Monday, March 31, 2014

I Swear This Author Knows Me

Three new books I'm excited we have in the kids section!

1.Spirit Animals 3: Blood Ties by Garth Nix and Sean Williams
I am eager to see what Nix and Williams do with what Stiefvater and Mull set up.

2. Who's in the Tree by Craig Shuttlewood
I was delighted by this rhyming, lift-the-flap picture book. I excitedly handed it off to my fellow kids booksellers. Shoshana even read it for Story time yesterday

3. Flight of Angels by Rebecca Guay and various
Okay, this one isn't strictly speaking a kids book. It could be older YA with someone like Holly Black submitting a story. The point is that it's beautiful and we have it.

I, like a lot of people, love quotes. I love when one gets stuck in your head or when you can think of a perfect one for something that happens, or as a snarky response to someone. There's a sort of kinship in finding a quote that means something to you, like you and the author understand each other.

One of my favorite quotes is actually about this feeling. It's from Alan Bennett's play The History Boys: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."

It's was an immediate favorite as soon as I heard it (admittedly, having seen the movie before reading the play) because that's so exactly true. I've read so many things and had these moments of just thinking "Yes! That! Exactly that!" Sometimes they're just moments, rare little lights in a character in that doesn't ordinarily remind you of yourself but sometimes it's a whole narrator who just has a really strong streak of you in them.

And that got me thinking about some of my favorite narrators. Characters who I saw so much of myself in. I was in middle school when Quizilla was big (I'm dating myself, I think). Quizilla was (is?) this website that let you make quizzes, a lot like the ones that Buzzfeed has out now. My favorites were always the "Which character from [insert book title here] are you?" It made me think a lot about why I liked the characters I liked and how similar or different I was to my favorites and even my least favorites.

Unsurprisingly, some of my favorites are ones that remind me of myself. That make me feel like I'm not the only one who thinks or feels a certain way about something. I thought that I would tell you about a couple that stuck with me.

1. Mara Dyer from The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
This is probably an interesting choice since she spends quite a bit of time being unsure what is real and what's not but she has a really similar thought process to me (should I be admitting that?). I would be reading and would react to something a character said the same way she would. She's cynical, snarky, and unapologetic about it and I always appreciate a character who makes no excuses about who they are.

2. Cullen Witter from Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
I never stop talking about this book (and likely never will). I've had more than one person read it and tell me that Cullen reminded them of me. Cullen has a defensive sort of sarcasm that he uses often when he's not sure what's going on. His first reaction to things is always to try and be clever and more often then not he speaks without thinking. And his family is a large part of who he is.

3. Amelia Hayes from Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo
This is such an unflinching look at the awkwardness of 15 year old girls and their crushes. I, as stoic as I try to be now, was one of those girls. I had an immediate kinship with Amelia, wanting to be older and seen more mature by her family. I flinched and had to pause to take a breath when awkward things happened (having the benefit of years to know that it wouldn't end like she hoped).

4. Puck Connolly from The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
She's fierce and strong and willing to do anything to she needs to to protect her family. Her voice is dry and clever. Puck is headstrong and often just says what she means and does what she thinks is best, regardless of what others think. She has such a unique perspective on the races, going into them as an underdog and playing by her own rules.

5. Tris Prior from Divergent by Veronica Roth
Tris' conflict within herself sets us up for discovering her world. It was easy to be in her head because she struggles with ideas that are so similar to what everyone struggles with. And she gets emotional but not overly so very often. It was awesome to have found a YA narrator who looked at things so logically and in a way that made sense to me. I felt I would have done much the same thing in her place multiple times throughout the series.

Honorable Mention (because she's not technically narrator but you're in her head enough):
Keladry of Mindelan from The Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce
I wanted to much to be just like Kel when I was young (I still do). I was a really emotional little kid and my sisters took full advantage of that (as siblings are wont to do). As I got older I learned to mask that a little and Kel was great at that. I found her right when I embraced myself for who I was and stopped letting what everyone else thought bother me. And she's the perfect embodiment of that. She's clever enough to be witty and to know when to keep her mouth shut but she is who she is. Always.

The thing about all of these characters is that I felt like they saw the world the same way that I do, or relate to people the same. It's easy, I think, to fall in love with a character. To love their adventurous nature and their language but it's different to see yourself in one so strongly to just have what they do make sense. To feel like you're part of their story because you would have made the same decision. It's like getting a glimpse of what you're own life would be like in that world.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fragmentary Novels

You'll see these two books side by side on the Staff Recommends case next to the register. Submergence shelved in by my muted praise, Dept. of Speculation behind Jamie's more effusive recommendation. 

In this week's New Yorker James Wood reviews the Dept. of Speculation. This is a challenging book to review - even Wood admits that the Dept. of Speculation is "wonderfully hard to encapsulate, because it faces in many directions at the same time and glitters with different emotional colors." Jamie's recommendation does manage to encapsulate the effect of the novel - she, like I, re-read Dept. of Speculation multiple times and told everyone we could that we loved it, even if we couldn't adequately describe the novel.

But when thinking about Dept. of Speculation and Submergence side by side, I realized that part of why I loved them so much is for their form. Wood describes the form of Dept. of Speculation as "very short, double-spaced paragraph dispatches, as if we were rifling through the pages of [the narrator's] private diary." Over the past few months, and maybe, always, I've connected most with books that have a more fragmentary style.  The fragmentary style is like a diary and through it an intimacy is created with the reader; those double-spaces, between each fragment, beg to be scribbled in. The fragmentary novel is not going to give you characters that are so fleshed out that they walk off the page. There are many novels that will give you that - Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, to name two - and they are wonderful for it. But what the fragmentary novel does is invite you to take ownership of the story. The tangents wander off, the way our mind does, straying from what is in front but always connected. As a written form, these tangents stretch the novel beyond the confines of the world of the characters and invite you, as the reader, inside.

Wood mentions other books that follow a similar form: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, Speedboat by Renata Adler, Lydia Davis’ short stories. I’d add Submergence to that list. The story revolves around two characters, Danny, an oceanographer, and James, a British spy. They are their professions, and they meet while they are each on separate vacations. It is in this limbo that they meet and fall quickly in love, only to part and never see each other again. The novel has no chapters, but a single page will have two or three fragments, weaving in mythology, science, and philosophy along with their story. I've been revisiting the passages I've marked, the scribbles I've made, and I still find that Submergence moves me in a way no other novel has in a long time.  

As I return to my own novel after a long break from it, I realize that the fragmentary style is one that seems most true to me. I write in fragments, knowing that eventually I'll have to stitch the various pieces together. So it's exciting to see the fragmentary novel gaining some popularity. Or maybe, as the popularity of Speedboat (published in the 70s) and Wittgenstein's Mistress (published in the 80s) suggest, this type of novel has always existed and I've only just discovered it. I do know that when I jump back into my novel after a long time away, it is a little bit like falling in love - I am giddy, preoccupied, and everything I encounter is an echo or an affirmation of what I'm working on. And that's the beauty of these two books: they are unforgettable for their lean prose and for their spaces, the spaces where you can find yourself.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


I was walking in to our back rooms the other day with a piece of seaweed in my hand and one in my mouth when I passed Paul, who was holding a muffin in his hand, which was lovingly made by our store manager Dana. We looked at each other and started laughing. I should thank Dana for this, the fact that she has brought together a horde of snack-obsessed booksellers that are comfortable laughing at themselves.

A French woman came in to ask if we had any books about food trucks, and although we didn't have food truck specific books on hand I recommended L.A. Son by Roy Choi. Mei from the food truck Mei Mei Street Kitchen was browsing the Cooking section at the time and struck up a conversation with the woman. It turns out that the woman's son ran an Asian food truck in the south of France, and later that day she and her daughter-in-law went to visit Mei Mei Kitchen over in Audubon Circle. A chance meeting became a full-blown friendship.

A customer e-mailed us to ask if we could take a picture outside of the store to wish her boyfriend a happy birthday. Brookline Booksmith helped solidify their relationship--they bonded over their mutual love of our store, which continues even though they've moved from the area.

A few months ago, sidewalk renovations were being done right outside of the bookstore. I remember looking at the sidewalk, the concrete peeled away to reveal layers of brick underneath, remnants of Coolidge Corner's past. This space has gone from Paperback Booksmith to Brookline Booksmith within the past half-century, but before that this space used to be a grocery store and before that? I'll have to ask Marshall.

We're so aware that this is a place where people find each other, building friendships and relationships that continue long after you've set foot in this bookstore. The bookstore is the backdrop for several unfolding dramas, customers and employees alike. I could tell you so many little stories about this place, and you could do the same for me, vignettes coming together to make this bookstore all of ours.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Signs that spring has come to the kids' section

There is no snow on the floor. (There is occasional frozen yogurt on the table.)

We have books like this,

and this.

There are new releases in bloom.

Loyal young fans flock to the store, asking if the books they've been waiting for are out yet.

Sorry, Selection fans - The One isn't out yet, though we're happy to reserve it for you. When it shows up on May 6, we promise to rush it to the shelves.

We booksellers are bursting to recommend the ones we've read in advance.

You'll know it's April 8 when Amy and I start racing to handsell you John Corey Whaley's latest.

Also! New Mo Willems! April 1! Not a joke! I repeat, this is not a joke!

It's spring, you guys. It's almost reading-outside weather. Come. Get books.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Loss Drives People and Makes For Excellent Books

Three exciting books!
1.Some Bugs by Angela DiTerlizzi and Brendan Wenzel
A few of us giggled over this book then we decided who in the store was which bug. I'm the distressed looking bumblebee.

2.Going Places by Peter and Paul Reynolds
I have a major Peter Reynolds weakness. He just makes me so happy.

3. Promise of Shadows by Justina Ireland
A girl is a harpy. How cool is that?

Every once in a while, for any number of reasons, I end up reading a book or two out of my usual comfort zone. My comfort zone/preference is the YA dystopian/urban fantasy/fantasy sort of area. I don't read too much realistic fiction, though I certainly have a couple of favorites in there too.

When I do step out of my usual preference I'm always surprised. Sometimes it's by how much I love a book I hadn't expected to. Sometimes it's the way an issue or topic will be handled. Sometimes it's how much a realistic fiction book will remind me of a less realistic book.

I recently read a pretty eclectic assortment of YA and I was amazed by how connected I found the books that are, on the surface, so different.

My crazy reading binge consisted of:
Mistwood and Death Sworn by Leah Cypess
Scarlet and Lady Thief by A.C. Gaughen
Send Me a Sign and Bright Before Sunrise by Tiffany Schmidt
Archived, Unbound, and The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab
Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens

As I was reading the last book in this group I was sort of struck by just how much all of these very different books focus on the main character coping with a loss.

Loss isn't an uncommon theme in literature, not by any means, but all of these books deal with it so heavily and in such different ways that I was reminded of one of the many reasons that I adore literature. That as different as it all is, it's all about being human.

The losses in these books are people, innocence, magic, home, health, identity, memory. If there is something to lose it's lost and it's handled brilliantly in all of them.

In Mistwood, Isabel wakes up with no memory of who she is and what she's done. All she knows is that she's not human and that she has a mission to protect the prince. She spends so much of the book trying to figure how who she is and how that coincides with the legend of what she is. When everyone tells you that you are one thing how can you make yourself into something else?

In Death Sworn, Ileni once the most powerful sorcerer, has lost her magic. As a consequence she is sent to the training ground of assassins to find out just how and why their previous teachers were killed. Ileni loses who she always thought she was, and the thing that always made her what she was. And through the book we see her adapt to the change in her world in a way that surprises even her.

Losing your identity is such a big theme in YA and it's amazing to see how it's handled in a magical setting and how Cypess entwines the familiar trope into stories that are unfamiliar.

Scarlet and Lady Thief are the first two books in a Robin Hood retelling. Through her life, Scarlet loses her family, her identity, her innocence, her home. She hides who she is and uses what's happened to her as a way to help people who need it. Gaughen puts this girl through so much and never once does Scarlet's character fade beneath her decisions. She loses faith in the world but never in her own power to act and help herself.

Gaughen's Scarlet is a brilliant example of what can happen when you lose everything you thought mattered and how becoming something else can be the best thing for you. The extremity of her loss and her trauma don't lessen the impact that they have on the reader and Gaughen shows that there really is no 'right' way to cope.

Mia from Send Me a Sign finds out she has cancer and at her mother's insistence that she keep it a secret she distances herself from everyone in her life. A lie like that can only work for so long and everything comes crashing down.

In Bright Before Sunrise, Brighton is still dealing with the loss of her father, years after it's happened. Her family fell apart and she's the one who is attempting to hold everything together. The book is split point of view and the other character, Jonah, deals with his father's abandonment and the forced move to a new town. He's lost his old status, his home, his father. He deals with it by secluding himself.

Send Me a Sign a perfect example of how one loss so often leads directly to another and how impossible it can feel to rely on anyone when you feel like you're losing everything. While Mia's loss stems from her cancer the way she reacts can easily be connected to other loss and the need to pretend like everything is okay. Bright Before Sunrise shows how often feeling in control is the only way to feel like everything is okay, even if it's not. Both are excellent examples of how other people are often the only thing that will get you through.

Victoria Schwab's Archived and Unbound follow Mackenzie, a girl who hunts down the wakened memories of the dead. When Archived starts Mackenzie has just lost her little brother. Additionally the book flashes back to her relationship with her grandfather, the man who passed on this task of hunting before dying himself. She hasn't recovered from either loss and what she does keeps them both so firmly in her mind. In Unbound she is dealing with the loss of faith in who she serves and in her own abilities.

Near Witch reads much like a folktale. Lexi's family is still reeling from the loss of her father, the one who understood her interest in tracking and hunting. When a stranger comes to her village and children start to disappear she gets tangled in an old legend that's not what she thought. Lexi's loss of innocence is a little more subtle in this one. She loses faith in her village and that naïve belief that elders look for justice.

Schwab's books explore what it means to lose family and how that loss often makes you more determined. Both Mackenzie and Lexi fight harder in the memory of their loss. They continue with a stubbornness and a need to prove themselves as capable and in control of what happens to them.

The last book in my binge was Faking Normal, the story of Alexi recovering from an assault. She turns into herself before finding the comfort of another person she sees as damaged. Alexi loses her innocence with the attack and her herself. She no longer sees herself as the same person and at the same time loses the ability to confide in people. She isolates herself.

Faking Normal looks at how easy it is to turn on and blame ourselves when we try to cope with loss. And how much easier it is to face loss when we have someone to turn to. That's how people cope by relating to each other.

It's easy to lose sight of the importance of the losses when reading a less realistic book. There is so much else to catch your attention. But in all of these books it's the loss that keeps the story and the characters moving. It's the driving force in all of the plots, as different as they are.

I think they're all worth a read and I think they're especially interesting when read together.

There's something else all of these awesome books have in common, all of the authors will be here next Monday March 24th, at seven!

Guys, I'm so excited. I'm going to panic. You should come! Not to see me panic, but to see these awesome authors.

Monday. 24. 7 PM.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Love, Love, Love.

I am possibly the loudest person who works at Brookline Booksmith. I talk incessantly about things I like, and if there is a book or author I'm obsessed with, you will know. I regularly attempt to give up coffee to try to curb my enthusiasm but I keep going back because I love talking with our local baristas.

Yes, this is a pitchfork. The construction is questionable,
so please do not spear villagers or rampaging monsters with it.
Last night we held an event for Jeremy P. Bushnell's crazy new book, The Weirdness. Booksellers loved it, so upon arrival he was presented with a pitchfork. Rather than run screaming from the bookstore, Jeremy was delighted that his inaugural event came with a lovingly-crafted present. Katie even used the pitchfork in her introduction to emphasize how The Weirdness "skewers the lit machine." The audience was appreciative, and I hid in the back so that I would be less likely to fist pump Katie (for such a great intro!) and Jeremy (who actually used the pitchfork!) during the event.

While my crafting skills don't come out for every author event, I try to make sure we have events that we can all be excited about--whether it be a fledgling author, a poet we've admired for ages, or someone whose work has struck us. The more times the word 'love' is invoked, the better.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"So my friend/sister/coworker/neighbor/cousin is having a baby..."

One of the most common recommendation requests we get in the kids' section is for new baby gifts (and glad we are that new readers keep arriving in the world). It's also one of the easiest questions we get, because there are so many right answers.

Want to give the baby something to use right away? You basically can't go wrong in the board book section; anything there can be held on a lap and hold up against the baby's little hands, which will get curious and destructive as the months pass. For newborns, I often recommend Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, a sweet, lilting text that you can't help but read soothingly.

In general, very short, simple texts with eye-catching pictures work well:

Bonus: If the words are simple enough, older siblings may be able to read the book aloud.

The House in the Night is also a great bedtime book. (Tip: Yes, every child should own Goodnight Moon, but at least one other friend or relative will realize that.)

Don't feel you have to limit yourself to board books, though. You're not just welcoming a new baby; you're welcoming a new child, and if there's a book for older kids that holds fond memories for you, it'll be that much more meaningful.  (Tip: If you're the only Bostonian friend or relative, it may be up to you to get Make Way for Ducklings into the child's hands.)

Imagine the parent saying in a few years, "Uncle So-and-So gave you this when you were born, and I think you're ready for it now."

Really, the possibilities are endless.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Common Bookseller Thoughts


Three kids books I'm excited we got in:
1. Timmy Failure: Now Look What You've Done by Stephan Pastis
I love Timmy Failure. It never fails to make me laugh and these books have some of my favorite opening paragraphs of all time.

2. Faking Normal by Courtney Stevens
I've heard such wonderful things in the lead up to this book's release. I'm thrilled it's finally here for me to read. I can't wait to have her here on the 24th.

3. Coyote Run by Gaetan Doremus
After his delightful Bear Despire I was excited to see a new picture book by Doremus. Off beat and a little bit weird this one has enemies throwing down their weapons to sit around the fire. Later they are saved by swarms of ladybugs.

Shoshana and I switched weeks so you get me two weeks in a row. To avoid overpowering anyone with my rambles I'm doing something a little different.

I'm sure you've seen one of our booksellers standing in the middle of the store with a really confused look on their face. Or maybe not confused maybe just thoughtful or distracted. Perhaps you have spent hours wondering 'What could they possibly be thinking about?'

If you don't tell anyone (except for the whole of the internet) I'll give you some insight into the bookseller brain. I've compiled a handy list of common bookseller thoughts.

Are we looking at a shelf with a furrowed brow? We might be thinking one of the following:

- 'G'...'G'... I know the alphabet I swear.'
- 'Do I have another copy of that?'
- 'I need more authors to have last names beginning with 'F.'
- 'Am I missing a display copy?'
- *groan* 'Did we just sell the last copy?'
- 'I still need to buy that book.'

Do we look somewhat confused and distracted? Perhaps we're pondering one of these:

- 'Do I have time to get coffee?'
- 'Where did I put my coffee?'
- 'Wait...did I have a stack of books in my hand?'
- 'I was just...'
- 'What was that page? Was that my name?'

Are we a little bit frantic? It might be one of these:

- 'What was that sound?'
- 'I definitely think that was my name!'
- 'Oh no, I'm supposed to be on register!'
- 'Phone's ringing! Phone's ringing!'

That isn't to say that I can speak for everyone. We're different people we have different concerns. So, maybe this should be 'Common Amy Bookselling Thoughts.' Regardless, insight is always a good thing.