Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ann Patchett: My Hero

I'm sure most of you are familiar with Ann Patchett the author. She has written several well-loved books, including Bel Canto, Taft, and her most recent, State of Wonder. But did you know that she is also Ann Patchett the independent bookseller and, sort of by accident, Ann Patchett the spokesperson for independent booksellers everywhere?

When the last general independent bookstore closed in Nashville, her hometown, Ms Patchett and her business partner (former Random House rep Karen Hayes) started their own: Parnassus Books. When an author of such high recognition opens a bookstore, it makes news, and Ms Patchett has been all over the media. If you haven't yet read the article she wrote for the December issue of The Atlantic, I encourage you to read it.

I love just about everything she wrote in her essay, but I was particularly moved by this passage: "Maybe we just got lucky. But this luck makes me believe that changing the course of the corporate world is possible. Amazon doesn't get to make all the decisions; the people can make them, by choosing how and where they spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: We grab hold of it. We change ourselves." Ooooh, it still gives me goosebumps - especially the part about Amazon not getting to make all the decisions.

Last year I had the pleasure of attending a conference at which Ms Patchett spoke. She was so moving and inspirational I thought, "I need to  open a bookstore right this minute," and then I remembered I already have one. I have never felt prouder than I did at that moment.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Day 24: A Look at Saudi Arabia

It's finally here: the last day in our 24 Days of Books. Day 24. Christmas Eve. We've talked about a lot of books this month -- a little bit of everything. I'm guessing you deduced that the blog posts were written by more than one person: Sally McPherson (the every-day blogger), Roberta Dyer, Kate Bennison, and Joanna Rose. (Either you figured it out or you thought they were being written by one twisted, multi-personality bookseller.)  I resolve to write more book posts in 2013 on a regular basis, rather than saving the bulk of them up for the time of year when we're all likely to be the busiest. But, what the heck; it adds a little extra juice to the month.

I had a hard time thinking about which book to tell you about today. I considered I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats, but those are selling like hotcakes without a mention here (the perfect stocking stuffer). I thought about writing about Lidia Yuknavitch's new novel Dora: A Headcase, but everyone seems to know about that already as well. (By the way, let me just say that I think a wrapped set of Dora with Lidia's award-winning memoir The Chronology of Water would make a incredibly thoughtful gift.)

I considered Standing at the Water's Edge: Bob Straub's Battle for the Soul of Oregon, a new biography that I will be taking on vacation with me next month on the personal recommendation of one of my biggest idols: former Oregon governor Barbara Roberts.

But instead I decided to go with another paired set of reading: two perspectives on Saudia Arabia and it's people, one nonfiction and one fiction.

On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - And Future, is written by Karen Ellott House, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has been visiting the kingdom for more than 30 years. Saudia Arabia is a country of great importance to the world, but one that most people know little about, one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. Or, as The New York Times described it in its review of House's book: "It’s not Mars, exactly, but for most Americans Saudi Arabia is probably more like another world than any other inhabited part of this one. It is about as distinct from the freewheeling United States as a country can be."

In her book, House examines Saudi Arabia not only through her interviews with most of the key members of the royal family, but, more importantly, through the lives of countless individuals -- men and women, in villages and in cities, conservative Muslims and modern reformers, young and old. This book is an authoritative, illuminating, riveting inside look at a country that could well be on the brink, and what that portends for Saudi Arabia's future -- and for our own. Here are some comments from reviews of House's book:

Zbigniew Brzezinski: "It exposes incisively and dispassionately the social contradictions and the potential political vulnerabilities of contemporary Saudi Arabia. A timely and truly important book."

Henry Kissinger: "An engaging and lucid exploration of Saudi politics and culture . . . recommended reading for all those seeking a new perspective on one of the world's most consequential societies."

Tina Brown: "One of the most revealing and impressively reported books I read this year. Karen Elliot House’s 30-plus years’ experience in one of the least accessible countries makes us see, hear, and experience Saudi Arabia like a local."

For a fictional perspective on this country, I offer up the newest from Dave Eggers: A Hologram for the King,  a finalist for this year's National Book Award for fiction and recently named one of the top five fiction titles of the year by The New York Times. His novel centers on 54-year-old Alan Clay, a struggling American business and a bit of a sadsack in a rising Saudi Arabian city, pursuing a last-ditch attempt to stave off foreclosure, pay his daughter's college tuition, and finally do something great.

The book has been called a "heartbreaking character study" and a "deft and darkly comic novel," a sort of "moral vision quest." Pico Iyer in a review in The New York Times called A Hologram for the King a "supremely readable parable of America in the global economy that is haunting, beautifully shaped and sad ... With ferocious energy and versatility, [Eggers] has been studying how the world is remaking America ... Eggers has developed an exceptional gift for opening up the lives of others so as to offer the story of globalism as it develops and, simultaneously, to unfold a much more archetypal tale of struggle and loneliness and drift."

I did not expect to like this book, although I'm not exactly sure why, but it became one of my favorite novels of the year.

So, that's the end of our 24 Days of Books. All of us at Broadway Books are full of immense gratitude for all of the kindness you've shown us in 2012. Best wishes for happy and safe holidays, wherever you spend them, and for good tidings in 2013.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Day 23: Help Thanks Wow. Really. We Mean It

Welcome to Day 23 in our 24 Days of Books. We're down to the second to last day! Although I do not consider myself a spiritual person and gave up the church of my parents forty years ago, there is a small handful of “religious” writers that I consistently read. At the top of this list is Anne Lamott. She is a Christian writer whose thousands of avid fans include many readers who are not.

Because she is such a good writer, I suspect I would read Ms. Lamott’s books were she to write about ice fishing or Tuvan throat singing or the import/export business in Chad. I would read her sports columns if she wrote them. I would read her first drafts, which she says are horrible. I would not dare to read her diary, but I most certainly would read her grocery list. Her writing has helped me through early parenthood and tough times. She has helped me with my own writing. She has made me snort-laugh out loud more than most humorists who are trying way harder than she is to elicit laughter. And whether I am reading her fiction or her essays, I always feel that I am in good hands.

Ms. Lamott’s new book is a slim but timely volume titled Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers ($17.95, Riverhead Books). Her thesis is that all “prayer” – and she defines this term very, very loosely – boils down to one of the three simple words in the title.

The definition of prayer that Ms. Lamott uses transcends religious differences or ideology. Prayer is “certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes….Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding.”  And, she adds, “Let’s not get bogged down on whom or what we pray to….to the animating energy we are sometimes bold enough to believe in; to something unimaginably big, and not us.” Although I might personally quibble with the “not us” part of her definition, I might just change it slightly for myself to say “not me."

So, the three prayers are rather self-explanatory, I think. Help me. Thank you. Wow, that is awesome.

These three thoughts (call them prayers if you want) will carry us a long way.  It’s the season for all of them.  Help is something we all need when we are struggling alone or together with doubt, hardship, loneliness, suffering, or tragedy – and there is too much of that going around lately. Thanks is especially felt at this time of year but applies to every single day of our lives that we have food and shelter. And Wow:  I am reminded of Steve Jobs’ last words: Oh Wow. Oh Wow. Oh Wow.

It’s telling that we have a little trouble figuring out where to shelve this book in the store. It doesn’t fit neatly into Christianity or Judaism or Eastern Religions, which are the three distinct sections for religion that a small store such as ours has. Neither does it strictly adhere to the Psychology shelf, or Essays, or Personal Memoir. Right now we are solving the problem by stacking it up on the front table, where we put our favorite new nonfiction. And as fast as we stack it, we sell it. Shall we hold one for you?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Day 22: Superb Stories from Women

Welcome to Day 22 in our 24 Days of Books. While there are lots of great new books out from well-respected male novelists this year (Tom Wolfe, Ian McEwan, Michael Connelly, Junot Diaz, Martin Amis, John Banville, to name just a few), it's a rocking fall for great novels from female writers. Here are a few that particularly stood out to us:
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Little Brown,  $25.99) Maria Semple. This is our new go-to book for anyone who needs to get out of the doldrums, who needs a good belly laugh. A funny funny new novel by the author of This One is Mine, this rockin' story takes on the PC world of Seattle  (Microsoft, rampant blackberry vines,  over-polite drivers, coffee shops on every corner) and ends up in Antarctica, while exploring the lighter side of family dysfunction along the way. Roberta likes to say that this book does for Seattle what "Portlandia" has done for Portland. Jonathan Franzen says, “Hilarious … I tore through this book with heedless pleasure.” Or this, one of my favorite reviews: "If you read only one book this summer about an agoraphobic mother and her broken promise to take her daughter Bee on a trip to Antarctica, make it this one.... " Semple is a former writer for Arrested Development, Ellen, and Mad About You; her ability to write snappy, witty dialogue is apparent in this book. And did we mention funny? Did we specifically mention laugh-out-loud, wet-your-pants funny? 'Cause it is. 
The Round House  (Harper,  27.99), by Louise Erdrich, recently won the National Book Award for Fiction. The novel is a compelling, comic, and tragic tale of injustice,  a coming-of-age story with a lonely thirteen-year-old Ojibwe boy at its heart. Set in the late '80s,  told in her typically poetic voice, and reaching out wide in all directions -- including the spirit world -- this is pure Erdrich story-telling;  heartbreaking and  multi-layered. The National Book Award judges called it "the story of a family and community nearly undone by violence.... an intricately layered novel that not only untangles our nation’s history of moral and judicial failure, but also offers a portrait of a community sustained by its traditions, values, faith, and stories.

Zadie Smith's latest novel, NW, has been named one of the top five novels of 2012 by The New York Times. Four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan - try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their London is a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end. Reviewers have called it "remarkable," "absolutely brilliant," "endlessly fascinating," "innovative and moving," and "radical and passionate and real."

In her new novel, Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver calls on both her Appalachian roots and her studies in biology to explore the scientific, financial, and psychological intricacies of climate change. While her passion for the issues at stake ring through, Kingsolver is a storyteller first. In Flight Behavior she tells the story of Dellarobia Turnbow, a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. As we heard on NPR, Kingsolver is "as sensitive to human interactions and family dynamics as she is to ecological ones."
Oprah revived her book club so she could share with the world her love of the memoir Wild, by Portland's own Cheryl Strayed, and so she could have people she could discuss the book with. For her second book for the new club she has chosen The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Knopf,  $24.95), by Ayana Mathis. Hattie Shepherd  flees Georgia at age 15 to create a new life in Philadelphia. Spanning the decades from 1923 to 1980,  Mathis weaves together the individual stories of Hattie's children. In some ways, I think of this book as the fictional off-shoot of the wonderful narrative nonfiction book from last year, The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells the story of the Great Migration of blacks from the south to the north and west. Kirkus Review has compared Mathis to Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson, calling the novel vibrant, compassionate, and elegant. This is a stunning new voice of African-American historical fiction.

I'll conclude this discussion with novels from three local authors: two debut novelists and a welcome return.

Set in the lawless frontier town of Century, Oregon, Anna Keesey's debut novel Little Century tells the story of eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers who, when orphaned after the death of her mother, heads west in search of her only living relative. Paula McLain, author of the The Paris Wife, called the book an incredible debut -- "I found myself dog-earing nearly every page." Keesey's novel, says author Joshua Ferris, "reminds us that character matters, and that justice is pursuant to conscience," describing the novel as "a frontier saga, a love story, and an epic of many small pleasures."

Another debut novel receiving high praise is The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin, a story set in the untamed American West about a makeshift family whose dramatic lives are shaped by violence, love, and an indelible connection to the land. Reclusive orchardist William Talmadge tends to his apples and apricots as if they were loved ones. A gentle man, he's found solace in the sweetness of the fruit he grows and the quiet, beating heart of the land he cultivates. His calm life is forever altered by the arrival of two feral, scared, and very pregnant teenage girls. Kirkus Reviews describes that book as "Beautifully written, so alive to the magnificence of the land and the intricate mysteries of human nature, that it inspires awe rather than depression."
 And, best of all, a new novel from a favorite Portland author: Eight Girls Taking Pictures (Scribner,  $25), by Whitney Otto. The New York Times describes Otto’s beautiful new work of fiction as “…a narrative collage.” In the book, eight women  photographers through the years -- starting in 1917 and moving forward to the twentieth century -- struggle with the realities of being women and artists, in individual narratives that connect and  inform each other. This delicious, smart  novel is set in Europe,  New York,  California, and Mexico, as well as in the psychological landscapes that make up the lives of women in the balancing of art and life. As she did in her bestselling novel How to Make an American Quilt, Whitney Otto offers a finely woven, textured inquiry into the intersecting lives of women, giving us thoughtful, nuanced depictions of the complexity of women's lives.
As always you'll find many more great gift ideas in our Holiday Books guide, available at our store. We love more than anything helping you to find just the right gifts for the people on your list -- especially the hard-to-shop-for ones. We'll be open til 9 pm tonight, from 10am to 7 pm on Sunday, and from 10 am to 5pm on Christmas Eve for your convenience. Publishers are already starting to run out of some of the most popular books, so don't wait much longer. If the book you come in for is no longer available by Christmas, fear not! We're happy to help you find just the right substitute. Hope to see you soon!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Day 21: The End of Your Life Book Club

Wow. It's Friday, which means Christmas is only a few days away, and means it's Day 21 in our 24 Days of Books. One of my favorite books of the season -- and one of the most touching and inspirational (which sounds way smarmier than the book is)  --  is the true story of a son and his mother who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. The End of Your Life Book Club ($25; Knopf), by Will Schwalbe, tells the story of the time he spent with his mother at the end of her life -- his mother’s last days through the prism of the things they read together

Mary Anne Schwalbe had been a passionate, active woman; she maintained her passions to the end. She had a successful career in education, eventually becoming the director of admissions at Radcliffe and then Harvard. In her 50s, she discovered the cause of refugees, and she devoted the rest of her life to that cause, traveling all over the world -- Bosnia, Liberia, Monrovia, Laos, etc. She was the founding director of what is now known as The Women's Refugee Commission.

As an ardent believer in education and in reading, one of her final goals was to help raise money for a national library and cultural center at Kabul University, as well as for traveling libraries to reach remote villages throughout Afghanistan. (Today, the main library building is almost finished, and there are nearly 200 libraries across all 34 provinces.)

When Mary Anne was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her husband and children were actively involved in her treatment. Will started accompanying his mother to her chemo treatments. Because they were both ardent readers, Will usually started their conversations with a natural question: "What are you reading?" Mary Anne underwent treatment for almost two years, so what evolved was a sort of mother-son book club.

Talking about books allowed them to talk about tough issues that they might not have otherwise been able to talk about. It wasn't about setting a reading agenda -- reading all the classics, for instance, or books on a certain subject -- but just reading books they wanted to read, for whatever reason, and talking about them. "Just because a book is selling zillions of copies and is enormously popular, that doesn’t mean there aren’t extraordinary things to be learned and gained from it. That education and inspiration can come from all different kinds of messengers....I really wanted to show how my mother and I talked about books, which is we’d talk about what was interesting to us in a book. It doesn’t have to be the best thing you ever read or the worst thing you ever read. It can just be interesting."
Schwalbe was in publishing for 21 years. During that time he saw a lot of great memoirs about people who had difficult times with their mothers. For him, however, this memoir is a celebration of his mother.

At Hyperion, Schwalbe signed a book, The Last Lecture, written by a college professor who was dying of pancreatic cancer and wanted to leave something behind so his young children would have a way of knowing him. Schwalbe thought about sharing the manuscript with his mother, but he worried that perhaps the subject might be too close to her situation. So he just left the manuscript in her room and figured she would read it if she wanted to. She devoured it.

Another book they read together was The Etiquette of Illness, by Susan Halpern, through which he learned not to ask "How are you feeling?" but rather "Do you want to talk about how you are feeling?" He learned that when you are spending time with someone who is ill or dying, it's not about what you say; it's about what you ask -- ask, and then truly listen -- and to check in more regularly, rather than waiting until something bad happens.

Along the way, Schwalbe began writing a blog to keep friends updated on his mother's condition. But it also gave his mom a "mini platform" to get out what she wanted to say. "Don't forget to talk about healthcare reform," for instance. As her son says, there were things she wanted to say in her life, but she didn't care that she said them; she just wanted them heard.

Education and books were very important to her. But she wasn't a writer. A few months before she died he told her that he wanted to write a book about their time together and their reading lists. Her first response was "There’s got to be something else that’s more interesting to write about.” But she began to cotton to the idea: "She loved the idea that the causes and books she was passionate about would get out in the world."

Although Shwalbe and his mom never actually had "The Big Talk" about death and cancer, through their "book club" they had lots of little talks, around books, that actually added up to The Big Talk. In other words, they had The Big Talk; it just lasted two years. The books they talked about allowed her to choose how personal or abstract she wanted the conversation to be.

By the time Mary Anne Schwalbe died, at age 75 -- about two years into the "book club" -- she and her son had read dozens of books of all different kinds: classic novels and modern ones, mysteries, biographies, poetry,  short-story collections, self-help and spiritual books, histories. She had one particular idiosyncrasy as a reader: she always read the ending of a book first. At the back of the book an appendix lists all of the authors, books, plays, poems, and stories discussed or mentioned in Schwalbe's memoir.

One of the lessons Mary Anne left her son was this: "It’s not enough to be moved by a book — you have to do something...books are calls to action. Sometimes they’re calls to action to do something very specific in the world....But sometimes they’re calls to action to see things differently, to treat people differently, to change the way that you move in the world."

Schwalbe titled his book not to remind himself that his mom was dying, "but so I would remember that we all are — that you never know what book or conversation will be your last." 

While the book is very clearly a tribute to and celebration of his mother, Schwalbe had a second goal in mind as well: "What I really wanted to do was share with people the role that books played in our lives, and the way to do that was to tell our story. I think many people who don’t read think that reading is a kind of escape—that it’s the opposite of doing something. You even hear people say things like, 'Why don’t you put down that book and do something?' But reading is doing something, and it’s one of the most important things in the world. I wanted to show how books can teach, entertain, help you talk about difficult things, change the way you see the world around you, show you what you need to do in the world, comfort and inspire. And I wanted to show how books could bring people closer to each other, at a very difficult time—even two people who were already very close."

Will Schwalbe has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); in digital media (as the founder and CEO of, a recipe website); and as a journalist (writing for various publications, including The New York Times and the South China Morning Post). He is the author with David Shipley of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.

As always you'll find many more great gift ideas in our Holiday Books guide, available at our store. We love more than anything helping you to find just the right gifts for the people on your list -- especially the hard-to-shop-for ones. Hope to see you soon! We'll be open til 9pm every day until Christmas, except for Sunday (7pm) and Christmas Eve (5pm), for your convenience. Publishers are already starting to run out of some of the hot titles of the year, so don't wait too long.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Day 20: Succeed in the Kitchen with Science

Welcome to Day 20 in our 24 Days of Books. Tick tock tick tock.... In a year when so many good cookbooks have been published, one merits our special attention due to its popularity with cooks across the country. I'm talking about Cook's Illustrated The Science of Good Cooking: Master 50 Simple Concepts to Enjoy a Lifetime of Success in the Kitchen ($40, America's Test Kitchen).

Cook's Illustrated is one of our favorite magazines, and also one of our bestselling periodicals. It is renowned for its near-obsessive devotion to finding the very best way to cook a particular dish. Focusing on American home cooking and aimed at the home cook who wants to be the best possible cook she/he can be day after day after day, the magazine staff tests hundreds of recipes weekly, to discover which techniques work well and which don't.

Besides recipes, the indefatigable chefs at Cook's Illustrated test and rate cookware, kitchen gadgets, and pantry staples. And they aren't afraid to say what they think.

It's known as "the food geek's bible" for good reason. Cooking is an art, yes, but so much of what happens in the kitchen is science, and this magazine has been exploring the relationship between cooking and science for twenty years. As they say, good science makes good food. And good food doesn't have to be a mystery.

This new book boils down tens of thousands of tests into fifty simple concepts that are guaranteed to make you a better cook, whether you are a novice in the kitchen or an old hand.

Christopher Kimball, the bow-tied founder and publisher of Cook's Illustrated (which incidentally does not accept advertising to avoid any conflict of interest) is the relentless (in a good way) captain of this ship, and his personality and attention to detail steer the ship with a firm hand.

Including 400 recipes that are "engineered to perfection," the nearly 500-page volume is organized around the fifty concepts. Each concept is explained in a section called "How the Science Works," and then the Test Kitchen experiments are described. Following that, the recipes!

So, here are a few of the principles:

  • Gentle Heat Prevents Overcooking
  • Fat Makes Eggs Tender
  • All Potatoes Are Not Created Equal
  • Vodka Makes Pie Dough Easy
  • Two Leaveners Are Often Better Than One
Besides the principles and recipes, this book also contains essays on the sciences of measuring, time and temperature, heat and cold, tools and ingredients, and much, much more.

This is the perfect book for just about any cook on your list. As always you'll find many more great gift ideas in our Holiday Books guide, available at our store. We love more than anything helping you to find just the right gifts for the people on your list -- especially the hard-to-shop-for ones. Hope to see you soon! We'll be open til 9pm every day until Christmas, except for Sunday (7pm) and Christmas Eve (5pm), for your convenience. Publishers are already starting to run out of some of the hot titles of the year, so don't wait too long.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Day 19: We Be Dancing Fools

It's Day 19 in our 24 Days of Books, and we feel like dancing all around the store. Wouldn't it be cool if you were just walking down NE Broadway and out of nowhere someone began dancing, I mean really dancing, when you least expected it? Wouldn't that make you smile? You probably wouldn't be able to help yourself. Even if you'd been feeling a little dour or grumpy (not that that ever happens to me), you wouldn't be able to hold back a happy turn-up of the lips, or perhaps even a guffaw.

So imagine a whole book of such things. That's what photographer Jordan Matter started by asking a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company to dance for him in a place where dance is unexpected. So, dressed in a commuter's suit and tie, the dancer flew across a Times Square subway platform. And in that image Matter found what he'd been searching for: a way to express the feeling of being fully alive in the moment, unselfconscious, present.

Organized around themes of work, play, love, exploration, dreaming, and more, the book Dancers Among Us celebrates life in a way that's fresh, surprising, pure, and joyful. There's no photoshopping here, no trampolines, no gimmicks, no tricks. Just a photographer, his vision, and the serendipity of what happens when the shutter clicks. The book presents one thrilling photograph after another of dancers leaping, spinning, lifting, kicking, but in the midst of daily life: on the beach, at a construction site, in a library, a restaurant, a park. With each image, the reader feels more optimistic, elated even, eager to see the next bit of magic. One reviewer wrote: "I wonder, if we could see into people's souls, would we see them dancing just like this?" 

Jordan Matters's grandparents were a photographer and a painter, his parents a filmmaker and a model. He began his career as a baseball player, but after seeing a Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit he started taking pictures as a hobby. His hobby turned into a passion, and soon into a career as a portrait photographer. His Dancers Among Us project continues on his website. Here's a taste of what the book has to offer: