Wednesday, January 30, 2008

More Schtick Lit Recommendations

Great Scott! It seems that I have been on even more of a schtick lit binge than I thought (see previous schtick lit posting).

Schtick Lit is the word coined by writer Steve Almond for non-fiction titles in which the author spends a year or so immersing themselves in a subject and then writing about the experiment, as in A Year of Living Biblically by Schtick Lit maestro A.J. Jacobs in which he follows the tenets of the Old Testament to the letter, white robes, ZZ Top beard and all.

While reading Crossworld: One Man's Journey into America's Crossword Obsession by Marc Romano, I remembered that I had already digested Stefan Fatsis' Word Freak about his descent into the madness of competitive Scrabble playing. Fatsis' book is the most absorbing; he pays attention to all the quirks of the eccentric Scrabblers and provides a more interesting journey than does Romano. Romano's book is heavier on his self-introspection, although he does provide an interesting chapter on the changeover at the New York Times from serious and rigidly-ruled crosswording to the more whimsical, pop culture-infused crosswords that are in vogue today under the direction of Crossword Puzzle Editor Will Shortz. Fatsis' book spends more time on the, shall we say, "quirks" of the full-time Scrabble players and the seemingly joyless methods for advancing one's competitive abilities, like memorization of reams of two- and three-letter words, and words beginning with x, etc., etc.

I suppose Barbara Kingsolver's excellent book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life also falls under the definition of Schtick Lit in that she and her family spent a year living the locavore lifestyle. Locavores try to grow their own food as much as possible and eat the rest from local farmers and vendors.

Kingsolver's fiction is always a treat and she touched on farming and food issues in her last novel Prodigal Summer. This nonfiction book was as engrossing for this gardener and home cook and I loved the extra passages about biological topics by Kingsolver's husband Steven and the toothsome recipes by her collegiate daughter Camille. Even youngest daughter Lily gets mention in the books, as she is an experienced chicken rancher and egg merchant.

I was thrilled to read about many new heirloom vegetable varieties that I can't wait to try in the 2008 garden, and think I might even take a stab at home cheesemaking, though I smiled at the prose about raising and "harvesting" the Kingsolver turkey crop, I am happy to trot to the supermarket to buy the meat for the 50% of our omnivorous family that eats it.

There is an AMV website which reproduces Camille Kingsolver's recipes and has other information and updates about eating locally, which I would encourage others to look into.

Schtick Lit Recommendations Recap:

Crossworld: One Man's Journey into America's Crossword Obsession, by Marc Romano (NY: Broadway Publishers, 2005). Recommended for serious crossword junkies and assorted word aficionados.

Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, by Stefan Fatsis (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001). Recommended for anyone who likes the works of Charles Dickens and other juicy books with lots of character development, Scrabblers, and sports nuts.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver (NY: HarperCollins, 2007). Recommended for foodies, gardeners, biologists, farmers, and anyone who eats.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Shakespeare, Hold the Bacon

Everybody's got their favorite Shakespeare conspiracy theory. It seems astounding that only one person, and someone of such humble beginnings could have created the greatest works of art in Western Literature's canon, and such a passel of them to boot. There are the theorists that insist that the more educated and gentlemanly Francis Bacon produced most of the plays and sonnets commonly attributed to the Bard of Avon. Others have argued that contemporary Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe penned many of the Shakespeare plays.

There have also been many researchers who have filled in the gaping holes in the Shakespearean biographical corpus with speculations that William was a bisexual, was a Catholic in overwhelmingly Protestant times, and/or had many extramarital affairs.

Today I catalogued a book that theorizes that William was not Francis Bacon, and moreover, would never have gotten near any bacon, as Shakespeare was a proud Jew (Shylock, notwithstanding). David Basch's The Hidden Shakespeare: A Rosetta Stone, (West Hartford, CT: 1994) postulates that there are many hidden clues throughout the Shakespearean oeuvre, particularly in the seeming anti-Semitic "Merchant of Venice" that point to to the Bard being a proud, if closeted, Son of Israel. I prowled a little bit through this thin volume, but the argument was as cleverly hidden in its pages as Willy's Hebraic lineage. Shakespeare, this author is not. Oy!

Monday, January 21, 2008

My Three Sons

First, there was Basil, the Bookstore Cat. When we first opened our shop, Old Saratoga Books, back in 1996, we were not planning to have a bookstore cat. We had enough on our plate with two young daughters, a new business with lots to renovate and lots to learn, and a few hairy pets at our homestead to take care of. However, living across from a horse barn lends itself to having lots of stray animals show up. Basil was a scraggy, elderly tiger tom with a bent tail and loads of other old injuries who kept strolling over from the barn to play with my girls. He was affectionate and gentle and we grew to love him despite his disgusting, perpetual sneezing habit.

Eventually we were won over and brought Basil to live at the bookshop. After numerous trips to the veterinarian for antibiotics to clear up his everpresent boogers, a customer knowledgeable in herbal healing recommended that we dose his food with the herb eyebright. We got some capsules at the health food store and would sprinkle half a capsule on his wet food every day and miraculously, this regimen worked after a couple of weeks.

Basil was a big hit with all of our bookloving buddies with his affectionate ways and scratchy meow. During the warm months he would sometimes sneak out by pushing open the screen door. The next door diner owner would often show up with this long, bony feline package in his arms and dump him back inside the door and I would weakly apologize and try to keep a better eye on him. Basil was our bookstore cat for two years until one day when he went for a much more adventurous jaunt than usual and decided to cross Broad Street. One of our neighbors tearfully came in to let Dan know that he was lying motionless by the curb, apparently hit in the head by a car.

We were grief-stricken with Basil's demise and vowed to be cat-free at the shop because of the street hazards, but several months later, Maggie, the local antique shop owner approached us with the tale of a sweet-tempered Siamese mix who had been dumped off at the local toilet tissue factory. We were hesitant, but Maggie was persuasively persistent, so we went to take a look at this fat, furry boy cat with lots of extra toes. Maggie theorized that his extra toes made him the unwanted result of a breeder trying to make a Snowshoe Siamese cat, one with white paws on a cat with traditional Siamese markings.

We were hooked on his striking looks and sweet disposition and so Bookstore Cat number two entered our lives. Our Harry Potter-obsessed kids named him Hagrid and he was in residence at Old Saratoga Books for almost two years, until his normally sweet demeanor started to erode. I found him stalking young kids at the shop and swiping at them even when they weren't bothering him, so we had to find him a new home. Luckily, we were able to place him with some bookseller colleagues in Vermont where he is now completely in charge of the (childless) household, sleeping on the parental bed at night and keeping a large dog in line.

Once again, Dan and I agreed to keep the shop feline-free for the future. The extra hair and maintenance, the alienation of cat-allergic customers and the desire to keep as much cat poop out of our lives as possible all led to this firm resolve. And once again, the Fates intervened because we are such suckers for strays.

Sam, our grey and white tom cat, was a midnight drop-off at the neighbor's horse barn, and at the time, was an extremely skinny boy with a plaintive voice, whom the reigning barn cats battered and bruised every time he neared the communal food dish. My kids pleaded with us to install him at the shop and we were not too hard to break down. After getting him cleaned up and neutered, Sam ballooned into the fine, fat specimen that he is. It takes strength to hold him in his favorite poses (on his back like an infant or astride the nape of your neck, draped like a Forties fur piece.) He's been the greeter at the shop now for six years and is generally a lovable and charismatic addition. We have trained him to fear the sound of my jiggling car keys when he gets too near the screen door (a water pistol did the trick) so we don't have to worry about cars, and he is given the run of all three floors of our shop with various cat doors. Many a customer has been surprised in our restroom by Sam's face plowing through the cat flap.

Two summers ago, we were greeted at dusk by another feline drop-off: a nursing mother cat and four young kittens. These black, long-hairs were so cute and almost wormed their way into our hearts, but this time Dan and I held firm, and despite the six weeks we kept them in an outside shed and got them cleaned up at our friendly vet's office, we found good homes for all five beasties by bringing them into the bookstore and walking around with these balls of fluff in our arms.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Some Interesting Bookplates

I recently sold some bookplates which I had extracted from some of our bookstore books and thought others might be interested in this visual selection.

The Charlotte Hamm bookplate looks like it might be the work of Rockwell Kent or certainly an imitator:

The Bartlett Arkell bookplate was engraved by Tiffany and Co. for the philanthropist and founder of the Beechnut Company:

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Schtick Lit Recommendations

NPR's Morning Edition has a great audio interview with Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak (reviewed here in an earlier posting) about the trend of "My Year of" nonfiction titles, or as Almond defines them, "schtick-lit". This genre involves the author's quest for knowledge about a certain niche subject, or as Almond notes, schtick lit is the literary version of the current plague of reality television shows.

I have enjoyed many of these recent "My Year Of" titles, most memorably A.J. Jacobs' The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2004). Jacobs read through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and his book is an enjoyable romp through his humorous takes on all sorts of scientific, historical and biographical tidbits. His next schtick-lit project is The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, but as I have no patience with fundamentalism of any stripe, I think I'll pass.

Other schtick-lit I've enjoyed in recent months:

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, by Julie Powell (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2005). Julie tackles the entirety of Julia Childs' Mastering the Art of French Cooking (volume one only). Amusing for this foodie, but I wanted more focus on how she tried to shop for classic French ingredients and learned fancy cooking techniques, and less about her friends' personal lives. A much more absorbing read was My Life in France, the posthumously-published memoir by Childs, in which her good humour shines throughout.

Anything by English travel writer Tim Moore. Moore just cracks me up. He is a self-deprecating and very witty writer who has tackled projects in each of his notable books:

Frost on My Moustache: The Arctic Exploits of a Lord and a Loafer (Moore morosely follows the Nordic travels of gung-ho Victorian explorer Lord Dufferin); French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France (great Anglo-French rivalries and sore butt jokes); Travels with My Donkey: One Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago (Moore and his hilariously-stubborn donkey Shinto walk 500 northern Spanish miles in the footsteps of many a religious pilgrim). All are highly recommended to anyone who enjoys armchair travel with such guides as Bill Bryson or Tim Cahill; Tim Moore writes in that vein, but is just so much more hapless.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The 100th Post Milestone - Celebrating with Judy Chicago

Amazingly, this is the Book Trout's 100th post. Seems like I just started this crazy blog thing. To celebrate this milestone, I introduce you to an interesting book:

Embroidering our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework, by Judy Chicago and Susan Hill, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1980, first paperback edition. ISBN: 0385145691. 287 pages. Many illustrations and photographs, includes several pages of color plates. 4to in VG condition (covers rubbed). ($20.00 plus shipping available through our bookstore website.)

The Dinner Party art installation is now permanently part of the collection at the Brooklyn Museum in New York and is worth a visit if you have an interest in women's history and modern art. Judy Chicago is a feminist artist who envisioned The Dinner Party as a way of honoring women's contributions to history and art by having a large triangular table set with richly-worked textiles and vagina-motif china plates. Each of the 39 settings honors a different woman (from Boadaceia to Eleanor of Acquitaine to Georgia O'Keeffe) and incorporates symbols of their historical importance and arts/crafts techniques from their era. Georgia O'Keeffe would probably be comfortable with her peony-like vulva plate but no doubt Emily Dickinson would retreat to her bedroom with apoplexy upon seeing her privates done up in ruched lace and satin.

As an aside, I had the chance to see the work as a teenager (very interesting!) and it inspired my mother to sign up with Chicago as one of her needlework minions for The Birth Project, a subsequent celebration of images of women in the throes of childbirth.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bookseller Voodoo Tips & Tricks

Recently on the Bibliophile email list there was some discussion about bookseller superstitions and tricks for inducing sales during the blips and ticks of the economic engine. I do have some limited customer-retrieval abilities, as when I dust or straighten a bookstore shelf or two and customers immediately zoom into these books, but in order to fill the shop with bodies, make the phones jingle and the computers hum with Internet orders, I have a special Twelve-Step Program:

1) Wash the windows (front windows only!). A sure-fire cure-all for the bookman's blues. Once you go up a precarious ladder, lugging up window cleaner and squeegees, and, most importantly, leaving the phone behind, people will want your attention. Blocking the front door with the ladder to clean these windows gets instant results.

2) Inhale dust/mold/spider combo from old dusty box of books to induce hacking cough spasm. People will want to talk to you immediately.

3) Go to the bathroom.

4) Take a hoggish bite of sandwich or try alternate ordering of a hot lunch.

5) Precarious ladder gambit #2: Dust the ceiling fan blades.

6) Get to personal best score in computer solitaire or Free Rice vocabulary game.

7) Run to the furthest reaches of the bookshop for supplies.

8) Make a personal phone call.

9) Rip apart book shelf in high traffic zone and divide up into alphabetical stacks.

10) Chase annual bat in-migration with fishing net. Extra voodoo points for knocking top shelf books on head to garner customer sympathy purchases.

11) Water and remove yellowed leaves from plants.

12) Precarious Ladder Gambit #3: Replace the light bulbs in the fourteen-foot high ceiling fixtures.

Sometimes just a few steps are necessary, but during the months of April (tax time) and between Christmas and New Year's Day a vigorous run through of all twelve steps* may be required. Individual results may vary.

*Because the Book Trout loves all of you who read down to the end of the posts, I will let you in on the super-secret, thirteenth and most occult step of all for inducing book sales. Play a Screamin' Jay Hawkins CD on the stereo at an unreasonable volume. You won't be able to wrap those books fast enough.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Muddling Through Murakami

I just finished reading "South of the Border, West of the Sun", by Haruki Murakami. This short novel follows the angst-ridden Hajime, a hormone-addled Japanese teen turned jazz club owner, from his pre-pubescent crush on Shimamoto (a quiet new girl at school with a lame leg from polio) his first sexual experiences with Izumi (whom he destroys when she finds out about his torrid bouts with her cousin), boring college and first job years, through his marriage and kids with Yukiko and then into mid-life crisis with a reemergent and ravishing Shimamoto. I had heard wonderful things about this author from several respected customers and was eager to dive in.

Murakami's writing is rather staccato and the colloquialisms seemed a bit dated, so it took me awhile to get into the rhythm of the book. There are also lots of sexual scenes which are snoozingly mechanical, rather than erotic, so I was also put off by that. I kept waiting for the character of Hajime to develop, but he seemed stuck in a narcissistic, unsatisfied state throughout, so again, I was unhappy with his development.

Ultimately, the book left me wondering what had happened to some of the women in Hajime's orbit and with a feeling that the book wasn't quite finished. Even more unsettling, the book left me feeling like I hadn't understood broad swatches of the plot and the symbolism of various scenes, so I am not anxious to start another Murakami novel and somewhat dread my conversations with the customers who raved about this author. Heck, I don't even get the cover art. For the last several days I have thought about why the book would be so highly prized by others, while I am still chewing on this underdone bit of literature. I suppose that one man's meat is another man's biblio-gristle.

Friday, January 4, 2008

R.I.P. George MacDonald Fraser

It is with great sadness that I report the death of a cherished author, George MacDonald Fraser, on January 2nd, aged 82. His Flashman series features the cravenly, yet absurdly lucky, bounder and "hero", Harry Paget Flashman. The twelve titles are a wonderful way to soak up Victorian military history. Like Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, the Flashman books insert our military man and sometime spy in the middle of actual historical events with over-the-top results (i.e., gastric disturbance impels him to unwittingly lead the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava).

"Flashy" rogers his way around the globe, collecting medals for unintentional bravery and generally blundering his way to a brigadiered generalhood. I feel the series just got better over time with greater nuances to Flashman's character and to that of his wife, Elspeth. I have read through the Flashman series once and daydream about digesting it again in the future during a long, lazy stretch of reading.

Flashman is responsible for a bit of family legend at Dan's expense. Two years ago, my loving spouse went to the local big box bookstore to pick up a copy of "Flashman on the March" (sadly, perhaps the last Flashman book ever, although there is some possibility of an Australian adventure) to surprise me as a gift. He was wearing his woodcutting outfit (large tuke on his head, several days worth of beard scruff, Army surplus coat, big mud boots) and waited politely in line for an available cashier. He then asked if the store had the latest "Flashman". There was a pause from the female employee, who then asked him to repeat his query. He said "Flashman" again a little more loudly. And repeated it. She then got very wide-eyed and backed away from the counter. I guess she thought he was wearing nothing under his funky outfit, so poor Dan just slunk away, rather humiliated. But I think George MacDonald Fraser would've gotten a kick out of that scene.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Books on the Shelf

The eldest girl child has a subscription to Vogue magazine and in Fall/Winter 2007 special Vogue Living issue was an improving article about selected interior designer's favorite "lifestyle" books. In leafing through the paeans to E.L. Lutyens "Houses and Gardens", Brigid Keenan's "Dior in Vogue" and Diana Vreeland's "Allure", my eyes riveted to the accompanying photo of the library of one phonetically-interesting Lulu de Kwiatkowski. La Lulu is a textile designer of note and is shown to be smartly dressed, if apparently missing the heel to one of her pumps.

Now what jumps out of this photo to you?

Her shapely gams?
The interesting throw pillows in the background?
Her pretzel pose?

To me, the eyepopper is that the books are arranged on the shelf by COLOR! Not subject, not author, not something logical, but a completely visual organization. How interesting. I am just not wired that way, but it must work for her.

I now contemplate rearranging the shop by color. I have done window displays of books of one hue and they seem to attract sidewalk attention. Most notable was the orange books window strewn with navel oranges. But maybe a front table display of books stacked by color would be just the ticket.

Another tidbit from the Vogue article: A private-library consultant, Kinsey Marable, states her conviction that bricks and mortar bookstores are not on the endangered list because book lovers will always seek out browsing and communing opportunities in the flesh. Bravo Kinsey! And bravo for being a private-library consultant! I'm going to have to add that to my business card.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year to all Book Lovers

The Book Trout wishes a happy, healthy and more peaceful New Year to us all. I wish everyone the opportunity to kiss your family, hug your friends, walk your pets and find a slice of reading time today!