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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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SIPS

Happy Summer Solstice! On this longest day of the year and first day of summer, I am kicking off my latest reading project—Support Indie Publishers Summer (or #SIPS in hashtagese). Inspired by my love of indie publishers and my need to tackle some of my TBR in earnest (and also my impending unemployment, which will give me the free time to read and blog about great books—although hot tips on publishing jobs are most welcome), I will be blogging and tweeting about what I read and also including some features on publishers or more in-depth analyses of books or stories that I love. I encourage everyone to seek out books from independent publishers this summer, and if you can’t buy them direct from the publisher, please buy from a local or nearby independent bookshop or borrow from the library.

Here follows the lecture portion of this blogpost: The whole point of a project like this is to support independent business. Corporate chains selling yoga mats and home décor with books on the side or evil online monopolies run by inhumane gazillionaires are not businesses anyone should support. Ordering direct from an indie publisher or an indie bookshop might cost a bit more in shipping or take a little longer to arrive, but the satisfaction of knowing that your dollars are deeply appreciated and are going back in to the local independent arts and culture economy is worth it.

So, today, I’m just going to encourage you to visit the websites of some of my very favourite indie publishers and browse around and perhaps do a little shopping to get ready for #SIPS. I can’t possibly list all the publishers I’ll mention this summer (mostly because I’m bound to forget someone crucial), and I’m not going to recommend any books to you at this point, because I want you to explore and find the books that appeal to you. I’ll evangelize about my faves later. I do want to hear from people about what indie published books they’re reading this summer, and if you are blogging or tweeting about things, let me know and I’ll boost the signal. In any case, here is a starter list, to be amended as the summer wears on, of the publishers whose books I will definitely be chatting about. There’s a mix of Canadian, American, Irish, and UK-based publishers here, as well as English language and translation-focused publishers.

And Other Stories

Archipelago Books

Biblioasis

Blue Moose Books

Canongate

Catapult

Coach House

Coffee House Press

Dalkey Archive Press

Deep Vellum Press

Dorothy

Feminist Press

Galley Beggar Press

Gaspereau Press

Granta

Graywolf Press

Hingston & Olsen

Lilliput Press

McSweeney’s

Melville House

New Directions

New Island Books

New York Review of Books

Open Letter Press

Pushkin Press

Salt

Small Beer Press

Soft Skull Press

The Stinging Fly

Tin House

Tramp Press

Transit Books

Two Dollar Radio

Wakefield Press

I promise at least weekly posts (I am busy job hunting, after all), and will post more frequently when I am able. Here we go. Happy reading!

 

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SIPSAfter one of the most interminable winters (no, seriously) filled with very little recreational reading and a lot of terrible undergrad essays, I have decided that I am going to spend my impending unemployment (btw, I’m looking for a job in publishing… pass it on!) catching up my TBR list (just kidding — it’s as interminable as an Edmonton winter). I’ve noticed lately that several of my favourite indie presses have been struggling or running fundraising campaigns so that they can continue to do the vital work that they do. So, from June 21 to September 22, I am going to dedicate this blog (which has long been in hibernation) to writing about great books from indie presses that you should read. I’ll be tweeting about the books with the hashtag #SIPS (which, let’s face it, acknowledges the other main activity of the summer that will accompany my reading). I’ve yet to settle on the details of the approach (which was originally going to be a publisher a week, but then I realized I couldn’t squeeze all my lovely favourites in!), so it will probably be seat-of-the-pants, as per usual. So, I’d love it if you all would join me in spreading the love for indie presses this summer. (And also, I obviously just want to snoop what you are reading). More to come next week!

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When the inaugural Man Booker International Prize was awarded in 2005 to Ismail Kadare (an Albanian author previously unknown to me who now ranks among my favourite writers — especially his novel, The Palace of Dreams), I was overjoyed. Too long had I found the Man Booker Prize sort of dull and full of the same old, same old literary fiction, (often high quality, but rarely surprising). Here, however, was a prize that was “international” in scope and welcomed literature in translation. Just think of the new authors and untapped regional writing that global audiences would be introduced to! The prize is only awarded every two years, so the wait for the next prize was a tortuous one. When it was finally awarded to Chinua Achebe in 2007, I was a little disappointed — not because I think Achebe doesn’t deserve an award for his body of work, but rather because he has received so many accolades and is already part of the World Literature canon. I’ve read Achebe, and I like Achebe, and I think more people should read him. I was just hoping that some lesser known international writer would receive the prize so I could have a new list of titles to work my way through, as I did with Kadare’s works. Instead, I could just nod my head and agree that Achebe’s work is important.

The disappointment I felt at Achebe’s win was insignificant in comparison to the utter despair that has accompanied each subsequent Man Booker International Prize announcement: Alice Munro in 2009, Philip Roth in 2011, and Lydia Davis in 2013. Again, I’m sure each of these writers is deserving of a prize for their body of work, but it is beginning to feel as though the MBI is the consolation prize for deserving authors who’ve been overlooked for the Booker because of the limitations of that prize (awarded only for novels by citizens of the UK, Commonwealth, and Rep. of Ireland – and so we have two short story writers and two Americans who would not qualify for the Booker winning the last three MBIs).

The Man Booker International Prize has betrayed readers all around the globe. Does it not seem strange that an “international” prize has been awarded four out of five times to a writer writing in English? Three times to North Americans? And only once to a writer that wasn’t already a household name in literary circles? Are there so few living authors whose work is available in translation that are worthy of an award for their body of work? They should just call it the Booker Minor Prize and jettison the facade of “internationalism”, because they are doing a great injustice to literatures in languages other than English by failing to acknowledge their contributions to the literary landscape of the world.

The Nobel Prize for Literature usually provides some succour for those of us who crave literature with an international flavour, but the award of the prize to Alice Munro in 2013, while well-deserved, robbed me of that pleasure. (I’m Canadian. I’m already familiar with Alice Munro. Sigh.) And so, I must seek out the smaller prizes for their winners and short lists to sate my appetite for world literature. The Neustadt Prize was awarded in 2013 to Mia Couto, a Mozambican author who writes in Portuguese, and although he is a writer I was already happily familiar with (his novels Sleepwalking Land and The Last Flight of the Flamingo on my list of favourites already), I was at least able to seek out his newest offering, The Tuner of Silences. But where is the recognition for the bodies of work produced by authors such as Park Wan-Suh (Korean), or Cesar Aira (Argentinian), Alessandro Baricco (Italian), Cees Nooteboom (Dutch), and countless others whose works have been widely available in English translation?

In 2005, I had hoped that the Man Booker International Prize was on track to correct this oversight, but alas, I must finally admit that I have been betrayed. The news that next year’s announcement will take place in Cape Town, South Africa does not give me much hope that things will change any time soon. In fact, if I were a betting woman, I’d put money on J.M. Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer getting the prize (since I now have to take Doris Lessing out of the running, as she has so recently passed on) — again, deserving of a prize for their bodies of work, but again, writers whose works are written in English and are familiar ground in literary circles. My greatest hope is that the 2015 Man Booker International Prize will return to its 2005 form and declare a winner that I’ve never heard of before. But what are the odds?

Update (March 2015): Happily, it appears that the judges read my blog and took my advice to heart (because I am certain they take obscure Canadian bloggers very seriously). Read all about it here: How the Man Booker International Prize Redeemed Itself

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So, my grand plans for participating in the blogosphere regularly and in earnest this year have gone the way most of my New Year’s resolutions go: absolutely nowhere. In the first week of January I found myself suddenly with 5 jobs, and sadly wasn’t even able to post the last of my 2012 lists. So, because I still have not had time to do proper capsule reviews for my favourite literary reads of the year, I am just going to give you the list. If you trust my judgement, you should definitely pick these up. If you don’t trust my judgement (yet, because it is just a matter of time, really), you should look these titles up and get more feedback. I have no reservations at all in whole-heartedly endorsing every book on this list. They might offer something quite different from one another, but each title is moving and interesting or innovative in its own way. These are the books I would like to force on all my friends:

The Other City – Michal Ajvaz

Dublinesque – Enrique Vila-Matas

Varamo – César Aira

The Following Story – Cees Nooteboom

Spilt Milk – Chico Buarque

The Ocean Sea – Alessandro Barrico

The Man Who Walked Through Walls – Marcel Aymé

Man in the Holocene – Max Frisch

Circus Bulgaria – Deyan Enev

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

Glaciers – Alexis M. Smith

Radio Iris – Anne-Marie Kinney

Tell the Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt

The Emperor of Paris – C.S. Richardson

Love and the Mess We’re In – Stephen Marche

 

Let me know if you agree. If not, that’s great too, because one of my favourite things about literature is that encourages debate and discussion. Happy reading!

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Recap: The Year in Reading

Well, I just squeaked in under the wire on my goal of reading 50 books for fun this year. So, as I get ready for the new reading challenge, I would like to revisit some of the books that saw me through 2012.

First book: The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, Volume 1 – edited by Joseph-Gordon Levitt

Last book: Hawthorn and Child – Keith Ridgway

Best read: Angelmaker – Nick Harkaway

Best book(s): Varamo – Cesar Aíra, The Ocean Sea – Alessandro Baricco

Best novella: Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

Best short story collection: The Man Who Walked Through Walls – Marcel Aymé

Best young adult book: The Seer of Shadows – Avi

Book(s) I haven’t finished (because if I really love a book, I don’t want it to end, and I foolishly slow down or stop reading to accomplish the not-ending) that would definitely make my “best of” list: Dublinesque – Enrique Vila-Matas, The Other City – Michal Ajvaz

Worst book: Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

I’m starting 2013 with a couple of goals in mind. I will try to read 52 books next year, in spite of the fact that I will be working 3 jobs for at least the first 6 months. I am also hoping to post on this blog on a more regular schedule. Wish me luck. I look forward to sharing my reads with everyone, and wish you all a joyous and book-filled new year!

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Here, finally, is the second installation of the books I had the most fun reading this year. These books were a blast. You should read them.

George and Weedon Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody (Oxford): A friend gave this to me the last time I was in Scotland. I was so enchanted by its quiet charm and gentle social satire that I read it in a single sitting. The suburban Englishman’s diary entries of daily routines in Victorian England are full of slapstick and social faux-pas. I thought it was absolutely hysterical.

Kevin Barry – The City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape): Great read. The west Irish accent really comes through here in the speech patterns. There are wonderful turns of phrase, and a Burgess-like linguistic invention. I love Barry’s language, and the non-tech vision of the future gives the story an oddly workable hybrid of old west/1920s mobster feeling. The characterization could use some work, and the plot seems to lose steam, but all in all it was a very refreshing read. This is a must-read just for the incredible inventiveness of the language.

Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo (Portobello): Tiffany Murray has an excellent ear for storytelling language. Here, she tells the story of the Llewellyn family who run a recording studio in rural Wales. The story follows the family from the 1970’s through to the 1990s. I especially enjoyed the character of Nana, and the back-story of Halo’s parents, which contains wonderful imagery and is emotionally pitch-perfect. There is a pseudo-taboo broken in the latter part of the novel that I wasn’t terribly smitten with, but it is a small flaw easily over-looked in light of the sheer joy to be found in the language, and the overwhelming charm of so many of the characters. Also, two of the best literary grandmothers EVER live within the pages of this book.

Robin Sloan – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux): Sloan’s fast-paced romp through bookshops, secret societies, and the world of high-tech gadgetry is an ode to friendship and a recognition that perhaps the tech world and the book world aren’t really as distant from one another in their principles as we have been made to believe. This one’s a bit slick, and not as “bookish” as I might have liked, but it made me think about my own book vs. tech assumptions a little more carefully. It’s a light, quick read, and very timely.

Patrick DeWitt – The Sisters Brothers (Ecco): Okay, this is a bit of a cheat because I technically read it last year, but it’s now available in paperback and was so entertaining that it deserves a spot on this list. If you haven’t read Patrick DeWitt’s dark and hilarious tale of two assassin brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, you have been missing out. It’s full of murder, gold, sibling rivalry, and a desperate need just to be loved. Fantastic!

 

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