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Sunday, November 8, 2015

I Think You Forgot Something

More than any other area, my reading life is a hapless landscape. I'm a terribly fickle reader: a tyrannical toddler, really. I finish maybe one in five books I begin and, what's worse, enjoy one in twenty that I finish. Not a great track record for someone who relies on their love of books to pay the bills. And when you factor in that a good half of the books I truly love are out-of-print or are one bad sales week from being snubbed by the publisher for all eternity, I feel justified in calling my reading life rather jinxed.

Over fifteen years of bookselling, the overlooked and almost forgotten have become a passion of mine. Harry Potter doesn't need me. Donna Tartt, wonderful as she is, doesn't need me. The community cultivated by a book when it strikes a nerve is a beautiful thing, but witnessing it always leaves me wondering, "Where is my tribe?" Or, at the very least, why aren't creative writing students studying Gary Lutz? Why aren't Confederacy of Dunces devotees devouring LJ Davis?

Oh. Right. That's my job. Customers don't ask for recommendations to have their opinions validated, they solicit a bookseller's opinion because they want to discover something new and possibly around the way. And to turn someone on to a body of work that is unknown to them, knowing the enjoyment that lies ahead of them is a feeling to revel in. So I have bullied Erin into letting me stomp the old soapbox every so often and shine a little light on some titles and authors that are shamefully overlooked. Third Place's little shadow society modern library, if you will.


In 2013 I had been entertaining a deep funk for months when all despondency (and wind) was knocked out of me by an Eileen Fisher wearing, governess-y Nantucket wife in an issue of Harper's. I was processing the most difficult break-up I have ever known, and after spending months looking for something, anything, to make me feel better, there it was in a periodical most Americans synonymize with Ambien.

A title so primly worded but blindly intrusive, its humor subtle but tailor-made for my love of anything that implies accidental illicitness: "May I Touch Your Hair?"

And that name! Her! Julie Hecht, a writer whose polite but scathing wit and playful self disparagement soothe my nerves much the same way tingsha bells calm a Tibetan monk.

Hecht is an elusive figure in contemporary fiction, building a body of work that feels rigidly focused but somehow effortless as well. Her fiction output is succinct: two short story collections and a novel over the course of ten years, all concerning the same nameless protagonist: a somewhat listless photographer who wrings her hands over the loss of a well-mannered culture. Highly intellectual but constantly struck dumb by the boorish behavior she encounters, our hero (and she is my hero) is all too easily assumed to be an autobiographical sketch of her creator. But this assumption undermines the genius and beauty of Hecht's work. The character is the kind of woman who cleans the house before the cleaning lady comes but can also find herself seeking solace in a wry, troubling (yet somehow heartwarming) series of phone conversations with a portrait subject's drug-addicted son. A high-strung but somehow affable presence, this woman is infuriating in her exactitude and chasteness but a beguiling enigma.

http://www.thirdplacebooks.com/book/9780140271454Such measure and precision is virtually unheard of in a literary arena that seems to value volume over merit. As most of contemporary fiction's lions' careers begin to resemble those of other mediums' artist-cum-commodity (a mash-up of posthumously released Tupac albums and BolaƱo translations would make an absorbing rainy day project), where do thoughtful, careful writers like Hecht fit, and how do they build an audience? Is it their desire to allow oceans of time to pass between published works? Is any of this my business? Maybe it's dangerous for me (and the store's blog) to dwell on such things.

http://www.thirdplacebooks.com/book/9781416564263Don't get the wrong idea: Hecht's material is accessible. And maintaining a readership through creative writing courses and the odd mention, such as Miranda July's in the New York Times earlier this year, Hecht's reputation is a notable one. Such clout and respect are surely worthy achievements to be placed on any author's mantle and an in-print status of one-foot-in-the grave ain't dead yet - I'll take solace in that - but I'm plagued by the question: that muggy summer afternoon, on exactly the kind of New York street corner that Hecht's anxiety-addled photographer loathes, where I discovered the Loch Ness Monster of short stories, where were her other weak-kneed readers? If the Scientologists and Unarians are still running around and recruiting, where are the Hecht acolytes (Hechtolytes?)? And most importantly, when will she return to remind us all what is acceptable decorum?

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Paris Review Interviews

Were you aware that the Paris Review, esteemed literary journal and propaganda tool of the CIA, prints extended interviews with novelists, poets, playwrights and at least one comics artist? Perhaps so. But were you also aware that you can access their entire archive of interviews via the globally connected computer network known as the Internet? And I recommend that you do. I can't get enough of them. They date all the way back to the 1950s and include everyone from T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway to Brett Easton Ellis, and the mysterious Elena Ferrante. Here's a random selection of excerpts from some of my favourites.

Joyce Carol Oates on the advantages of being a woman writer:

Advantages! Too many to enumerate, probably. Since, being a woman, I can't be taken altogether seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers 1, 2, 3 in the public press, I am free, I suppose, to do as I like. I haven't much sense of, or interest in, competition; I can't even grasp what Hemingway and the epigonic Mailer mean by battling it out with the other talent in the ring. A work of art has never, to my knowledge, displaced another work of art. The living are no more in competition with the dead than they are with the living . . . Being a woman allows me a certain invisibility. Like Ellison's Invisible Man.

Gore Vidal engaging in exactly the kind of masculine one-upmanship that Joyce Carol Oates disapproves of:

Every writer ought to have at least one thing that he does well, and I’ll take Truman’s word that a gift for publicity is the most glittering star in his diadem. I’m pretty good at promoting my views on television but a washout at charming the book-chatters. But then I don’t really try. Years ago Mailer solemnly assured me that to be a “great” writer in America you had to be fairly regularly on the cover of the Sunday New York Times book section. Nothing else mattered. Anyway, he is now what he wanted to be: the patron saint of bad journalism, and I am exactly what I set out to be: a novelist.

Italo Calvino on trying to work in the morning:

Each morning I already know I will be able to waste the whole day. There is always something to do: go to the bank, the post office, pay some bills . . . always some bureaucratic tangle I have to deal with. While I am out I also do errands such as the daily shopping: buying bread, meat, or fruit. First thing, I buy newspapers. Once one has bought them, one starts reading as soon as one is back home—or at least looking at the headlines to persuade oneself that there is nothing worth reading. Every day I tell myself that reading newspapers is a waste of time, but then . . . I cannot do without them. They are like a drug. In short, only in the afternoon do I sit at my desk, which is always submerged in letters that have been awaiting answers for I do not even know how long, and that is another obstacle to be overcome.

Pablo Neruda on symbols:

NERUDA I don’t believe in symbols. They are simply material things. The sea, fish, birds exist for me in a material way. I take them into account, as I have to take daylight into account. The fact that some themes stand out in my poetry—are always appearing—is a matter of material presence.

INTERVIEWER What do the dove and guitar signify?

NERUDA The dove signifies the dove and the guitar signifies a musical instrument called the guitar.

Check them out for yourself, and let us know what your favourites are!


Friday, October 16, 2015

Meet Marie Lu at Ravenna Third Place Books!

We are very excited to welcome Marie Lu to our Ravenna location on Monday, October 19th, at 7PM. Christina wrote up a little something to tell you why you should be excited too. 

The Rose Society, Marie Lu's sequel to the first title to Young Elites series, is an unrelentingly dark book. If you're familiar with The Young Elites, this is no surprise: the series focuses on the wonderfully complex Adelina Amouteru, who is much more villain than hero. The stakes are higher and the scope is broader in The Rose Society, as Adelina and her sister Violetta look for allies to help them in their quest for revenge on almost everyone - Estenzia, the Inquisition Axis, her former friends, and almost anyone who crosses her path. And along the way, more and more opportunities arise for Adelina to use her powers and escalate to more and more violent acts. And oh, does she take those opportunities! 

"Once upon a time, a girl had a father, a prince, a society of friends. Then they betrayed her, and she destroyed them all."

I love YA books but I know I'm very behind on current titles. When I learned that Marie Lu was coming to my store for a signing (October 19! 7pm!) I took that as encouragement to start The Young Elites series despite not knowing much about them. This series has powerful plotting, enough complex and intricate twists to keep any George R.R. Martin or Pretty Little Liars fan engaged. It has all the  characteristics found in other successful young adult series: colorful characters, troubled romance, love triangles, a vivid world with just enough similarities to historical times in our own world to be both familiar and interesting, and of course- super powers. Between them, Adelina and her associates can control the weather, call illusions, conjure fire, heal almost instantaneously, and fly using the wind.

But the heart of these books is Adelina, and she's fascinating! If you've ever felt a twinge of sympathy for characters like Darth Vader or Draco Malfoy, Adelina's plight might move you to tears. She's boxed in by a series of circumstances difficult enough to make anyone grudgingly accept her disruptive mayhem. But what makes The Rose Society, leaping into the scenarios set up by The Young Elites, such a page-turner is that Adelina, far from a passive victim, is aware of other options and typically chooses, of her own volition, the more ruthless and ambitious path. She develops a deep satisfaction in her ability to control others that Lu makes very clear:

"I have never known the mind of a wolf hunting a deer, but I imagine it must feel a little like this: the twisted excitement of seeing the weak and wounded cowering before you, the knowledge that, in this instant, you have the power to end its life or grant it mercy. In this moment, I am a god."

Of course, as soon as the reader becomes tempted to unilaterally condemn Adelina, the plot twists and it seems equally inviting to cheer the downfall of her aggressors instead. This is a tension that Lu sustains thrillingly throughout and makes it really difficult to imagine how this will be reconciled in the final book of the trilogy. (Like, seriously. Any ideas?) The Rose Society prompts you to wonder, at what point do we wash our hands of someone and declare them irredeemable? Because, of course, we want even our anti-heroes to be redeemed in the end, yet Adelina commits some truly unforgivable acts. And to what degree are others responsible for creating an environment in which Adelina's choices are so few?

Read The Rose Society and join me in speculation. I'm also here for your pro- or anti-Enzo feelings. And in signing off, may I direct your attention to The Rose Society's Goodreads page, where there are over 100 pages of fan-made reaction .gif sets to accompany you.

 - Christina

Monday, October 12, 2015


Rainbow Rowell's Carry On is finally here! It's the story of the fictional, fictional (yes, 2 fictionals), Harry Potter-esque characters from Fangirl. That's confusing, so here's some background information to bring you up to speed.

I initially picked up Fangirl because I have been, on occasion, accused of being a "fangirl" of a certain band. I thought that's what the book would be about, a just-skirting-the-edge-of-obsession, music fan. It's not. The title refers to one of the characters who writes fanfiction based on the Simon Snow books. Simon Snow resembles Harry Potter, in that he goes to a magical school, and has an arch-nemesis, and is the Chosen One. Fangirl is of course about a great many other things, young love, loyalty, college, sisters, mental health, etc., but it also happened to be my primary introduction to the world of fanfiction.

Fanfiction is fascinating. For simplicity's sake, fanfiction, or fic, is fiction about characters from an original work created by the fans of that original work rather than the original creator. There is fanfiction about everything. You name it, there's fanfiction about it. Books, television shows, movies, celebrities, video games. Everything has a fandom, and everything has fanficiton. But I'm no expert. In March, New York Magazine did a phenomenal piece on fanfiction, and for the uninitiated, I highly recommend it. Seriously, it's fascinating. 

Fangirl fan art from the Special Edition
Side note: Rainbow Rowell has been supportive and excited about all the fanfiction and fan art that her novels have spawned. The special edition of Fangirl even features fan art on the end papers. Just look at that! It's gorgeous. And that's what is so interesting about fanfiction and fan art, a lot of it is really, really good.

There is some disagreement as to the legitimacy of fanfiction. But then, all creativity seems to blur the line of appropriation and homage. Fifty Shades of Grey is without doubt, fanfiction. But so too are all those Pride and Prejudice continuations. Isn't Michael Cunnigham's The Hours just Virginia Woolf fanfiction? And what about PBS's Sherlock? Or sampling in music? And who is Harry Potter anyway but just an amalgam of all the orphaned chosen ones who came before him?

Partly, I wave the banner of fanfiction because I loathe the inherent snootiness of the literary world. I firmly believe in reading what you want to read without apology. I refuse to label anything I read as a guilty pleasure. And so I proudly read fanfiction, and romance novels, and young adult books; and none of that takes away from my love of Moby Dick, or NYRB books, or everything Andrew Holleran ever wrote. I like what I like and I read what I like and I never feel guilty about any of it. And I encourage you to do the same. Don't hide that copy of Fifty Shades of Grey! And read Fangirl, and then read Carry On.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

It's quintessential Rainbow Rowell, even if it does take place in a world that doesn't quite exist. It has friends, and school, and drama, and love, and angst, and lots and lots of kissing, all with dragons and wizards as an added bonus. And her dialogue and humor are as sharp as ever. It's been awhile since a book had me swooning and nail biting quite like this one, and the familiar Harry Potter feelings it conjures add a lovely nostalgic feeling to the whole enterprise. 

The book is great, but I almost love it more for it's concept than anything else. Fanfiction written by an author who wrote the original work in which the fictional fanfiction played a major role. It's head-spinning. Though I guess you could say it's really just Harry Potter fanfiction. Well, whatever it is, it's great.

And my old review of Fangirl, because even though Carry On can stand on its own, you really shouldn't miss out on the joy that is Fangirl.

Rainbow Rowell has done something magical. She's written a delightful book for young adults that will charm and captivate regular old adults too. A love story; an honest look at mental health; family drama; loyal friendships; and nerdy, Harry Potter-esque fanfiction all wrapped up in the exciting, heady first days of college. Rowell pulls all of it off in this one perfect novel. It's a marvel of a balancing act that many "masters" of adult fiction couldn't do. 

Smart, funny, sweet, and dizzingly romantic. The love story alone will have your stomach flip-flopping with memories of your own first love. These characters leap off the page and I desperately wish that they were real. That's how lovely they are. She writes them with a kindness and genuineness that never wavers into sentimentality. 

All of her books are wonderful, but Fangirl is my favorite. 

I know a lot of you hesitate to read young adult fiction, but when something this good comes along, it's time to challenge your biases and open yourself up to something inspiring and wonderful.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Hey, I've Read That: we review books everyone else read five years ago

Turns out I'm not the only one reading about five years behind. Kalani saw my post on Sloane Crosley and wrote up one of his own. Finally, a creative outlet for our literary procrastination. -Erin

Just Kids by Patti Smith

When Just Kids came out in 2010 I was working part-time as a security guard in a shopping mall. Of course the only store I actually liked walking by was the bookstore. I can still remember the sight of that black and white book cover sitting on top of the bestseller shelf every shift that I “patrolled.” I casually knew of Patti Smith's music and having recently finished reading Bob Dylan's Chronicles Vol.1, I told myself I would someday read the music memoir that everyone was talking about.

This past summer, after five years, a National book Award, and countless accolades and top ten lists, I finally read Patti Smith’s Just Kids. My expectations were completely wrong in thinking that Smith would be recounting the 1970s New York music scene or sharing wild and crazy tales about touring the world with other legendary rock stars. While there is some of this (Smith name drops Hendrix, Joplin, Ginsberg, Burroughs, etc.), this memoir has little to do with Smith’s early life or her music career, but is really a tender portrait of her friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

Smith further proves what a multi-talented artist she is with her carefully written memories that exude love for her lost friend. This book was absolutely worthy of the high praise it received and was worth the five year wait for me to finally read. (If you enjoyed this memoir about friendship check out Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett and Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement)

With her new memoir, M Train, Patti Smith again chooses not to write meaningfully about her days as a rock star. Yet again, Smith writes a completely enamoring book this time focusing more on her present day life after the deaths of her best friend (Robert Mapplethorpe), her husband (Fred Smith), and her younger brother (Todd).

M Train is about how she has coped with her new solitary life. A less talented writer would never be able to make a memoir like this work. Bizarre anecdotes, like the time Smith met chess champion Bobby Fischer in a dark alley at midnight in Iceland and the time she gave a keynote speech at a secret society club called the “Continental Drift Club,” fill the pages of this book. Smith writes about seemingly random fragmented memories from her life like an old man rambling about old war stories to his grandchildren. Despite this, I am completely engaged with every word she writes and cannot wait for more.