Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Zhivago Affair

I am a sucker for Soviet Russian history. The Cold War. Guys in red uniforms (my loves for Mounties and the red army undoubtedly are linked. Mmmm...Cossacks). A country with a cultural history of lauding writers even while oppressing thought. This is my golden age of history. You bet I was eager to read The Zhivago Affair.

What I knew before reading the book: Boris Pasternak wrote only one novel, Doctor Zhivago, which was made into a pretty good movie with a soundtrack that sticks in your head. Pasternak was a poet. He won the Nobel Prize. He didn't accept it. I knew that the early translation of Doctor Zhivago wasn't great because I sold the new translation a few years ago and we were told that the early translation wasn't great. Holy cow, though, there's so much more to this story.
Boris Pasternak on
the cover of Time

In The Zhivago Affair, authors Peter Finn and Petra Couvee dig into the history of Pasternak, the novel, and how it came to be. Pasternak was the biggest writer of his era in Russia, a celebrity whose prestige earned him sweet housing from the communist regime. He started writing a novel set during the Russian Revolution, and as he wrote it, he gave readings at parties. People knew that the book existed. Some of those people, though, were Communist Party members who worried that the book was subversive and anticommunist. The Soviets never hesitated to smack down free expression that wasn't pro-Revolution. So here is the greatest writer in the largest country in the world and he can't publish his book. Enter the CIA.

The CIA edition of the novel,
published in Europe and
smuggled back into the USSR.
Peter Finn and Petra Couvee utilized previously sealed documents to tell the story of Doctor Zhivago's publication. His Italian publisher smuggled the manuscript out of Russia. The CIA, seeing an opportunity to strike a cultural blow to the Soviet Union, worked to publish copies in Russian and then worldwide. As Doctor Zhivago jumped to the top of the US bestseller lists, Russians couldn't read it. Then some Russians attended the World's Fair, where they left to return home with black market, free copies of Doctor Zhivago tucked in their luggage. The hottest book in Soviet Russia wasn't even available technically.

The Zhivago Affair is a great cultural history of Russia, a fascinating biography of Pasternak (wife, mistress, writing career, and death), and espionage thriller too good to be true...except that it is. If you are a Liz-esque nerd, here's what you do:
Read this translation of
Doctor Zhivago

Step One: Read Doctor Zhivago. I'd give you a pass and say watch the movie, but A) that soundtrack will get stuck in your head, and B) you need to buy the book so I can stay employed. If you already have read the book or seen the movie, proceed to the next step.

Step Two: Read The Zhivago Affair. Go ahead and imagine Boris Pasternak dressed in a red uniform. That adds to the experience (Fifty Shades of Grey my ass. Fifty Shades of RED. Mmmmm.)

Step Three: Read Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. This novel plays with the cultural manipulation at play during the Cold War and is a good literary thriller from a Booker Prize-winning author with a new book out this fall.

Step Four: Add The Children Act by Ian McEwan to your list of fall books to buy when they are released. You'll be hearing more about it later (unless you're smart enough to quit reading this blog).

Step Five: Read Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It's a great history of Stalin's dictatorship, isn't at all dry, and really gives a sense of what life inside the Soviet Union was like.

Step Six: Read Alice Munro. She won the Nobel Prize. Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize. Read all of the Nobel Prize winners.

Post photographic proof that you've completed all six steps to our Facebook page and Gianna will bake you cookies. Cookies...that look like Stalin!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

J.D. Salinger on Line One

Okay, so I was preparing for sales conference in February and there was a book on the list called My Salinger Year that was a priority. "Priority"=everyone must read at least an excerpt. The thing is that I HATE reading excerpts of books. I am a book monogamist and if I start something, there's about a 95% chance that I will see the book through to the end. So I'm looking at this manuscript and I'm feeling a bit of reluctance because here's the thing: I don't really love J.D. Salinger. I started asking my colleagues. "Is it about Salinger?" "Do I have to like Salinger to like it?" "What if I think The Catcher in the Rye is stupid?*" Ultimately though, I know that it's my job to read books that I might not personally like. One of the great joys of my job, is the great discovery, and even more special is the book that turns out to be great when it defies my preconceived notions. Don't judge a book by its title, it turns out.

This is a Dictaphone.
It is not considered modern technology.
Joanna Rakoff's memoir My Salinger Year is simply a joyful, pleasurable, memorable reading experience. Fresh out of college and wanting to be a writer, Joanna takes a job as an assistant at a literary agency. For those not in the book business, pretty much if you want to get a publishing deal, you first have to find an agent. This agency is an old house of some repute, and Joanna is excited to dive into work. She's so excited, in fact, that her first day happens to be the day of a blizzard and she's the only person who shows up for work. It's an auspicious start. Also, though it's 1996, the office still uses typewriters and Dictaphones. I was in college in 1996 and I know for a fact that computers and email were common and the standard for communicating and word processing. And then there's the agency's most famous client, Jerry.
Joanna Smith Rakoff
No longer an agent's assistant.

Jerry, of course, is famous recluse J.D. Salinger, and 1996 happened to be a significant year for Salinger and his agent and his agent's assistant. Joanna answers the phone and transcribes notes and opens the many, many letters that arrive for Salinger from his fans. She is supposed to reply with a standard letter, but she's a writer and curious about the letter writers' stories and violates the form letter policy. Also, Jerry? He's hard of hearing and screams into the phone and never actually manages to call Joanna by her actual name. Joanna, too, hasn't actually read Salinger. Can you see the appeal of this book?

Rakoff writes a fun, interesting memoir that captures this one year in her life. I like her writing, and I like that the book doesn't try to do too much. It's the story of a newly independent woman making her way into the working world while trying to figure out her personal life and who she wants to be as an adult. These are Salinger-esque themes, and to some extent universal. She's not a phony. It's also a book about the publishing industry and what it's like to work behind the scenes with one of the biggest writers of the 20th Century. My Salinger Year takes the legend of J.D. Salinger and presents Jerry, the guy who calls in the talk about royalties; it's a humanizing book for both the author Salinger and the author Rakoff. This book is intelligent, wise, effervescent, a really good read. Thank goodness for assigned reading for compelling me to dive in.

*For the record, I did like Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. I think I read The Catcher in the Rye too late; as a 27 year old, Holden Caulfield struck me as a whiny, spoiled, white guy with what's referred to these days as "first world problems" (a term I also hate).

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Generally Horrible Questions: April Gosling

The ballroom in Boulder Bookstore.
It occurred to us that it's been way too long since we harassed innocent booksellers with our questions. I (Liz) met April Gosling when she was a manager at Tattered Cover in Denver, and now she works at Boulder Bookstore. Spoiler: it's in Boulder. April likes books, is from Michigan, and is engaged to a guy named Ryan but she insists that he will not be changing his name to "Ryan Gosling" after the wedding. That seems like a missed opportunity. Anyway, here's April. 

Generally Horrible Questions: April Gosling

We asked April for a picture. This is the one she chose.
Buy books from her or she will kill you.
1. Describe your bookselling odyssey. How did you end up where you are?
Kalamazoo, Michigan is the graveyard of ambition.  I had been forced into a public university after attending a private high school and starting at a private college...  So the month before school started, my sister and I applied at any number of places we thought would be cool to work at...  Cool places meaning coffee shops, and only coffee shops. We both got jobs at John Rollins Books (RIP) as baristi.  There was a lot of free coffee that year.  And my job history started to look like this: library clerk, 3rd chip waitress at a dive, comic shop clerk, bookseller, state park ranger, projectionist, bookseller, bookstore manager, and now...  Director of School and Corporate Sales (I got to make up this job title)...

Most of those jobs were at the same time as other, so really there are significant portions of my 20s that I don't remember. (There are significant portions of Gianna's 20's that she can't remember, but the lapse has nothing to do with coffee.) And very little of that was due to drugs or alcohol or strange men...  I know I dropped out of college, did a book tour for a fairly decent chapbook of poetry, and that I moved to Colorado.  The rest is remnants of old resumes I found.  Hopefully mine...
Did I mention that Kalamazoo is the graveyard of ambition?

2. What is your job now? What sort of shenanigans do you get up to?
My job now... I spend a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook. I've also been known to read at my desk. My job is to curate and grow a sales aspect of the store that didn't receive as much attention as it did before. This means, to be short, that no one knows what my job is--most importantly, my bosses. Seriously. Shenanigans? I think it's more the store than the job, but I do a surprising amount of work barefoot. Wild and crazy, I know. (How is that shocking? We don't wear pants some days.)

3. What are you reading now?
I'm reading a book that my Penguin rep guilted me into reading.  It has a horse on the cover, so if he hadn't sent a signed book from my favorite author, I would've happily ignored it.  (Girls with horse obsessions have penis issues/obsessions.)  It's The Untold by Courtney Collins.  I picked it up immediately after Neverhome by Laird Hunt.  And after finishing this, I want violence and a strong man and a Neal Stephenson-esque prose quality.  Don't get me wrong; it's beautiful, and I'm really enjoying it, but two sparse poetic novels back to back kinda hurts.

Read poetry to me, Mr. Barry.
4. What books melt your butter (if you know what we mean)?
Sebastian Barry's language.  If I could make sweet, sweet love to his use of the English language, I'd do it. Fiance be damned.  (And yes, he knows that.)  I dated a poet in college; I'd rather have the language, not the man.  Poets tend to be a wee bit fucked up, either real fuckery or feigned, they are a messy folk.  And incestuous too. (Yeah, we're glad this answer stopped here. Liz was starting to get uncomfortable...mostly because you mentioned poetry.)

5. Let’s talk about Michigan. Were you at least a little tempted by Detroit’s offer of free houses for writers?
Oh, hell yeah!  I'd live with the roving packs of wild dogs for a) a 'free' house, and b) the chance to be kinda close to home.  I don't know if I would fit the 'writer' bit...  I mean...  I write poetry about as often as a death row inmate gets a conjugal visit...  (Ooh! Death row inmates have more active social lives than Liz?! Excellent.) What else would you like to know about the best state in the union?

6. You have to eat dinner with one of these famous Ohio natives. Who do you pick, and will you bring up how your home state hates Ohio? Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson), Colonel Custer, President Warren Harding, Ted Turner, or Dean Martin? Also, does it bother you that Nobel Prize Winner Toni Morrison is from Ohio? Oh, and you can bring one of these famous Michiganites(?) to the dinner: Tim Allen, Jim Bakker, Bozo the Clown, Dave Coulier, Ted Nugent, Steven Seagal; who’s it going to be? Death is not an option.
I think Nancy Cartwright and Dean Martin would be awesome; we'd do shitty impressions while drinking whiskey and martinis.  I'm sure Dave Coulier will drink as soon as I bring up "You Oughtta Know".  So three cheers to the Mitten State!  And yes, we'd discuss the war.  Only to explain that ultimately the U.P. is bunches better than Toledo. (Okay, allow us to clarify this answer. See, it turns out that Ohio and Michigan hate each other in part because they fought a war over Toledo. Also, in this "war," there was one wounded person and no deaths. "U.P" stands for Upper Peninsula, which Michigan got to keep when it became a state since they gave up Toledo to Ohio. I can't imagine how this series of events didn't make the core curriculum in our high schools. Anyway, the correct answers to this series of questions are: Harding, yes, Jim Bakker.)

7. Let’s talk nuptials. On a scale of 1 to Book Nerd Insanity, where does your upcoming wedding rank? 
What’s the coolest/craziest thing you’re planning? Are you registering at a bookstore?
Imagine April and Ryan Gosling under this arch.
I feel like we crested the scale when we did the math on exactly how many average-sized hardcovers it will take to construct an arch roughly seven feet high and five feet across.  Or dividing our books by color for the DIY projects we've left to do...  Note to publishers: Please print books in steel gray, sage green, and majolica blue.  Stop with the black.  It's fucking up my arch.  And all the crazy book decorations seem normal to me now, so can't say what's craziest...  I get to use power tools to drill holes through books!  That's probably a bad thing.  The fiance hasn't given up the idea of having a bookstore onsite, so perhaps the registering. (Since your job involves special event sales, there pretty much has to be an onsite bookstore.)

8. Liz or Gianna?
Better the devil I know, so Liz.  Sorry, G; I'm sure you're swell. (Naturally, the correct answer is always Liz.)

9. Astros or Cubs? (Keep in mind that we take our baseball very seriously.)
This is like a Buzzfeed quiz where the obvious choices of Tigers, Red Wings, or huh? are missing.  I was in Chicago when the Cubs won some important game back in 2006-ish, so we'll go with Cubs. (Your life will be filled with disappointment. Just like Gianna's.)

10. Do you have a magical moment working in the book business that stands out?
Good:  The release of the last Harry Potter.  I was working at Horizon Books in Petoskey, MI.  The staff all dressed as characters; we had classes, a basilisk cave, and tons of people.  At midnight, the manager jumped onto the counter and we started passing out books.  Simple enough.

Bad:  Same bookstore, about a year later.  Customer goes on about how expensive the small city is; he stops complaining for a moment, looks at me and says, "Where do the poor people live?  Like ones with your job?"  I answered we all lived under the bridge during the summer, raise our prices, and live relatively well on the money we made off the tourists during the summer.

11. Dish on your boss. We promise that no one reads this blog.
I feel like a gargantuan monster when standing next to my boss.  Even if you have zero readers, there is nothing bad to say...  He chews loudly?
Read poetry to me, Mr. Franco.

12. Any author crushes?
Hmm...  Yeah...  Nope.  I'd like to keep the crushes quiet as the crushes are local authors who may or may not follow me on Twitter. (Got it. We're just going to say that it's James Franco.)

13. Where do you hope to go in Book Land? (What does the future hold?)
Beyond the extreme respect and notoriety among my bookselling kin?  My crazy old lady dream is to own a bed & breakfast with a bookshop...  However, the future holds as the present is; until the fiance has a job that means I can work part time, and then only if the job is fairly stress free and fun.  Yes, he knows this. Then all your books are belong to me.  And my tons of reading time.

Man... I don't curse enough.  And there are like zero lies in here. (Sucker.)

Thanks April.