it comes to celebrity encounters.

I remember a great conversation I had several years ago at BEA in Chicago during a Farrar, Straus & Giroux dinner with Paul Yamazaki, head book buyer at City Lights, San Francisco, Calif., and Billy Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkins lead singer who was about to publish a collection of poems. We discussed books and places to eat; just three dudes talking poetry and the best bratwurst vendors on the streets of Chicago.

John Stockton at BEA 2013

I'll even confess that last year at BEA, I made two special, somewhat star-struck pilgrimages to hover briefly around the signing tables of National Basketball Association legends Kareem Abdul Jabbar and John Stockton.

My all-time favorite celebrity-turned-author moment involved Bill Murray's appearance at a BEA Author Breakfast panel in Los Angeles 15 years ago for his book A Cinderella Story. After confessing that he "became a writer back in 1999. I had approximately, uh, the rest of the month to finish it," he offered a little Murrayish retail perspective for the indie booksellers in attendance: "I've never gone to the Internet and sat down and read anything, but I've never gone to the Internet and shoplifted, either."

Ultimately, I can only hope my strategy for dealing with celebrities in the book world falls well short of stalker territory and more in line with that sense we often get while on vacation of not wanting to be mistaken for a tourist. Pretend like you belong and it's all part of your everyday routine. Maybe you'll at least fool yourself.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2253.

Sunday
May112014

Mother's Day Is 'A Very Booky Holiday'

Do you know what the first rule of Mother's Day is at Hallmark? "Don't make fun of your mom."

Dad? It's always open season on him. Even Mother's Day isn't a safe paternal harbor (please refer to Exhibit A--this great card featured by Chapter2Books, Hudson, Wis.). Tina Neidlein, a Hallmark greeting card writer, told Bloomberg Businessweek: "On Father's Day, you can say, 'Dad, all you want is a sandwich!' or 'Dad, you nap a lot.' But if you make fun of your mother, she's going to cry. And you can't even make fun of that."

Just to be safe, we'll opt for the "be grateful" strategy, as in "Thanks Mom for Being My First Storyteller." The new video from HarperCollins features several authors--Veronica Roth, Soman Chainani, Lauren Oliver, Ann Patchett, Dan Gutman, Rita Williams-Garcia, Adriana Trigiani and more--expressing their bookish Mother's Day gratitude.

Books. That's the ticket. While the don't-make-fun-of-mom edict is probably based more on Hallmark's penchant for sentimental typecasting than scientific research, it did remind me that indie booksellers have long made a point of breaking away from traditional (i.e., cliché) merchandising options in their Mother's Day displays. For example, this year the Book Nook, Ludlow, Vt., showcases Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work, & the Will to Lead and Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance on its Mother's Day table. And then there are the delightfully entomological sentiments expressed on the cover of a greeting card featured by Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y. ("Eating her young meant fewer Mother's Day cards to open")

Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass., created a video of personal staff picks for their mothers, with a nice range of choices: A Fighting Chance, Sibley Birds, A Platter of Figs, Journey, Ethics for the New Millennium, Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart and Flour, Too: Indispensable Recipes for the Cafe's Most Loved Sweets & Savories.

"Mother's Day is a very booky holiday," the New York Times observed. "A book isn't too much, it doesn't have to be prominently displayed, it doesn't demand a conversation about how calories-don't-count-because-whatever and it doesn't wilt--or it goes nicely with more traditional gifts, which do do some of those things. Mother's Day is a fun time to give a book she will love to a friend, too: maybe a friend whose spouse and children don't 'get it' quite as well as you do."

Last year, Kobo released a Mother's Day video featuring moms from many countries reading with their children, ending with: "She gave you the gift of reading. On Mother's Day, give it back."

Once upon a time (let's call it the early 1950s), when I was three or four years old, a fierce thunderstorm hit our town. Through the haze of memory, I can still feel the intensity of that storm, but I mostly remember the shelter my younger brother and I found on my mother's lap while she read us a story to take our minds off what she called "God bowling in the sky."

I was reminded of that moment when I recently encountered a lovely and very bookish e-newsletter column by Nancy Page, owner of Island Books, Mercer Island, Wash.: "With our youngest, Lewis, leaving home in the fall to attend college in the Midwest, this Mother's Day takes on a special meaning and gives me pause to reflect. The school-age years have been full, as I watched our children forge their own friendships and become the young adults that they are, but it was the early years when we hunkered down on the couch and read piles of books for hours at a time, completely absorbed in stories, that hold the fondest memories. I liked to read aloud and my kids loved to listen--a match made in heaven."

Page then chronicles a title-rich reading life with her children before concluding: "So maybe I could have done this mothering thing differently and my children would be practical scientists or mathematicians in the making, but instead they are exactly as they always have been and really in my opinion, should be, the sorts who love stories, bookseller's children. I am forever grateful for those years spent reading to them. So if you are at home with little ones, I suggest you make time to read. Read a lot to them. Punctuate your days with books, piles of books on the couch. You will never regret it. Happy Mother's Day." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2248.