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Sunday
Feb262012

Linsanity, the Book Lindustry & Lindependents

"Storybook saga" is just one of many bookish references I've noticed that attempt to describe the meteoric rise of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin since February 4, when he quietly entered a National Basketball Association game against the Nets that few people outside (or even within) the New York metropolitan area cared about.

At that moment, he was just days away from possibly being released by the team, but Lin got his opportunity, was prepared to seize it and has since become arguably the most popular athlete in the world, with a mega-list of new fans that includes President Barack Obama and Taiwan's President Ma ying-jeou.

Perhaps this is just his 15 minutes, though even Andy Warhol might grant Lin an extension under the circumstances.

Many of you reading this are not basketball, or even sports, fans. Those who are already know the story. How could you miss it? So I will only mention that, in addition to his remarkable success on the court--which has revitalized a team that was going nowhere at light speed--Lin is the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA and the first Harvard grad since Ed Smith in 1954.

What does this have to do with books and reading? As I follow the Jeremy Lin phenomenon, I'm paying close attention to discussions in the media about racial identity and prejudice, as well as the role of religion in public life (Lin is a devout Christian). But I also enjoy the word play that has been sparked by his sudden rise to global prominence, along with his unanticipated impact upon the book world.

Let's start with the unique handshake Lin developed with his teammate Landry Fields. It is an elaborate mime: put on glasses, open book, flip through pages, close book, return glasses to pocket. Geeky jock chic.

Or consider "Linsanity," a new word that could be in the running for Webster's Word of the Year. Lin is attempting to trademark the term, and the "Lin-" prefix has gotten completely out of control, inspiring an endless stream of pun-based signs, headlines and even a Jeremy Lin word generator. The New Yorker noted that on the Chinese mainland, "Linsanity has been translated to linfengkuang."

Then there are the books. In May, Hachette will publish Jeremy Lin: The Reason for the Linsanity by Timothy Dalrymple.

Richard Abate, Lin's new literary agent, was initially looking to shop a memoir that might net a $500,000-plus advance, but this project has been put on hold so Lin can concentrate on his day--um, night--job. Knopf editor Jonathan Segal expressed a measure of skepticism in Forbes magazine: "Who knows what the world’s going to be like a year from now," he said. "If it were an instant book that would be published in a month, things might even change."

Funny he should say that. There are already at least seven e-books on the market, according to GalleyCat. Alan Goldsher, who wrote the 15,000-word manuscript for Linsanity: The Improbable Rise of Jeremy Lin in 72 hours, told Fast Company that "from conception to availability, we're talking just under a week."

Lin-themed articles have popped up in unexpected publications like Entrepreneur ("Finding the Jeremy Lin on Your Team"), Wired ("What Jeremy Lin Teaches Us About Talent") and Psychology Today ("LINsanity! Observations on the Worship of a New Sports Hero").

Earlier I asked what all this has to do with books and reading. A better question might be: What do we want from this young man? In Robert Harris's new novel The Fear Index, a character observes that "the rise in market volatility, in our opinion, is a function of digitalization, which is exaggerating human mood swings by the unprecedented dissemination of information via the Internet."

Lin was an economics major. He'd get that, and he may even survive it. I hope he does. I like what I've seen of his apparent humility, work ethic, focus and sense of teamwork. My college lacrosse coach was obsessed with the motto: "Success happens when preparation meets opportunity." It made us chuckle then, but I don't laugh so much at it anymore.

In fact, when I saw Ann Patchett going toe-to-toe with Stephen Colbert earlier this week, I recalled that old saying, and thought about all the great indie booksellers--new as well as old--for whom, at this moment, preparation and opportunity are beginning to show some tangible results. Perhaps we're on the cusp of a new age for Lindependent bookstores, too.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1673.

Friday
Feb172012

Launching a Bookish Presidents Day Campaign

It all began a few days ago when I saw photos of a 34-foot high tower of books about and by Abraham Lincoln. No, this wasn't some Borgesian vision. The three-story structure occupies the lobby of Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C.--which is set to open this weekend--and features approximately 6,800 books.

At first I just marveled at the tower, but quickly I realized there was something else embedded in my first impression of that monument to words and history and leadership. It was a realization that books are, and always have been, central to how we as Americans perceive George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, from the time we were little kids through our school years and well into adulthood. Perhaps the exchanging of books about Washington and Lincoln as gifts could be, and should be, how we celebrate Presidents Day.

Why, I wondered, do we not, as an industry, own this weekend? Let Hallmark and FTD have Valentine's Day, but the book trade has a logical claim, with clear historical precedent, on the third weekend in February. It's long past time, my friends, to launch a bookish Presidents Day campaign.

As children, we all read the story of little George chopping down a cherry tree and, despite his destiny as a politician, not being able to tell a lie. We also read about young Honest Abe reading by candlelight and splitting logs for a living with his axe. (Editor's note: Children may now be confused by that last item, if their primary image of our 16th president's axe-handling skills comes from the recent trailer for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).

Booksellers have long benefited from the popularity and handselling potential of the hundreds of books about these two legendary presidents, including perennial contemporary favorites like Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Lincoln by David Herbert Donald; Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow and His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis. I used to work with a great history/biography handseller who could turn almost any customer question (including "Where are your restrooms?") into an enthusiastic conversation, often culminating in the sale of, for example, David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing.

Can't we retrofit that profitable passion for great historical reads onto a holiday weekend that really needs a cultural facelift? Where are the promotions for curing winter cabin fever by reading Lincoln books? Last week my e-mail inbox was absolutely deluged with Valentine's Day advertisements and event notices from booksellers. This week is notable for its dignified, even presidential, silence. I did notice the Presidents Day e-book sale from Sourcebooks on the website for Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., and a 20% off sale at Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass. I'm sure there are others, and no doubt the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago will do well.

But the book trade could certainly elevate an otherwise dismal Presidents Day retail celebration, which is now primarily known for its endless stream of bad commercials for stuff like cars (foreign as well as domestic), mattresses and home spas. Two days ago, I drove past a George Washington impersonator hawking discounts for a strip mall furniture store. He appeared to be in a minor territorial dispute with a rotund, male Statue of Liberty recommending an income tax preparer.

We could do better.

In fact, we can do anything we choose because the rules are flexible by definition. Strict constructionists will note that Presidents Day is something of a fable to begin with, since it was cobbled together as one of several holidays changed by the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Bill "to create three-day weekends and increased sell-a-thon opportunities," as the Christian Science Monitor recently described the festivities, adding that Honest Abe's birthday was never part of the federal holiday and the "name of the celebration on the third Monday in February remains 'Washington's Birthday,' as is clearly stated on the cover of the legislation."

So why not start the campaign today? I'm almost serious. Imagine just three bookstores creating an impromptu Presidents Day book gifting promotion for customers on Facebook or Twitter this weekend. To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, they may think it's an organization. And can you imagine 50 bookstores doing so next year? Friends, they may think it's a movement... and that's just what it is.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1668.

Sunday
Feb122012

Whenever a Writer Friend Succeeds...

It isn't fair to begin a column about friendship and mutual support among writers with a mean-spirited, if mischievously delightful, line from Gore Vidal, but I do so only to establish counterpoint: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."

The view from my Facebook window tells me otherwise. Although the Internet can be a den of the über-snarky, it is also a haven where writers are building friendships (the real kind, not the FB kind) with their peers.

The recent publication of Jessica Keener's fine debut novel Night Swim prompted me to pay closer attention to the enthusiastic support she received online from authors whose work I admire, including Patry Francis (The Liar's Diary), Susan Henderson (Up from the Blue) and Leora Skolkin-Smith (Hystera), among many others.

I like this trend. It feels like evolution. It's so... anti-Vidal. I wondered what they thought. I asked.

"Over the past five or so years, with the surging growth of the Internet and bloggers, and the birth of an online private forum for writers called Backspace, I began to connect with writers in a much more supportive way than I had ever experienced before," said Keener. "The online medium fostered a wonderful world of pen palship. What writer doesn’t enjoy crafting a letter or passing a note?

"As I see it, the Internet nurtures reading and responding--a give and take in words. In the process, I discovered many writers I might never have met sitting in my office at home. I became a regular follower of Susan Henderson's Litpark, thrilling over the variety of writers and artists she hosted. I found writers whose work I respected and who sweated as I did over the language of heartache. E-mail exchanges between writers I'd never met became increasingly confessional and intimate and ultimately led to in-person meetings. When I finally met Susan and Patry Francis (in New York, at a Backspace Writers Conference) as well as M.J. Rose--whose blog about publishing and marketing I'd been reading for months--I began to see that I was surrounding myself with a supportive community of writers, peers willing to care for each other professionally and personally."

Francis noted that when she started submitting her work to agents, "I was suffering from an extreme case of writerly isolation. I viewed loneliness and fierce rivalry as occupational hazards." Gradually she discovered online alternatives, "and eventually the tangled, marvelous, distracting, infinitely fascinating world that is social media. There, counter to stereotype, I found an incredibly large-hearted and generous community. No one embodies that spirit more than Jessica Keener. Her willingness to give of herself, to offer encouragement, nurture, constructive criticism when requested, and enthusiastic support to others is truly unique."

Or perhaps not so unique anymore, if what I've seen online is any indication.

Henderson said she met Keener when they were both on a fiction panel with an editor "I’d been rejected by for years. And that’s kind of at the heart of writers' journeys, this marriage of success and failure, throughout our career. Here I am invited to sit beside an icon on this panel and yet I’m remembering those letters he wrote me. So that’s one of the immediate places we bonded, and that idea was at the core of why I created my blog LitPark, because it’s hard to be alone with all the rejection and self-doubt and still believe you’re on a path to publication. The self-doubt can eat you alive.

"When a writer lands a book deal, there's almost always a long story behind it--a story of multiple revisions, hair pulling, rejections, thoughts of quitting, and in the end, pure stamina, sometimes decades of stamina. Often when you read a little blurb about an author's debut novel, you know that debut is actually her third or fourth--the others just never saw the light of day. And I think it's knowing this that's behind the joy and celebration we feel when our friends finally achieve what had seemed impossible."

Although they had communicated online, Keener said she only recently met Skolkin-Smith, who observed that, as "the field of publishing becomes more narrow (in terms of only a few brand names getting print reviews and the rest of us authors dangling on a thin hope that we will be read at all), I honestly don't know what I would do as an author lost in the shadows without the support and recognition of people I've met in literary cyberspace. On blogs and social networking sites, it feels like a new cyber landscape is defined by a passion for literature, and in no small way the new connections made possible now have transformed both reader and writer. I am grateful, alerted to the miracle of words in a new light, a new way."

Keener summed up the view from my Facebook window nicely: "The writing business is nerve-wracking and for a long time it was incomprehensible to me. This has changed. As my peers and I exchange experiences, my sense of control and grasp of the business side of things has shifted significantly for the better. As for the writing itself--that struggle and challenge will remain personal and mysterious and unique, but the sting of isolation is gone. Even now as I write, new friendships that exhilarate and inspire are forming."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1663.

Sunday
Feb052012

When a Book & the World Intersect

Attila Ambrus was released Tuesday after 12 years in a Hungarian prison. He is now 44 years old. That may not seem like breaking news in the publishing industry, but it is to this former bookseller. Attila is more than just a character in a book I read seven years ago.

For the past week, I've been communicating with Julian Rubinstein, author of Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives and Broken Hearts (Little, Brown, 2005). He traveled to Hungary for the release of his friend and the subject of his book.

Yesterday, Rubinstein observed that Attila "has been part of my life for 13 years now, so this is all still sinking in for me, has been quite intense, still only two days since his release.... I met Attila in a private apartment of a friend last night. Only the few people closest to him were there. He hadn’t spoken to any media yet (though erroneous reports about him are all over the news.) There’s no easy way to describe what it’s like to be so close to someone who's a piece of living history and who's also so vulnerable. He was always an anachronism. He has the 'betyar' (bandit) honesty and a purity that was still there last night. Those of us who care about him are just hoping right now that he finds a way to make a life for himself."

There's the man, and then there is Rubinstein's book, which is how I met Attila. We all have that personal list of books we feel like we "discovered"; books we recommend to people who later come back and say, "I never would have found that anywhere else." Then it becomes their discovery.

When I was a bookseller, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber was one of those titles I could sell to almost anyone--men, women, readers, nonreaders, even people who claimed they didn't like nonfiction. Sometimes I found myself saying it "reads like a novel" (a meaningless, if effective, handselling point if ever there was one), though had this book been a novel, the author would probably have been advised to tone down its larger-than-life details.

A Transylvania-born Hungarian, Attila defected from Romania to Hungary in 1988. He struggled initially to find his way in Budapest, but evolved over time from a poverty-stricken refugee who owned only the clothes on his back to a janitor/Zamboni driver for a hockey team, a building superintendent, a pelt smuggler, a willing--if inept--professional goalie (he once gave up 88 goals in six games) and, ultimately, one of Budapest's most successful bank robbers and a modern-day legend.

Because of his penchant for drinking whiskey before making his "unorthodox requests for withdrawal," he was dubbed the Viszkis Rabló (Whiskey Robber) by the host of the TV show Kriminális, who also noted that Attila robbed institutions by "asking for the money--because that's how he does it: he asks."

Given the turbulent state of the country's political structure and economy at the time, Attila's reputation was burnished by generally good publicity. An editorial in the Hungarian daily Magyar Hírlap, for example, suggested Attila was attacking an unjust system: "He didn't rob a bank. He just performed a peculiar redistribution of the wealth, which differed from the elites only in its method."

In an e-mail last week, Rubinstein noted that "Attila's crime spree so obviously struck a chord with people disillusioned about the corruption in the political and banking system in nascent capitalist Hungary. Attila's robberies of state-owned banks as his choice target drove this point home."

You can learn more about Attila's backstory on Rubinstein's dedicated website, which includes a 2007 prison interview and an audio clip of Eric Bogosian and Gary Shteyngart performing a scene from the book.

But this is neither a book review nor a handselling seminar. This is simply a moment to consider the ripple effect a book can have on one reader; to reflect on the manner in which words and the world intersect; to realize that the fascinating and entertaining Attila Ambrus in Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is also an ex-convict facing the harsh realities of a country quite unlike the one he knew before he went to prison.

Although I only know Attila through Rubinstein's book, this week I do feel a small link to his world and it is more than a reader's connection. So tonight, for what it's worth, I'm raising a glass to toast the Whiskey Robber and his newfound, complicated freedom.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1658.

Sunday
Jan292012

Vonnegut vs. Exley in Literary Super Bowl XLVI

Last week, poet and City Lights bookstore co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti stood firmly, if fruitlessly, behind his San Francisco 49ers to win the NFC championship, telling the New York Times: "I think they’ll beat the Giants easily, no problem. Their players are smarter and faster. Their coach is smarter. Of course, what do I know? I’m no expert on football."

The Awl countered Ferlinghetti with some deft literary prognosticating of its own, correctly picking the Giants over the 49ers, as well as the New England Patriots over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship, while employing the poetic forms villanelle and sestina respectively to enhance the selections:

The wind at Candlestick will blow in from the shore
If the passing games are off that might be the reason.
But does Eli Manning have more miracles in store?


As it turned out, Eli did have more miracles, and just three days after the 103rd birthday of Baltimore's ill-favored favorite son Edgar Allan Poe, the Ravens--named for the ominous "ebony bird" in his classic poem--saw their season fall from the sky. Quoth the Patriots (I cannot resist this temptation), "Nevermore."  

Even the tabloids have been in a literary mood. Last Friday, the New York Daily News offered a pre-game book recommendation under the headline: "If the Giants beat the 49ers, what will you read to celebrate?"

As a football literary equivalent to baseball's The Natural by Bernard Malamud, the News suggested Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes, in which he wrote:

Why did football bring me so to life. I can't say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it; I chose to believe that it was not unlike the jobs which all men, in some sunnier past, had been called upon to do. It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity--perhaps it was no more than the force of a forgotten childhood. Whatever it was, I gave myself up to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.


Would Exley even recognize the game and business of professional football now? A Fan's Notes was published in 1968. The first Super Bowl, a relatively modest affair played in 1967, was the only one not to sell out, literally if not figuratively.

Since the Giants and Patriots are now headed to Indianapolis for Super Bowl Sunday on February 5, perhaps this year's literary gridiron spokesperson should be the late Kurt Vonnegut, an Indianapolis native. A Washington Post preview of the Super Bowl city highlighted its year-old, "small but fascinating for literary lovers," Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, and noted that a "giant mural of Vonnegut looms over the 300 block of Massachusetts Avenue."

My own intensive research leads me to believe he might back New England. In Slapstick, he wrote: "Mother and I surely did not oppose Eliza and her lawyer in any way, so she easily regained control of her wealth. And nearly the first thing she did was to buy half-interest in the New England Patriots professional football team."

And then there's evidence he rooted against the Giants some years ago. In Keeping Literary Company: Working With Writers Since the Sixties, Jerome Klinkowitz recalls visiting the author at his Manhattan apartment during a Giants-Minnesota Vikings playoff game: "And so my first hour with Kurt Vonnegut was spent in the shared presence of America's most popular culture of the moment, a highly touted football game on TV with the season's most expensive commercials washing over us every ten or twelve minutes."

Klinkowitz noted that as Vonnegut analyzed the game, CBS's camera angles and the timing of commercial breaks, it "was interesting to see Kurt both within his culture and rising above it to make structural comments on how it worked. Here was a writer of all those stories for Colliers' and the Post, plus we were seeing the graduate-trained anthropologist watching humankind at play and the scientist adept at chemistry, biology, and mechanical engineering, fascinated with the tinkering behind how things worked."
 
A Midwesterner at heart, Vonnegut was pleased to see the Vikings beat the Giants that day. So perhaps the literary lines can now be drawn for Super Bowl XLVI: Exley's Giants against Vonnegut's Patriots. Ladies and gentlemen, place your fictional bets.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1651.