Thursday, June 21, 2012

Signed Encounters of the Firsts Kind: Jess Walter in New York City, June 20, 2012


Jess Walter talked with writer/editor Ben Greenman and signed books including his new one, Beautiful Ruins (Harper Collins, 2012), last night in Manhattan at the magnificent McNally Jackson Books. The talk was informative and entertaining and Walter came across as a warm, humble and thoughtful with an evident sense of humor. He tells personally mortifying stories with casualness. The youthful scar of playing spin the bottle with a girl who chose to lick the toilet seat rather than smooch him. Or the time he showed up for what he thought was a public book signing at Powell's books in Portland. He is also quite adept at chosing metaphors that must help aspiring writers a deeper understanding of the writing process.

Walter was happy to sign my entire Jess Walter library. Happier than the people behind me in line.

Walker is one of those authors where meeting them makes you want to keep reading them! I recently finished Citizen Vince and planned on reading The Zero next, though Walter was kind enough to recommend a personal reading schedule (of his work) with a glint in his eye. Maybe I'll read Lives of the Poets next instead, since that's what he told me to do.

Some interesting points from the discussion: Beautiful Ruins is a novel some 15 years in the making, according to Walter. Walter has been a working journalist and his work tends to jump between genres, managing to be both literary and page turning. He doesn't like to read or write the same book twice. Explaining the kind of propulsiveness he aims at in his writing, Walter mentioned David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, so it will be interesting to look for influence in this novel. A few other interesting points came out of the discussion. When he hit a wall in the writing of Beautiful Ruins, Walter took 8 months off at one point to write The Financial Lives of Poets (Harper, 2009), a less sprawling, less complex effort, the shortest time he has ever taken to finish a book.

Reflecting on the genesis of this novel, Walter told a few amusing stories of his Hollywood encounters over the years and the two speakers reflected on what the decline of journalism as a feeder for fiction means for the future. Several of his novels have been optioned, and Walter once failed an audition to be one of the screen writers for the adaptation of one of his own books. With the devastation of the newspaper business nearing completion, Greenman and Walter worried, we may be losing a key source of novelists and writers, who bring a particular set of skills (such as the ability to write on deadline) and outlooks we may well miss when they're gone.


It has been a busy few weeks at McNally Jackson Books, which is such a great space and atmosphere that I feel moved to mention again how great it is. It is great: thoughtfully appointed, welcoming, creatively organized, an emphasis on signed books for people like me. There is even a little cafe with delicious tiny pies that mocked me from the safety of their case when I finally found a seat. They stage the events and get out of the way, allowing the featured artists to stretch out and take whatever time they need. They don't over-manage the signings.

We may have turned a corner here with the dissolution of Borders and the apparent revival or at least of resilience of the American independent bookstore, but I can't help feel a slight sadness whenever I spend time in stores that have managed to become bonifide community centers in addition to being well run businesses tending to my obsession, such as the Bookshop SantaCruz, the Odyssey in Hadley MA, Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, Vromans in Pasadena, Greenlight in Brooklyn, etc. How will these stores maintain their quality or even stay in business? Of course, I do my level best to impoverish myself to keep such stores in business, but it might not be enough.


Here is Walter's signature from last night. I am fairly confident that it is authentic!

For comparison, below is one from several years ago, on a book I purchased from a dealer.

Finally, a close up from last night.



Tuesday, June 19, 2012

First Encounters of the Signed Kinds: John Lanchester in New York City, June 18, 2012

John Lanchester presented and signed his new novel Capital (UK Faber and Faber, 2012; US WW Norton, 2012) last night at Barnes and Noble on the Upper East Side. Lanchester delivered some informative prepared remarks about the genesis of this rather large novel (the US edition is 527 pages), read a funny, engaging chapter, took a few questions and signed books. Lanchester, who grew up in Hong Kong and has published three previous novels, a memoir and some journalism, set out in this project to trace what he called the "London Dream." He became interested in the stories of those who are flocking from all over to try to make it in London and he noticed that in some neighborhoods the homes themselves, their rising property values and multiplying attendents, had become characters themselves.

Lanchester's novel is set in late 2000s financial crisis, war on terror-era London. Interestingly, he also published a brief non-fiction account of the financial crisis, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (Simon and Schuster, 2010) as he worked on the novel. Judging from the reading, the book sounds like a good read, like a literary page turner.

Above left, the first UK (and true first) edition. The American first is on the right. Below are two samples of Lanchester's Capital signature. Below is the signed UK first, acquired from a reputable British bookseller.

Finally, for comparison we have the US first edition, signed for me in person last night.

Finally, a close-up:


Monday, June 18, 2012

Firsts Encounters of the Signed Kind: Jonathan Franzen in Santa Cruz, CA June 16, 2012

We book collectors occasionally enjoy serendipitous episodes of in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time luck, though they may appear to our loved ones as obsessiveness. This weekend, I happened to be in a coffee shop in beautiful Santa Cruz, CA when a fellow at the next table reading Farther Away (FSG, 2012), Jonathan Franzen's recent collection of essays, mentioned that the author himself would be presenting and signing across the street the next night. Moreover, he had heard that this would be Franzen's only appearance promoting this book! Take that, New Yorkers!

Franzen takes Santa Cruz!!

Low and behold, I was able to saunter into Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Avenue, the next evening and jump in at the very end of the signing line to meet Jonathan Franzen himself. The store was indeed advertising that the June 16th event would be the only book talk for the new book, so we will have to see. I got a kind of laugh with the sometimes too serious seeming American uber-novelist, when I lamely riffed on the suggestion that my parents had named me after June 16. Though I've been reading Franzen since the pre-Corrections days and loved his early work, I haven't followed him so closely lately so I didn't know that he splits his time between NYC and Santa Cruz. It makes sense, given his commitment to bird watching. The book is a collection of essays, some older and familiar, but so far I have enjoyed reaquainting myself with his insights on technology, China-hating, loss, American life, etc. America doesn't love a downer, but Franzen seems determined to carry through his role as a literary guide through our often disappointing American cultural landscape.

You might try calling the Bookshop if you'd like a signed copy, since I believe I saw him signing stock (the number is 831-423-0900).

I have long relished my trips to Santa Cruz. It isn't easy to get to, but the scenery and atmosphere are worth the trip. Of course, I also enjoy it as something of a booking mecca. There are three excellent bookstores right on the main drag, Pacific Avenue, so send your family to roam the shopping area or see a movie and disappear into the world of independent stores and used books. The ginormous Borders that coexisted with the others for so long is gone, unfortunately (I once found a first printing of Harding's Tinkers there, sitting innocently on the shelf), but the three remaining indies more than provide a satisfying hunting experience. Bookshop Santa Cruz is the largest independent on the block and is a refreshingly vital place; the enormous space is something of a community center and they host events, babysit children and provide the other services now required from independents wanting to stay afloat. Normally you can find a few signed recent releases and some remaindered gems in there somewhere. When you exhaust the Bookshop, you could make your way to the enormous used bookstore down the street, Logos 1117 Pacific Ave, and scour their offerings. They sell rare and signed books here in a dedicated section, but these offerings are not always in the best shape, so I recommend dive into their fiction section where you can find some nice surprises at fair prices. Finally, it isn't always open in off seasons, but if you get the chance check out the Literary Guillotine, a tiny but impressively stocked academic bookstore tucked down a side street (Locust St.). Here you can enjoy another dose of serendipity as browsing the well chosen stock will lead you in unexpected directions. Santa Cruz's resiliant book culture--hopefully an inspiration to other communities-- is worth braving the confusing agricultural roads if you're headed up from Southern California, or the big city style traffic if you fly into San Jose.

Above, here is what Franzen's signature looks like these days. Not that different from the one below, taken after a signing in Los Angeles on his Freedom tour a few years back.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Signed Encounters of the Firsts Kind: Kate Christensen in NYC, June 12, 2012

Kate Christensen appeared last night at the wonderful independent bookstore Mc Nally Jackson in Manhatten to discuss and sign her recent book The Astral (Doubleday, 2011), on the occasion of its paperback release. She started the book, which deals with marriage problems and is set in Brooklyn, knowing she was leaving Brooklyn but unaware her own marriage would be ending soon. Christensen's wonderful laugh is reason enough to go see her if she comes through your town.

Christensen, who won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for her fourth novel, The Great Man, has a winning, charismatic personality and her interview revealed some interesting points about the intersection of her writing and her personal life. A longtime resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint where the novel is set, Christensen wrote the book as she was in the process of moving to Portland, Maine where she lives now. She was intrigued by the stories she heard about The Astral, a really exisiting apartment building in Greenpoint, but has never set foot inside. Below is the cover of the first edition of The Astral.


Christensen's work has moved to more fully embrace a theme long present in her work--food!--and she now writes a sort of food blog which is worth a look. She is working on a food related memoir right now. You can read up on her and her work here and here.


Below is the signed title page; pretty cool flourish!



Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Signed Encounters of the Firsts Kind: Richard Russo in New York City, June 4, 2012

A horse but personable Richard Russo discussed and signed his new collection Interventions (DownEast, 2012), along with his daughter, the artist Kate Russo, last night at the wonderful Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY. The book is actually 4 slight paper booklets in a more substantial slip case, and is meant to be a tribute to the printed book; in other words a book that is not e-bookable. The collection features a new novella, "Intervention," and three previously published works, "Horseman," The Whore's Child," and "High and Dry." Each volume has laid in a postcard size reproduction of a Kate Russo painting inspired by and encapsulating the story inside.

The Russos spent the discussion period advocating for independent bookstores and allowing new or young novelists the chance to be browsed. They also talked briefly about the art behind the book itself. Russo argued that depending on the algorithms of the Amazons of the world--the "you may like" phenomenon-- or the selection of a big box store--where you can find mostly authors with "names"--has the pernicious effect of undermining (sometimes quite purposefully) not only the independent book store, but also a significant process of discovery. Without curated indies, readers will not be able to happen upon many less established authors and we will all suffer. This is all well and good, but doesn't tell the whole story which is far more complicated to my mind. One of the things not addressed was embodied in Russo's book project to keep books alive; a copy of Interventions will run you $40, a price out of reach for many people. As a book fetishist who struggles not to spend his entire disposable income on books at independent stores (I rarely buy fiction from Amazon as first printings cannot be guaranteed), I am keenly aware that while I do my personal best to keep them in business, these stores generally charge much more for books. That's fine for people with money.

Personally, I think (and hope) physical books are more like blue jeans than LPs. I like to see signed first editions as a little democratic works of art.

On a more selfish note, I also think this whole discussion is why independents should (and often do) nurture readers who like to collect books and get their books signed. By nurture, I mean host as many author readings and signings as possible. Author appearances can create a bond between readers and writers and energize a local reading community. They are relatively low cost ways to make a store a cultural center. And Amazon doesn't sell signed books. By nurture, I also mean do not get uptight when collectors or dealers buy multiple copies or bring their own to get signed and fall into the trap of making up rules to restrict signings. I always spend more freely in stores that don't hassle me for getting my own books signed and I am convinced that the store makes more money short term, from the traffic that readings bring in and, more long term, from the good will established by letting me get my books signed without bs. Don't make me buy a book AND prevent me from getting back titles signed at the same time. This is why I will patronize warm, inviting stores like Greenlight, McNally Jackson and Book Court, and avoid the Strand to the extent that that is possible. I'm talking to you Strand.

Anyhow, getting down off my soap box, below is Russo's current signature.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Signed Encounters of the Firsts Kind: Elizabeth Strout in New York City May 31, 2012

Elizabeth Strout, author of several novels including the amazing, Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008), spoke at The Center for Fiction in New York City last night. Strout was joined by Rick Moody and Susan Minot in a discussion of the short stories of John Cheever. Cheever, who died in 1982 (interesting article here) has had an enormous impact on all three authors, each of whom read briefly from his stories and commented on Cheever's influence.

Strout admitted an obsession with Cheever and the panel seemed to lament the fact that the current generation of grad students and workshop writers are not as familiar with Cheever as they could be. The story of his personal life is riveting--Cheever struggled with alcoholism and depression--but last night's discussion focused on the work of this self-taught writer, and last night the audiance certainly gained a more complete understanding of his writing.

Strout warmly signed a few books at the end of the night. The two signatures below were done minutes apart, and it may be interesting to see how the same author's signature can change in one night (see the "s").

If you haven't read it, Olive Kitteridge is one of the most enjoyable recent Pulitzer winners for my money.

It is odd to me that there are so few F-NF, non-remaindered signed copies of this book on the market. Perhaps Strout does not make many public appearances. I remember being challenged to acquire a first printing of this book the year it was released, so I wonder about the size of the print run.