When you’re out shopping for books the Saturday after Thanksgiving (as of course you will be), do not be surprised if some of your favorite writers are manning the cash registers or tidying up displays. Walk up to them. Ask for a recommendation. That’s why they’re there.
Saturday, Nov. 30, is not just "Small Business Saturday," but it's also “indies first” day — a day when writers show support for independent bookstores by helping out for a few hours. Writer Sherman Alexie came up with the plan, which has been embraced by hundreds of authors across the country. ("Hello, hello, you gorgeous book nerds," his open letter begins.)
Lists are still being firmed up, but here’s what we know so far (and you can check the map to find out what's going on in your favorite store):
Chapter 2 Books in Hudson, Wis., Michael Norman and Stephanie Bodeen;
Red Balloon, Saint Paul: Debra Frasier, Nancy Carlson, Kurtis Scalleta, David LaRochelle, Brian Farrey, Lauren Stringer, John Coy
Addendum Books, Saint Paul (in a corner of SubText Bookstore): Dawn Klehr, William Alexander, Nancy Carlson, Catherine Clark, John Coy, Brian Farrey, Kevin Kling, Christopher Lincoln ("Billy Bones"), Mary Losure, Carrie Mesrobian, Chris Monroe, Laura Purdie Salas, Kurtis Scaletta, Pat Schmatz, Lauren Stringer, Stephanie Watson, Jacqueline West
Micawber's, Saint Paul: Peter Geye and Nicole Helget
Birchbark Books, Mpls: Heid Erdrich
Common Good Books, Saint Paul: Mary Losure and Sarah Stonich
Magers & Quinn, Mpls: Andy Sturdevant
SubText, Saint Paul: Sarah Stonich.
Valley Booksellers, Stillwater: Julie Kramer, Erin Hart, Colleen Baldrica, Stephanie Landsem, Charlie Quimby
Monkey See, Monkey Read in Northfield. Benjamin Percy
The Bookstore at Fitger's in Duluth: Erin Soderberg.
How does it go when the tables are turned and the interviewer becomes the interviewee? Judging by Wednesday night's conversation at Magers & Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis, a little shy, a little sweet, and very interesting.
Book critic, editor and author John Freeman was in town promoting his new book, "How to Read a Novelist," a collection of author interviews he conducted for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Star Tribune, and elsewhere. (In his interview with Erdrich, he calls her "quiet and self-effacing," words that could have been used to describe Freeman himself last night.)
So during his book tour, novelists have been seizing the opportunity to query him ("It's an obscure form of therapy," Freeman joked)--in Seattle, Nicola Griffith; in Brooklyn, Geoff Dyer; and in Minneapolis, Erdrich, who was respectful and admiring. "This book is absolutely wonderful," she said. "I read some of the pieces over and over."
But she had plenty of questions. For instance: Was there any author Freeman interviewed that he didn't like?
He didn't allow that there was ("I like most people, because I'm from California," he said), but then he went on to talk about John Irving's pugnaciousness and ego, the wrestling ring built right into his house, his hallway of books, "and they're all John Irving books, in various languages."
The evening was a festival of names of authors Freeman has reviewed and interviewed--Irving, Geraldine Brooks, Edmund White, Richard Russo: "I never understood the anger in [Russo's] work. When he does it with humor you almost forget you're swallowing a bitter pill."
Throughout the conversation, Freeman almost reflexively tried to turn the questions back on Erdrich, who was having none of it. Each time, she'd smile a serene Mona Lisa smile and remind Freeman that she wasn't the one being interviewed this time.
In interviewing, "There is this performance anxiety," Freeman said. "And you want to be liked. But as an interviewer, you can't do that." He doesn't see the interviewer and subject as having an adversarial relationship. "As an interviewer, your job is not to try to catch someone with food in their teeth. Your job is to catch them as they really are. In the best interviews, you never see the questions, only the answers. Critics and novelists are often put at odds with each other, but we both use the same tools."
Freeman was not a reader as a child. "Some time at 8, or 7 I stopped reading on my own," he said. But later, when he was reintroduced to literature, "It just cracked my head open," he said. After college and after a few failed jobs in finance, he began reviewing books--first for Publishers Weekly, and then for newspapers and magazines around the country.He became American editor of Granta, a British literary magazine, and then editor, dividing his time between London and New York and expanding the journal's presence around the globe, highlighting writers from Spain, South America, Pakistan and elsewhere.
Though his life is now books he must read--keeping up with what's new, reviewing what's about to come out--are there books he re-reads, Erdrich asked. "Mostly poetry," Freeman said. "Because poetry is meant to be read over and over. Adrienne Rich--I just don't know how she makes those shifts in voice. James Wright--there's a bare-knuckled sadness to his poems."
And what about the dedication, Erdrich asked. "For my father, who asked the right questions." What questions did he ask?
"He just kept asking me from a very early age what I wanted to do with myself," Freeman said. "I took from him that life was extremely serious, at a young age."
Freeman's parents were social workers, "and they looked at weakness not as weakness, but as the human condition, and that's the job of a novelist."
Guy Eggers might have said it best last night, or at least most succinctly, when he told the crowd (and it was a big crowd) at Micawber's Bookstore, "You want good content--good things to read." How a person reads--on a Kindle or an iPad, on a book or a Nook--is, ultimately, less important.
E-books, said Patrick Thomas, editor of Milkweed Editions--"that's just another format. It's all reading."
Eggers, co-editor of Thirty-Two Magazine, Thomas, and several others were addressing the issue of how our reading habits have changed in a digital world. The consensus seemed to be that, well, we are still reading, avidly, and print is doing fine, and content is the more interesting question after all.
(Though it's true that a panel of bookish people talking to folks gathered in an indie bookstore might have had a wee bit of optimism fueling their opinions. The discussion was sponsored by Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, more book-lovers.)
The panel moderator, MPR arts reporter Marianne Combs, got things rolling by asking the crowd how many folks owned a smart phone: Nearly every hand shot up. How many own an e-reader or tablet? Again, most hands.
"And how many of you read predominately from a digital device?" Not one hand raised, and Combs said, "God bless you all."
Caroline Casey, marketing director of Coffee House Press, and Thomas of Milkweed Editions both talked about how their publishers have embraced digital as an opportunity to do things differently and reach out in more directions. Thomas said, for example, that Milkweed's online catalog includes authors reading aloud from their forthcoming books--something that would have been prohibitively expensive just a few years ago. (You can take a listen here.)
And Casey talked about how Coffee House is reinivisioning itself not just as a traditional publisher of books but as an arts organization that connects readers and writers in a multitude of ways--through readings, events, exhibits and experiences, both real and virtual.
"We decided that our role was to connect readers and writers whether or not they buy the book," she said.
All of the participants agreed that turning their backs on digital would be futile. "You don't want to hold off the technology by saying you're stealing from us," said Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's. "The music industry did that to great failure. For me, the thing is to fight against the idea that books are dying. That is not true."
With the digital world still in flux--there are no standard platforms for e-books or e-magazines, and devices are changing all the time--print offers stability. While Thirty-Two Magazine does have a website, they do not offer e-versions of the magazine and instead rely primarily on print--gorgeous print, high-quality paper, a magazine you can carry around and read and touch, said co-editor Katie Eggers. Creating digital versions for all the various e-readers would be prohibitively expensive--at least as expensive as creating a print version, she said.
Most panelists predicted a widening split between print and digital, with readers continuing to buy print copies of books they admire and want to keep and re-read, and with digital eating up the bulk of more disposable books--romance, mysteries, soft porn and other books that people read once, perhaps as a guilty pleasure.
Thomas said it's not uncommon for readers to buy an e-book as a convenient, less-expensive way to sample a book--and then, if they like it, go on to buy the book in print. "Quality really trumps some of the aspects of ease that e-books bring," Thomas said. "E-books are great for ease."
But for something you want to keep, there's nothing like a beautiful book. (Weyandt held up Milkweed's "Things that Are" by Amy Leach and Coffee House's "Potluck Supper With Meeting to Follow" by Andy Sturdevant as examples--both beautifully designed and illustrated hardcover books.)
And in the Twin Cities, where three of the four major literary presses live (and the panelists joke that they're going to force the fourth, Copper Canyon Press, to relocate here some day) and where libraries are vibrant and readers are everywhere, the health of the printed book is particularly robust.
"We see ourselves fighting a culture that is always telling us we're gonna die," said Weyandt. Not true, he said, and all in attendance last night almost certainly agreed.
When I travel, I like to scope out the other passengers' reading material. This is getting harder to do. The last time I flew, back in May, not one person in the gate area was carrying a book, at least not a visible book. One guy had a newspaper (God bless him). Everyone else was peering at screens of various sizes--phones and tablets and the occasional e-reader.
They make it so hard to snoop.
It might be that people in transit prefer digital devices because they're lighter weight than books. (Although, of course, no flight attendant will make you put your book away ten minutes before landing.) Or it might be that all of those people I saw read on devices all the time. Who knows?
This whole madness about the changing world of reading--how we read, and where, and on what, and how we think about what we read--will be the topic of discussion Tuesday evening at an event sponsored by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.
The panel discussion, "How We Read Now," will be moderated by MPR arts reporter Marianne Combs. The panelists will be Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's Bookstore; Chris Fischbach, publisher of Coffee House Books; Patrick Thomas of Milkweed Editions; Katie and Guy Eggers, founding editors of Thirty-Two Magazine, and yours truly.
The event is free and begins at 7 p.m. at Micawber's, 2238 Carter Av., St. Paul. Come on by and help us figure out this new complicated world.
Alice McDermott's new novel, "Someone," long-listed for a National Book Award, is a quiet, rich book, the story of an Irish-American woman named Marie who lives in Brooklyn. Last night at Macalester College, in an event sponsored by Common Good Books, she read passages from the novel to a rapt crowd of about 100 people.
She chose three passages that traced Marie's romantic life--from the first time her heart was broken, to the first time she met her future husband, to a frightening but ultimately reassuring and loving incident in middle age. These same passages are the ones she suggested to her jazz musician son, Will Armstrong, when he told her he was interested in setting parts of her book to music.
(The result is a soundtrack for "Someone," issued by McDermott's publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux. You can listen to, or buy, the haunting, Irish-tinged tunes at www.willarmstrongjazz.com)
But back to Will's mom.
After her reading, McDermott took questions--no, she said; her books are not terribly autobiographical. "I couldn't write autobiography to save my life," she said. "I'm a fiction writer to the bone. The impulse to lie is strong."
That said, she added, her own experiences of the world are reflected in her books--that world of Irish-Americans in New York, their traditions and faith, the soda bread, the language and diction.
She wrote "Someone" partly to preserve some of that. "I wanted to get some of the language of the time, the phrases," she said. Not history--the history is easily knowable--but the attitude and vocabulary.
She also wrote it because "I wanted to go against the trend and give an entire novel over to a female character who didn't have much voice in her own life," she said. Her protagonist, Mary, is a nearsighted quiet woman who came of age in the 1930s and married after World War II. Her older brother, Gabe, was the golden boy who her parents were sure was going to become a priest; Mary's role as a child was to sit quietly and listen while he recited poetry at the dinner table.
"She came of age at a time when people said, 'Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses,' " McDermott said. "That was not a joke. Yes, hers is an ordinary life. But what life is ordinary? I wanted to undermine the idea of an ordinary life. None of us is ordinary.
"Detail. That's how we distinguish. The specficity by which we define lives."
And "Someone" is rich, rich in sensory detail--not just sounds and sights, but textures and, especially, smells: the cold smell of winter and the mothball smell of fur coats and the homey smell of soda bread baking. (Which, by the way, McDermott does not bake. She said she doesn't cook; she writes stories about people who do, and that's just as good.)
Literary fiction, McDermott said, is more about language than it is about plot. "The duty of literary fition is to take language to the point where we only intuit the meaning, to the point we have no words for."
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