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Islands in the Stream: Our “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Bookstores,” Revised and Expanded

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**We’re doing a version of this tour in May. Click here to get all the details.I. IntroductionBy the time our original “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Bookstores” hit the web in 2007, its first stop – the Gotham Book Mart – had closed its doors for good. As I type these words, stop number 5, Greenwich Village’s venerable Oscar Wilde Bookshop, looks likely to join the Gotham on the honor roll of bookstores past. The Strand Annex in lower Manhattan is, as of last summer, no more.It would be belaboring the obvious to say the last two years have been tough times for the bookmen and bookwomen. And yet, despite the vagaries of the business, independent bookstores continue to open, and to serve as hubs for communities real and imagined. I’ll spare you the exegesis on why I think this matters – we’ve covered that ground in the original post, and elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to offer you a new and improved edition of the Walking Tour.You can still find brief descriptions of many of the stops in our first “Islands in the Stream Post,” but the route we’ve charted has changed, and we’ve added new stops, with new descriptions below. In addition, through the magic of modern technology, we’ve created an information-rich online map of the tour.The full-size version of this map contains all of our capsule reviews, plus directions and website links. [Update: You can also now add your own edits to the tour at our Collaborative Atlas of Book Stores and Literary Places.] Below we offer the step-by-step itinerary, including capsule reviews for the newly added stops.II. The TourStop 1: St. Mark’s Bookshop (31 3rd Avenue at 9th Street).Stop 2: The Strand (828 Broadway at East 12th.)Stop 3: Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers (44 Greenwich Avenue at Charles Street)This well-stocked half-basement shop in the heart of Greenwich Village is one of several area bookstores that specialize in mystery books. The staff is steeped in the store’s chosen genre, making this an excellent place for suspense buffs to find new titles and old classics.Stop 4: Three Lives & Co. (154 West 10th Street at Waverly Place)The owners of Three Lives know that varnished wood and books go together like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and so the whole space has a uniquely warm atmosphere. The staff – one of the friendliest and most knowledgeable in the city – contributes to the sense of ease and comfort. Three Lives has also figured out how to maximize the number of titles placed face-up or face-out, which makes browsing easy. This is a particularly good spot to look for literature in translation; Ingo Schulze’s New Lives was prominently displayed on a recent visit.Stop 5: Housing Works Used Book Cafe (126 Crosby St. between Prince and Houston)Stop 6: McNally Jackson (formerly McNally Robinson) (52 Prince St. between Mulberry and Lafayette)Stop 7: Bluestockings (172 Allen Street between Stanton and Rivington)Bluestockings, the venerable, cooperatively run Lower East Side institution, puts the independent back in independent bookstore. Of New York’s many bibliophile haunts, this one boasts perhaps the most pronounced curatorial sensibility. Punk, feminist, progressive, culture-theoretical, and environmental sensibilities predominate, without domineering. With its extensive and esoteric periodical section, its frequent events, its adventurous front tables, and its terrific coffee, Bluestockings is a great place to make a discovery.Now, across the Brooklyn Bridge to Stop 8: Melville House Bookstore (145 Plymouth Street at Pearl Street, Brooklyn)Melville House HQ, as I like to think of it, is part publishing house, part bookstore. The daily operations of Dennis Loy Johnson’s stalwart independent press take place in Bat-Cave-like secrecy behind a nifty set of pivoting bookshelves. Up front, shelves and tables are stocked with the Melville House catalog, as well as the wares of other Brooklyn-based independents and literary magazines, including Akashic Books, Ugly Ducking Presse, N+1, and A Public Space.Stop 9: BookCourt (163 Court St. between Pacific and Dean)Stop 10: Freebird Books & Goods (123 Columbia St. between Kane & Degraw)Stop 11: WORD (126 Franklin Street at Milton Street, Brooklyn)WORD, a new Brooklyn bookstore, seeks to bring the Three-Lives/BookCourt model of the cosy neighborhood bookstore to the off-the-beaten-path precincts of Greenpoint. In this case, WORD combines top-shelf contemporary literature with a great selection of kids’ books. Frequent events and a terrific staff help cement the connection between store and neighborhood. With one of the more impressive internet efforts among NYC independents, WORD is doing online community-building, as well.III. The Future(s) of IndependentsNot just in the Big Apple, but all over America, the rapid technological and economic transformations of the last decade have profoundly altered the ecosystem in which independent bookstores exist. Far from solemnizing the end of an era, however, our Walking Tour seeks to illuminate some of the strategies that may help our favorite bookstores thrive in the 21st Century. A glance at our last three stops serves to illustrate the point.Since we first wrote about BookCourt (Stop 9), the store has expanded, nearly doubling its square-footage. This has allowed it to create a more generously apportioned area for children’s books – a growth genre in this baby-booming neighborhood, and a turf BookCourt can now vigorously compete for with the Barnes & Noble down the street. Another advantage of expansion: the store can now book readings for big names such as Richard Price without fear of running out of space.Freebird Books (Stop 10), under new ownership, has expanded in a more metaphorical sense, building up its events calendar. Readings and screenings, post-apocalyptic book clubs, and back porch barbecues help attract readers over to quiet Columbia Street. Owner Peter Miller also maintains a lively, involving blog detailing his discoveries in the used-book trade.WORD (Stop 11) has nudged the events-plus-online-presence strategy even further toward the latter. With a frequently updated blog, a Twitter account, a facebook following and a highly functional website, Word involves even those readers who can make it to the store only infrequently. Millions alum Patrick Brown, now blogging for L.A.’s Vroman’s Bookstore, has written perceptively and at length about how a bookstore’s online dimension can become more than window-dressing. I’ll be interested to see how aggressively, and how successfully, independent bookstores expand their online efforts in the coming years.More mapping fun: The Millions’ Collaborative Atlas of Book Stores and Literary Places

The Most Anticipated Books of the Rest of 2008

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As we reach the year’s midpoint, it’s time to look at some of the books we are most looking forward to for the second half. There are many, many intriguing books on the docket for the next six months, but these are some of the most notable. Please share your most anticipated books in the comments.August: Chris Adrian wowed readers in 2006 with his post-apocalyptic novel The Children’s Hospital. That novel’s ardent fans will be pleased to get their hands on a new collection of stories called A Better Angel. The collection’s title story appeared in the New Yorker in 2006. More recently, Adrian offered up a personal essay in the New York Times Magazine about getting a tattoo.September: Philip Roth remains tireless, and his latest effort arrives in September, less than year after Exit Ghost garnered seemingly wall-to-wall coverage. With Indignation, Roth takes readers to 1951 America and introduces a young man, a son of a New Jersey butcher, trying to avoid the draft and the Korean War. An early review (with spoilers) offers, “Indignation is a sad and bloody book, and even if it delivers nothing particularly new – indeed, most of Roth’s books could be retitled Indignation – it is a fine supplement to Roth’s late achievements. And we learn a lot about kosher butchery.”Norwegian author Per Petterson collected a number of international prizes and upped his name recognition with Out Stealing Horses, which appeared to much acclaim in English in 2005 and won the IMPAC two years later. I read and enjoyed his In the Wake, which was written before Horses but appeared afterward in translation. Of that book, I wrote, the “boundary between madness and loneliness is plumbed to great effect.” Petterson’s latest to be translated for American audiences, To Siberia, is his second novel. Like Petterson’s other novels, To Siberia is inspired by his parents, who died in a ferry accident along with two of his brothers in 1990. A snippet of an excerpt is available at the NYRB (and more if you are a subscriber).According to our Prizewinners post, Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 book Gilead was one of the most celebrated novels of the last thirteen years. Gilead arrived 24 years after Robinson’s debut, Housekeeping, but Robinson’s latest, Home, comes after only a four-year hiatus. As Publishers Weekly first reported, “Home shares its setting with Gilead, and its action is concurrent with that novel’s. Characters from Gilead will also appear in Home.”Kate Atkinson is bringing back her reluctant detective Jackson Brodie for a third book, When Will There Be Good News?. An early review on a blog is mixed, and apparently he has a wife in this one. (Not sure how all the Brodie fans will take that!)Garth writes: “David Heatley’s My Brain is Hanging Upside Down is a graphic novel that takes readers deep into the uncomfortable psychological undercurrents of everyday American life. Like Chris Ware, who gave him a prominent blurb, David Heatley is a double threat with a pen: both words and drawings are adventures in style.”Garth writes: “Indie stalwart Joe Meno delivers Demons in the Spring, a new collection of 20 stories, each of them illustrated by a leading graphic artist.”October: John Barth, one of the leading lights of American fiction, has a new book on the way. The Development is, according to the publisher promo copy, “a touching, comic, deeply humane collection of linked stories about surprising developments in a gated community.” A story from the book “Toga Party,” appeared in Fiction magazine and in the Best American Short Stories 2007. There’s not much on the book just yet, but “Toga Party” won some praise from readers.Also making October an impressive month for new books will be Death with Interruptions by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago. Though the book will no doubt be allegorical like many of Saramago’s works, the title is apparently meant somewhat literally as the story involves eternal life.Garth writes: “Ingo Schulze’s 2005 tome, New Lives, finally reaches American shores, in a translation by the magnificent John E. Woods. According to Schulze, it concerns an aesthete who finds himself plunged into the sturm and drang of capitalist life. Die Zeit called it ‘the best novel about German reunification.’ Period.”John Updike will follow up one of his best known novels, 1984’s The Witches of Eastwick, with a sequel, The Widows of Eastwick.Sara Gruen of Water for Elephants fame will return with Ape House. It “features the amazing bonobo ape.”November: Garth writes: “Characteristically, Roberto Bolaño throws a curveball, delivering 2666 a massive final novel that both does and doesn’t match the hype surrounding it. I haven’t decided whether or not it’s a good book, but it is, indisputably, a great one. I devoured it in a week and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.”It’s not every year that we get a new book from an American Nobel laureate, but this year we will get A Mercy from Toni Morrison. The promo description on Amazon is downright mysterious, offering this brief blurb: “A new novel, set, like Beloved, in the American past.” But she has been reading from the book at various events and Wikipedia already has some details, though these appear to be pulled from promotional material as well. We can glean that the novel will take place in the 17th century, the early days of slavery in the Americas.Please let us know what books you are most looking forward to for the second half of 2008 in the comments.

Inter Alia #4: International Prizewinners and the Business of Translation

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[Editor’s Note: To plug a hole in the Inter Alia series, we’ve numbered this one out of order.]I know next to nothing about the translation business, except that it is vital to my reading habits. And so, earlier this week, I posted a little survey of international awards for fiction, along with the unobjectionable (I think) suggestion that more foreign-language prize-winners should be translated into English. I had been surprised at how difficult it was merely to find English-language information on, for example, The Austrian Grand Prize for East European Literature, and part of my intention was to put the “wisdom of crowds” to work for me, via reader comments and blog reactions. And, lo! The Complete Review and The Guardian’s book blog obliged. From the former, (which seems in possession of much better intel than I am) I learned that the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize may have been a weak proxy for the cream of German-language literature. I also learned, in a pleasant surprise, that my “translation quotients” apparently “do seem to reflect general translation-trends.” I thought I’d follow up today with a few interpretive gambits.First: literary awards are a notoriously subjective indicator of literary value (with apologies to fans of James A. Michener’s Pulitzer-winning fiction.) Nor is a foreign book’s publication in the U.S. or U.K. a measure of its greatness. The absence of translations of Tanizaki Prize-winners should not be taken as a reflection on the prestige of the prize, the health of Japanese literature, or even the level of American interest in Japanese writers. (Witness the runaway success – not to mention the genius – of Haruki Murakami.) And again, given the relative paucity of information, my “Prizewinners: The International Edition” feature may have been looking at some of the wrong awards.However, in aggregate, it does constitute an interesting snapshot of the business of translation. Romance languages seem to predominate. Is this because these are the languages Americans tend to learn in school – leading to a surfeit of translators? Or because of our long-standing cultural ties to Western Europe?The picture shifts a bit when we consider writers whose non-prize-winning novels are the ones that have been translated into English, and when we look at prizes given for a body of work. Writers who have been canonized in, say, the Netherlands are a sure bet for translation into English. But the single-book prize can be a testament to what’s vital and urgent in a literary tradition. It’s the difference between Philip Roth and, say, Edward P. Jones. And a healthy culture of translation will make sure that Edward P. Jones gets read in other languages now, rather than in 40 years. The Rómulo Gallegos had this effect for Bolaño; the Alfred Döblin Prize, for Katja Lang-Müller… well, not so much.Indeed, a translation gap for the historic period 1995 – 2005 seems particularly glaring when we look at Germany. With the exception of Ingo Schulze (whose monumental New Lives will appear from Knopf this fall), few of the Döblin winners have had any of their work at all translated into English. Does this mean that American publishers are doing a crappy job translating German novels, or that American readers have little appetite for them, or that I did a crappy job educating myself about contemporary German literature? (A friend who used to work at publisher Berlin Verlag suggested calculating TQs for the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, the Leipzig Book Fair Prize, Aspekte Literaturpreis, and the Berliner Literaturpreis der Stiftung Preußische Seehandlung.) Rather, I think it suggests that having a clearer awards consensus can make it easier for readers like me to find out about new books, and can help push publishers off the fence. Already, the creation of the Booker-esque German Book Prize in 2005 has proven a boon to German-language translation. Since being shortlisted in 2006, Sasa Stanisic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, to name one example, has been published in about a billion countries.[It bears mentioning at this point, inter alia, that there is a lot of wonderful contemporary Chinese, Arabic, Slavic, Hebrew, Setswana, etc. literature that slipped through the cracks of my survey. (I’m currently reading the Hungarian Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies and Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun.) I had hoped to create a more truly International edition of “The Prizewinners,” but the criteria outlined in my original post prevented it. Literature is, of course, irremediably tangled with history, and it came to seem, as I looked at the various prizes, that they were closely linked (as language is) with nationalism. This made it difficult, in particular, to construct a proxy for African literature, or to compare specific traditions within Africa with specific European traditions. Nigerian authors are eligible for the Booker, while Egyptians would compete for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The existing pan-African literary awards seem to represent such a diversity of languages, and such a plurality of markets, that it was difficult to find any one award to focus on. The cultural traditions of Communist China remain opaque to a monoglot like myself, and while the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize seemed comparable to the Booker or the Pulitzer, none of the winning books has been translated into English.]Ultimately, it seems to me that the “problem” of translation is, like many of the “problems” of the literary marketplace, a problem of money. Translating the second and third parts of Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance, for example, will require two or three years’ pay for the great translator Joachim Neugroschel. A more well-publicized award field, with more prominent awards for foreign markets, might give publishers and foreign funding agencies the “hook” they need to make deeper investments in translation. (And might yield even greater sales for presses like New Directions, Dalkey Archive, Archipelago, NYRB and Open Letter, who have already made heroic commitments to publishing translations.) The mainstream media “hype machine” has a role to play here. As do blogs.* Which gives me an idea… who wants to figure out how many of our own Anglo-English Prizewinners have been translated into Russian?*(whose job would be easier if Blogger would make it simpler to use diacritical marks in posts; sorry, no stresicas, Sasa!)

PEN World Voices Report: Something to Hide – Writers and Artists Against the Surveillance State


Among the core missions of International PEN is “the defense of writers and of freedom of expression around the world.” In the last two decades, as Salman Rushdie has been both its beneficiary and its champion, this mission has become increasingly visible. However, the artistic defense of freedom of expression is a tricky thing; political self-satisfaction can impinge on the creative writer’s various commitments to silence, cunning, and exile, not to mention irony. There have been events in the past where the celebration of PEN’s core mission has seemed out-of-sync with circumstances. (Should we really be congratulating ourselves for mingling on a cruise ship?) And so, on Thursday night, when I headed to the velvet-draped precincts of Joe’s Pub for “Something to Hide: Writers Against the Surveillance State,” I was a bit nervous. I don’t want to be told what a hero I am for drinking my $7 beer, any more than I want to be told that I can do my part for the Global War on Terror by going shopping.I needn’t have worried (except, perhaps, about my own incipient cynicism). Both in its intelligent planning and in the sensitivity and humility of its participants, “Something to Hide” focused attention on victims of the surveillance state, rather than flattering the good conscience of the audience.The key to the evening’s success, I think, was that writers were asked to read from work other than their own. After quick introductions from PEN president Francine Prose and ACLU director Anthony Romero, a surprise guest took the stage: Wallace Shawn. My pleasure at seeing a favorite writer perform quickly faded into absorption in the performance. Shawn delivered a dramatic reading of Acting U.S. Attorney General James B. Comey’s testimony before Congress, in which White House Council Alberto Gonzalez and Chief of Staff Andrew Card attempt to harass a hospitalized John Ashcroft into signing off on the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Shawn is as passionate and idiosyncratic an actor as he is a playwright, and the reading was surprisingly moving. It was a reminder that, despite the excesses of the last eight years, dedicated civil servants still remain the backbone of our government. (Or remained – Comey resigned shortly after the scene at Ashcroft’s bedside.)The evening’s poets, Chenjerai Hove of Zimbabwe and Irakli Kakabadze of Georgia, recited political poems by friends and colleagues, and perhaps because of the translation, the work itself seemed more strident than beautiful. That said, these are two writers who have felt first-hand the corrosive effects of government surveillance, and their introductory remarks provided a much-needed international context for the evening’s theme.Conceptual artists Hasan Elahi and Jenny Marketou explored the dimensions of surveillance at home. Elahi, who spent time on the FBI terrorist watch list, showed slides from a project in which he keeps the FBI constantly updated on his whereabouts. “If they want to know what I’m doing, that’s fine, but they’re going to know everything. If I go to the toilet, they’re going to go with me.” Marketou read an FBI transcript in which two G-men follow Andy Warhol to New Mexico for the shooting of a porn film. They complain about lascivious dancing cowboys and the lack of character development. Thirty-odd years later, audience laughter at Joe’s Pub was both loud and anxious. La plus ça change…The Hungarian Peter Esterhazy reprised Wednesday’s triumphant appearance at Town Hall, here reading from the great Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal. It’s a testament to Esterhazy’s charisma that his reading, in a language I don’t speak, was more evocative than the reading by his translator that followed. Ingo Schulze of Germany (whose latest novel, New Lives, will be published this fall), read from Through the Looking Glass, making Lewis Carroll sound positively Orwellian.Finally, the evening’s second surprise guest, Deborah Eisenberg wrapped things up with a reading from the Argentine writer Humberto Constantini’s The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis I’ve heard Eisenberg, one of my two or three favorite living American writers, read from her own work before; what was remarkable was the way she inhabited the sentences of another writer. I was half-convinced she’d written the excerpt herself. (I would have the same feeling on Saturday afternoon, hearing her read from Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten).Eisenberg and Shawn have for years been vocal critics of the excesses of the American defense establishment; it speaks to the power of their artistry that each is able to write explicitly about political themes without sacrificing aesthetic power. In the end “Something to Hide” served not only as a primer on the iniquity of state-sponsored surveillance, but as a reminder that art and politics need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, given sufficient humility and tolerance for ambiguity on the part of artists, each can be made to further the interests of the other.

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