Sunday, December 27, 2015

Into the Future

I have been a bookseller for 26 years, but that will be coming to an end in a few weeks. The owners of the bookshop where I've spent all those years are retiring, and the shop is closing its doors. 

Were I a decade or more younger and a good bit less anxious about going into debt, I would have taken them up on their offer to keep the thing going. I admire them for having been able to maintain the financial integrity of the business, and for being able to make a choice to retire rather than being forced to shutter up. 

While there are some indications across the rest of the country that independent bookstores are making a slow comeback, and I believe that an indie can still be viable here, the fact of it is that it is harder every year to compete with the number of alternatives that consumers have, not just for reading but for diversions of every sort. I desperately hope that someone in my town will have a vision for a new indie store, and I will promise them I will be among the first customers across their doorstep. 

I'll be dead on honest here: I have been in our sole remaining general trade big-box bookstore here only one time. It was not a pleasant or relaxing experience, but it is one to which I will have to become accustomed. For years I have harped  on how crucial it is to support businesses who employ folks who live here, who pay taxes here, and it would be a special brand of hypocrisy to abandon the local market now. I cannot promise I won't eventually be lured online for my book-buying on occasion, but I do at least pledge to make every attempt to give our remaining local bookseller a first shot. 

I've been asked whether I might apply to work for them, and the answer is a resounding NO, for several reasons. 

1. I have carved out a balance in my life between work and family, with time to chip away at things I do for myself. Working for a big-box retailer of any sort would necessarily foul those waters. There was a time a few years ago when my husband was forced to work for a national chain, and the years he spent working for those corporate phantoms took a toll on not only his well-being, but the well-being of our family. We learned the hard way that there is no compensation that can make up for damaged relationships with the people you love the most. There are plenty of people we know who have great lives and demanding jobs, and our hats are off to them. We just know from our own experience that we are not those people. 

2. At least 90% of what I loved about what I was able to do for the past quarter century had to do with the relationships I formed with my customers, and being part of a business in which our goal was to say YES more often than we had to say NO. I am used to our going the extra mile to get a book in someone's hand as quickly as we possibly could. I loved working somewhere that remembering the reading habits of almost every person who shopped with us regularly began to come naturally, and one in which the owner and I knew whom to call to check up on a customer who missed their usual stop-in date. 

3. I don't want to work retail again if I can help it. I've been privileged to be part of a very special business for a very long time, and I do not believe I would be happy selling anything else in the world. I don't have the passion or the wardrobe for any other setting.
So, what AM I going to do?

I have no idea. I've had a number of people who have very kindly offered to keep their ears and eyes open for something for me, and a few who have given me names of people whom I might contact. When the store goes dark, I am giving myself a few weeks to just BE before I dig in for the hunt. Although I've worked only part-time for all these years, I have taken very little time away on vacations, and have called in sick only a handful of times. I'm tired, and I'd like a few weeks to focus on my home, and maybe take a couple short road trips to visit family and friends.

And I want to write. I have had a project in my heart and mind for a long, long time. Over the past many weeks I have had a number of very clear notions about how, and with whom, to make it happen. I'm energized by even the imagining of it. 

Now to this: what becomes of this place here? I can hardly call myself the Surly Bookseller when I am no longer hoping that the handful of readers I have will be inspired to call me at the store and actually buy a copy of what I'm recommending, can I? And yet.... I had so often joked that, given the opportunity to open my own store that this would be the name of it, well.... it's sort of sentimental to me. I think I'll keep it.

There's some freedom in this. I will feel better about reading old stuff I've never gotten around to, and sharing my opinion about those things. I want to reread some old favorites, to see if they stand up. And I will be sharing some stories along the way about the people and my experiences in bookselling that I hope you'll find funny or touching in some way. 

I sure hope you'll come along for the ride. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

So Many Books... The Catch-Up Edition

I haven't asked you to suffer through yet another reading slump, or the writing-about-what-I've-read slump, either. Aren't you grateful?

But I haven't been not reading. And here's proof times three.

Full disclosure here: Marlin (known to his friends as Bart) and I have known each other for years, and we met when he joined the staff of the bookstore shortly after I did. He's gone on to much bigger and better things, of course, so I can honestly say I knew him when. He teaches creative writing at a local Youth Facility as well as in the Low-Residency MFA  program at Converse College. He's won so many awards for his writing that I think he might even have lost count.

So why haven't I ever written about him here? That's simple. I have this thing about reading anything people I know have written, and yes, I know how dreadful that sounds. What I have typically discovered is that I cannot divorce my friend's voice from my friend's character's voices. That has almost always meant that I was a harsher critic than was fair.

There's also this: I typed manuscripts for Bart back in his early writing career, and had to put aside my reading instinct and just type words on a page. When those books were published, I couldn't read them because I had sweated through every revision, every rewrite, every "take this adjective out.... no, put that adjective back in" and I knew I'd be bringing those memories with me. (It was an invaluable experience, though. I envy his writing students, but I sure learned a lot about the craft just from working for him in this way.)

I decided I was going to get over myself, though, and I decided to read his most recent collection Pasture Art, although as a rule I gravitate away from short stories. But here's my bottom line: Marlin Barton is such a meticulous artist, reading these stories was like walking through a museum: some pieces stirred my heart; some had me shaking my head; and some I'd go back and visit over and over again fully expecting to find something new each time. One of them,  Into Silence, is one that I'd rank with the finest short stories I've ever read.

I had allowed myself plenty of time with Pasture Art, and was in the mood for a guaranteed quick read. I picked up Lee Child's Never Go Back. I have never read a Lee Child book that didn't entertain, and it had been a long time since I had spent any time with Jack Reacher.

In this instance, however, I should have let the title be more instructive. I'm just going to give you a minute to figure out what I thought of it. 

After that fiasco, I opted to stay away from sure things. My interest was piqued by a review of Claire Fuller's Our Endless Numbered Days. I'd never heard of her, liked the quirky set up, and was hoping I'd discover a true gem. 

Peggy is 8 years old when her father James, a survivalist, leaves her mother and takes Peggy deep into the wilderness. When the idea that this is a great adventure has begun to wear thin, Peggy presses her father to take her home, and it is then he tells her that everyone in the world is dead, save them. Years pass, endless days of scrambling to survive, learning on the job, as it were, how not to die when you have no provisions. In time, however, she is found and reunited with her mother, and it is only then her ordeal assumes the gravitas it has deserved all along. 

Fuller interweaves the wilderness and reintroduction narratives to great effect, and I found myself wanting to protect Peggy in both her lives. 

Our Endless Numbered Days didn't blow me away, but I'm awfully glad to have read it. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Fifth Gospel - Ian Caldwell

You'll likely hear Brown's name evoked over and over in reviews of Ian Caldwell's new novel, but I have never read a Dan Brown novel, so I can't make any comparison. As a rule, I'm not terribly interested in speculative fiction. I do understand the appeal, though, so for those who do have fun running down the what-if rabbit holes, here's one for you.

The Fifth Gospel is ultimately, a legal thriller, albeit one that features the legal processes of the Catholic Church, and it provides a fascinating fictional glimpse into the inner workings of that institution. Artist Ugolino Nogara has spent years designing an exhibit which puports to answer, once and for all, the lingering question about the origins and authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. His exhibit relies on his study of the Diatessaron, the harmonic Gospel written in the 11th Century which sought to reconcile inconsistencies in the four traditional Gospels.

It is believed that Nogara's exhibit will have deeply resonating repercussions for the Roman Catholic Church, particularly as regards its historically uneasy relationship with the Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox communities. The push and pull of these earliest Christian bodies of faith is made manifest here in the persons of brothers Simon (a Roman Catholic priest) and Alex (a Greek Catholic priest), who both served as mentors and friends to Nogara.

When Nogara is found dead before the exhibit can see light of day and a key piece of the exhibit is found to be missing, the quest to answer multiple mysteries begins. Who killed him? Where is the missing page of the Diatessaron? What is the true source of the Shroud?

I found all the church history to be very interesting, and while I am sure liberties were taken with some of the depictions of the inner workings of the Vatican, all of that held me in thrall as well. I found the denouement lacking, however, but expect that others may not find it so. All in all, a chewy good read.

On Sale Date:  March 3, 2015

Friday, February 6, 2015

My Sunshine Away -- M.O. Walsh


"The narrator of My Sunshine Away tells the riveting story of the summer of 1989, when he was a fourteen-year-old boy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in love with the girl across the street, Lindy Simpson. Lindy was the girl with the golden hair and perfect legs, who rode her bicycle to track practice every afternoon, leaving a trail of beguiled boys in her wake. Yet one late-summer eve, a crime shattered everyone's illusion of the supposed idyllic neighborhood, and nothing was ever the same again."     -- taken from the book cover

Glowing reviews for this book are popping up everywhere, like a literary whack-a-mole. Everything about this book just screamed: READ ME, and I did, and I must say....


It was very readable. There were so many beautifully written passages, very compelling story lines that made up the whole, and well-drawn characters. All of those elements tend to earn raves from me, I know. 

The narrator, never named (which always irritates me), is one of those guys you get stuck with at a party; the one who has interesting stories to tell, but who can't resist the urge to go off on tangents in order to lay background or create a setting for what he's really trying to tell you. It's not that his stories weren't well told. It's that his stories so constantly interrupt the flow of the story that it was easy to be pulled off track. I can quibble about that: I am frequently "that guy," I know. 

Of particular note, for instance, is the narrator's sharing of the history of the nutria, a large rodent that was imported to the United States by the folks who make Tabasco sauce. So, yeah, that kind of off-the-rails thing. 

This was a good read that fell short of being a great read for me. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Boys in the Boat -- Daniel James Brown

I don't read a great deal of non-fiction. I don't say that to imply that it's a good thing, and it tends to happen that when I do read a work of such it works out that I end up really enjoying whatever it was I chose. Maybe that's simply a function of how discriminating I am when I do venture into the room at the store where the true stuff lives.

I'm happy to report that, although I was late to this particular party, I'm no less enthusiastic about The Boys in the Boat than I would have been if I'd been the one to discover it straight away. One of the dirty little secrets of bookselling is that we read a whole lot about books, and sometimes that is the only basis we have for recommending them to our customers. We can't read everything, sad to say. I knew this one had all the right stuff, just based on early reviews and a few paragraphs here and there that I scanned during quiet times at the shop. More than one person to whom I recommended it highly made a point of tracking me down (at the grocery, at church, etc.) to tell me how very right I had gotten it.

I decided to make it my first read of 2015. I started it a few days before the turn of the calendar, but don't let how long it took me to finish it dissuade you. There was more than one reason that everything slowed down for me as December turned to January, and it took some doing to stay interested in anything. I credit Brown and the remarkable story of achievement in the face of tremendous odds against success for pulling me back to this tale every day.

The Boys in the Boat tells the story of an improbable group of working class young men who rowed for the University of Washington, and who set about to become part of the US Rowing Team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In order to do so, they had to knock off East Coast teams that were considered to have a lock on the sport by dint of tradition. The uphill battle that was paled in comparison to what would face them in Germany. The stakes could not have been much higher, but this group of American sports heroes seemed to thrive on the idea of impossibility.

There is much to learn here about the Nazi propaganda machine, and the role the Olympics played in advancing Hitler's plans. Brown does a wonderful job of juxtaposing the hard work the men of Washington were putting in to their dreams with the devastatingly remarkable job the Nazis were doing of making the world see only what they wanted the world to see.

I'm sorry it took me so long to read this book, but you know what I always say: every book you've not yet read is a new book.