Farewell to Partners & Crime

Yesterday I learned the sad news via GalleyCat that after 18 years in business, Partners & Crime, the superb West Village independent bookstore dedicated entirely to new/used/rare mystery, crime, espionage, and thriller fiction is closing. The one positive–and it’s a big one considering recent bookstore closure trends–is that P&C does not seem to be shuttering because of any problems with rent or sales. (It’s not every closing bookstore that thanks its landlord…) Here’s the goodbye message they’ve posted on their website’s homepage:

After 18 years in the shop on Greenwich Avenue, Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers is closing its doors on September 20th.

We’ve had a great run and have enjoyed helping a generation of readers find the books they love.

We’ve had a lot of fun, learned a tremendous amount, and enjoyed our time with all of you – customers, authors and publishers.

Stop by, reminisce and check out our THANK YOU sale — and maybe find that favorite title you really can’t live without!

Couldn’t have done it without you!

With our great appreciation to all , and a special thank you to Bernard Charles, our landlord, for all their support.

So there you have it–a little over a month to do just as P&C suggests: stop by, say thank you, buy a book, and bid adieu to a great New York City institution.

For my part, I thank you very much, Partners & Crime! Your interested, interesting, friendly, and knowledgeable staff assisted me in particular with tracking down/selecting a number Scandinavian crime novels, right as I started getting into the genre. Some of these were harder to acquire than others, too: I remember, for one, the gentleman who helped me order Lime’s Photograph when I was frustratedly trying to find any Danish thrillers or crime fiction whatsoever–I actually enjoyed our conversation more than the book.

El libro que no puede esperar

Yesterday, I came across this Galley Cat post about El libro que no puede esperar (The Book That Can’t Wait), a new collection of Latin American fiction published by Eterna Cadencia which is printed with disappearing ink. Once the book is exposed to light and air (it’s sold in shrink-wrapped plastic pouches which have to be torn open), the ink will begin to fade. So it is only actually readable for about two months. After that, all you have is a blank book.

If this seems like a somewhat self-defeating, gimmicky concept, consider the rationale. Per the video embedded below:

“Books are very patient objects. We buy them and then they wait for us to read them–days, months, even years. That’s okay for books, but not for new authors. If people don’t read them, the authors don’t make it to a second book. That’s why Eterna Cadencia, an independent publisher and bookstore, decided to create something different, to launch their new authors into the market: The Book That Can’t Wait.”

Okay then. So now you’ve got an interesting concept, one which actually alters the relationship between the reader/book buyer and not only the purchased book, and also the book’s author. Additionally, given the limited time frame during which you can actually read it, this book challenges the expectations that most of us have for a reading experience. I’m not sure I’m totally in favor of it, honestly, but it’s worth parsing a bit.

On the reader/book relationship:

  • Part of the appeal of buying books, honestly, is owning the object itself. I freely admit this–I like being surrounded by books in my home and while I could just get everything from the library, there are a lot of books that I prefer to own rather than borrow. But it’s not like buying a painting–unless you are a collector of artist books, the object itself is still valuable and desirable because it’s functional, not solely because it has a beautiful cover. So if you buy a book which quickly loses its functionality, and isn’t in and of itself a beautiful, timeless object, what do you have, really? A conversation piece, I suppose, but not much else.

On the reading experience:

  • Part of owning a book is that you can always refer back to the text–can re-read and re-experience a story or novel. I’m not a chronic re-reader myself, but I do often find myself going back to specific passages in a book, or just as importantly, lending it to someone else who I think would enjoy it as well. By essentially restricting the reading experience to one person–the person who buys the book–you lose the communal, social possibilities–the shared experience of book lending. This is not so different from the ludicrous proprietary restrictions on a good many e-books right now which can only be read on one person’s device and can’t be easily or freely shared among readers. I understand that the intent is to encourage people to delve into a book quickly, but if the whole point is to boost new authors, wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest if those authors could be exposed to more readers through book sharing?
  • Again, most readers expect that their reading experience is not finite, but that it can be repeated, at least in part, over and over again. You return to a favorite passage, re-read a memorable scene, share the book with someone else. Owning a book usually means that you can go back and if not have the exact same experience each time, at least have a very similar one. But if the text itself disappears and you can only really read the book once, then this reading experience becomes much more similar to that of watching a play on stage. As a theater-goer, you know and expect that you will see a play or performance only once. Even if you were to go back and see the same play a few days later, it would be a different experience–you’ll never replicate the first performance completely. El libro que no puede esperar necessitates an experience more like theater-going than reading, and I actually think that’s one of the most interesting, and possibly successful, aspects. You have to be much more present and attentive during the initial reading because you don’t really have the option of going back and revisiting it again in a few months.

On readers’ responsibility to authors:

  • This is where I think the logic gets fuzzy, or perhaps just more transparent. According to the video, if  “people don’t read [authors’ first books], the authors don’t make it to a second book.” I get what they are saying: if an author’s first book doesn’t sell enough copies, then they frequently aren’t deemed successful enough to have a second book contract. But there is a big difference between being read and selling books. And this essentially brings us to the same argument that is being staged about all kinds of media/cultural output (most frequently music).

    To rehash the basic point: People (consumers) have grown accustomed to being able to access cultural products for free, and therefore are not buying nearly as many of these products as they used to. As a result, not only do the (book/music) publishers and corporate entities suffer, but the artists do as well because they can’t make a living from the sale of their art.

    I understand and, to a point, support this argument and its parallel imperative: if you value an artist’s work and want to see more of it, then you should support it–basically, you should pay for it. (I’m not going to get into all the gray areas with copyright law, open access, etc. right now–just keeping it simple for now.) But it doesn’t necessarily follow here that it is my responsibility as a reader to support all new authors by buying expensive books that I can only read once. It doesn’t follow that just because I buy this anthology and read it right away that the publisher will put out all of the included authors’ second books, either. It may be arguable that as a reader who is interested in international fiction I should make an effort to become acquainted with (and purchase, even) the work of up-and-coming authors, but I’m not sure that it’s any more my responsibility to support work just because it is new than it is the responsibility of the publisher to create multi-book contracts with new authors who may not furnish them (the publishers) with immediate best-sellers.

    And it still is a pretty slippy slope to imply that new artistic talent can only be nurtured by the frequent purchase of hard-back, first-run books.

To conclude: this is an interesting concept for sure, and it has kept me thinking (and writing) for two days now, so at the very least, Eterna Cadencia can be pleased that its hope to bring attention to the project has worked out. Although, I have to say, what I’ve spent all this time thinking about is the book’s format, not its content. I don’t know a single author in this collection. So maybe this project was a bust after all?

A Mini Mystery to Ponder Over the Long Weekend (And Beyond)…

For those armchair detectives out there who also love winning free stuff, the UK-based Book Depository is holding an eight (business) day competition to solve the “mystery of Damian Blade’s death.” The winner will receive 50 crime novels, “[r]anging from good ol’ noir and Victorian creepy to Scandinavian and downright bloody…” Here are the terms of the competition, per their website:

All you need to do is solve the mystery of Damian Blade’s death. How did Damian die? What is the cause of death in this peculiar case? We will present you with a story and give you eight clues on eight working days via our blog, starting Thursday May 24. We will use Facebook and Twitter to alert you to them.

Your first entry will be the one that counts and there will be a draw from all the correct answers; make sure you take the time to examine all 8 clues thoroughly and solve the mystery to be in with a chance to win 50 nail-biting crime books.

The prize cache is not an astounding mix of titles, but still pretty dependable, including The Complete Sherlock Holmes, The Killer Inside Me, Stig Larsson’s complete Millennium series (eh…), some mass market thrillers (James Patterson etc.), a handful of classic noirs, and even one of Melville House’s new crime releases, He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond. Worth competing for, I’d say, especially since the first clues have been rather adorably rendered. The first one is below; the rest (and full instructions/FAQs) can be found on the Book Depository website, here.

FIRST CLUE

It’s nearing midnight. Damian Blade is lying dead next to his beloved, albeit moth-eaten armchair. Perhaps you wouldn’t be able to tell immediately but, make no mistake, curious friend, Damian stopped breathing two hours ago. There is no murder weapon to be found. The room is locked from the inside and the absence of life is deafening…

Another Day, Another Contest: Jen Campbell’s “Weird Chat-Up Lines”

Hugging Book design by Thomas Keeley (found on Blurberati Blog)

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! (Or, if you will: Happy My Little Sister’s Birthday Day, everyone! Let’s hear it for turning 11!)

Jen Campbell over at This is Not the Six Word Novel and author of the just-about-published Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops is running a contest today. Says Ms. Campbell, “I want to hear the weirdest/worst chat up lines you’ve ever heard.” Two lucky winners will receive a signed copy (each) of  her forthcoming book. (Based on some of the ‘weird things’ that she’s posted about–which I re-posted here–this book is going to be hilarious. And sad. But in a funny way, you know?)

Honestly, I’ve heard a lot of weird ‘chat-up’ lines in my day (I have one of those faces that seems to encourage strange people and stranger conversation), but since she’s looking for best literary-themed chat-up lines as well, I thought I’d submit one of my more memorable reading-in-public encounters in the last few years. My submission is below; you can enter yours via Twitter, Facebook, or the in the post’s comment section, here.

“Even though it tends to bring out the weirdos, I still often like to take a book to a bar with me and enjoy a beer while reading. On one such occasion, I sat down with a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. A man sat down next to me and asked, “What’s your book about?” and silly me, I thought he was actually curious. So I tell him that it’s about poets in Mexico and launch into a long and complex description of what is, after all, a long and complex book. Several minutes in, he interrupts me to tell me that the book sounds dumb because “there are no good Mexican poets.” He then offered to buy me a beer. I left.”

Fun Reads for Friday: Bookstore Wisdom, NBCC Nominees, and Historical Guides to Local ‘Linnen-Lifters’ and ‘She-Friends’

25 Things I Learned from Opening a Bookstore (open Salon)

A former lawyer turned used bookstore owner shares some nuggets of wisdom. Some of my favorites:

1.  People are getting rid of bookshelves.  Treat the money you budgeted for shelving as found money.  Go to garage sales and cruise the curbs.

2.  While you’re drafting that business plan, cut your projected profits in half.  People are getting rid of bookshelves.

23.  Everyone has a little Nancy Drew in them.  Stock up on the mysteries.

Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture is nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Awards

From Open Letter’s (the publisher’s) press release:

…we’re proud to announced that one of our titles—Karaoke Cultureby Dubravka Ugresic—is one of the five finalists in the “Criticism” category.

Since this is the first major American book award that Open Letter has a finalist in, we’re absolutely ecstatic. And it’s especially fitting that this is happening to Dubravka, since her last collection, Nobody’s Home, was the first book that Open Letter ever published.

I reviewed Karaoke Culture for The L last year–it’s a great collection, and I’d be delighted for it to win an award from NBCC this year. My previous post, with a link to the review is here. You can also read one of the collection’s more talked-about essays, “Assault on the Mini-Bar” on The Paris Review website here. (This actually wasn’t one of my favorites in the collection–but it’s gotten some really positive responses.)

I’m also pleased to see David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything on the list of nominees for criticism, along with Ugresic. I’ve been meaning to read that book since it came out, and this gave me a little added encouragement. It’s fascinating so far.

Guidebooks to Babylon (Tony Perrottet for The New York Times)

Mr. Perrottet, author of The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, takes a delightful look at the “guides to local harlots” that were produced for the benefit of gentlemen traveling from Paris, France to Kansas City, Missouri. His unnecessary first-line dig at librarians notwithstanding (after all, I know plenty of librarians who would be delighted with the premise of his research), here are some of the article’s more hilarious highlights:

To the uninitiated, these clandestine directories make the most dubious of all literary subgenres. They were created, of course, to provide practical information for gentlemen travelers venturing through a city’s demimonde, and so have titles that range from mildly risqué (“The Pretty Women of Paris,” “Directory to the Seraglios”) to unashamedly coarse (“A Catalogue of Jilts, Cracks and Prostitutes, Nightwalkers, Whores, She-Friends, Kind Women and Others of the Linnen-Lifting Tribe”).

The genre took a leap forward in the carnal free-for-all of 18th-century London with “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies,” a best-­selling annual published each Christmas season from 1757 to 1795 under the name of the era’s most notorious pimp, Jack Harris. Each edition offered Zagat-style reviews of London belles, including their figures, tastes, complexions and personal hygiene (and a pre-modern-dentistry obsession with the condition of their teeth).

When it comes to American guides, the available examples are far less colorful…An exception to the rule is “The Little Black Book,” produced in the 1890s in the “Paris of the Plains” — Kansas City, Mo. In between generic ads (Emma Williams, “Abundance of Beauty,” and Julia Lewis, “Fit for the Gods”) are pages of rhyming verse, poems that spell out naughty words and tales of lusty nuns.

Fun Reads for Friday: Dancing Books, Nancy Pearl’s Wishlist, New Libraries, and Library Phantoms

Happy Friday!

Stop-Motion Bookstore Dance-a-Thon

This stop-motion video, “The Joy of Books,” is making its way around the internet. The (unnamed?) couple who made the video staged this after-hours book dance-a-thon in Toronto’s Type bookstore, which gives me yet another reason to go back to Toronto.

Nancy Pearl Gets Her Own Book Line

The inimitable Nancy Pearl, librarian for the masses, is partnering with Amazon to kick off her own line of reissued books: Book Lust Rediscoveries. The line, which will release six of Pearl’s “favorite, presently out-of-print books” every year, has already announced its first two titles: A Gay and Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller and After Life by Rhian Ellis. (The latter sounds particularly good to me.) Nancy has blogged about her “Reissues Wish List” before now–maybe we can guess what some of her future titles will be from this 2009 list. This is another example of Amazon using its new publishing power for good–I’m really looking forward to these (re)releases.

Canada Water Library — Review” (Rowan Moore, Guardian Architecture section, December 3, 2011)

Like libraries? Apparently, the Southwark neighborhood of London is the place for you. Not only have the    good people of Southwark decided to maintain all twelve of their existing libraries (it would be interesting to know what the size of the population that uses these libraries is), they upped the ante and decided to build a brand new one in the heart of a former shipping district, called Canada Water, within the old Surrey Commercial Docks area. “Ever since the 1980s, the intention has been to regenerate [the area], both to bring business and create something like a town centre.”

The article has a lot to say about this flagging process of regeneration and some of the features around the new Canada Water library, as well as about the building itself. Some highlights:

The best form for a reading room is wide and horizontal, but there was not enough space for this at ground level, squeezed between the tube exit and the waterside. So the reading room is at the top, with the building widening as it ascends to make space for it, with the added benefit that the most important part of the building is placed high up – if not in the clouds, at least sufficiently far from the ground to feel removed and a little dreamy, as a library should.

Raised, it makes occasion for the spiral staircase, which in turn makes the business of going somewhere for a book into a little event or ceremony, rather than a sideways drift such as you might make into a supermarket.

From a practical question – how to put a library on a site too small for it – comes the pleasure of the architecture. Within the ample volume of the reading room, zigzagging shelves create more intimate places in a way almost reminiscent of the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

But while it doesn’t, apparently, “achieve Scandinavian levels of craftsmanship,” says Moore, “…the important thing about the Canada Water library is that a new public place has been created, where the architecture contributes to and expands the experience of using it.”

The Library Phantom Returns!” (Robert Krulwich, NPR, November 30, 2011)

In September 2011, I posted about an anonymous book-loving book artist who was leaving incredibly intricate, beautiful sculpture tributes in libraries and literary organizations all over Scotland. After a bit of a hiatus, the artist left three more amazing creations in the Scottish Poetry Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, and the Robert Louis Stevenson Room at the Writer’s Museum. These will apparently be the last of the mystery sculptures (there have been ten in all). Said the artist (in a short, third-person statement): “It’s important that a story is not too long………does not become tedious……….”You need to know when to end a story,” she thought.”

The statement also indicates that the artist is not a professional–“this was the first time she had dissected books and used them simply because they seemed fitting.” Which makes these creations all the more fabulous. (I also just love her sense of humor–the T-Rex bursting out of The Lost World.) She called these sculptures “a tiny gesture.”

The Greenhouse

I’ve written here several times about Amazon’s new publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, which is focusing on “foreign language books from around the world,” and most notably (to me, at least), has partnered with the Icelandic literature fund to release TEN new fiction translations from Icelandic in the next year. I was delighted to review the first of these translations, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse, for Three Percent (review published here). It’s a fantastic book–perhaps the best newly-published novel I’ve read this year–and I’m hopeful that we’ll be seeing more of Auður’s work in English in the future.

In addition to authoring three novels, Auður is a full-time art historian and lecturer in art history at the University of Iceland. (She expressed a refreshingly pragmatic point of view on working full time while being a novelist in a Q&A published by AmazonCrossing (link below): “I think the main impact of working full-time as an art historian is that there’s a longer gap between books.”)

The Greenhouse has garnered a great deal of praise prior to its translation into English–the French translation in particular has won two awards: the Canadian Prix des libraires du Québec award for best of best foreign novel this year and the Prix de Page in 2010 for  “Best European Novel.”

For further reading on Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and The Greenhouse, see:

***

2011 has been a banner year for Icelandic literature on the international stage. “Fabulous Iceland” was this year’s guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in August, UNESCO named Reykjavík as one of its five Cities of Literature—the only such city where English is not the native language. Perhaps even more notable for American readers, however, was the recent announcement that Amazon’s new publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, will release an astounding ten Icelandic titles in new English translations over the next year. Judging by the press’ first Icelandic selection, The Greenhouse by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, English-readers can look forward to a catalog of remarkable Icelandic titles in the coming months.

At once wryly observant and sweetly comic, The Greenhouse is a meditation on such sweeping themes as sex, death, becoming a parent, manhood, and finding a place for oneself in the world which doesn’t once fall prey to cloying generalizations or cliche. Rather, through the eyes of twenty-two year old Arnljótur Thórir—or Lobbi, as his elderly father affectionately calls him—author Audur Ava Olafsdottir breathes a freshness and sincerity into her subject matter which is as charming as it is insightful.

The novel opens with a birth and a death. Having lost his mother in a car accident just a year earlier, Lobbi is also adjusting to his unexpected new role as father. His first child, Flóra Sól, is the product of the unlikely indiscretion of “one quarter of a night, not even, a fifth, more like it.” His mother’s death and the birth of his daughter both take place on the same day, which also happens to be his mother’s birthday. Lobbi’s father ascribes this confluence to “some intricate system,” while his son dismisses the coincidences as meaningless chance. “In my experience,” he sagely remarks, “as soon as you think you’ve got one thing figured out, something completely different happens.”

This statement ends up being wiser than Lobbi could imagine, as all of his best laid plans and worldviews are systematically upended throughout the novel. Feeling himself to be somewhat superfluous in the life of his daughter, and at loose ends with his father and autistic twin brother at home, Lobbi decides that rather than go to college, he will travel to a remote (unnamed) village monastery abroad to work as an gardener. Although he is generally indecisive and frequently unsure of himself, the decision is not a difficult one. Lobbi was “more or less brought up in a greenhouse” by his mother, who shared with her son a knack for cultivating tomatoes, flowers, and roses where once had only been “a flat stretch of barren land with rocks surrounded by wind-scattered pebbles.”

Lobbi is not even out of Reykjavík when his plans begin to go awry. He falls ill on the plane and must be hospitalized upon landing. Once recovered, he rents a car and begins his long journey, only to find himself lost in a deep forest and unexpectedly transporting an inn-keeper’s daughter to her drama class, 350 kilometers out of his way. Finally arriving at his destination, he finds solace in the monastery garden and a mentor in a monk with a love of dessert liqueurs and art house cinema. But he has not been working at the garden long when he is contacted by the mother of his child, an aspiring geneticist who would like Lobbi to “bear [his] part of the responsibility” and help her look after Flóra Sól while she completes her thesis. Thus, in very short order, Lobbi finds himself living with a woman, raising a daughter, learning to cook, and hopefully, figuring out what he wants to do with his life.

The Greenhouse is a meandering novel and although there are quite a few happenings throughout the narrative, not much actually “happens” per se, and nor does it need to. Lobbi’s daily negotiations of quotidian responsibilities are so sweetly related that something as simple as making dinner can become a rich, humorous, and illustrative moment. From Brian FitzGibbon’s seamless translation, it is clear that Audur Ava is a beautiful prose stylist who uses simple and straightforward language and imagery to convey complex emotions and observations. Interspersing scenes from Lobbi’s daily life with reflective moments from his past—the last conversation he had with his mother, sitting up and watching his daughter sleep the night that she was born—Audur Ava creates a fully realized portrait of a young man coming into himself without even really being aware of his own transformation.

The Greenhouse is a novel about finding beauty in the everyday, in simple moments and acts—in making dinner, and planting roses, and helping a child learn to walk. It is a story of creating meaning in one’s own life, especially in the face of chance and coincidence.