Sunday, January 30, 2011

Stump the Booksellers!

"What books do you have for my grandson who's in Boston for the first time/my eight-year-old who loved all the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books/my students who want to see more characters who look like them/my friend who just came out/my teen who loves realistic humor?"

If I didn't work among the kids' books, I imagine that these questions, which come fast and furious, would flummox me. Even as it is, the really good questions make me stop and think. That's why we spend some time on quieter days making lists: Boston-Themed Books, Books with Multicultural Representation, John Green-esque Teen Novels. They're useful for us and for our fellow booksellers, and making them is a great exercise in looking at our books from different angles, and every time I do that, I learn something. A recent customer-inspired quest for young adult books showing "courageous kindness," for instance, made me realize that that's the theme of a huge portion of historical fiction.

Try to stump us. If your request is one we haven't heard before, it may take a few minutes, but you may help us prepare for the next like-minded customer.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

"the lost art of shutting up"

(Illustration by Timothy Goodman)

Did you read this article in the New York Times Book Review? The one about memoirs? I'll give you a minute. It's worth it. Critic and playwright Neil Genzlinger wrote a ballsy, sharp, and necessary critique on the state of a swollen genre: the memoir. My co-worker, preceptor, and friend Lisa forced me to read the article, and I almost cried laughing with relief.

As booksellers we see tons of books... you know...daily. There is no shortage of people writing memoirs. In fact, we thought about renaming the section "My childhood was worse than yours." It's not that we don't love well written, unique and quality prose, it's just that it would be nice if the quality of memoirs had to adhere to the same or similar standards as other genres. Consider this: If a poet writes a collection of confessional poems and pays no attention to craft ( it is sloppy, poorly edited and it's readability is dependent solely on the sexiness of the disclosure), it would get panned as self indulgent drivel.

As a student in an MFA program, I have lots of friends writing their memoirs, and as I would like to keep them friends...I will tread carefully here.

Not all humans experience the same suffering. Now, it is possible that all humans experience suffering the same, but the two are wildly different. I understand that if the worst trauma someone endures is a rejection letter from an Ivy, then that pain will register as high in their mind/ bodies' barometer as perhaps the disappointment of another individual who say, lost their children to starvation and curable childhood disease. Pain is relative. I get that. Human suffering is human suffering.


when we sit down to write we have the obligation, and responsibility to the readers to make sure that what we have to say needs saying. ...("needs" is a very flexible word in this context.)

1.) Is what you are saying new?

2.) Is how you are saying it new?

3.) The above two qualifiers, substitute new with "better than TV"

Personally, I kinda love memoirs. I love a self indulgent voyeuristic jaunt into the hologram of another's domestic horror show. I just expect their suburban tragedy to be...well....tragic...or at least tragically well written.

So....Thanks you Neil Genzlinger for your wonderful review. I will now read "An Exclusive Love" because of your brilliant critique by comparison. More please.

Ok. Off my high horse.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sweet Gifts (without the sugar)

Have a little one you want to give a Valentine gift to...that's not classified as cheap junk?  Check out these $4.99 Send-A-Story gifts that are great picturebooks all set to be placed in the mailbox -- after adding a personal note and 3 postage stamps, that is.
Okay, so they aren't totally Valentine's Day stories, but they do revolve around love and friendship.  All of these great books can be read year round, which makes a gift all that much better.  And every one loves to get mail -- especially with a personalized handwritten note inside.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Climate Change

The term Global Warming got us off to a bad start in comprehending our Earth's distress. "If the Earth is warming, why is it so cold??" etc. Climate Change, much more accurate, is real and really scary. Also, if you think we humans aren't causing it, I wish you'd attended the Brookline Climate Week kick off event yesterday. I was there to sell books by one of the heroes of getting this story out (years ago now), Ross Gelbspan. His seminal book is The Heat Is On, followed by Boiling Point. He and numerous other Brookline citizens are passionate activists on the subject. Please go to to see what one town is doing to educate and move us forward. Each person doing one or more small things can make a difference, trite but oh so true. Here's the "one thing" takeaway from the event. Go to and sign up. This one action will reduce your carbon footprint by 25%. That is a big deal. It will cost you very little money. It will help save our planet.

On Sunday, Jan. 30 at 1:00 p.m., come by the store to hear author Vivienne Simon and editor Martin Keough discuss and converse about Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World. The book is a compelling anthology including such environmental activists and writers as Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Walker, Bill McKibben and Howard Zinn. This event is co-sponsored by Climate Change Action Brookline.

For those blog readers who are not residents of Brookline, find out if your city/town has any environmental orgs. you can join. If not, find something as close to your home as you can or join an online org. Basically, do something, do anything. As with other important movements (think Civil Rights) grassroots can ultimately prevail over special interests and big money.

I'm being bossy. You may not like that. Sorry. This is too important to be demure.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

EVENTS...Emerson was right — "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" come to the cabaret!

I was going to write a very focused meditation on the state of critical theory in poetry , but I'm sleepy from selling so many copies of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by the BELOVED Patton Oswalt, that I'm going to switch my focus to something more "of the moment"...because I'm like an adolescent finch...and there are so many of you... here in the store that I have to show you how cool you are...and alarmingly good looking ta' boot...
( If you missed the event, call us (617) 566-6660, or email we may still have signed copies available. Check out these pictures of the line...)



Just hearing about the event now? Well like...."like us"us on Facebook! Sign up for our newsletter! Come on by and grab ye olde paper calendar!

Next week...some serious academics. Unless of course all you lovelies distract my birdy brain again.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Designers of the World, Don't Unite!

Just look at this.
To scan the new arrivals and pull this selection from the shelves and tables took me less than one minute.

Seven publishing houses.
Eight designers.

The averted, cropped off or masked face of a woman tells me nothing except that the designer and publisher don't want to be held accountable. It's the pinnacle of non-committal design.

I will leave it to others (who have read the books) to determine what the design ethic at work across such a broad spectrum of subject matter, not to mention cross-section of the publishing industry, has to say, if anything, about gender relations.

But I will say that it is unsettling to witness publishers and designers churning out the exact same visuals as each other in a year when the book is loudly rumored to be on its last legs.

It brings to mind a biologically deficient strain of corn, its pesticide-protected field blanketing the continent, feeding us all we can eat and fueling us as far as we can go until that one microbe who has the doomsday genetic code rides in on the wind of an uncovered sneeze and turns the corn fields and our dinner tables into wastelands.

I know it's not as apocalyptic as all that, obviously. Just as anyone who works in a decent bookstore knows that paper books are,
very long for this world.

You can just put me in that camp that thinks we should be encouraging diversity wherever we find it, you know, for the health of the species.

I want to sell your books, guys, but you make it a hell of a lot harder when they all look the freaking same. Designers, don't you all talk to each other? Publishers, don't you look at what the other ones are doing?
Oooooooh, I see.
You do.

It's a little thing to many, maybe.
But I think that good design has a lot to do with good life.
And bad design makes my head hot.
And collectively bad design that appears to be the product of an agreement amongst the largest publishing houses in the country makes me...turn away.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

St Valentine would be proud, I'm sure.

Oh sweet Valentines Day, your origins are as clandestine as your palette is unvaried; our card racks here at the smith have been taken over with red, pink, white, the occasional chocolate brown. I get lost in the stacks and have to yell to whoever card and gift lass is working to "get the pole! I'm being sucked into the undertow again! Gaah hearts! Script! SNUGGLING ANIMALS" Seconds later, I am revived by a coworker with smelling salts and a book of Goya paintings; something uncute to jog me back into the "now".
Its Valentines Day. Its gaudy, its saccharine, and its coming for you.
Ones relationship with Valentines used to be different. As kids, we experienced valentines day as a celebration of cards and little chalky hearts, with a vague knowledge that it was a day somehow connected with love. Not for us, not even by way of schoolyard crush, because even that had yet to begin. For the most part I remember still being an asexual being during the years of the quarter page cardboard valentines card, perforated edges separating each slightly different holographic Power Rangers image from one another. All the messages are affectionate without being embarrassing: You're Powerfully Cool! Hope Your Valentines Is A Red-Letter Day! With the red ranger in power stance over the Official Power Rangers font (tm). You crafted a construction paper mailbox in class, the teacher allowed for fifteen minutes of hysterical mayhem as you delivered the cards to one another, and that was it. Maybe you munched on some candy hearts or Hershey kisses, but that the was extent of any potential funny business.

Then later, for most of us, Valentines day began to represent something ugly. It began to represent the absence of love, instead of the presence of it. In high school some of us (going through our dramatic phases from which we suspect we have yet to outgrow) wore black and stormed angrily around all day on the 14th of February under the guise of "making a statement". A year or so ago, as I prepared to drink a bottle of champagne and watch "The Notebook" by myself (not because I'm a sad sack but because I love that movie and I love champagne, so get off my back already ok?), I got a call from a group of guy friends and the night ended with watching three drunken dudes start a dance party in the Model all by themselves. It was like watching a baby deer take its first furtive steps, except way less adorable and inspiring. That was a Valentines day that went down in infamy.

Whatever you choose to do, or not to do, remember to be safe and have fun, and try not to be too bitter. If you're gonna buy cards, I recommend the sweet little Hammerpress cards we carry, the handmade ones on the creme card stock because they are smart and always made me laugh. If you're going to buy candy, don't bother with those chocolate cherries with the cordial, nobody likes those, they taste like grandma. And if you're interested in grabbing a bottle of Andre and watching Gosling woo McAdams, you know where to find me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What the Hell is an Aperitif? Guest Post by Gene Kwak

Person A uses the word aperitif in conversation. Drinks out of a carafe. Moves a wine flute three inches across a table in a supposed manifestation of the deterioration of her domestic bliss.

This is a scenario common to the contemporary American novel.

Which has no relation to my life. Or, I’m willing to bet, most of your lives. Not in circumstance, characterization, or language.

Now I’m not saying that all fictive work need be mimetic to my daily goings-on. I love a good escape as much as the next person. And while novels are the one vehicle that best allow us the closest approximation of empathy, the ability, even in the close-third POV (point of view) flitting seamlessly (one would hope) between objective-subjective planes, to see into someone’s skull-sized kingdom, as DFW put it, one does tire of the glut of upper middle class perspectives in American novels.

Lev Grossman called Freedom the novel of How We Live Now. This is only true if you’re white (there are scant people of color in Freedom) and upper middle class, which statistics show, fewer and fewer Americans are today.

I make no gross claims to the novel of Now, but if I could point you toward a story collection that’s as close to Now as now (Like now) I’d direct you to Mike Young’s debut story collection, Look! Look! Feathers.

Young’s stories are set in Okie-inhabited Nor Cal, and his characters may look like your familiar working class, but they grope for happiness through new means (Facebook, YouTube, Myspace) and are thus forced to employ new language to deal with those new means.

Russell from “Mosquito Fog” frequents a Facebook page for the Gold City Giddy-Ups and fosters a friendship with a woman, Delilah, since his own wife passed from a freak aneurysm and his only daughter, Ashley, is moving away to Portland. Russell’s opening gambit on the Facebook page is full of the self-conscious, awkward, and yet slightly endearing posturing of someone un-used to “selling” himself on the Internet.

In “Burk’s Nub,” the titular character, an overweight, geeky band nerd, tries to win points with his coterie of fellow band geeks by inserting, through a home surgery overseen by his aunt, a prototype of a Japanese gadget into his hand that allows him to see the Internet in his head. Burk’s nub goes over well, initially, though his fellow nerds have their doubts. As the mystique surrounding his nub grows, one of the nerds is driven to a desperate act to disprove Burk, his nub, and to reinforce the sacrosanct idea that if you’re a nerd, you don’t bring undue attention to yourself and your ilk, you “hoard the dignity of silence.”

Young’s characters (aptly named) are the Dan Mac’s, the Orrin’s, and the Reynard’s who people the West in 2010: representative of the joy in double-rainbows and Twitter and equally, the whiskey swill and grit of cowboys and wanna-be cowboys; the habitués of small-towns and the never-lefts.

I’m a Korean-American in my late twenties, a proud product of can’t-get-more-central Omaha, Nebraska, use Facebook and G-chat to communicate every day, and can often be found imbibing whiskey with my friend Paul Hansen, a member of ametal band, who has, among multiple tattoos, the visage of Proust on his left arm and a nod to The Boss on his right calf. The word aperitif has never come up in our conversations.

Cooking Blues

Sometimes I wonder if cooking is overrated.  Specific ingredients.  Long hours in the kitchen.  Debates between chefs, brands, and what is considered to be healthy.  There's the sink full of dishes... 

Then again, in some shape or form, food is absolutely necessary to be able to go on living -- especially if you are one who keeps close watch as to what you put in your mixing bowl.  When done right, food is down right amazing. Therefore, cooking definitely has high rankings in life.  (No wonder we have so many great cookbooks here!). 

Got the cooking blues and are not sure what to make on this stretch of snow and rainy days?  Sometimes I find myself turning pages until I find something good or go back to a long forgotten favorite.

I highly recommend Gluten Free Italian.  It is sure to be a homey pleaser, and it is one of the top selling gluten free books we have.  Within this cookbook there are many meals that don't contain wheat and are low in sugar.  Try the Spinach and Potato Frittata, breadsticks, Focaccia bread, and the various fettuccine dishes. So far, everything I've made so far has been absolutely delicious.

If you have to eat, you might as well make the best of it right?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I work with some pretty excellent ladies and dudes

We, the staff of Brookline Booksmith, just had our annual "holiday" party a couple of days ago at a local bar/restaurant. As the night got going with the Patriots playoff game on TV in the background I took a couple of moments to look at everyone assembled. Such a variety of people with different interests and talents, some with significant others we were meeting for the first or tenth time. And a lot of laughing and hugging was going on. Our awesome assistant manager was there after a two week absence; she'd been off pursing her writing talents in a graduate program. Newer employees were at their first party, hopefully one of many. Our beloved high school students were there, too, right alongside veterans of 15 or more years. People who don't often work the same schedule were chatting and catching up, and old friends returned as guests even though they don't work at the store anymore. Buyers and events managers and computer guy and receivers and special orders guy and kids-book-experts and card-and-gift-room-mavens and regular old booksellers were all there, having a good time. A few people couldn't make it (due to stupid germs!) and they were missed.

In those moments of observation I thought, wow, we really like each other. (I don't think it was the alcohol talking - it was too early in the night for that.) We have a good group. And I think that's one of the reasons why you all like to shop here. We've got a good vibe going on. Plus some pretty great books and gifts. (Okay, not to sound overly-rosey, we do sometimes get on each other's nerves, but what big group of people doesn't?)

The annual Yankee swap started and the prize of the night was a handmade painting of a clown atop a pig. The competition was fierce - almost everyone wanted that painting. I think it went around 8 times before it finally found its home. Personally, I had my eyes on a set of mugs but it was not to be. I went home with four boxes of animal crackers. But I wouldn't want it any other way. (Though it would have been nice if the Patriots had won.....)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Yay, Book I've Never Heard Of!

This Monday morning, the air was filled with the sound of children's lit nerds going, "Fwa?"

The announcement of the American Library Association Youth Media Awards--the Newbery, the Caldecott, the Printz, and many more--is more predictable some years than others. This year, the winner was Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool. It was not a well-known book, not a book with buzz. Notice I said "was." Now, lots of people are talking about this story that alternates between the Depression era and the World War I era. Lots of bookstores and libraries have ordered this novel that just won the top honor in children's literature. I, for one, can't wait to read it.

Of course, the collective surprise means we all had our eyes on lots of other books, and those books are just as good now as they were before Monday morning. Come on in and let us talk your ear off about them, or about the books that won, or could have won, any of the other awards. Looking for a cream-of-the-crop picture book, young adult book, or nonfiction book? Want a book that positively portrays people of a particular culture or way of life? There are lots of categories, and that means there's something for everyone.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The King's Speech

Most likely you've heard the buzz about the excellent new film, The King's Speech. I concur with all that buzz. It's terrific with great performances by all of the actors, including Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth. It's nice to start the new year with a trip back in history, being reminded of what I used to know and learning other aspects of it. The story of King George VI (brother of Edward VIII, who abdicated to be with Wallis Simpson, and father of current Queen, Elizabeth II) and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, is a compelling one.

A bit of backstory: There is a companion book by Mark Logue, a grandson of Lionel, currently selling like hotcakes here. Mark was contacted by the film makers who were looking for more of the Logue side of the tale in the form of letters, diaries, photos and newspaper clippings. During a year long quest, a treasure trove was unearthed amongst Logue family members. Mark, working with Peter Conradi , has turned the material into a fascinating book, The King's Speech. The basics of the story have been included in bios of the King for years but only mentioning Logue. Lionel and the King enjoyed a life-long friendship which was then rare between "commoner" and king.

I always like to know as many sides to a story as possible and this book delivers. Hopefully, the
Queen will see the film. Her Dad was quite a guy, really.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Again, with the James Frey-

I'm in white as white can be (on all fronts) Bennington Vermont. I just asked my first question in a lecture. The subject was about responsibility in non-fiction. Poetic license. Truthy-ness. How much has to be true before you can market and sell something as "biography" something I don't want, or have the GI tract to process again. It's an old conversation. YET

There is real disagreement. What qualifies you to speak for a larger group under the singular? Rigoberta Menchu...I believe her license was true, and the the use of the passive voice, and particular linguistic and oral traditions are far away enough from my own to qualify her for to speak for an idea, a history, some people. James Frey/ his editors co-opting the experience of a disease...doesn't speak for a larger group. I do not believe he has his union card. I think there are addicts out there to write it better, say it better. Give them the cash.

be who you are ... what you are. If it didn't happen to you, but "wouldn't it be cool if it did, what would that look like?" exercise belongs in fiction...and have the brass ones to throw your hat in that arena.

When I give my time and money to someone's work..., there is an unspoken agreement. I take the responsibility of a reader and you take the responsibility of calling a spade a spade. A bio a bio, a novel a novel, an auto ethnography an auto ethnography. Don't cheat.

If a painting is sold as the product of a blind horse with a brush in its mouth, and I found out it was painted by a 43 year old man...I may feel violated.


we can just agree that all writing is half truths...and get rid of those little signs above the books...

Friday, January 7, 2011

I'm a fan of the Constitution.

And Huckleberry Finn.
One was designed to be amended with the passage of time, the other meant to be a portrait of a very specific time. Some things are meant to change, and others to remain the same.

The past did happen, and replacing a few words in a novel won't change it. What will change is the remarkable ability of this novel to bring the past to life for the reader.

The Constitution does not exist to be rolled up and used as a weapon. It is not a flag to wave over the heads of the ascendant political party.

When you alter Huck Finn you engage in censorship.
Huck Finn belongs to Mark Twain.

When you read aloud the Constitution as if the "other side" has forsaken its meaning, you are taking a step towards a civil war.
The Constitution belongs to everyone.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

ParkSmart (aka Brookline Debit Card) Tips

Since we sell them and I use one, I thought I'd give you some tips on using the Brookline Debit Card, which most of us are calling the ParkSmart card. It seems to be most useful to people who drive around in those things called cars, but it can also be used as a debit card in participating stores (including Brookline Booksmith, obviously.)

I've been using mine for about three weeks now instead of lugging around sacks of quarters and I've only encountered a couple of hiccups. For the most part it's pretty convenient. No more quarters! Well, sort of. This is how it works. You put the card in the meter and after a moment your card balance will show up and blink at you. Leave the card in the meter and a few moments later it'll start slowly debiting money in 20 minute increments (25 cents,) all the way up to two hours. It only debits money in 20 minute blocks. So, you can't, for example, put in one hour and ten minutes. For that you'd have to use those dimes and nickels at the bottom of your purse.

One person recently asked if the card is smart enough to know when the meters stop collecting money for the day. Sadly, no. You could use your ParkSmart card all night and the meters would happily collect all of your money despite the fact that they "shut off" at 6:00 pm.

I also encountered one electronics incident when using the card. I put two hours of time in the meter, which is equivalent to $1.50. Just after I stepped away from the meter I heard that ticking noise that it makes when you are adding time to it. Only this time it was subtracting money and moments later it was back at 00:00. Darn! That can even happen when you put quarters in the meter so I do not blame the debit card. I moved to another meter, but now I am careful to make sure the money actually stays on the meter! Electronics are a blessing and a curse at the same time.

Overall I'd recommend the card if you park in Brookline or Coolidge Corner a lot. It's just so much easier than rooting around for quarters. As I mentioned, we sell them and you can always add value or check your balance here, too. And say you remember that you need to send a birthday card to Aunt Gertie but forgot your wallet - you can use your Brookline Card just like cash money!

For even more information go to the Brookline Card website. Good luck out there!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Lots of Ones

Yesterday, for instance, was 1/1/11. At 11 a.m. and 11 p.m., it was 11:11 on 1/1/11. If you like this sort of order, you'll enjoy 1/11/11 very much. And such observations are about all I'm good for at this time. Hopefully, renewed energy and brain power will return to me soon. Booksmith had one helluva holiday season. I do not believe I've ever worked as hard or as long in 30 years here. Our crew was simply, divinely amazing - full of dedication, humor and tenacity. It REALLY felt like we had something(s) for EVERYONE. And, bless our customers, they turned out in droves. They, too, acted with grace and appreciation for our beloved enterprise here.

I would love to post something as wonderful as Kate's blog of yesterday or Paul's of Friday. Maybe next week. Meanwhile, be sure to read both of theirs. You'll get a feel for this place and its people.

Happy New Year!