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Tuesday
Oct142008

Author Says 'Just Read and Have a Good Laugh'

"It's the birthday of the South African journalist and crime writer James Howe McClure," said Garrison Keillor--in a voice that makes the day sound bearable even during a world financial market collapse--on last Thursday morning's edition of The Writer's Almanac.

Keillor then offered the following, at once pertinent and impertinent, words of wisdom from McClure: "I long, long, long ago thought the finest thing to be is an entertainer, with tons of funny things to say. If people find lots more in my work, that's great, but if they just read and have a good laugh, that's fine for me."

And that's the news from . . . ooops.

Speaking of ooops, I suppose any attempt to include lists of author names and book titles raises the not-so-funny specter of biblio-typos, but nonetheless I do apologize to fans of author Dean (not Stephen) Koontz and actress Frances McDormand (not McDermott) for any confusion last week. The good news, however, is that our fun books to recommend list continues to grow. And not a moment to soon, given the state of the book world as well as the world beyond books.

"When I was a bookseller, there were always a couple of titles that came in handy when asked about a 'fun' read," notes Howard Cohen, marketing and publicity director, Keen Communications/Clerisy Press. "I've been off the sales floor for about eight years now so while my suggestions may be a little dated, they are all still in print and hopefully still on the shelves at your store. If not, I may have to leave the glamorous world of publishing and get back on the floor." Cohen's list includes:

  • The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle ("A gem. Hal Jam is a character you just won't forget.")
  • Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger ("An epistolary novel set in the World War II era that is fast and fun and terribly sweet.")  
  • The Mammy, The Chisellers and The Granny, all by Brendan O'Carroll. ("Virtually unknown here in the States, O'Carroll is a big name in Irish comedy and these characters started on a radio show that got wildly popular. They translate well to the short novel form and you can read all three of them over a vacation or a long weekend.")
"If it's humor you want in your fiction, then have I got some authors for you," promises David Henkes of University Book Store, Bellevue, Wash. "In a word, or two, Christopher Moore, Bill Fitzhugh, Carl Hiaasen. I tend to look for the comedic 'bent' view on the world and I highly recommend any of these authors' tales. You won't see them win the National Book Award, but you will probably enjoy their work more than the current award winner. Moore has a sea beast named Steve, a talking fruit bat named Roberto, and two fast-paced, gut-busting forays in the vampire world. Fitzhugh has honest people doing dishonest things all in the name of honesty. And Hiaasen brings laughter to the thugs we should run screaming from. Hope this helps you bust a gut when faced with the angst of too much angst fiction."

Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books & Café, Wichita, Kan., suggests "a couple of books I recommend over and over for someone wanting to laugh out loud":
  • Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin
  • Skipped Parts and other novels by Tim Sandlin
  • Norwood by Charles Portis
Can you recommend a fun read? Laural Bidwell of the Wild Burro bookstore, Hot Springs, S.D., has "been asked that question in my bookstore and every time I'm a little bit stumped. I've a small store and my specialty is 'quality fiction' (which I assume is just one step or so below literary fiction!). And, it's true that while many of today's novels have 'happy' endings, a lot of them are--oh, divorce, drug abuse, parents that aren't there, animal abuse--but this you already know."

Her fun recommendation? "For female cozy mystery writers, it's Janet Evanovich and Stephanie Plum--starting with book 2 (I have complaints that book 1 is too violent!)." Laural also works as a marketing associate for Unbridled Books and says that "right this minute, there's a brand-new book called The Wonder Singer by George Rabasa that I find funny." Just moments after her book suggestions reached me, Laural wrote again because, "in a very odd coincidence, after I sent my first e-mail off to you, I received this from my husband via e-mail: 'I also finished The Wonder Singer. It was a fun read.'"

"I had to laugh," Laural added.    

And so, whenever possible, do we.
Thursday
Oct092008

What's So Funny About Your Favorite Books?

Just before I ventured off in mid-September on my regional trade show pilgrimage, I asked how booksellers might answer a customer who asks, "Can you recommend a novel that is just pure fun? Everything I read is so depressing. I just want to be entertained."

Reader response has been enthusiastic, diverse and, well, "fun!" (exclamation points being unquestionably the fun book punctuation mark of choice).

Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, contends that "#1 has to be Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage, followed closely by Towing Jehovah by James Morrow because who couldn't laugh about using God (literally) to feed the masses. And if you've never read Patrick Dennis' The Joyous Season, you're in for a real treat (especially if you live in NYC)."

Although Linda Grana and her colleagues at Lafayette Bookstore, Lafayette, Calif., "prefer the darker side of fiction, literature and classics, we do have over 150 registered book clubs, so we inevitably get asked the 'fun fiction' question. Our answer is usually Jonathan Tropper. He's funny, his characters are well-developed, so much so that you feel you know them, and he's compelling. He's perfect for anything from lovers of dark literature that need a palate cleanser, to book club members who want something lighter for vacation than their typical club selections of the moral/ethical dilemma. My dilemma is the customer who's already read all the Troppers!"
 
Getting philosophical on us is Joe Foster of Maria's Bookshop, Durango, Colo.: "My philosophy about reading is a lot like my philosophy about food. I truly enjoy a great meal, and cook them at home as often as possible on my limited bookseller's salary. The truth of the matter is, though, I wouldn't want osso bucco every night, as much as I love it. There are times for gourmet, and there are times when you want to sit on the couch and eat three bowls of Lucky Charms, knowing full well that you're gonna give yourself a stomach ache. It's all about mood and knowing yourself enough to know what you want, and giving yourself permission to indulge.

"Choosing a book for yourself is a fine art. Choosing a good book is relatively easy, I think. We all do it all the time. Matching book to mood, however, is a much more magical and far less obvious task. Doing it for someone else is nigh on impossible . . . and yet, we all do it all the time. Finding a book that is entertaining without . . . pandering to the lowest common denominator, a book that is fun while maintaining its literary merit (and allowing us to maintain our elitist sensibilities) is a challenge."

A challenge Joe doesn't shrink from. We'll list his picks in full (with annotations) at the end of this series, but here's an appetizer: "Marc Estrin's Insect Dreams--The story of Gregor Samsa post-Metamorphosis set against the backdrop of the early twentieth century. Smart, ironic, touching, and funny as hell."

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series was initially recommended as "good fun books--from the 'delightful' angle of fun" by Efrat Lev, foreign rights director, Deborah Harris Agency, Jerusalem, Israel. Efrat later added, "Since I wrote, I read another fun book that I can wholeheartedly recommend for your list: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. You may have heard of the recent film starring Frances McDormand--a movie I have not yet seen, but understand that the story was somewhat changed for the movie (the beautiful young actress character in the movie becomes an American, not English, which really changes much of the subtleties of the story). The book was pure fun!"

Ann Perrigo, director of the Allegan, Mich., Public Library gets right to the point:

  • Let's start with fun and mindless: Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series
  • Fun and romantic? Susan Elizabeth Phillips
  • Fun and high-class? Wodehouse's Bertie and Jeeves or even Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody
  • Fun and creepy? Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas or Gil's All-Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez
  • Fun and bloodthirsty? You Suck: A Love Story by Christopher Moore
  • Fun and just-plain-bizarre? Frisco Pigeon Mambo by C. D. Payne
"You've struck a nerve," Ann adds. "I love to laugh when I'm reading! I'm in the middle of my first Dean Koontz Odd book right now, and it is such a surprise that it's making me laugh. I had no idea! Have fun with your list."

We will.

What's so funny about your favorite books?
Friday
Oct032008

Fostering Connections at the MBA Trade Show

Making connections--to books, to customers, to colleagues--is the way of the book world, where we are at once fiercely independent and necessarily interdependent. Everywhere I looked last week at the Midwest Booksellers Association trade show in St. Paul, Minn., connections were being made.

Numbers tell only part of this story. MBA reported that more than 400 booksellers, representing 105 bookstores, attended, a slight increase over last year. Among the 82 exhibiting companies, 325 staff members showcased products for 500-plus publishers and vendors. Add in nearly 200 other attendees--librarians, publishers not exhibiting, media, guests as well as 134 authors--and you have nearly 1,000 book people gathering at the RiverFront Centre, all of them making connections.

Perhaps the most visible symbol of that word here was the popular and effective Midwest Connections program. According to MBA executive director Susan Walker, "Midwest Connections has evolved from its original role as MBA's regional marketing program. It has become the guiding principle which informs and links together all of our association's programs and initiatives in support of our members. Independent booksellers are focused on being connected--to our customers, our communities and to each other--and Midwest Connections is both a tool and an expression of this bond."

For booksellers who've never attended a trade show, "first connections" can also be one of the pleasurable side effects. Soon after my arrival at the RiverFront Centre Thursday, I met Randy and Char Stocker, who opened Great Debate Books, Quincy, Ill., earlier this year. It's a testament to the impact of regionals that, as I encountered the Stockers now and then during the weekend, they seemed to acquire the energized aura that comes, as we all know so well, from deep immersion in your first book show.

Connections were also in evidence at Thursday's education presentations and panels:

A "Green Retailing and Your Bookstore" seminar featured Lisa Baudoin of Books & Company, Oconomowoc, Wis., who recommended focusing on the "little things, individual things a bookstore can do, including the choices you make about your bags, about your lights and even about your sections to highlight certain kinds of books, like those on sustainability and environmental awareness." She encouraged the creation of "an eco-municipality, with all of the staff working together."

Chris Livingston of the Book Shelf, Winona, Minn., opened "Using 'Thought Leadership' Marketing to Build Your Store's Business" by suggesting that bookstores foster connections with their communities through focusing on areas of expertise--out-of-store book talks or shop local movements, for example--in an effort to "find ways to present yourself and your staff as experts and market the fact that you know what you're talking about. What it reaps for you in the future is standing in the community and recognition of who you are and what you do. Be reasonable, but be aggressive. And if you're an owner, realize that you're not the only one in your store who can do this."

During the "Bookseller Pick of the Lists" presentation, Sue Zumberge of Common Good Books, St. Paul, Minn., extolled the importance of making connections to readers through passionate handselling. Recommending Hands of My Father by Myron Uhlberg, she noted that "this is one of those books they might miss if we weren't out there telling them about it."

Authors were also making connections. At Friday's luncheon, David Mura (Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire) held up a battered copy of No No Boy by John Okada, a key part of his research that he'd found in an independent bookstore. "This is the gift of indie bookstores, where you get the books that feed people," he said. "All of you are part of that preserving of the light of the word."

Later that night at the book and author dinner, Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books, Wichita, Kan., introduced Leif Enger (So Brave, Young, and Handsome) by saying, "It's such a pleasure to sell such great books."

Enger returned the compliment: "It's great to be among such kind, generous and talented people." Looking out over a dining room filled with booksellers, he added, "Ultimately, I think we all find ourselves in this place because it's just where we want to be."

And, finally, Enger offered an appropriately literary compliment: "Sometimes, your bookstore becomes like the Homesick Restaurant in Anne Tyler's novel. She brings the food out, and it's exactly what you needed."

The next-to-last conversation I had Saturday was with Susan Walker in the MBA's Midwest Connections booth. Surrounded by an array of handpicked-to-handsell titles--each displaying a sticker recommending it as "A Midwest Connections Pick"--she said, "Our theme year round is Midwest Connections. It's our purpose to facilitate that."

As I was leaving the exhibition floor for the final time, I happened to see Randy Stocker again, his grin offering just a hint of the story to come. He and Char had officially connected with their bookselling community.

Tuesday
Sep232008

Threads of Communication at MPIBA Show

I've always loved the curious blend of introspection and conversation that marks any gathering of book people. I thought about that a lot this past weekend at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Colorado Springs, Colo.

On my flight back east Sunday, I studied all the words I'd scribbled in my notebook--the monologues, the dialogues--and certain threads began spinning themselves:

From the practical:

At the "Bookselling in Challenging Times" seminar, Ken Holland, director of field sales, Macmillan Publishers, spoke about the bookseller-publisher credit relationship, which he subtitled in his handout, "Communication Communication Communication."
    
"Establish a relationship with your credit rep," he advised.

"The more open we got with our vendors, the better," added Catherine Weller, Sam Weller's Zion bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah.

"You have to talk and talk and talk some more," said Tom Montan, Copperfield's Books, Sebastopol, Calif.

An "Authorless Events" seminar featured, appropriately, no authors but loads of ideas, one of the best being the suggestion that bookstores subscribe to one another's e-mail newsletters so they can steal (well, share) great promotional concepts.  

To the compelling:

At Saturday's breakfast event, "Croissants and Conversation with the Authors," Cathy Langer of the Tattered Cover bookstore, Denver, Colo., hosted an extraordinary dialogue between writers Kim Barnes and Steven Rinella.

"I was looking for common threads that would start a conversation," Cathy said in her introductory remarks. The stage had a casual, salon feeling, with wingback chairs and side tables, and the authors responded by engaging one another in a revelatory discussion of their lives and work. Sometimes it felt like we were eavesdropping.

Kim said that author William Kittredge had offered this advice: "When someone reads your memoir, they should come away knowing more about themselves than you." I couldn't help wondering about the possibilities for bookstore variations on this theme, with, for example, two authors appearing to speak about each other's book instead of their own.

Later, introducing another event, Andy Nettell, co-owner of Arches Book Company, Moab, Utah, and president of MPIBA's board of directors, lauded that breakfast when he said, "It's always about the magic of the books; that magic like what happened this morning." Magic indeed.

To the inspiring:

At the regional book awards luncheon Friday, Joseph Marshall III, winner of the nonfiction prize for The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn, said, "Everything I know I learned in stories. And to be a good storyteller, you have to be a good listener."

During the Gordon Saull Awards ceremony, sales rep of the year Molly Divine of Faherty & Associates observed: "The gift that I have received from booksellers is the gift of family." And bookseller of the year Paula Steige, owner of MacDonald Bookshop, Estes Park, Colo., shared her secret to success: "It's really very easy. You just get everybody around you to make you look good."

To the hilarious:

Saturday's "Author Breakfast for Literacy" featured the comedy stylings of Laura Pedersen, John Hodgman and Chuck Klosterman.

Hodgman led the crowd in a seemingly impromptu rendition of America the Beautiful after briefly outlining the role of Colorado Springs and Pike's Peak in the history of this song, as well as the distinction between Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote the lyrics, and actress Kathy Bates, who tortured an author in Stephen King's Misery.

Hodgman, best known for his appearances on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and as a PC in Apple computer ads, confessed to a past life that included work as a struggling author ("When I was a writer, I used to have to rent my pants. Now I buy new pants every day.") and added, mischievously, "I love books. I consider them very important and amusing relics of the past."

Klosterman advised booksellers what to look for when trying to handsell to his fans ("People who look like me; people with beards and glasses; a woman who says she really misses her bad relationship . . .").

Then, more seriously, he summed up his feelings about our little corner of the world by saying, "There always are going to be people who want to read and define themselves by books. Probably what you're doing is more important than you realize."

We do realize. On Sunday, while I waited for a connecting flight in Chicago, my Concourse B daze was suddenly interrupted by a man who said, "Excuse me. Do you work at the Northshire Bookstore? I told my wife you do. She doesn’t believe me."

And just like that, two Vermonters were talking books. A new thread.

Editor's note: For those of you wondering about the responses to last week's call for fun novels to handsell, rest assured that our e-mail box overflowed with great suggestions, which we'll share with you right after regional show season. 

Wednesday
Sep172008

Read Any Fun Novels Lately?

Something happened at the bookstore Saturday that compelled me to share what is at once an unsettling and commonplace incident in the lives of most frontline booksellers. A customer asked me the following question:

Can you recommend a novel that is just pure fun?

You know the feeling when that question comes up. You look into the face of this aspiring optimist and you marvel that such a creature still exists. You want to help if you can, especially when your customer smiles and adds:

Everything I read is so depressing. I just want to be entertained.

Life is hard. You understand. And it's not as if you're unprepared to field this deceptively innocent query. You won't laugh or lecture because you are neither an elitist nor an idiot. You accept the challenge, aware that any response except a helpful one is not going to make either of you feel better.

Then you consider your fiction section and think: What the hell is fun? Maybe, somewhere in the mischievous recesses of your bookseller mind you consider a Tolstoyan riff:

All happy novels are alike; each unhappy novel is unhappy in its own way.

If you do not know this customer, you begin where you always begin. You ask questions, get a sense of the wind and water before setting sail. You find some way to delve into their conception of how "fun" might translate to the printed page. Even as you ask about all this, however, other unspoken questions may occur to you.

Are comic novels, where humor often springs from the darkest shadows of human experience, fun? Are serious novels with redemptive endings more fun to read than serious novels with unhappy endings? Is snark fun? Is satire fun? Is literary slapstick fun? Come to think of it, what is literary slapstick and where can I find some?

Among the five or six novels I'm currently reading, I'd nominate Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole as the fun one of the bunch. It is dark and hilarious, with lines that make me laugh out loud alone (an unsettling experience I'm sure you've had, too). What contributes to the fun-ness factor of this relatively dark story is its exquisitely sharp narrative tongue ("People are not mysterious because they never shut up."), and dialogue that snaps with brittle, sometimes painful humor, as in this exchange between mother and teenage son:

"You talk to yourself," she said, placing her hand on my forehead. "Do you have a temperature?"
"No."
"A little warm," she said.

"I'm a mammal," I mumbled. "That's how we are."

Is this what my customer meant by "pure fun"? Apparently not, since my noble efforts--replete with energetic description and selected, funny quotes--to convince this particular reader that the prospect of a "fun read" existed between the covers of such a novel generated some laughs but no sale.

In the end, we settled for one of the usual suspects fun titles I can always handsell in this situation. A few of them are opening line hits, where you simply suggest they read the first sentence and try to resist continuing. Others are easy handsells because of particular characters or odd but humorous plots.

Nonfiction readers have it easy. The "Health" section of the Los Angeles Times recently featured a helpful list of "some of the happiness books that have hit shelves in recent months."

And Huffington Post's Lloyd Garver complained he "was in a bookstore the other day, and you know what? It's getting harder and harder--especially in a big chain bookstore--to find a book. I mean a real book. Literature. Or and least something that you can't read while you're also watching TV. The reason you can't find the kind of book you're looking for is that all the self-help books about how to be happy fill up the shelves. Ironically, this makes some of us quite unhappy."

Granted, some of Garver's "happy books" qualify rather tenuously as nonfiction, but what's to be done about my reader who's looking for works of "light" or "entertaining" fiction?  

I could tell you what happy titles I usually recommend, but I'm not going to. Not yet, anyway.

Instead, I'd love to hear what your "fun fiction" answers are to this ongoing sales floor challenge. How do you handle the fun novel question in your bookstore when customers demand their fundamental right to the pursuit of literary happiness?