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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?

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.


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. 


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?"
"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?


Listening to Ancestral Voices in Bookstores

Several years ago, in Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris cited these words from Mechtild of Magdeburg, a Cistercian nun and medieval mystic: "Stupidity is sufficient unto itself. Wisdom can never learn enough."

If ever there was an area in bookstores meant for exploration, learning and questioning, the spirituality section would seem to be it, as a quick scan of our shelves will reveal. I concede that not everyone agrees with this theory. I may even envy their certainty, but, as so many booksellers have already noted here, stocking books representing an array of beliefs is the way most bookshops meld spirituality with merchandising.

And yet, even if we begin with a literary sense of inclusiveness and spiritual innocence--William Blake's "To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower"--how can we cram infinity into our decidedly limited, temporal shelf space?

The answer, of course, is that we're booksellers and we always find a way to expand both space and time. According to Valerie Ryan, owner of Cannon Beach Book Company, "I have read with interest the ongoing discussion of the place of religious books in our stores: to proselytize or to ignore? In my case, I chose a different route. Cannon Beach, Ore., is a town of 1,600 people year-round and about a bezillion visitors from Memorial Day to Labor Day. One end of town is anchored by a Christian Conference Center of the Fundamentalist stripe. The rest of town is typically West Coast, unchurched and a bit peevish about organized religion.

"I long ago devised a section named 'Philosophies,' encompassing every imaginable religious persuasion. Being the product of a good Jesuit education, I do know the difference between philosophy and theology, but for ease of display, I just play dumb and put Kant next to Why I Am a Catholic. I have all the Desert Fathers, two versions of the Qu'uran, two Kaballah, a Book of Mormon, Chesterton and Merton and C.S. Lewis galore and many others Protestant, Jewish and a few lesser known sects. In this section also go the current spate of books on irreligion or anti-religion. This arrangement either offends no one or everyone, but it works for me."

On the other hand, as a used book buyer and seller, Diane Van Tassell of Bay Books in San Ramon and Concord, Calif., notes that she carries "books that I might not necessarily order from Baker & Taylor. But Christian, Buddhism, Islam and New Age are very big sellers for us. Sometimes certain of those sections are less popular, but a month or two later they are 'hit hard' again. A couple of years back the witchcraft section was very popular, especially in my more urban store.
"We can't keep the Koran in the store because it flies out whenever we get one. Sufism is always popular as are the poems of Rumi. We have a customer who comes in several times a week looking for different Buddhist books and sometimes Hinduism. The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is always a favorite text. Angels and mediums are not so popular now and UFOs are almost dead--yes, we keep that all in religion. Dreams and astrology are popular mostly when they are at eye-level, but they go in cycles. People still ask for Under the Banner of Heaven (Mormon true crime) and a very few are into the Da Vinci secret societies that were very popular a few years ago. Religious fiction is becoming quite popular. Authors like Francine Rivers always sell and the Yada Yada Prayer Group (novels) are gaining in popularity. The Left Behind series by LaHaye has slowed down, but some are still reading it. Bibles are always big sellers and C.S. Lewis seems to be the most popular author. The bottom line is that religion is still popular. More and more people are reading religious fiction because they want to read stories that don't include sex and violence."

And my last word on this series about bookstores and religion? I think I'll defer to Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case, in which Querry considers why he still watches a Mass being said in an African leper colony. He is slightly removed from the chapel, yet close enough to hear the indistinct hum of ceremony.

"Ancestral voices," he concludes. "Memories. Did you ever lie awake when you were a child listening to them talking down below. You couldn't understand what they were saying, but it was a noise that somehow comforted."