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Reading Russians Who Are Writing Now

Vladimir Makanin will be there. Natalia Solzhenitsyn will be there. In fact, more than 50 Russian writers, publishers, librarians, journalists and historians are gathering in New York City during BookExpo America, where Russia is the guest of honor and focus of BEAʼs Global Market Forum.

As part of the Read Russia initiative, they will participate in an array of events at Javits Center and elsewhere in the city. According to organizers, Read Russia "will highlight the best of current Russian literature and nonfiction works as well as launch an Institute of Translation and a new 100-volume Russian Library of classics in English. Presentations will focus on fiction, politics and culture with events featuring readings, workshops and film screenings." Check out the schedule here.

On BEA's blog, the Bean, show director Steve Rosato called this "the most ambitious GMF program ever produced at BEA. I am very excited about the content that will be presented but also grateful too for such wonderful partners who had a grand vision that they are executing at such a high level."

At the Javits Center, there will be a 4,000-square-foot display and performance space, hosting presentations for industry professionals on topics including the Russian book market, Russian literature in translation and new works. Other events will take place in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, including an exhibition of art from Russian children's books (1881 to 1939) in Tribeca and Read Russia Roof, a series of late-night parties, music and performances at the Dream Hotel. Complimentary copies of Read Russia!: An Anthology of New Voices will be available at BEA and at Read Russia literary showcase venues.

I'm looking forward to attending some of these events and taking advantage of this unique opportunity to learn. What do I know about the contemporary Russian book world? So little that it's embarrassing.

I know Makanin's novellas Escape Hatch and The Long Road Ahead continue to haunt me more than a decade after I first read them. I know this passage from the latter story is as perfect an evocation of hope melded with hopelessness as I've encountered anywhere:

The following night, after he'd kindled his fire and made sure it would burn steadily for a while, he set out in the direction of the other fires.... wouldn't it be easier for them to build one colossal fire all together?... No, it seemed that it wouldn't. They convinced him. The very scattering of the fires could prompt the helicopter pilot to change his course a little and take an interest in what fires were burning at night and why. Whereas one fire is just a fire. Someone who had wandered off in the steppe might just be warming himself. No, everyone should build and light his own fire and keep it going and keep hoping.

I know, as I've written before in essays here and elsewhere, that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's work has been part of my reading life for nearly half a century and seeing his widow present the Solzhenitsyn Archive is going to be a compelling experience.

Most of all, I know that there is much, much more to learn... and to read.

In an excerpt from the documentary short The Russians Are Writing! In Search of the (New) Great Russian Novel--which will be screened during BEA week--Olga Slavnikova (2017) observed: "Russia wants to be heard. Russia spends a fortune on the TV channel 'Russia Today,' but ignores a huge market of readers in the West. Literature is the one thing Russia has."

Zakhar Prilepin (Sin) noted that "Russians respond to life exactly as English, Americans, Germans do. Families fall apart. Territories are lost. War. Terrorism. Any pain. Any tragedy.... That's the stuff of literature."

"Russian literature will make a comeback as soon as Russian writers start writing not about uniquely Russian problems but universal human ones," said Mikhail Shishkin (Venus Hair). "That's what I want to write about--human existence."

As a reader, what do I want from Read Russia? The answer is deceptively simple: to discover the works of Slavnikova, Prilepin, Shishkin and others; to perhaps meet Makanin, an author capable of imagining all the contradictions and complexities inherent in characters who must believe, against all evidence, that "everyone should build and light his own fire and keep it going and keep hoping."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1747.


Sometimes the Books We Must Read Find Us

How do we find the books we must read if we don't even know they exist? Consider the play Boom by Jean Tay or classic Singaporean novels The Immolation by Goh Poh Seng and Glass Cathedral by Andrew Koh. These are all extraordinary reads that found me this spring because I happened to write a column about Booksactually, an indie bookseller in Singapore.

Shortly thereafter, Felicia Low, rights and marketing manager for Epigram Books, contacted me. "Like Books Actually, we are a local entity, often struggling against the grain to get literary titles published when so many out there are waiting for the next big celebrity biography," she wrote.

Epigram publishes fiction, plays, poetry and children's books (including Adeline Foo's popular Diary of Amos Lee series), and, its website notes, "as we are a Singapore publishing house, we also reflect our nation's mad obsession with food by publishing both recipe and food guides." This year Epigram also started the Wee Editions imprint to support Singapore designers, photographers and artists through a series of compact coffee table books.

Felicia and I exchanged a few e-mails. Some books eventually arrived at my office. I started reading them. That's how this ceremony begins, and now yet another vista in our larger-than-we-imagine-it-is book world has opened before me.

I liked the books I read so much that my curiosity was sparked regarding their source. Who better to ask than Edmund Wee, CEO and publisher of Epigram Books?

"Like most countries, the big book publishers in Singapore publish textbooks, educational and academic books," he observed. "Literary titles form only a small percentage of their total output. It is the independent publishers who take on the literary slack. The demand for novels and short stories is admittedly weak because of their less-than-sparkling quality. But it has to start somewhere. (In fact, in the late '60s and early '70s, there was the stirring of a literary movement. But in the rush for nation building, it was sidetracked and never really recovered.) Epigram Books believes it can be put back on track and needs to."

In addition to Singapore, Epigram sells books in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Dubai in their original editions. Wee said that Hachette India "bought the country rights for the Indian sub-continent for our Diary of Amos Lee titles. The translation rights for the Amos Lee series have also been sold to Indonesia and Mainland China. Before the sale to China (for 10,000 copies each for the first three Amos Lee titles), the best market outside Singapore was India. After our recent trip to Bologna, we have had interest from publishers in France, Canada, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Japan for our Amos Lee and Archibald titles."

Epigram's new Singapore distributor will take orders from bookshops in Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam. "We are in the process of finding distributors for other countries," Wee noted. "Meanwhile, we have outsourced our sales of foreign rights to a newly established literary agency based in France called Hen&ink."
Distribution is just one of the innumerable challenges indie publishers face all over the world. According to Wee, "Many of the independent publishers I have met from countries in Africa, the Middle East, South and Central America, eastern Europe and Asia face the same problem of having limited financing, reluctant external distributors and non-existent marketing budgets."

Other obstacles include "practically everything imaginable from start to end. It's difficult persuading established writers (including their out-of-print titles) to switch; it's hard finding experienced editors; it's costly (per unit) printing such small volumes; and it's tiresome having to keep accounts. But we know these challenges are only temporary. In a few years, we are confident of establishing ourselves and look to publishing the Great Singapore Novels."

Why does he do it? What's the reward? "When we uncover a gem of a novel and when we see our books become bestsellers. Ultimately, it is to develop a rich literary culture," Wee observed. "You will never truly know a country through its news reports but through its novels. Apart from the occasional in-depth feature, nearly all news coverage is superficial.

"For example, I would never have known about the link between the CIA and ISI if not for David Ignatius's Bloodmoney or of the straight-edge underground music scene in New York if not for Eleanor Henderson's Ten Thousand Saints or the social and ethnic conflicts in contemporary Los Angeles if not for Hector Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries.

"Outside of the U.S., two recent novels by Pakistani and Ethiopian writers have given me an insight into the countries they wrote about. Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders gave a penetrating account of life among the servants and children of a landlord in Pakistan. Similarly, Sulaiman Addonia's The Consequences of Love opened my eyes to understanding how Saudi Arabia works."

Sometimes the books we must read find us, if we're paying attention.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1742.

                                                                                                                                                                            photo: Nicholas Leong


Good Mothers Make Great Characters, Too

All fiction readers can easily--perhaps too easily--come up with a list of their favorite bad mother characters. There are hundreds of them on our bookshelves, dating back to ancient Greece.

Strangely enough, I can't ever recall a customer approaching me when I was a frontline bookseller and asking: "Can you recommend some great reads about really bad mothers?"

My all-time favorite bad fictional mom is tabloid journalist Hilary Winshaw in Jonathan Coe's malicious and delightful What a Carve Up! (released in the U.S. as The Winshaw Legacy). She's just one of the rotten limbs on a distinctly unscrupulous, Thatcher-era upper-class family tree.

In a great scene, Hilary is interviewed by a magazine about how she handles being a career woman and a new mother. She exults in public exclamations of maternal bliss ("But one glimpse of Josephine and it all seemed worthwhile. It was an amazing feeling.") for the reporter, but also has this brief exchange with her child's nanny:

Hilary stared malevolently at her daughter, watching her face crumple as she gathered breath for another scream.
"Now what's the matter with it?" she said.
"Just wind, I think," said the nanny.
Hilary fanned herself with the menu. "Well can't you take it outside for a while? It's showing us up in front of everybody."

As a maternal antidote to recollections of that scene, I've been monitoring my e-mail inbox for bookseller e-newsletters extolling the nicer side of motherhood, as well as a few intriguing gift options.

Green Apple Books, San Francisco, Calif., suggested buying a gift card for mom "and send her in to Green Apple this Sunday. Order online and we'll have the gift card waiting here. Further, we'll pour her a mimosa (on the house, of course), and help her pick out something good to read."

The Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, Mass., recommended giving "her something more interesting than your tweet updates to read."

Books & Company, Oconomowoc, Wis., noted that it had "received our first order of chocolate bars from Waukesha's own Indulgence Chocolatiers. Yummy! Just in time for Mother's Day. A few books and a bar of chocolate would make the perfect gift (moms, I think it is okay to forward this e-mail to those responsible for the gift giving in your life)."

What would your mother really like for her special day? Forbes reported that "what dads and kids think moms want for Mother's Day doesn't actually match up." A Harris Interactive survey in April found that 48% of women want a spa day, while 72% of men thought their moms wanted flowers.

My own choice was easier this year. Since my mother is allergic to flowers and chocolate, I opted for an e-reader (don't tell her!) because of the adjustable type sizes. My choice is apparently on the crest of a new, post-Hallmark mom tech-wave. The Harris survey discovered that technology is gaining serious ground on flora in the Mother's Day gift race, with 30% of women saying they'd prefer a smartphone or tablet.

The e-newsletter monitoring strategy worked, by the way. I was able to shed my fictional bad mother obsession, especially after reading this nice story from McLean & Eakin Bookstore, Petoskey Mich.:

Last week, there was a darling little boy in the store with his mother.  If he couldn't see her, he would say, "Mom?... Mom?... Mom?" until he could see her again. It was darling for about 5 minutes and darling ended when the volume of the question rose over a certain number of decibels... and until he had to show her every. single. thing. he. saw. regardless of the conversation she was having with a friend. After that, I started thinking, "How long is this kid going to depend on his mother? Seriously, he's like 5 already. Can't he grow up?" I really wanted to share the story with my mom and have a good laugh over it. She's the only one who really gets my humor about these situations... wait... How long am I going to depend on my mother? Seriously, I'm like 35 already. Can't I grow up? No, probably not. I am constantly trying to show my mother books too. She and the mother in our store had something in common: patience. I can't even count the number of times I've told my mother about a book I'm reading, and I'm sure she was bored stiff, but she has always acted interested. Just like dance recitals, cheerleading camp, band, and choir. My god. The choir recitals must have been the worst. In honor of my mom, I will list some of the books SHE'S loved lately.

Good mothers make great characters, too. Happy Mother's Day!--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1736.


Free Comic Book Day Is Much More than Bam! Pow!

Free Comic Book Day always makes me smile. I don't know why. Well, sure I do. Nostalgia plays a role, since I inherited my first stack of comics when I was about 11 from a kid who was a few years older. He was also smaller, despite the fact that his nickname was Moose.

Within a few years, I'd expanded that collection with issues featuring then-new superheroes like Spider-Man, Thor and Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos. Eventually, however, I passed all of them along to my younger brothers because that's just the way it worked then, a rite of passage I didn't question.

Every year since 2002, FCBD comes along again to remind me about all that. Why wouldn't I smile? But it's also serious business. I love to watch the momentum build as I read articles from local papers nationwide in which indie comic book retailers express their enthusiasm for a day during which they get to occupy center stage.

And it's certainly not a coincidence that the The Avengers opens today in multiplexes everywhere. Studios know a good thing when they see it, too, and a comics-themed movie released the day before FCBD is definitely well-timed.

Comics matter.

Forbes magazine noted that free comics are a revenue generator. "I'm told by a lot of retailers, and I'll bear that out in my own store, that Free Comic Book Day is one of the best days of the year in terms of business," said Joe Field, FCBD's founder and the owner of Flying Colors Comics, Concord, Calif. "We use Free Comic Book Day as a way to just get people ignited about comics... and to come back to the store week after week. It turns out, with the number of people who show up, it's no secret that it's become one of the best business days of the year."

The Gaithersburg Gazette observed that FCBD "may serve as an origin story for those who have not ventured far into the medium."

Chris Pobjecky, co-owner of Yancy Street Comics, Port Richey, Fla., confirmed this theory in the Suncoast News. He said his shop "has been growing as though it had been bombarded by gamma rays," expanding three times in 10 years. "I love the fact there's more people reading now, especially kids." He added that the myriad graphic options available have also played a role: "It isn't all just, 'Bam!' 'Pow!,' Spider-Man battling Dr. Octopus all the time."  

In the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Robert Lewis, owner of Wishing Well Comics, said, "Because it gets so much press, we get a lot of parents in who have never taken their kids to a comic shop before. Sometimes when they see that the books excite their kids and interest them in reading, they become regular customers and the kids become avid readers."

Terry Grant, owner of Third Coast Comics, Edgewater, Ill., told Gapers Block that FCBD "remains an event that is just awesome for families with small kids as well as long time fans, without being filled with speculators.... I think FCBD does a great job bringing new faces to shops and new readers to comics by virtue of the fact that I'm still having new people coming up to me from last year's FCBD and mentioning a book, artist, writer or publisher that I suggested for them."

Acme Comics has partnered with the Natural Science Center of Greensboro this year to offer a second location for handling the anticipated turnout of about 4,000 people, the News-Record reported. Recently the city council declared that on the first Saturday in May, Greensboro will be known as "Comic Books City, USA."

A couple of days ago, I saw Morgan Spurlock's documentary Comic-Con Part IV: A Fan's Hope. Then I watched it again because it also made me smile. I will never be part of this world, which is okay because I surrendered my comics cred long ago when I betrayed my collection of superheroes and sacrificed them to the most cruel and invincible of archvillains--younger brothers, armed to the teeth and dirty fingers with weapons like ice cream, cola and peanut butter.

FCBD is an annual reminder for the rest of us that maybe a little more Bam! Pow! in our lives wouldn’t be such a bad thing. In Spurlock's film, DC Comics writer Grant Morrison observed: "The superhero is a kind of last, small broken ideal of what we might all become one day if we'd just get it together and stop being assholes." And that's funny, too. So stop by an indie comic book retailer tomorrow. It's where all the best superheroes hang out.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1731.


The Rattiest Book

Although this headline may appear to be the title of a very bad children's book, it actually refers to something we all have lurking on our shelves: the tattered volume that looks as if it should have been tossed out years ago, but still remains nearby. You might even have a little shrine for it between bookends on your desk.

More often, however, your rattiest book is lost in the stacks. It probably has a distinctive, if not always pleasant, scent; a missing dust jacket; boards that are, at best, cracked if not altogether shredded; a threadbare spine; dogeared pages awash in marginalia and highlighted passages; and mysterious stains from decades of proximity to food and beverages.

To qualify as a genuine rattiest book, it must be one you purchased new, kept with you much of your life and would never part with voluntarily. From its shelf perch, your rattiest book has witnessed changing relationships, houses, jobs and friends, not to mention the ongoing arrivals and departures of other, much nicer looking books--cooler books, bestsellers, autographed books or first editions that have slipped through your hands like water while the rattiest book held on.

Let me introduce you to my rattiest book: Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau, a Modern Library edition I bought new one summer during my college years--probably in 1969 or 1970. At the time, Thoreau mattered more to me than almost anyone, living or dead. I made pilgrimages to Concord, visited Walden Pond and tried to ignore the beachgoers; left a pebble at his grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I carried Walden in my Army surplus knapsack every day then, opened it constantly like a holy book, and over a relatively brief period of time beat it to within an inch of its biblio-life.

My rattiest book is still here to tell the tale.

Reading this week about ancient texts from the Vatican and Oxford libraries going online, as well as Larry McMurtry's upcoming "Last Booksale," I couldn't help thinking about "value" because my rattiest book is the most valuable volume in my collection. Although I hadn’t opened it for a long time, yesterday I knew exactly where to find it.

Three years ago, I wrote in a column: "Hidden in an old, broken down Modern Library edition of Henry David Thoreau's Walden was a bookmark from the Hartford Bookshop, Rutland, Vt. Although the bookmark reassured me that the shop was 'est. 1835,' the sad truth is that the Hartford did not make it beyond the 1970s."

Now I open my copy of Walden to the same bookmarked page and wonder when I first put that marker there and why. I read a few lines: "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." I liked to underline passages then. Here more of the page is highlighted than not. Guess I grew more selective over the years.

I flip pages back to the beginning. Scribbled on the flyleaf, half-title and title pages are what I can only call "poems in the manner of Thoreau," which I wrote in earnest then and scan now with no small measure of embarrassment. But that emotion isn't quite accurate. My rattiest book is a time machine. The poems are markers, too.

I think the patron saint of rattiest books must be the rodent protagonist of Sam Savage's brilliant novel Firmin (Coffee House Press), in which an intellectual rat with a literal as well as literary taste for good books lives in a bookshop where, at one point, he observes the proprietor examining recent purchases from an estate sale:

I hated most of all reading the inscriptions over his shoulder: "For my darling Peter on our fiftieth wedding anniversary" (in The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám).... Dozens of these in every carload. It was obscene. They should have buried the books with their owners, like the Egyptians, just so people couldn't paw over them afterward--give them something to read on the long ride through eternity.


The rat's suggestion makes sense, especially when I consider the chilling possibility of other people reading my at once awful and oddly precious Thoreauvian poetry. Leave it to my old buddy Firmin to come up with the perfect way to celebrate the true value of our rattiest books.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1726.