I read a lot of blurbs* -- the frequently overblown, sometimes clichéd, always enthusiastic statements, typically by one author about another author’s book. Because I see so many blurbs, they rarely impress me. So imagine my surprise when I opened a January galley from Simon & Schuster and found a simple two-page printout titled “Advance Praise for Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs.” Contained therein is perhaps the most impressive collection of blurbs for a single book that I’ve ever encountered.
The first blurb is from Billy Collins, acclaimed poet and former U.S. poet laureate, who describes Gorokova’s account of growing up in the Soviet Union as “the Russian equivalent of Angela’s Ashes.” Next is Frank McCourt himself, the author of Angela’s Ashes, who died in July. Before his death, McCourt composed a blurb in which he ruminates about Gorokhova’s “rich experience” and wonders why the book is “so damn readable.” The memoir also garners praise from Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee (“an enthralling read”); Sergei Krushchev, son of former Soviet prime minister Nikita Krushchev (“an endlessly Russian quest for self-redemption”); novelist Ursula Hegi (“gorgeous and evocative”) and Carlos Eire (“every page bears witness to the deepest longing of the human heart”). Eire knows a thing or two about growing up under a Communist regime, having won the National Book Award for Waiting for Snow in Havana, a dazzling account of his youth in Cuba.
So what did I do after reading all those blurbs? I started reading A Mountain of Crumbs myself, and decided in short order that BookPage readers would want to know more about Gorokhova and her “rich,” “readable,” “gorgeous and evocative” memoir. Stay tuned for an interview with the author in the January issue of BookPage. And never underestimate the power of a blurb.
* Did you know? The word “blurb” was coined by American author Gelet Burgess, who in 1907 commissioned a special jacket for his novel Are You A Bromide? and christened the young woman pictured on the cover as “Miss Belinda Blurb.” Miss Blurb had many wonderful things to say about the novel (“This book has 42 carat THRILLS in it”) and her last name was forever after associated with effusive praise for a book.
In looking over the lineup of 2010 fiction, we have noticed an abundance of historical novels. Which ones will you be reading? What is your favorite time period to read about?
I loved Girl With a Pearl Earring, so I can’t wait for Tracy Chevalier’s January release, Remarkable Creatures. In the novel, 19th century fossil hunter Mary Anning discovers her gift to “find what on one can see.” She is barred from the British academic community, however, and falls in love with “an impossible man.” Watch an interview with Tracy Chevalier:
A few years ago BookPage reviewed a “magnificent” biography of Emily Dickinson that provided “a comprehensive portrait of the poet's life and art.” In February, you can read a fictionalized version of the Dickinson’s life, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn. Dickinson biographer Brenda Wineapple writes that Charyn imagines the poet full “of mischievousness, brilliance, desire, and wit (all which she possessed) and then boldly sets her amidst a throng of historical, fictional, and surprising characters just as hard to forget as she is.”
Historical fiction buffs will also want to look out for Karen Harper’s The Queen’s Governess, a Tudor drama told from the perspective of Elizabeth I’s governess; Ellen Horan’s 31 Bond Street, about a 19th-century murder scandal in New York City (the book will be “difficult for any reader to put down,” according to Ron Rash); and Lynn Cullen’s The Creation of Eve, about Renaissance female painter Sofonisba Anguissola.
OK, if you're reading this you're probably a fan of BookPage, right? So why not admit it on everyone's favorite social networking site?
Now that BookPage has nearly 200 fans on Facebook, it's clearly time for a contest. Everyone who becomes a fan of BookPage between now and our 200th fan will win a free book*—and be entered in a drawing to win a free year's subscription to the print edition of BookPage (U.S. readers only). Our Facebook page keeps you up-to-date about blog posts and book news, and lets you chat with other booklovers in our "Discussion" board.
What are you waiting for? Ready, set—fan!
*comment on our wall with your favorite genre and we'll do our best to match you with a book you'll like!
One of the odd things about working for a publication is that your monthly timeline gets out of whack. A couple weeks ago I was writing about Christmas novels for a December feature. Now, it’s on to the New Year. In October Abby posted a preview of big February fiction titles, noting that Chris Bohjalian, Lori Lansens and Louise Erdrich have new novels coming out. Trisha has also posted a February teaser, writing about Joe Hill’s (Stephen King’s son’s) forthcoming Horns. After a meeting today about our February lineup (February already!), I jotted down a few other books you might want to remember.
Seems like anything even remotely connected to Jane Austen has an audience – see this month’s YA modern-day Emma, The Espressologist. Cathleen Schine, author of The New Yorkers, will re-imagine Sense and Sensibility in February’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport. In this telling, literary agent Miranda and library director Annie are Elinor and Marianne.
Heidi Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell From the Sky won the 2008 Bellwether Prize for Fiction. The book follows the daughter of a Danish immigrant and a black G.I. as she struggles with her biracial identity. Bellwether founder Barbara Kingsolver says of the novel: “Haunting and lovely, pitch-perfect, this book could not be more timely.” I am betting that this Feb. 16 release will be a highlight of the month.
In 2006, Whodunit? Columnist Bruce Tierney wrote that Swedish author Henning Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled is “a first-rate detective story” that “manages the border crossing into superlative mainstream fiction.” Mankell fans are in for a treat in February. The English translation of Mankell’s The Man From Beijing, a stand-alone international thriller about “a crime unprecedented in Swedish history,” will hit stores on Feb. 16. The plot will run from Beijing to Zimbabwe, and Mankell’s publisher is touting the author as the next Stieg Larsson. Sounds intriguing. . .
Also look out for plenty of Valentine’s Day appropriate books (a staff favorite title: You Say Tomato, I say Shut Up: A Love Story).
Have any 2010 books caught your eye? Tell us in the comments or in our Facebook discussion.
Whether or not it's warranted, news about mainstream publishing tends to trend toward the bleak. So it's always encouraging to hear about a company who is generating excitement about reading in a new way. Madras Press, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit publisher, is one of those companies. Their goal: to publish individually bound short stories/novellas and distribute the proceeds to charitable organizations chosen by the authors.
"Concord Free Press, One Story, the old Penguin 60s series, the Penguin Great Ideas series," explains founding editor (and author) Sumanth Prabhaker. But Madras decided to focus on publishing works that were "too long for magazines, too short for trade publishers."
"It struck me as kind of funny that so many writers immediately limit themselves with a certain page restriction when they set out to write a story, especially when print technology and the major distribution systems are perfectly capable of handling stories of basically any length," Prabhaker tells us. "There's really no reason for it, and yet, as I complained to more and more of my friends, it seemed like there were a lot of people in a similar position—stuck with good stories that nobody was interested in. . . . Often it's not even a matter of page count; it's just that the impact of certain stories can be lessened by the presence of other writing on either end, in a literary journal or magazine or collection."
Of course, authors are often pleased to have the opportunity to have a work that would not otherwise be published see the light of day, and sold to benefit their charity of choice. "We're very flexible about this, so our inaugural titles are helping to support a wide variety of places: health and human services, environmental protection, community organizations, a non-profit education institution, etc.," says Prabhaker.
Each book costs just $6. "Our books are tiny, and tiny things tend to cost less in our marketplace than regular-size things," says Prabhaker, adding that volunteer labor, free content from the writers and lack of national distribution all allow them to keep their prices lower. The books are for sale on the Madras Press website and in select independent bookstores only.
The first four titles will ship December 1. Here's a list of titles, authors and charities:
The Third Elevator by Aimee Bender, to benefit InsideOUT Writers (CA)
Bobcat by Rebecca Lee, to benefit Riverkeeper (NY)
Sweet Tomb by Trinie Dalton, to benefit the Theodore Payne Foundation (CA)
A Mere Pittance by Sumanth Prabhaker, to benefit Helping Hands (MA)
Madras hopes to publish another set in 2010, and eventually producing a set of four books every six months.
Would you buy a $6 short story?
Janis Irvine has been the owner of the Book Bin in Northbrook, IL, for about 30 years. She sent me this wonderful memory from her bookselling career, and I thought it’d make a nice final post for our National Bookstore Day series.
One day I overheard one of our sales ladies on the phone. The conversation went something like this: “No, you won’t like that... No, that’s not good... You’ve read that one... Yes, try that. You’re welcome. Goodbye.” I had to know what it was all about. It turns out it was one of our customers calling from the Phoenix airport. He’d read all the books we sent with him on vacation and needed something for the plane ride home. He was reading off book titles to our saleslady! That’s far and away the best part of our job: Talking about books with customers who have come to trust our judgment.
Today we hear from Patricia Pelletter Donovan, the co-owner and manager of The Book Nook in Dunkirk, New York. Patty and her husband, Rick, took over the store from Patty’s father, and it’s still a family affair—their son helps out when he’s not teaching English. After forty years in the bookselling business, both Patty and her husband look forward to another forty!
Below, Patty writes about the important relationship between a community and its bookstore; hosting the coach of the Buffalo Bills; and how e-book publishing has changed her customers.
How did you come to work in the bookselling business?
My father got into the business in 1968 when I was in elementary school. I worked there from that time (when I was ten years old) until I left for college—where I majored in Business Management and Marketing. I returned after college with my fiancé to help my father run the store, and over the next few years my fiancé-turned-husband got involved in running the store as well. My father began handing off the store to me and my husband in the mid-80s when we had our first child, and we have run the store ever since!
What is your favorite part of your job?
As a businesswoman, I enjoy the feeling of success when I know my business is in the black. In general, I love all the aspects of managing in the book business—buying the stock, talking to customers, setting up events and generally being on the floor and working the register! I started working the register when I was ten-years-old, and there is nothing I’ve done since that compares with the simple pleasure of ringing out customers when the store is busy. You might say it’s a guilty pleasure of mine.
Describe your bookstore.
The Book Nook was my father and mother’s creation back in 1968. My father had run Park Shoes for many years, but with the advent of sneakers had decided to do something different—our store was the result. Located in the center of the Dunkirk-Fredonia plaza in the middle of northern Chautauqua County, we’ve serviced the area for more than forty years from our 3,000 square-foot store. The author signings and other events we hold are memorable and always bigger than life, but what really makes our store special is the personal relationship we develop with our customers and our community. So many businesses are designed to service a community without really being a part of it. I can’t imagine working in that kind of environment. We know most of our customers by name (and book preference!); local book clubs’ book selections are the first thing people will see walking into the store for 10 months out of the year; and our counter is always plastered with posters for local events or reminders to buy tickets to the local school’s latest productions or to the county fair.
What is the most memorable event you've hosted in your store?
My husband (as an avid Buffalo Bills fan) would say that the year we hosted Marv Levy (long-time Bills coach) for a book signing was the most memorable. Throngs of people filled the store and spilled out into the street, and Marv himself even said it was the best run signing he’d ever been a part of. For me, the most memorable event was our first big author signing in the early 1980s with Roxanne Pulitzer. That was before author signings were popular or even common! It was the first time we’d ever done something that big, and it was tremendously exciting to have hundreds of people in the store to meet a local-turned-national celebrity. We combined the book signing with a sort of reception; we served hors d’oeuvres and encouraged people to mingle. It was all very overwhelming!
What are you reading right now?
I have an ARC of The Cross Gardener by Jason Wright (author of The Wednesday Letters and The Christmas Jars) which won’t come out until March. The title made me think that the gardener would be angry, but it refers to one who tends to crosses! I liked Wright’s other work, and this is no exception. It’s a fast-read (a lot like Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box) and delves with grace into the depths of loss. It’s both thought-provoking and readable while at the same time holding your excitement and inspiring you to move forward with life.
What are your current top-selling books?
New York Times bestselling author Wendy Corsi Staub (a Dunkirk native and former member of our staff) has a few new books out in the last few months, and her newest series title (Lily Dale: Discovering) is doing very well in our store. The newest Wheel of Time book (The Gathering Storm) is also doing very well—our customers have high hopes for this inheritor of the Jordan line! The Diary of a Wimpy Kid (#4) has also been flying off the shelves. We have a great children’s section, and Jeff Kinney has a shelf all to himself these days.
Why is it important for a community to have a good independent bookstore?
Community life centers on community retail. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true! Local grocers, fruit-stands, hardware stores, restaurants and booksellers form the backbone of daily interaction among community members. We’re less than a mile from the University of SUNY Fredonia and our community places a very high priority on education and literacy. Access to the depth, breadth and diversity of merchandise carried at and available in independent bookstores is a veritable requirement for worldliness, community literacy and good citizenship. No online vendor or big box store can—or would—stock a huge variety of local interest titles, keep a tally of which books in the such-and-such series you have already bought and which you need to order, or offer that first-time local author a table alongside best-selling authors like Wendy Corsi Staub.
What do independent bookstores offer that big-box stores don't?
Everything. Independents offer the community their very lives. Independent bookstores rely on their communities for their existence—and while some communities may not realize it, cohesive communities rely on their bookstores just as heavily. To name a few things we do that chains do not: we contribute a greater percentage of our income/profit to local charities (monetarily and with our time), as a free service we sell tickets for the local school plays and musicals, we locate both in- and out-of-print books for our customers and we even provide a location for paper recycling.
How has the emergence of e-books changed your business?
What we’ve noticed from the emergence of e-books has been almost totally negative. Even putting the loss of physical sales aside, the customers and community members we’ve talked to who have bought e-book readers or who buy e-books have been largely guided in what to read by their online sources; they’ve restricted or pared down their reading lists to accommodate what they can get online; and they’ve stopped giving books (in physical or electronic form) as gifts to their friends and their children. It hasn’t changed our business so much as it’s changed our customers. Before e-books, book ownership was a thing to be prized, a goal to be lauded and a visible symbol of success and intelligence. E-books have tarnished that gilded image, turning people who used to look for integrity in the printed word into those who think that Wikipedia is a far more accurate and dignified source than anything in print.
With his Booker Prize-winning debut, The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga joined a fresh crop of Indian writers who portray their complex, changing country as they see it. With a successful follow up, Between the Assassinations, under his belt, Adiga is poised to publish a third novel. Last Man in the Tower (Grove Atlantic) is set in Mumbai, and explores the conflict between a high-powered real estate developer and one man who won't sell out.
Adiga's Indian publisher, HarperCollins India, calls the book "a sweeping novel about contemporary India, more particularly Mumbai. Adiga's characters are unforgettable, his prose riveting." Fans can look for the novel sometime in 2011.
For today’s celebration of National Bookstore Day, we hear from Franne Davis, the Assistant Director at Illini Union Bookstore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In her 10th year of employment at her alma mater, Franne says she's got “a dream job for any English major.”
Describe your bookstore.
The Illini Union Bookstore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one of the largest independent college bookstores in the country and is a continuation of a book exchange organized in the early 1920s by students at the university. The current bookstore occupies 55,000 square feet and combines four major merchandise categories: textbooks; insignia apparel /souvenirs; office/school supplies/electronics; and a trade/general book department with over 40,000 titles in stock. Our General Book department also hosts or facilitates an average of 80-90 book and author events per year.
How did you come to work in the bookselling business?
Well, the book business was, and to a large degree still is, a dream job for any English major. My first job out of college was as a clerk in an independent bookstore and I guess I’ve been hooked on “indies” ever since. I’ve also been a professional buyer in the book business and in related industries. I’ve also tried my hand at a few other things, including teaching, and was lucky enough to land in my current position about a decade ago. I’ve felt wonderfully challenged and yet “at home” in the world of college bookselling ever since.
What is your favorite part of your job?
That’s easy: the people. I meet and learn daily from everyone I encounter—from our wonderful staff of bookstore professionals and our student employees to our customers: the students, faculty, staff, visitors and alums of a world-class university.
What makes the Illini Union Bookstore special?
Our staff and our patrons take pride, I think, in the fact that we are an independent bookstore and a part of a university that values its bookstore as a community center.
Our trade book collection is designed to reflect and anticipate the specific needs of a local clientele. We showcase real authors—from local authors to those who are internationally recognized. And as icing on the cake, our proceeds go to support student programs and activities.
What are you reading right now?
I’m almost finished with The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin. Next up is The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches From Lisbon by Philip Graham, one of our many talented faculty authors.
What are your current top-selling books?
Most of the month’s top sellers are reflective of book and author events we’ve had either hosted at the bookstore or locally: Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel; I’ll Scream Later by Marlee Matlin; When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris; For A Girl Becoming by Joy Harjo. And of course, our top sales also reflect the huge impact that Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer have had on buyers of books lately.
What do independent bookstores offer that big-box stores don’t?
As independents, we are not bound by formulae. We are free to create environments that speak to the customers we serve. Our trade book selections, and all our merchandising, is literally built book by book, unit by unit, on what our individual customers tell us they want.
How has the emergence of e-publishing changed your business?
We’re not sure yet although we are studying this new revolution in reading very carefully. Our customers, including our current student patrons, still show a marked preference for “print on paper.”
The New York Times published their holiday movie guide over the weekend, and after giving it a thorough read, I am very excited for the upcoming movie season. . . especially because some of the best-looking picks are based on great books.
“Precious,” based on Sapphire’s 1996 novel, Push, will be in theaters tomorrow. The raw story of an abused African-American girl from Harlem is #1 on the NYT’s paperback trade fiction bestseller list, and the movie version received the prestigious Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The cast includes stars Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz.
Roald Dahl is one of my all-time favorite authors, and I have rarely been disappointed by the movie adaptations of his books – from Matilda, to The Witches, to both versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. On Nov. 13, you can bet I’ll be in line to see Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop motion film directed by the great Wes Anderson. George Clooney voices Mr. Fox. See trailer below.
When The Lovely Bones came out in July 2002, BookPage reviewer Becky Ohlsen wrote that Alice Sebold found an “inventive way of expressing the universal alienation and powerlessness we all feel, trapped in our own small worlds apart from each other.” This bestseller will be on the big screen Dec. 11. Saoirse Ronan (nominated for an Academy Award in “Atonement”) stars as Susie, the murdered 14-year-old narrator.
These three are just a few of the upcoming literary adaptations. The biggest blockbuster of all needs no introduction: The film version of Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon hits theater Nov. 20.
Which books-to-movies are you going to see in the coming weeks?