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bookshopsamazonWhile most of this project will focus on fiction, I’m going to kick it off with one of my favourite nonfiction titles (and an essay) particularly relevant to the topic at hand. Bookshops: A Reader’s History by Jorge Carrión was published by Biblioasis in 2017, and hit shelves just after I left my post there as the Director of Marketing. (Humblebrag: contributing the subtitle for the North American edition was one of my proudest moments in publishing so far). Carrión’s book, in Peter Bush’s excellent translation from the Spanish, is one of those remarkable reads that somehow both satiates and stimulates the mind. The book is an intelligent and charming combination of travelogue, manifesto, and love letter. Reading it makes you want to visit bookshops in other cities and countries, exchange anecdotes and recommendations with the author, and fight the forces threatening to destroy these incredible spaces of social, cultural, and intellectual community.

 

And, of course, it makes you want to read more. I had to have a pen and notepad handy when reading so I could add titles to my TBR list, or make notes about things I wanted to read up on. I found the behavioural contradiction inspired by the book hilarious and frustrating: I wanted to get up and go traveling to bookshops both near and far, but I also wanted to snuggle in and keep reading Bookshops and do some deep-dive reading on all those wonderful ideas and new reading recommendations I had from within its pages. It was almost like those wonderful chats you have with people sometimes, where you follow one another down the “Have you read…?” rabbit hole. That was my favourite part of being a bookseller, the increased frequency of that rabbit hole and the joy everyone had falling down it.

 

Here are just three of the books added to my collection after reading this one. All three of these authors were already represented on my shelves, but these books were sought out specifically because of what Carrión said about them in his book. I’ve often wanted to map my books autobiographically, a project far beyond practicality now, but these small connections are satisfying. Two were purchased from Biblioasis bookshop (Biblioasis was a bookshop first, and in 2004 became a publishing house thanks to the determination and will of the intrepid Daniel Wells) and the Kiš was a lucky find in an amazing secondhand shop—Alhambra Books—here in Edmonton. Notice they are also mostly indie publishers:

 

 

 

Given the subject matter of Bookshops: A Reader’s History, it can come as no great surprise that Carrión is not a fan of the big bad Bezos and his Amazonian empire (what decent human being is, really?). Carrión’s essay, Against Amazon: Seven Arguments/One Manifesto, (also translated by Peter Bush)—printed as a chapbook by Biblioasis and posted later at LitHub—is a great companion piece to Bookshops: A Reader’s History (and more support for my lecture in the SIPS launch post). The chapbook made a big splash with indie booksellers and at the Frankfurt Book Fair, as Publishers Weekly reported. For anyone who still needs convincing that Amazon is not the right place to spend money ever, the essay makes a good case.

 

But I think the book makes an even better one. Why? Because the shops Carrión writes about have individuality, history, purpose, and his book makes you want to be a part of that. Reading this book makes people want to become part of the community created by bookshops, by the immediacy of the connection between author, publisher, bookseller, and reader in those spaces (through books, or shared knowledge/experiences/desires, or events), and by the special knowledge and personalized touch those stores can provide. While a local shop might not be able to guarantee delivery in 24 hours, it can guarantee you the space to explore, and the booksellers who know the literary landscape and who can recommend your next favourite read with much greater success than any algorithm ever will because they also know you as a reader and a person, not just a consumer. In this culture of instant gratification, a little patience is a good thing. It allows room for desire. I just got a phone call from my local shop (Audreys) about 3 special orders that are in from the UK that I have been waiting almost 8 weeks for. And I am so stoked to go pick them up!

 

Indie bookshops are the best place for indie publishers to find their champions in booksellers, because otherwise their titles are drowned out in the algorithmic noise and the clamour for bestseller status.There is no room for individuality in Bezos’s algorithmic future, which is why the big publishing houses are now all chasing trends and not good literature (if I ever see another blurb declaring “the next Gone Girl,” I’m burning it all down). But the individuality, history, and purpose of indie bookshops perfectly suits the indie publisher. It’s also why indie publishers matter. They take risks. They’re interesting. They are a glitch in the matrix—a commercial enterprise with a cultural heart. Each indie publishers list has a distinct editorial flavour because at a small press every project has to be a passion project. I’ll be writing more about those passion projects as the summer continues, and I’ll be returning to Biblioasis for a closer look at some of their fiction in a later post. But, in the meantime, if you are looking for an intellectual, charming, and engaging read by a kindred spirit, look no further than Jorge Carrión’s Bookshops: A Reader’s History. Happy reading!

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Continuing the holiday reads recommendations, here are five of my favourite short reads of the year – two short story collections and three novellas. All deal with rather dark subject matter and are fantastic reads.

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Marcel Aymé – The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Pushkin Press): This collection of stories is absolutely brilliant. It belongs alongside the works of Borges, Kafka, Gogol, and Cortázar. The stories combine surrealism and biting social satire. Among the denizens you will find in these pages: a man who discovers he suddenly has the ability to walk through walls, a woman who can replicate herself infinitely, young boys dreaming of seven league boots, governments that can legislate leaps forward and backward in time.

Lucy Wood – Diving Belles (Mariner Books): These contemporary tales are drenched in Cornish folklore, and range from the charming to the downright unsettling. Most of the stories are wonderfully dark and incredibly original. For a debut collection of stories, this is rather masterful. If you’re a fan of Panos Karnezis or Karen Russell, these stories will be right up your street. They skillfully blend the fantastic with gritty realism, and are incredibly evocative of place – the wilds of Cornwall and the salt-sea air of its coastline.

Denis Johnson – Train Dreams (Picador): Denis Johnson’s latest novella is entirely deserving of all the praise heaped upon it, and in all honesty, should have taken the Pulitzer this year. Concentrated, evocative, and moving, the novella contains all of the mythology of the American northwest in its slim binding and at its core stands Robert Grainier, the hero figure – hardworking, taciturn, and touched by tragedy. Johnson weaves incredibly intense episodes from Grainier’s life into a tapestry of the history of the American West. Wonderful single-sitting read.

Chico Buarque – Spilt Milk (Grove Press): Eulálio Montenegro d’Assumpção – descendant of Portuguese nobility, former weapons dealer, great-great-grandfather of a Brazilian drug dealer – lies in a hospital bed in his one-hundredth year of life and remembers. In his old age and infirmity, his stories blend and blur, weaving together past and present through images, emotions, and associations in a rich tapestry of national and family history. The short novel was awarded two of Brazil’s leading literary prizes when it was originally published in Portuguese in 2009. Buarque is well-known as a musician in Brazil, and his prose has a rhythmic, musical quality to it that carries the reader forward effortlessly.

Max Frisch – Man in the Holocene (Dalkey Archive Press): This was my first experience reading Max Frisch, and it definitely won’t be the last. The narrative is interspersed with notes and clippings from the books in the widower Geiser’s house in a Swiss valley. Outside, an epic rainstorm threatens to undermine the very solidity of the landscape with landslides and rockfalls. Inside, Geiser’s mind is undermined by his inability to recollect things he once knew, and he obsessively writes down facts on slips of paper or clips paragraphs out of his books and fastens them to the walls of his house. The narrative is claustrophobic and perfectly suited to its subject matter: an isolated man suffering the indignities of age and senility and trying to find meaning.

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I know, I know! It’s too early to talk about the holiday season. But the decorative lights are going up, and here in the Canadian hinterland there’s already plenty of snow on the ground. Actually, the primary reason I want to get this post out so early, is so that you have a chance to seek these books out at your local independent bookshop, and if they don’t have them in stock, you’ll still have plenty of time to order them in before the orgy of greed begins.

I’m going to stick to books I’ve read in the last 12 months, so some of these titles will be brand new, and some will be older books I’m just getting around to reading. I’m going to start with Young Adult fiction because it is the smallest and most manageable list. Disclaimer: I don’t read a lot of children’s books or young adult fiction, so I can’t give much insight into age appropriateness or reading levels. Ask your independent bookseller for help on that score. These books are reviewed from an adult reader’s point of view.

Markus Zusak – The Book Thief (Knopf Books for Young Readers): Okay, I know I’m late to the party on this one, but as I said, I don’t read a lot of YA, so the ones folks recommend to me will often sit on the shelf for months or years before they are picked up on a whim. I read this while traveling in Romania, and was so affected by it that as I finished it on the plane to my next destination, I was silently, unapologetically weeping. The story is narrated by Death and follows Liesel Meminger, a foster child living outside Munich, through the Second World War. As should be evident from the title, a key theme is the importance of books and stories as nourishment for our souls. All of the characters have tremendous depth, and the story is very moving.

Avi – The Seer of Shadows (HarperCollins Canada): In spite of the fact that Avi writes books marketed for children, his language is more sophisticated than that of most contemporary adult fiction writers. This was my first exposure to Avi, and I was originally drawn to the book by the fascinating subject matter, early photography and the spirit photography hoaxes of the late 19th Century. Horace, a rational young man apprenticing to a society photographer, and Pegg, an African American servant girl in the wealthy Von Macht household, join forces when the spirit of the Von Macht’s dead daughter Eleanora begins appearing in photographs intent on exacting vengeance upon those who abused her. The story is vivid and full of wonderful imagery and detail about the magic of photography. Avi writes vividly about a fascinating historical period full of sweeping technological and social change, and tells a rather frightening ghost story as well.

John Green – The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton Juvenile): This novel will make you laugh and break your heart, often at the same time. In a wonderful narrative voice, Green tells the story of Hazel, a 16-year-old girl battling terminal cancer, trying to live some semblance of a life, and crushing on a boy. The story is honest, funny, and wrenching. The reactions of Hazel, her family, and her friends to the limitations and frustrations of illness (especially terminal illness) ring true and take the novel far beyond the realm of schlocky, sentimental teen cancer stories into the realm of insight and empathy. Given the subject matter, you can expect this story to be a weeper, but oftentimes the weeping is accompanied with laughter at the cleverness, making this a perfect and cathartic good read.

Patrick Ness – A Monster Calls (Candlewick): Having lost my father to cancer when I was 14 years old, I found this story particularly wrenching. Also, you must buy this in print (not digital) because Jim Kay’s illustrations are stunning and evocative. Conor O’Malley’s mother is dying of cancer, and after her treatments begin the nightmares start. An ancient yew tree monster visits Conor every night at the same time. Ness approaches the subject matter with tremendous clarity, especially those things one feels they should never think, or thinks they should never feel, in such situations. The story is complex and moving.

Victor Lavalle – Lucretia and the Kroons (Random House Digital): This was one of the first titles I read entirely in digital format (and that is currently the only format it is available in). I found this story readable and compelling. The young protagonists deal the monstrous in everyday life (terminal illness, urban decay, seeking a sense of belonging, etc). Lucretia is a brave and determined urban heroine who risks a horrifying urban netherworld of mutilated crack-heads in an attempt to save her terminally ill best friend. The nightmare world that LaValle creates can be read as a sort of urban spiritual limbo, which will certainly resonate with a metropolitan audience.  I did find the writing to be a bit lacking stylistically, especially compared to the richness of the writing in the previous four titles on this list, but this is definitely an interesting read, especially for those who enjoy urban dystopian fantasy.

The next batch of capsule reviews will focus on my favorite adult reads of the year. The biggest problem with that project will be whittling the list down to something manageable!

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