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March Madness: A Bookish Sweet 16

Now is the time to desperately look for signs of spring. Consider, if you will, a rabbit hole I tumbled down connecting the Easter bunny to the March Hare to basketball layup shots (sometimes called "bunnies") to March Madness, aka the NCAA College Basketball Tournament, which will have pared the remaining 16 teams in the bracket down to eight by tonight. This has all inspired me to create a bookish March Madness Sweet 16:

1. Staff Picks: When I was a bookseller, there were only a couple of years during which a serious effort was mounted to get the staff involved in the subtle art of bracketology. That's probably not a bad thing, given that a recent report "estimates that more than 50.5 million American workers, or 20%, could participate in March Madness office pools this year... time wasted on building brackets and watching games will add up to $1.3 billion."

2. #MagersandQuinnMadness: At Magers and Quinn Bookstore, Minneapolis, Minn., this week "the moment a lot of you have been waiting for" arrived in #MagersandQuinnMadness: a showdown between Harry Potter and A Wrinkle in Time.

3. Tournament of Books: We hope you've been heeding the sage Twitter advice of Wellesley Books, Wellesley, Mass.: "If you are not following The Tournament of Books we encourage you to start now! #tob16 @themorningnews. https://tmblr.co/ZchVfw23NUibM."

4. Pizza Madness: It's not all about basketball and books. In New York City, McNally Jackson recently highlighted March Madness at Frannys in Brooklyn, where "the restaurants regular menu will be replaced with a special staff-crafted Pizza Madness menu with fifteen pies (and a calzone) that customers can vote on."

5. Book Harvest: "March Madness, you say? Here are OUR big winners this month!" noted Book Harvest. Among the highlights were Winning Strategy ("Babies need books to learn!"), Parents ("babies first and best teachers") and Winning Score ("Thank you for helping our kids achieve victory all year long!")

6. Tournament of Fictional Places: Half-Price Books is hosting a Tournament of Fictional Places, featuring "64 of our favorite fictional spots from books, myth, movies, music and TV."

7. "Mad Rush to Bookstore": This comes under the category of "headlines we'd like to see every day," though it's from a news report on University of Hawaii fans celebrating a win over California by purchasing apparel at the college bookstore.

8. Catawumpus: Nigel Hayes is back in the Sweet 16. Last year, the University of Wisconsin player tested an NCAA stenographer by introducing a number of words into his post-game interview sessions, including catawampus, onomatopoeia and syzygy. On March 9 this year, Dictionary.com's Word of the Day was catawampus. "I take full credit for that," Hayes said.

9. Giorgio Vasari: Although they didn't reach the Sweet 16, Holy Cross did make a literary impression last week when the New York Times reported that "Coach Bill Carmody took a book with him to read on the long bus and plane rides home after games: The Lives of the Artists, one of the foremost pieces of literature on art history, written by the Italian artist Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century."

10. March Book Madness: Students and classrooms are participating in March Book Madness using the hashtag #2016MBM.

11. Suvudu Cage Match: Penguin Random House's Suvudu.com is running its March Madness-style original fiction tournament Cage Match. This year's theme is Dynamic Duos and features famous pairs from the sci-fi and fantasy canon in head-to-head battles written by acclaimed authors.
12. HCC March Madness: HarperCollins Canada's March Madness is an annual event that features "64 beloved books--one of which readers will crown as this year's champion."

13. Cooking the Books: The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook by Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez & Julia Turshen won Food52's annual Tournament of Cookbooks.

14. Meanwhile, in other March Madness News: Booksactually in Singapore held a Lewis Carroll- rather than basketball-inspired March Madness sale, noting: "We encourage book-buying frenzies."

15. These Guys Can Play... & Read: Three-time Academic All-American Marcus Paige, who is a key player for the University of North Carolina in tonight's Sweet 16 game against Indiana, is a "double major in journalism and history, with a 3.43 grade point average."

Pat Conroy playing for Beaufort High School in Beaufort, S.C., in 1963. (via)

16. My Losing Season: It seems only fitting to have the last words come from Pat Conroy, who died earlier this month. In My Losing Season, he wrote: "I have loved nothing on this earth as I did the sport of basketball.... I would not sell my soul to be playing college ball somewhere in this country tonight, but I would give it long and serious consideration. It was only when I had to give up basketball that I began to attract the unfavorable attention of the rest of the world. Basketball provided a legitimate physical outlet for all the violence and rage and sadness I later brought to the writing table. The game kept me from facing the ruined boy who played basketball instead of killing his father. It was also the main language that allowed father and son to talk to each other. If not for sports, I do not think my father ever would have talked to me."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2718


'Pay with a Poem' at World Poetry Day Cafe

It was afternoon tea, with tea foods spread out
Like in the books, except that it was coffee.

                       --from "Coffee in the Afternoon" by Alberto Ríos

Monday is UNESCO World Poetry Day. "The voices that carry poetry help to promote linguistic diversity and freedom of expression. They participate in the global effort towards artistic education and the dissemination of culture," said UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova. "The first word of a poem sometimes suffices to regain confidence in the face of adversity, to find the path of hope in the face of barbarity. In the age of automation and the immediacy of modern life, poetry also opens a space for the freedom and adventure inherent in human dignity.... I applaud the practitioners, actors, storytellers and all those anonymous voices committed to and through poetry, giving readings in the shadows or in the spotlights, in gardens or streets."

But let's talk about coffee, and what we might call a Cool Idea of the World Poetry Day.

Pay with a Poem is sponsored by Julius Meinl coffees and teas, which notes on its website: "Poetry can make a better world. On March 21st, World Poetry Day, we let our imagination wonder. We dream of a place where money is replaced by emotions. A better world. For one day, we're changing the currency in coffeehouses around the globe. And Julius Meinl coffees or teas will be paid with your poems. Pay with a Poem is a global initiative from Julius Meinl happening every year, wider and wider with every edition. An initiative getting famous poets and everyday poets together.... Sharpen your pencils and join us... in more than 30 countries and more than 1,000 participating locations serving Julius Meinl. #PoetryForChange #PayWithAPoem."

For 2016, artist and poet Robert Montgomery is Meinl's global ambassador. "Just like us, he's making poetry relevant to everyday life. Using new media, his work appears as unexpected large-scale billboards, light sculptures and fire poems," the company noted.

"I did a piece this year that ends with the statement: Money is a superstition," Montgomery recalled. "The longer poem says: Eagles live on the rooftops/ Not as symbols/ Just as eagles/ They remember the sky/ Money is a superstition.... So I love the idea that we can make our own currency of diverse statements. And people can bring a piece of paper, the same as a piece of money, but they can write their own message, their own fantasy, their own poem, and they can pay with that. I think every person is a poet. It's not like inside every person is a secret poet. I think every person has the ability to be a poet."

The Guardian noted that Montgomery "will mark the occasion by collecting up all the public contributions and turning them into an art installation in a secret London location."

Last year, the Guardian cautioned "it's not clear if cashiers will be exercising their critical judgment ('This comparison between your girlfriend and a red, red rose is a little overfamiliar--I'll have to insist on a rewrite'), whether they'll be focusing on quality or quantity ('This haiku is very nicely turned, but I don't think it'll stretch to a skinny frappucino extra-grande with the extra slice of melon'), or what kind of rights your barista will acquire over your work."

In any case, on Monday people can "Pay with a Poem" in Croatia, Austria, Portugal, Australia and many more countries, but what if you don't live near a participating location (the U.S., except for Chicago)? Well, you could be like Devdan Chaudhuri and just create your own "Pay with a Poem" option.

In a piece headlined "Let poetry pay for your cuppa," the Times of India reported that thanks to the efforts of Chaudhuri (author of Anatomy of Life and executive member of Poetry Paradigm), tomorrow "three coffee joints in [Kolkata] will be accepting a poem as a mode of payment for a cuppa" to encourage the habit of reading and writing poetry. Since "some Kolkata cafes are shut on Monday, we decided to host the event on Saturday," he said.

Malavika Banerjee, who owns the Byloom Cafe, plans to display the poems on her bulletin board: "I run a literature festival in the city. There is a connection between poetry, cafe and literature. So, I decided to be a part of this initiative." Partha Sarathi Bose, owner of Delices, said: "I liked this initiative. If a person comes up to me and offers an original poem, I will be happy to serve a black coffee or cup of Darjeeling tea." And Cafe Sienna's Shuili Ghosh noted that poetry criticism will be muted: "One can't be harsh with people if they don't submit something that's good enough."

My World Poetry Day Café plan this year involves a chair on the sunny deck of our house, a steaming mug of java and three recently purchased poetry collections: Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis, The Late Poems of Wang An-shih (trans. by David Hinton) and Sor Juana Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works (trans. by Edith Grossman).

For many, many years, I have "measured out my life with coffee spoons," and poems. Monday I'll celebrate both with the world. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2713


Retail Mourning: 'I Sell Dead People'

"Death doesn't lend to easy commercialization. Which isn't to say that it can't, or isn't, harnessed in the commercial realm to great effect, but those who treat the dead without respect can do great harm to the living. How do we booksellers deal with the death of a prominent figure? There have been many conversations behind the counter (and everywhere else) with the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, which raised the specter of retail and death in my mind." --New Zealand bookseller Marcus Greville in a January post at the Booksellers NZ blog titled "I Sell Dead People"

At Sundog Books, Seaside, Fla.

I've been thinking about Greville's column a lot since I first read it. Every week there seems to be another reason or two or three to stoke this contemplative fire: Michel Tournier, Margaret Forster, Nigel McDowell, Harper Lee, Umberto Eco, Rosario Ferré, Louise Rennison, Pat Conroy and more.

Perhaps it also has something to do with some of the books I've been reading in recent months, including Paul Kalanthi's When Breath Becomes Air, Diane Rehm's On My Own, Atul Gawande's Being Mortal, Clive James's Sentenced to Life, Katie Roiphe's The Violet Hour and several essays by Jenny Diski, whose new book, In Gratitude, will be released in May.

Most authors outlive their books and watch them vanish from print (even if digital ghosts remain to haunt) long before the writers themselves have been shipped back to that great remainder house in the sky. Sometimes, however, books outlive their authors. When that happens, a phenomenon known as retail mourning occurs. NPR, newspapers and other media (including Shelf Awareness) run high-profile obituaries and follow-up pieces.

I remember scowling many years ago the first time I noticed one of those headline links on the news section of a distributor's books-in-print site: "[Writer's name] has died. Here is a list of some of this author's books."

Cold, man.

Memorial displays at Quail Ridge Books.

And yet, a sales floor wake is traditionally held. Bookstore buyers react to the news by immediately casting their lines into the murky waters of the biblio-Styx, ordering multiple copies of the author's backlist, including early titles from small and university presses that the shop might not have carried for years. Bookshop merchandisers build display memorials with whatever stock they have and appropriate signage. Everybody sells out, literally and figuratively, but in a nice way, I think.

"I have felt dirty displaying the books of a recently departed author; tainted by the commercial act," Greville wrote. "I was quite cynical when Terry Pratchett died, hoarding remaindered copies of his books in advance and waiting for his death. Yet in other instances I have reverently displayed the books of the dead, alongside photos and quotes. When Jose Saramago died in 2010, or Maurice Sendak in 2012, I went to great lengths to promote their books, because I loved them and wanted others to read them and love them too. I also loved Pratchett's work but felt guilty that I prepared for his death. Is it premise or practice that makes the act one of respect or disrespect?"

Upon learning that an author has passed, many readers head to bookstores because they feel compelled to seek out "books by that writer who just died. I never heard of him, but he sounds interesting." Or because they can't find the copies they bought years ago (which they know are hiding somewhere on their bookshelves or in boxes in that dry crawlspace in the cellar or were loaned to friends/relatives and never returned).  

This blend of mortality and marketing may seem like a summer stock production of Death and a Salesman, but it does have a proper ceremonial air. Booksellers honor living writers by finding readers for their work. Wouldn't they honor recently deceased writers the same way?

Reading helps us deal with adversity, so it makes sense that when authors die, particularly those who once deeply touched our mind and soul, a need to seek out their books again is a natural reaction. And isn't reading a traditional and essential part of memorial services? I once saw a list of tips for friends and relatives who would be reading at a funeral service. It included these two recommendations: 1) Readings are proclaimed from a suitable book. 2) Remember to read more slowly and deliberately than you would in normal conversation. Sound advice.

"Drawing attention to the works of an author, or a biography of a recently deceased person, rarely has a profitable aspect to it," Greville wrote. "It could well be argued that by making space for such displays one is taking prime space away from other more commercial titles. So what is being accomplished? A store is simply telling the world what it cares about, what it respects and loves. It's not about premise and/or practice, as a bookseller your premise is your practice; just keep it in alignment."

Read in Peace. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2708


Taking the Bookish Leap 

"You should. It's Leap Day. Real life is for March."

I don't think about Leap Year any more often than you do--once every four years, on average. But if we didn't have Leap Days, this week would actually be in mid-July of 2017, with summer "starting sometime in December--and we'd be in for white June next year." I was intrigued when I read that. As is my way, I first sought out irrelevant cultural ephemera:

  • "The hero of Gilbert and Sullivan's opera The Pirates of Penzance is indentured to the pirates until his 21st birthday. Then it's discovered he was born on February 29, meaning he must remain in servitude until he is 84. Much hilarity ensues."
  • On February 29, 2004, the final part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, "swept the board, picking up a record-tying 11 trophies including Best Picture and Best Director for Peter Jackson."
  • "On the traditional day for women to propose to men," the Guardian once offered a "Leap year quiz: literary proposals."

But then I realized I had a column to write and refocused my curiosity toward finding variations on a Cool Ideas of the Leap Day theme by indie booksellers nationwide:

Upshur Street Books, Washington, D.C.: From Petworth News--"Gonna drop a logic bomb on you, get ready... Every four years we elect a president, and every four years we celebrate Leap Year. This year is an election year for president. And this year President Obama visited Upshur Street Books... Therefore, THE place to be this Leap Year Day must be Upshur Street Books. BOOM! (Logic explodes everywhere like confetti. It's messy and beautiful at the same time.).... Come by Upshur Street Books... and get a great discount on everything in the store, while feeling proud you're supporting a Petworth independent bookstore. It's the logical thing to do!"

Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga.: "Happy Leap Day! February is almost over, which means warm weather is around the corner. It's the perfect time to sit on your porch with a good book (before you have to deal with the very real possibility of sweat ruining everything). Enjoy these few weeks of perfection."

Changing Hands Bookstore: "We're celebrating 2016's extra day with Happy Hour prices all day at First Draft Book Bar. Also, find a book or gift at our Tempe or Phoenix locations with 'leap' or 'year' in the title and get 25% off that item!"

Fact & Fiction Bookstore, Missoula, Mont.: In a Missoulian column headlined "February offers an additional day for reading," store owner Barbara Theroux wrote: "Here are a few titles to consider adding to your bedside table, as you celebrate leap year 2016."

Booksellers at Little Shop of Stories "spent our extra day in our pajamas."

Little Shop of Stories, Decatur, Ga.: "Leap Day Storytime and Party! Lucky us! We get an extra day this year! Hope you will join our celebration of stories and activities that will make you wish every year had an extra day."

Watermark Books & Café, Wichita, Kans.: "You've got an extra day. Spend it reading! HAPPY LEAP DAY! To celebrate this leap year, Watermark wants to help you spend a little extra time reading. Enjoy 20% off one, in-stock book of your choice on Monday, Feb. 29.... We hope you have a wonderful EXTRA day in 2016, and we'll give you the extra time to read."

Broadway Books, Portland, Ore.: "Leap into March! Leap Day only comes around every four years, so we think it's worth a special pop-up sale: Come shop with us on Monday, February 29th, and get 20% off your entire purchase!"

Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, San Diego, Calif.: Join us for a special leap day evening MG Gathering of Young Adult Authors.... Don't miss this special event!"

Books & Company, Oconomowoc, Wisc.: "In an effort to increase your odds of experiencing extraordinary reading during this leap year, we offer you this lucky coupon. Stop by Books & Company between Monday, February 29th and Thursday, March 3 to redeem this tantalizing opportunity for 29% off on one in-stock book. Now, go forth and leap into a book that will amaze you."

I hope you found your own ways Monday to take a bookish leap. Mine eventually led me back to a poem by Jane Hirshfield in her most recent collection, The Beauty. From "February 29":

An extra day—

Not unlike the space
between a door and its frame
when one room is lit and another is not,
and one changes into the other
as a woman exchanges a scarf.

An extra day—

Extraordinarily like any other.
And still
there is some generosity to it,
like a letter re-readable after its writer has died.


--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2703


Readers, Meet Lola Ridge... You're Welcome

There are too many writers I haven't read or even heard of, despite more than six decades of chronic book addiction. It's embarrassing. Sometimes, however, I do manage to stumble upon an author whose work and life absolutely stun me. This occurred last fall as I read an ARC of Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet by Terese Svoboda (Schaffner Press), but the tale actually began in late 2014 when I first learned the bio was in the works, became intrigued and ordered a copy of Ridge's Sun-Up and Other Poems. From "Train Window":

Small towns
Crawling out of their green shirts...
Tubercular towns
Coughing a little in the dawn...
And the church...
There is always a church
With its natty spire
And the vestibule--
That's where they whisper:
Tzz-tzz... tzz-tzz... tzz-tzz...

Questions occurred to me then, the primary one being: Who the hell is Lola Ridge and how could she have never hit my radar before? I know. It's a question we ask ourselves all too often, but in this case it is eloquently answered in Svoboda's biography of Ridge, a human rights activist and acclaimed poet who lived what the author describes as "a very formative 24 years" in the New Zealand gold mining town of Hokitika before eventually ending up in 1920s New York City. Her friends included Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, while Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger were mentors. Hers was an extraordinary international life distilled into striking poems.

Chronicling Ridge's world is daunting enough, but I wondered how Svoboda is now approaching the challenge at author events of introducing contemporary readers--like me--to an author whose work should have been an intrinsic part of our lives already.

"I touch on the highlights of her life in the opening few pages: starting with her immobile under rearing police horses at the demonstration against execution of Sacco and Vanzetti," Svoboda told me. "I talk about her trek from New Zealand, dropping her son off at an orphanage, working for Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, and turning into the doyenne of poetry as a friend of Williams, Moore, Jean Toomer and Hart Crane--but then I have to go off book and summarize about her struggle with the wealthy Harold Loeb to keep the modernist movement going, her drug use, wandering penniless through Baghdad and taking a lover in Mexico, and the various shenanigans of the poetry world. While daunting, that's what I use to tease them into the q&a. Unlike the biographies of many other writers, hers is so full of incident it seems to have been lived by at least two people."

Svoboda, whose own collection When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems, was also published recently, had a launch event this month for both books at Astoria Bookshop in Queens, where owners Lexi Beach and Connie Rourke "were very welcoming. The rain stopped for just the right amount of time and the place filled up nicely," she said. "We served champagne and chocolate to a good mix of old friends like novelist Dawn Raffel and poet Stephanie Strickland, and people dropped in from the neighborhood."
At Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse in Baltimore, Md., she "felt a great sense of awe after the reading. Two young female rebels came up for autographs afterwards, saying things like 'I had no idea!' The staff was particularly welcoming and well-prepared and had their own questions about the book. Paired earlier in the day with Morowa Yejide at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, I met a number of women very excited to discover a modernist who had figured out how to write on issues of race and homelessness and sex."

On Sunday, there will be a free Modernist Ball/Hangover Tea at Bob Holman's Bowery Poetry Club "in honor of all the parties Lola gave to keep the modernist flame going," Svoboda said. "Redecorated a couple of years ago into a more '50s nightclub look, the place is serving cake and Prohibition 'tea.' Anyone who comes looking like any of the modernists--Williams, Moore, Toomer, Crane, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhaven, and of course Lola--may read a poem."
For booksellers, handselling titles they love means honing the irresistibility factor so potential readers feel they need a particular book. I asked Svoboda how she would approach the handselling challenge with Anything That Burns You. "I'd say the book turns on its head the idea that poets are extraneous to the cultural conversation," she replied. "Lola lived her wild life dedicated to freedom, and that's what America was founded on, and that's what modernism in America was all about, and that's what poetry encourages." From Ridge's poem "The Ghetto":

Nights, she reads
Those books that have most unset thought,
New-poured and malleable,
To which her thought
Leaps fusing at white heat,
Or spits her fire out in some dim manger of a hall,
Or at a protest meeting on the Square,
Her lit eyes kindling the mob...
Or dances madly at a festival.
Each dawn finds her a little whiter,
Though up and keyed to the long day,
Alert, yet weary... like a bird
That all night long has beat about a light.

Readers, meet Lola Ridge.... You're welcome. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2698

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