Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Art of the Bookstore by Gibbs M. Smith

Krock's and Brentano's on Wabash in Chicago
The Art of the Bookstore: The Bookstore Paintings of Gibbs M. Smith (2009)

This book is the perfect gift for the serious bookstore lover in your life.  I came across it at work and couldn't stop looking at it.

So I brought it home.

The book is a tribute to and celebration of some of the best bookstores in the country.  Sadly, more than a few have closed prior to or after this book's publication in 2009.

Kroch's and Brentano's on Wabash in Chicago graces the cover.  This fantastic store is one of those that closed prior to the book's publication.  I loved this bookstore and remember going with my Dad several times when I was a kid and also tagging along with my aunt a time or two as well.  I learned how to browse in that store as well as in my local library.  We also spent a lot of time in the Kroch's and Brentano's store in the Oak Brook shopping center (IL).  Sadly, the company went out of business in 1995.   Their roots date back to 1907 and at their height they had 22 stores in the Chicago area and were the largest privately owned book chain in the country.  A Wikipedia article that you can read here attributes the closing to the company's "refusal" to sell books at a discount in order to compete with Crown Books when it moved into the area. 

Prairie Avenue Bookshop
Another Chicago bookstore featured in this book was considered the "mecca for all things architecture and design" and had the largest architectural holdings of any bookstore in the world.  Prairie Avenue Bookshop closed after publication of this book.  Smith painted the store in 2009, apparently prior to the closing announcement since there's no mention of the closing in its accompanying entry.  Marilyn and Wilbert Hasbrouck tried to find a buyer for the store rather than closing it.  You can read an article about their decision to close here.  The Hasbroucks founded Prairie Avenue Press in 1961 and opened the bookstore in 1974.

There are 58 bookstores featured in The Art of the Bookstore and many of them are still in business.  Each store has a two page spread.  On the left hand page is a paragraph or page about the store: its history, description, and/or Smith's experience with the store.  The history of some stores is written by its owner or founder.  Steve Riggio wrote the piece for Barnes & Noble at Union Square and firmly establishes that location as part of American literary history dating back to the nineteenth century.  On the right hand side of the page is Smith's oil painting of the bookstore.

Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City is the only store represented by a mixed media piece rather than one of Smith's colorful oil pieces.  Ken Sanders writes the piece for his bookstore and it's a book-affirming manifesto that declares, "If there was a God, his name was Biblio."  He goes on to say,
In these early years of the twenty-first century, there has been an awful lot of talk about 'the death of the book.'  What is being forgotten in this dialogue is that devotees of the book have always been on the margins of society--in modern society, book lovers are about as mainstream as druids. . . . The value of books transcends the informational, and while some of us in the book world will become extinct, the rest of us will always be here, doing what we have always done: loving books, keeping Biblio alive in the world.

I can't wait to visit Mr. Sanders' bookstore.

In addition to the brief histories and beautiful paintings, there are quotes that celebrate books and bookstores sprinkled throughout.

I've been to seven of the featured bookstores for sure, and possibly two or three more.  I'd have to read through my journals to confirm if I've really been to Warwick's (La Jolla), Garcia Street Books (Sante Fe), and The Elliot Bay Book Company (Seattle) or if I'm just imagining it.

These I've been to for sure:
  • Borders store #1 (Ann Arbor)
  • Kroch's and Brentano's (Chicago)
  • City Lights Books (San Francisco)
  • Cody's Books (Berkeley)
  • Prairie Avenue Bookshop (Chicago)
  • Powell's Books (Portland)
  • Tattered Cover Book Store (Denver)

Smith's short but enjoyable introduction describes how he came to love books and painting.  I have fallen in love with his colorful and vibrant paintings.  They give off an energy of excitement and anticipation that is much the same as the energy I feel when spotting a bookstore in a city I'm visiting or walking up to a well-known and much-loved bookstore.

Click here for a complete list of bookstores featured in The Art of the Bookstore.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Dean Koontz's Frankenstein: Prodigal Son

Originally published: 2004
Source: eBook

This is one of those books that was on my radar since it came out six years ago.  Glad I finally read it.  I was pleasantly surprised by the book's depth of emotion and I had no idea that its structure is like a contemporary mystery/thriller.   

Prodigal Son is the first book in Koontz's Frankenstein series.  The newest addition to the series came out this spring.

Here's a list:
  1. Prodigal Son 2004 (co-writer: Kevin J. Anderson)
  2. City of Night 2005 (co-writer: Ed Gorman)
  3. Dead and Alive 2009
  4. Lost Souls 2010

Synopsis (with some slight spoilers): Frankenstein's monster is alive and well and living in a Tibetan monastery.  He's no longer the angry, uncontrolled monster of Shelley's book or the movies.  He's spent 200 years growing, learning, and possibly becoming more human than most humans.  Actually, he's even a bit godlike and has taken the name Deucalion.

A letter arrives at the monastery and Deucalion must leave.  We don't know why, but find out soon after his arrival in New Orleans where detectives Carson O'Connor and Michael Maddison are trying to find a serial killer who is removing body parts--both appendages and organs--from his victims.

I just realized that this the second novel in a row that I read set in New Orleans.  It wasn't an intentional choice because I didn't even know Prodigal Son was set there.  The last novel I read, Nevada Barr's Burn was also set in New Orleans.  I think the last book I read set in The Big Easy was probably Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire, which I read in the 80s.  Someone could probably write a dissertation about the literary, historical, and cultural significance of these three novels being set in New Orleans.

But, I digress.

Carson's autistic younger brother is under her care and at first you wonder if he's included simply as a way to soften Carson's edges as a character, but later you find he becomes an integral part of the plot.  There's an interesting tie-in regarding autistic behavior and some of the creatures created by Victor Frankenstein, now re-named Victor Helios.

I enjoyed the characters of Carson and Maddison, but what most appealed to me was the yearning to be human that some of Frankenstein/Helios's creations feel.  These man-made, meticulously programmed, and supposedly soul-less creatures longing to have meaning in their life and a purpose other than the intention for which their creator made them, inspired me to continue trying to be a better person.  Anyone else have that reaction?

And I love that one of the characters is named Jonathan Harker.  Prodigal Son is an action packed, fun read for those of us who grew up on the old Frankenstein and Dracula flicks as well as the lovers of the literature that spawned the movies.  I hope it inspires people who haven't read Mary Shelley to pick up her book.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Getting the hang of eReading

Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein: Prodigal Son has the distinction of being the first book I read on my Kobo eReader. I remember the hype when the book first came out in 2004 and its floated around in my mind’s ‘to be read’ list since then.  When Borders first released their free eReader application last month they had an offer that when you downloaded the app you could also download five former bestsellers.  Koontz’s Frankenstein was one of them, so I took advantage of it.  I'll post my thoughts on the novel tomorrow.

The Kobo was a gift to myself for passing the national certification exam for massage therapists.  I never thought I’d be one to get an eReader, but I do have a bit of an inner gadget geek. I decided on the Kobo because the price was right and it has NO bells and whistles to distract me from reading such as music or a WiFi connection. I also like the eInk technology. It’s easy on the eyes and there’s no glare when you’re reading outside.

My Mom called me a traitor for buying an eReader.

It took me some time to get used to reading on the Kobo. There were/are three challenges for me:

First was getting the page turn right. One of the criticisms the Kobo has received is that the page turn is slow. I have nothing to compare it to, so that doesn’t bother me. I just got into a groove of knowing how many lines before the end of the page to hit “next” so the flow of my reading wasn’t interrupted. To me this is no different than putting my finger on the top of the page to get ready to turn it over. I'm not a very fast reader, so while it isn't a big deal for me, it might be for fast readers.

The second issue was one that I think I may have with each new eBook that I start. As I sat there holding the Kobo and started to read, I found myself missing the physical book. Holding a flat piece of plastic felt odd. I wanted to feel the paper of the book, feel the pages flutter under my thumb, look at the cover art, re-read the hype on the back of the book, see the author’s picture, etc. But once I was into the story those--habits?--went away and the experience became all about the story itself.  And there is purity to that: no marketing gimmicks, no one else’s interpretation of what the characters look like, why the book is so profound, groundbreaking, etc. After all, I read for the story and not to consume a package put together by a marketing team.

The third issue is not being able to underline passages or put sticky notes on a passage as I was reading. Yes, even with genre fiction like horror and mystery I find myself doing that. I know some eReaders have the ability to highlight text or bookmark a page. The Kobo does not. I do keep a hand-written reading journal, so what I’ll do in the future is jot down the chapter and page that the passage/idea was on and then go back to it when I have time.
Other than those adjustment issues, I’m enjoying reading on my Kobo. One unexpected benefit of an eReader is it’s easier to read hands-free. You just occasionally hit the next button rather than struggling to hold the book open, spill your lunch on it, or commit bibliocide by completely breaking the spine to get it to lay flat.  And being able to read outside with absolutely no glare makes me very happy.

I do have a confession to make: After finishing the eBook I looked at the hard copy of the book the next day at work to make sure the “real” book actually ended like the eBook did. I’m afraid of the eBook missing parts of the "real" book.

Does anyone else have that fear or am I just paranoid?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

BURN by Nevada Barr

Nevada Barr is the reason I read mystery novels.  In my younger days I read The Hardy Boys, but didn't get into Nancy Drew (people look at me in horror when I admit that in person).  When I was a little older I tried Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but didn't really get into them either.  Then one day somewhere in my 20s I was flipping through an outdoorsy magazine that had a book review section.  My eye was caught by a review of The Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr.  Maybe it caught my eye because I like cats or maybe it was because I was living in Nevada at the time.  One thing for sure is that  I was in graduate school at the time and needed a break from all the 19th century literature I was reading.  And even though I was a literary snob at the time, The Track of the Cat seemed like a good prospect.

I don't remember what bookstore I went to to buy the book, but I was hooked on the first page and fell in love with Anna Pigeon.  Here was a modern protagonist I could related to: a woman who loved being in the great outdoors, who liked animals more than most people, and who could take a punch as well as dish them out.  Anna Pigeon is a National Park Ranger and Barr herself was a NP ranger, which provides authenticity.  The Track of the Cat won both the Agatha Award and Anthony Award for best first novel.

Shortly after that I started looking around at other contemporary mystery writers and got hooked on Sue Henry, Dana Stabenow, and Patricia Cornwell, among others.  I even gave Christie and Sherlock Holmes a re-try and found I enjoyed them as well.

Since that reading experience in the early 1990s, I always kept an eye out for the next Anna Pigeon novel and have read all of them within days of their release, if not before if an ARC showed up.  And so when the ARC of BURN showed up at the store I scooped it up like candy (or, in my case, a more honest analogy would be to say I grabbed it like a bag of potato chips).

Each book in the series is set in a different national park.  When I recommend the Anna Pigeon series to customers at the store, people often have one of two reactions based, I think, on one of two assumptions that arises from people's stereotypes of national parks and/or of women mystery writers. They assume the series will be in the cozy sub-genre, filled with people taking peaceful hikes in beautiful locations watching bears, moose, and bald eagles frolic in the background.  Not so.  Yes, the locations are beautiful and you do feel like you're transported to each national park (and that was initially the main draw for me), but these books are far from cozy.

Each subsequent novel in the series has grown a bit darker, with Barr exploring increasingly vile and/or heartbreaking real-world situations.  She is not for the faint of heart, but her characters are so well written and the plots are so engaging that I wish everyone had the stomach to read her.  She is both gaining and losing readers as her novels take on more intense subject matter.  I also love her sense of humor, which has a sarcastic edge that, to me, doesn't seem embittered.

BURN is the 16th offering in the Anna Pigeon series.  Its set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Barr's current hometown, with a few scenes in Seattle.  This might be a bit of a spoiler alert because the back of the book doesn't mention it but the subject of BURN is sexual slavery, specifically the sexual slavery of children.  It is not a pleasant subject but it is one that is increasingly in the news.  As often happens when I'm reading a book, connects pop up.  On August 2nd I received an email alert from calling for Hilton Hotels to sign a pledge to prevent child prostitution, which you can check out here.  An underground brothel that may have included children was recently uncovered in a 5-star Hilton in China.

I recommend Barr to readers who like realistic novels with strong female characters that explore real-life social issues.  People often ask if they should read her series in chronological order.  That's my preference as a reader, but you don't have to.  Some readers have read her novels based on which national park is highlighted.  Personally, I've enjoyed watching Anna Pigeon develop as a character and Nevada Barr grow as writer by reading the novels chronologically.  Check out her website here for a list of all the books in the series and some background on each.
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