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One Reader's Key to the Imperial City

To be liberated into New York, where anything that exists can somehow be got at, is just as exhilarating as to be liberated into literature, to be handed a key to all those boxes of trapped words.

John Leonard wrote this sentence in one of his weekly "Private Lives" columns for the New York Times during the 1970s. As a young reader, isolated in the literary wilderness of a small Vermont town--and with no real experience of "the city"--I discovered in his Times essays one of my first windows with a view of what a life of reading and writing in the Imperial City might be like.

By that I do not mean I thought New York was some ethereal blend of Leonard's bittersweet musings and Woody Allen's Manhattan cinematography (via Gordon Willis, of course). After all, I'd seen Death Wish and Mean Streets, too. But reality is often beside the point when a reader searches for a new home; when a young man struggles to escape the web of what Sherwood Anderson called "the sadness of sophistication."

I simply mean that, once upon a time, Leonard's Imperial City had seemed familiar and irresistible to me, so the news of his death last week inevitaby triggered memories. I found myself immediately setting out on a book safari through the biblio-jungle of my personal library, aware that camouflaged somewhere among the shelves and stacks was a copy of Private Lives in the Imperial City, a collection of those Times columns published by Knopf in 1979.

As would be expected, reaction to the loss of this esteemed critic has been wide-ranging and profound. You can find literary eulogies at the New York Times or Salon or the Los Angeles Times or dozens of other publications for which he wrote or where writers who were influenced by him work now. They all have their own recollections.

And I have mine. After some detours and distractions, my book hunt was successful, and I reread Private Lives in the Imperial City because, ceremonially perhaps, I felt the pull of the past. News of the dead can do that to you sometimes. I never met John Leonard, but his was not a stranger's demise because I am his reader and his was never a stranger's voice.

Maybe the pull is something else as well. We seem to have written too many authors' obituary notes at Shelf Awareness this year--Studs Terkel, Michael Crichton, Tony Hillerman, Arthur C. Clarke, William F. Buckley, Hayden Carruth and more. As Leonard himself wrote, "We are also getting to be of an age when our friends are doing a lot of the dying; each one gone is a surprise, but the surprises now are more likely to arrive one a year than every six years or two decades. To deflect this bad news requires the sort of permanent stupidity even I am not clever enough to sustain."

Nor am I. Bad news turns out to be fuel for my imagination this time and I can't help thinking about the Imperial City again. I still live in Vermont, but I spend enough time in Manhattan now to wipe some, if not all, of the shine from that fantasy Big Apple of my youth. In fact, I suspect that John Leonard's priceless gift to me as a reader was to show how the Imperial City could be both tangible and imaginary. And now, as I flip through the pages of his book, my eyes fall upon a column, "Civility," that seems in itself a near perfect meeting of our minds:

When the news came last week that the English novelist Paul Scott had died, I was sorting books. I should have begun sorting my books--categorizing, alphabetizing, in some cases burning--twenty years ago, but I've pretended instead to subscribe to a principle of serendipity. That is, if I didn't know where to find the particular book I wanted, when I went to look I would find a different, better book, a book I hadn't thought of.

After considering, in classic Leonard style, literary mortality by recalling his serendipitous discovery of Scott and James M. Cain, he concludes, "I will arrange my books according to their civility. Nobody can touch them--these strangers, my friends."

So, thank you, John Leonard, for being one of the writers who, without ever knowing it, helped me "to be liberated into literature, to be handed a key to all those boxes of trapped words." The key, in fact, to the Imperial City.


'Fun Books'--Anthropomorphic & Otherwise

This week we'll be getting a little anthropomorphic on you, which seems appropriate in a year when Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain--narrated by Enzo the lab/terrier mix--showed up on so many indie bookseller staff recommend lists (and was a Shelf Awareness favorite several times over, too).

My own honor role of witty novels includes the brilliant tale of a rat evolving from gastronomic to intellectual consumer of books--Sam Savage's Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. Here's a . . . taste: "My friend, given the chasm that separates all your experiences from all of mine, I can bring you no closer to that singular savor than by saying that books, in an average sort of way, taste the way coffee smells."

Richard Goldman and Mary Alice Gorman of Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont, Pa., confess that their choice "has to be Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story by Leonie Swann. Here's our review: A sparkling and original debut in which a flock of sheep investigate the murder of their beloved shepherd George. Yep, you're going to have to buy into talking sheep but after all, George did read to them every night. Unfortunately, he read them mostly romance novels so the sheep have a somewhat unbalanced view of human life in which women mostly named Pamela are constantly fighting off the advances of mustachioed men named Rodney. Once you make that leap you're in for a treat as each, led by Miss Maple--the wisest of them--makes their own contribution to solving the puzzle. Swann's cleverness in translating the nature of sheep into their behavior as sleuths is a marvel and I was truly sorry to come to the end of this totally captivating book."

My Shelf Awareness colleague Marilyn Dahl recommends Lucky Dog by Mark Barrowcliffe: "I know, talking dogs, enough already. But take it from a cat-lover, this one works. It's the kind of book you read and then give as a gift, saying, 'Trust me.'"

Fiction can also meet fauna for bookstore sidelines buyers.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," says Yossarian in Joseph Heller's classic novel (and another book on my list). But if you think that's some catch, consider Rubberbone Press, which makes "Literachew for the Pupulation." Owner Tracey Ciciora responded to my call for fun titles by asking, "How about fun fiction for you and your pup? Catch-22 and the new 'fun' little sideline--Fetch-22! Curl up with your dog and toss a good book!"

A couple of years ago, Tracey "was attempting to write a children's book--well, long story short, I had this new puppy by my side, and the Tale turned on its Tail: rubber squeaky toy books for dogs! Even though it unfolded into a product line rather than a book, my intentions have always been about literacy, children's self-esteem building through learning, and being in support of the entrepreneurial dream. My hope is that the product serves as a means to not only offer an exclusive product to independents with a nice return, but to be involved and support the different communities as well."

Gliding away from the anthropomorphic, while giving due notice to our feathered friends, Laura Hansen of Bookin' It bookstore, Little Falls, Minn., wonders, "Did no one recommend Nicholas Drayson's A Guide to the Birds of East Africa? A men's club version of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series filled with miscalculations, mishaps, misnomers, missteps, misgivings, birds, betting men, and--sigh!--a happy ending."

Finally, in the spirit of an election year, equal time should be given to animating inanimate objects. Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press suggests one from the home team: "Couch by Benjamin Parzybok, which we are publishing in November. The tag line is 'Three guys carry a couch, save the world' (or as someone said at the Brooklyn Book Fest, 'Tolkein with a couch')." Or, as notes on the back cover warn, "The couch--huge and orange--won't let them put it down."

Since we'll be separating fun fiction from nonfiction in the final installment--and revealing the complete list--perhaps we should preview all that with some thoughts from our bibliophilic rodent, Firmin, who observed, "I had read a great many of the books under FICTION before I halfway understood what the sign meant and why certain books had been placed under it. I had thought I was reading the history of the world. Even today I must constantly remind myself, sometimes by means of a rap on the head, that Eisenhower is real while Oliver Twist is not."


In 'Paperback Dreams' Begin Responsibilities

We made Paperback Dreams because we believe in what booksellers do. . . . I think it's important for booksellers to keep telling their stories.--Alex Beckstead, producer and director.

On the Paperback Dreams website, the PBS documentary is described as "the story of two landmark independent bookstores and their struggle to survive. The film follows Andy Ross, owner of Cody's Books, and Clark Kepler, owner of Kepler's Books, over the course of two tumultuous years in the book business."

Of course, there is much more to the tale. If you haven't seen this work yet, please take a moment right now to watch the trailer, which gives you just a taste of how deftly the film blends the contemporary with the historical, and people with place.

I saw Paperback Dreams last month, on the final day of the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association trade show and annual meeting in Colorado Springs, Colo. My first reaction was that it is extraordinary--informative, compelling and cautionary. It's also bittersweet, gut-wrenching and wry. As complex and emotion-driven as running a great bookstore.

In the weeks since then, I've come to realize that it is also a deeply haunting film in the best sense. I think about it often, unexpectedly. It has inspired me to see the book world in a slightly altered light and made me more aware than ever of both the value and vulnerability of my chosen profession.

Such thoughts lead quite naturally to curiosity and questions, so I posed a few to the most logical person--Paperback Dreams' producer and director, Alex Beckstead.

Whom did you envision as the target audience for this film?

I wanted this to be a film for people who love bookstores. That includes booksellers, publishers and readers. One of the things I learned from talking to people involved in the Kepler's story in early 2005 was the importance of awareness. People love independent stores so much, but they start to be seen as part of the permanent landscape. But that's simply not the case. I think there's a general sense among the book-loving public that times are hard for the independents, but I think they fail to realize just how big a struggle it is, and the level of passion and dedication that go into selling books. I have been thrilled with the response from booksellers and publishers, who have been very positive, and whom I hope will be able to use the film as a tool to call attention to both the fragility but also the importance of what they do.

What are you hoping for in terms of audience reaction?

I want people to think more about where they buy their books and realize that those transactions are connected to the shape of their community and quality of life. You actually do get something for the few dollars more that you spend on a book in an independent--you get a bookstore where people who live in your community work and are passionate about what they do. You help them survive to sell another day. When a bookstore is thriving, it can be an integral part of the intellectual life of a community. The chains and the big Internet resellers, which have good qualities, can't be part of your community like an independent can.

What has the reaction been like thus far?

So far the reactions have been universally positive. Although when we screened at Kepler's, one woman protested, because the film made her feel that she had to be part of "the counterculture" to be connected to her local bookstore. I told her that if you still read books, like it or not, you are part of a counterculture, one that you should be proud of. She didn't buy that. But I do.

Paperback Dreams is currently airing on PBS stations and at bookstore screenings across the country. "We can send promotional materials to stores that would like to help get the word out about the broadcast," Beckstead adds, "and are happy to set up screenings with any store that would like to do one."

A DVD is also now available, with more than an hour of bonus features, including extended author readings and interviews with publishers and writers that had to be cut from the film due to time. Although it can be purchased on the website, wholesale pricing is also offered to bookstores interested in selling it (contact info@paperbackdreams.com).

I don't do movie reviews in this column, of course, but for what it's worth, I give Paperback Dreams two thumbs up, five stars, and four Videohound Golden Movie Retriever bones. Just watch it.


Seeking Venture Capital for FunReads Bookshop

With more than a hundred recommendations received thus far here at Fun Book Central, our list has become impressively long-tailed (with apologies to Chris Anderson). So if anybody wants to pony up some venture capital in this thriving economy, have I got a niche bookstore concept for you--FunReads Bookshop.

The clear leader (the head of the long tail, as it were) at this point is author Christopher Moore. Sue Gazell of BookMan, Nashville, Tenn., calls him "my pick for fun fiction, hands down. He's a scream. My favorite is Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal."

Exclamation points flying, Alice Meyer of Beaverdale Books, Des Moines, Iowa, is just one of many readers who agree: "Christopher Moore! Especially, after I get 'a sense of the wind and the water', Lamb."

Angela Cozad of Lafayette Book Store, Lafayette, Calif., adds, "Here are a couple of titles that I like to promote as fun: Christopher Moore's Lamb and Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. They are only by coincidence a religious theme but they are hilarious. Definitely laugh out loud. Another fun book is Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. Lots of fun!"

While conceding that, "as you said, it's all subjective, this idea of a 'fun' read," PGW sales rep Cindy Heidemann recommends "any Christopher Moore." Her list also features The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar, Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

And Aaron Curtis of Books & Books, Coral Gables, Fla., offers the following "faithfuls": "Christopher Moore's Lamb, if they don't take religion too seriously; Carl Hiaasen's Sick Puppy, if they don't take animal rights and environmentalism too seriously; Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series--seriously. If they really want to be just silly about the whole thing, then I'll recommend Mario Acedvedo's X-Rated Blood Suckers . . . if they don't take porn and vampires too seriously."

If Moore is at the top of the list in terms of popular vote, perhaps the dark horse candidate is Jonathan Tropper, whose novel, The Book of Joe, has been cited by many, including Carol Schneck of Schuler Books and Music, Okemos, Mich. She calls it one of "two that never fail," along with Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo.

Come to think of it, where is Russo? That's what author Linda Urban (formerly of Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif.) wonders: "Nobody has yet mentioned Straight Man by Richard Russo? My all-time favorite funny book. Still plenty of depth and literary showmanship, but at the gut-level a flat-out hilarious read."

Urban reminds us not to forget "middle grade novels for a good laugh! Many are written with as much depth and insight as novels for grown-ups, but young people's writers are some of the best at mixing in the humor. Two of my favorites are Sue Stauffacher's Donuthead and Gary Paulsen's Lawn Boy. (There's a little lesson in the stock market for Lawn Boy readers that may make it especially timely--although maybe a little less funny.) For even younger readers, Sara Pennypacker's Stuart's Cape is filled with the sort of surreal humor that grown-ups love in Terry Pratchett, while Christopher Paul Curtis's Mr. Chickee series is sure to be a hit with dads and sons who bond over a good joke."

Speaking of Pratchett, he's been getting plenty of attention here as well. Deborah Andolino of Aliens & Alibis Books, Columbia, S.C., says "his books are wonderful--and laugh-out-loud funny. Pratchett's audience is growing in the U.S., which I am happy to see."

Read "just about anything in the Discworld," suggests Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press. "If readers are willing to give this a shot (and after the Lord of the Rings films we know that millions of people know who elves and dwarfs and so on are), they'll find rich characters facing a challenging and changing world. Filled with one-liners."

Suzanne Schwalb, editor at Peter Pauper Press, concurs: "How about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books? They make me laugh out loud. Some of the most fun I've had reading (or listening to them in audio form) since giggling over Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a child."

Perhaps giggling over books is a good prescription for readers of any age. Another Pratchett fan, Stephanie Anderson of the Moravian Book Shop, Bethlehem Pa., adds that "if YA counts here, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is easily one of the top three funniest books I read in the last few years. I had to keep putting it down so I wouldn't lose my place when I was laughing!"

Imagine opening a bookstore just for laughs. Funny money indeed.


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.