Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Come on, sweetie, get out of there... no, not you, Nierme, I'm talking to the menorah..." - Jon

Thursday, October 28, 2010

First Officer's Log No 20: Creepy, Eerie and Oh-So-Cool, Part 4

Well, the end of this little experiment in words and pages that are creepy comes to a close. This week, I get to spotlight one of my favorite books, and I suppose it would be good to say that I've read this particular book several times, regardless of the time of the year, but it always makes an appearance in my life in October. Will Storr Vs. The Supernatural is a nonfiction record of a journalist's attempts to understand the fascination with ghosts, haunted places, possessions, poltergeists, and all sorts of other unexplainable phenomena.

Will's journey begins in the United States, where he spends a few days with a self-proclaimed "demonologist", who opens Will's eyes to the possibility of the supernatural being real. Unnerved by his experience, and determined to understand why the topic of ghosts and ghoulies is so popular, Will sets out on various adventures with local U.K. ghost hunting groups, a famous parapsychologist, and even lands an interview with the Vatican's own chief exorcist. Along the way, he runs into liars, cheats, true believers, self-professed psychics, New Age practitioners, "monsterologists", witches, a Druid, a Newcastle-born "Native American", and the TV set of Britain's own ghost hunting show 'Most Haunted'.

The book is a marvelous exploration of the kinds of things that scare us, and also the stories that keep us awake at night. He begins his tale in the United States, where he claims, eccentric people in the United States are so much more convincing in their eccentricities. The disturbing things he witnesses, and the unnerving realization that his subject might not be crazy, sends him on his year-long quest. Will's journey takes him all over England, and the people he meets make his "demonologist" friend seem absolutely quaint. Throughout the book, Will must keep himself from losing his faith in rationality, even as ever stranger things keep happening to him.

This is probably the best book on ghost hunting or the supernatural that I've read. Will Storr has a great grasp of how to write not only well but with respect for the people he is interviewing and experiencing events with. He doesn't judge his subjects, and instead allows the words he records and transcribes to speak for themselves. It's a great book, a good read for a chilly night, and simply a great example of accessible, interesting nonfiction. I highly recommend it.

And that concludes this year's installment of Creepy, Eerie and Oh-So-Cool. Hopefully we can do it again next year, but until then, I'll try to have something new and interesting to write about each month, and maybe have a few books to throw out at you every few weeks.

Until next time, fellow bibliophiles.

Ghostwriting No. 23: The Ghostlist

A few words as we approach the Halloween season.

1. One of the things I hate about this time of year is having to tell people that no, we do not have cold spots or blood dripping down the walls. They get so disappointed. Alas, it is fact. We also don't hear voices or footsteps, and I'm sorry, we do not give haunting tours.

2. That said, we do have a small section especially for books about ghosts. While ghosts have not lately been hypersexualized, deprived of historic symbolism, or given supporting roles in blockbuster movies about teenaged girls getting whatever they want, they are nonetheless rich with character possibility. Let me recommend a few favorites:

- Anything by M. R. James. I'm not just saying this because there are so many beautifully described books and libraries in these stories. They are also sterling examples of the short suspense craft. Also they have gorgeous books in. Did I mention the leather bindings?

- Anything by Sheridan le Fanu. Using the frame of the reflections of a doctor with special interest in psychology, this author successfully spooks the reader with a little reverse psychology: what the doctor doesn't tell you will keep you up at night.

- The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Brief, evocative, and full of the sense that even scarier than things that go bump in the night is the astonishing capacity of the human mind to anticipate and dread disaster.

More recent books:

- The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue. Narrated by a ghost, this novel is really about strong women in two different lucrative decades facing unacceptable gender norms, but the ghost is also a genuinely likeable prankster with some keen observations about women, life, power, and the hindsight that gets more twisted the more one tries to fight upstream.

- A Fine and Private Place by Peter Beagle. The protagonist, a homeless man shacked up in a crypt with an unlocked door, watches the dead struggling with disembodiment. It takes observing a particularly complicated posthumous love affair, dodging the verbal assaults of a particularly insightful crow, and uncertainly accepting kindness from a very lively widow to bring this man back from the proverbial grave(side).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Our Chosen Charity: Local Foods Connection

Check out this nifty article about the local foods movement here in Iowa City and Johnson County. If you're interested in the Local Foods Connection cookbook, we have them here at the bookshop.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 22: A Plea for Sanity

Ladies and gentlemen, may I remind you that other people writing books containing a famous author's characters are, by definition, fanfiction authors. Few, if any, write anything of compelling quality, and let me remind you that most take the story in directions the author would not have approved. Remember Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley? Not only did Rhett and Scarlett supposedly get back together, but Scarlett became the head of a clan - yes, clan - in Ireland. Margaret Mitchell would never have written anything resembling that. The author basically wrote a numbered-series romance novel and used Mitchell's characters' names.

So please, please, if you really want to read something like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from something like Mr. Darcy's point of view, read Henry James' Daisy Miller, all right? E. M. Forster's A Room with a View will also do.

Thank you.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

First Officer's Log No 19: Creepy, Eerie and Oh-So-Cool, Part 3

This week's entry is Body Surfing, a very strange, weird novel from Dale Peck. The basic story involves demons that jump from body to body, two teenage boys, one of whom becomes possessed, and a Croatian demon huntress who comes to save the day. It's not the easiest book to describe, even for supernatural fiction standards (and are there such things?), and the opening sequence, set in ancient Rome, suggesting that the Emperor Nero was possessed by one of these demons... well, it starts off weird and gets stranger. So far, the story is pretty typical, but I absolutely love the characters.

Peck's three main characters are Jasper, a shy, laid back teenager, his best friend Q., the more impulsive of the two, and the huntress, Ileana, who reminds me, as I'm sure Peck intended, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, minus the extreme angst. She's tough, refreshingly unsympathetic to the things she hunts, and comprehends from the get-go that she is a soldier in a war, and therefore she must shut off the more emotional aspects of her personality and get her hands dirty, with no apologies. Compared to the teenage boys, she's the adult center of the novel, the responsible one, and the novel itself is very, very mature, as far as content is concerned.

A note: this is not fluffy supernatural fiction; it starts as a coming-of-age story, and before you know it, it's a full on horror novel. I wasn't quite prepared for it when I started reading the book, because it seemed fairly silly, after the delicious eerieness of Jennifer McMahon's Promise Not To Tell, and the thoroughly unpleasant events of Gillian Flynn's Dark Places. So, imagine my pleasant surprise, and slightly turning stomach, when I started reading Dale Peck's novel.

It's gory; very, very gruesome at points. I'm not one for extreme blood and guts in my literature, and this initially threatened to turn me off, but once I met Peck's characters, I was hooked. He's got a simple story when you break it down, but the characters and the liberal doses of humor throughout the novel keep it going at a good pace. There isn't a slow moment that I've found. So, compared to last week's offering (to which I am resorting to somewhat mixed feelings) I feel like I can recommend Body Surfing to just about anyone who wants a good, creepy novel to read.

Until next week, fellow Bibliophiles.

Monday, October 18, 2010

(Not so Little) White Whale on the Go...

Today is the 159th birthday of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, originally called The Whale.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 21: On Collectors' Items again

As a side note before I begin - this was a really spectacular week, and not just because four different people brought us cookies. It was a great week for conversations, a week of discussing the ideas of the liberal arts, the important trends in recent writing, the book industry from several angles. Thank you very much to all those who participated in these conversations. These are the experiences that motivate us and help us to learn more to share with our other patrons.

All right. Let's return to the topic of collectors' books.

First, you should know - whether you are a serious collector or whether you have stumbled upon a collection you'd like to sell - that the collectors' market is very, very bearish right now. That means that if you're in the market to buy, now is a good time, and if you're in the market to sell, now is not a good time. If you do buy, you need to be informed about what you're buying and for whom - the best investment right now is something that you will enjoy having, because the future of the market is very much up in the air, or something you plan to give as a nice present to another person - or you need to be prepared to wait. And wait. And wait.

Urban folklore has been telling people that items from the childhoods of the baby boom generation are valuable. This is as true as most urban folklore, which is to say, only sometimes sort of. For about a year, I had a strong turnaround in yellow-spined Nancy Drews and blue-spined Hardy Boys from the 1950's-70's. That market has been saturated temporarily, which means I can't offer as much money as I was offering for such books. Which in turn means I've got some very frustrated people who are unhappy that their Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys aren't worth a bundle of quick cash now.

Folks, this is a market. Values go up and down depending on supply and demand. I purchase and sell at the most reasonable prices I can, but if I have eight copies of The Red Barn Mystery and haven't sold one in six months, I'm just not going to pay much for a ninth copy. If I were a monster corporation with vast warehouses and even vaster cash flow, I could maybe stock up on Red Barn Mysteries, if I thought they made a good long-term risk. But I'm not and I can't and I don't.

There are some collectors' books in which I am still and always interested, and some in which I will never be interested again. Here are some to note:

1. Beautifully illustrated children's books. If they are more than sixty years old and in near-perfect condition, they may have collectors' value. If they are less than sixty years old, or if they are worn in the way that children's books usually are, they are not collectors' items, they're just books.

2. Old mass-market paperbacks. For a while, there was a strong collectors' market in mystery and science fiction paperbacks from about 1940-1970. This market is currently in bearsville. It is remotely possible that it might go bullish again, but here's the thing about old paperbacks: they were printed on highly acidic paper and bound with cheap glue, which means that if you actually opened them after 1970, they are no longer collectibles. They are old paperbacks with brown, brittle pages and cracks in the binding glue. Unless they happen to be the only printing of a certain short story or novel by a later-famous author or are perennial favorites with kitschily lurid cover art, they don't have value at all, let alone as collectors' items.

3. Collectors' Editions. There's a sad joke in this industry that is sad because it is about 97% true: If it has the words "collector's edition" printed anywhere on it, it will never be collectible. It might be nice because it has good illustrations or was printed on better-quality paper, but that just means that it might survive in competition with younger copies of the same book. On incredibly rare occasions, a collector's printing actually does have value; one example would be the Heritage Press editions of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, which were illustrated by Norman Rockwell, which makes these two books double-whammy Americana. The Heritage Press editions of almost everything else are just nice copies of books.

4. Signed firsts. There's a trick to signed first editions. The trick is this: the first edition has to have been a small print run; the author has to have signed the book before the author became a household name (at least among literati households); and the author does now have to be a household name. A signed copy of a motivational book is just another copy of a soon-to-be-outdated book. A signed first of a famous author's ninth novel is, given the industry's current insistence that authors run round the country signing books, common and therefore not collectible (though if you're the last one with a copy in nice shape a hundred years from now and the author is still popular, you might get collector's money for it). A signed first of James Oliver Curwood's first novel is, unless you can find the one person in America who might consider writing a cultural studies paper on a very outdated bunch of novels by a nearly forgotten author, a paperweight.

5. On the time frames of collectibility: A first edition of Harry Potter and the (First Three Books) - and mind that the British editions came before the American ones, so purists will want the British ones - simply aren't going to go up in value as collectors' items for a generation or more, if they ever do at all, given the enormous print runs involved. In fact, it is safe for the amateur collector to assume that if a book was first published during the lifetime of the average book dealer, the first edition probably isn't collectible yet. There is one exception to this rule, which is that if the first edition was printed during the early childhoods of a really, really nostalgic generation (and it's true that the Boomers are often nostalgic), it might - might - be collectible now. But only now. Once the Boomers begin retiring and trying to live off whatever retirement savings they've got after the market crash and the Social Security freeze, many will try to sell their old books, the market will be flooded, and there won't be enough demand to keep the prices high because so many of the childhood books of the Boomers aren't popular with subsequent generations. It's brutally sad, but it's true.

This all sounds very gloomy and doomy. Of course some collections still have value. For example, a really good collection of well-chosen, authoritative, scholarly medieval history books is and will remain valuable as long as people still think about history. A collection of first books by subsequently important authors will turn valuable if kept well for a generation or two (out of sunlight, temperature fluctuations, humidity, and smoke). Books over a century old that are still important now do have value if they are still in readable and attractive condition. I'm just suggesting that you probably shouldn't expect to get double your money back on a complete set of Goosebumps books, that things made to be collectible generally don't end up being worth a lot of money, and that selecting what you want based on your taste for your enjoyment is just a better way to think about book ownership anyway.

Collectors' markets are markets. They fluctuate. A good book, however, is still good as long as you keep rereading it, and that holds a value - not necessarily a financial one, but still a real one - for the rest of your life. If you're going to play the markets, do research, understand the trends, keep an eye on sales prices, make sure what you've got is in excellent condition, and choose your reselling methods based on how much time you want to put in and how much money you want to get back. If you're going to build a personal library, decide what you like, change your mind when you feel like it, and enjoy what you've got while you've got it.

Yes, I'm biased. There are a lot of reasons to collect, and in the end, though I routinely circulate my collection to other people, I am essentially a collector too, and what I collect is stuff I think my patrons will appreciate. I don't get a lot of calls for pristine Little Golden Books. I doubt very much that anyone does in this general economic slump we're in. I do get a lot of requests for cheap paperback copies of The Catcher in the Rye, which is why I actually pay as much for nice copies of Catcher as I do for blue-spine Hardy Boys. And to be entirely honest, I like the Catcher readers better than the collection sellers, because there is one thing you can count on about me as a market for books: I think of money as what has to keep moving so that I can do what matters to me, which is to spend time with book lovers.

And as anyone who sells anything will tell you, it's a good idea to know your market. So. Now you know.

First Officer's Log No 18: Creepy, Eerie, and Oh-So-Cool, Part 2

This is how I imagine the current book I'm reading being created:

'Entertainment Weekly' writer / reviewer Gillian Flynn sits down, perusing her bookshelves for inspiration, and her eyes fall upon Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. She raises an eyebrow, thinks I could write about a farm family - a mother, two sisters - that is brutally murdered and the aftermath of such an event. Of course, she'll need good insight into how someone deals with the aftermath of such a heinous crime, the brutal slaying of a mother, and she sees James Ellroy's My Dark Places. Ah hah! she thinks, There's my title, even. Dark Places. Her eyes scan her shelves, narrowing as she closes in on where to form the central character, the one through whose eyes she can tell the story, and her gaze falls upon Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. Of course! I'll create the most narcissistic, self-loathing woman I can imagine! The sole survivor of what has happened, and she'll make Bella Swann seem like a high class intellectual!

I'm probably being a bit mean. I'm really enjoying Gillian Flynn's Dark Places, which is, as described, a novel about a farm family's brutal murder, and the sole survivor, little Libby Day, who is convinced her older brother Ben is responsible. Her testimony at age seven sends him to prison for the murders, but twenty five years later questions are raised by a group of true crime enthusiasts calling themselves the Kill Club. They are convinced Ben is innocent, and Libby is forced to reexamine that long ago day and the events leading up to the incident which changed her life.

I'm at the half way point in this novel, and Flynn is a marvelous writer. She has a knack for characters, and the sequence in which she describes Libby's first visit to the Kill Club is amongst the most skin-crawling things I've read. There is something truly disturbing about this novel, the understanding that there are people who truly sleep, live and breathe true crime, and will risk the alienation of 'normal' society to pursue their obsessions.

There is something quite compelling about Libby, despite the fact that she is amongst the most narcissistic, self-loathing, and, quite frankly, unpleasant characters I've ever read. Most of the novel is from her perspective, and she is bluntly self aware of her own character, which I do find somewhat refreshing. Perhaps it is the fact that she knows that she's not a nice person, not a good person, and has had questions, but is unwilling to explore them. Flynn has written a great character here, even if I found myself reading her with increasing distaste, but still wanted to read more. To me, this is the sign of a very good book.

Perhaps not as creepy as Jennifer McMahon's Promise Not to Tell, Gillian Flynn's Dark Places is still great reading, and a perfect book to curl up with in mid October.

Until next week, fellow Bibliophiles.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Upcoming Event: Local Children's Book Reading and Signing

We are very excited to announce an upcoming reading at the Haunted Bookshop. Local authors Michelle Edwards, Claudia McGehee and Jacqueline Briggs Martin will be reading from their new books, The Hanukkah Trike, Where Do Birds Live?, and The Chiru of High Tibet, on 14 November, 2010. There will be a signing with the authors following the reading, and frosted book cakes.

Because who doesn't love books and cake?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Man Booker Prize Winner 2010

The Man Booker Prize for 2010 has been announced today, and has been awarded to Howard Jacobson, a British novelist known in England for his explorations of comedy and the lives of British Jewish characters. Jacobson's novel The Finkler Question is the winner of this year's Man Booker, so hopefully we'll see copies of the book floating into the shop in the next few weeks. Check in often, and congratulations to Mr Jacobson.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"It was cute, but cute in this whole 'ooh in 6 months you'll be a flesh eating monster' kind of way."
- Ali, referring to baby alligators

Thursday, October 7, 2010

First Officer's Log No 17: Creepy, Eerie and Oh-So-Cool

It is that time of year again, when the leaves are a-falling, and the footballs are a-hurling through the air, and the hot apple cider is brewing across the street at our neighborhood coffee shop, T Spoons, and lots and lots of people are coming in and out every week, looking for that excellent fall weather reading material.

Except that the past few days have been absurdly warm for October in Iowa, what with today reaching into the low 80s for temperature. I don't know about you, but if I can be seen wearing shorts (not that I can or will be) in October, then something's up with the weather gods. Well, I can't do anything about the weird fall-ish weather, but I can cue you, my fellow bibliophiles, on to this month's hot tips: namely, my goal, each week, to have a new book to bring your attention to, that fits the creepy and eerie motif of October, and because Halloween is my favorite holiday.

So, without further ado, I would like to draw your attention to Jennifer McMahon's Promise Not To Tell, a marvelously eerie little novel that I started reading two nights ago and have been loathe to set aside ever since. This novel follows a woman named Kate, returning to her childhood home, where a young girl is murdered the night Kate arrives. Disturbingly enough, this new murder bears a striking resemblance to the death of Del, the Potato Girl of local legend, Kate's childhood best friend.

McMahon is an engaging writer, able to write in a child's voice as well as an adult. Her characterization can be a bit off-putting at first (there is a secondary character whose overprotective maternal instinct I find particularly grating), but within three pages I was hooked into the story. I highly recommend Promise Not To Tell as my first official Weekly October Creepy Eerie and Oh-So-Cool Novel (WOCEOSCN) ... and somebody's going to have to recommend a better acronym that that for me.

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

Ghostwriting No. 20: A True Ghost Story

I am following a trail of
those wire-and-paper twists,
dropped every few yards
and bright against the asphalt.
No long, square plastic bags,
but still, I think of bread.
Who could eat so quickly?
Or make sandwiches while walking?
Was it all flung to the birds?

I wish I were a bird.
Not for the squabbling
that must have followed each slice.
To have been fed.

Then I see them, not many,
but all on the wire, heads bobbing,
and I think: they are full.
I could eat them. One bite, another.
Good breeding stops me.
City birds are covered in lice
probably diseased.
Vegetarians live longer!

There are no unlocked cars
with bags of chip crumbs

hidden in wheel wells,
no dumpsters with
telltale clouds of fruit flies.

The birds. They would be too hard
to catch, too small to satisfy.

One darts abruptly, dives,
snatches a red wire tie.
I look along the path, the scattered
green and blue and white scraps,
becoming invisible just yards away
because of the heat boiling
over patches of engine fluids.

The birds dropped the ties here.

No, worse.

A little old man, born in the Depression,

collected them for decades
but now knows, his pension gone and
medical bills looming, that wire twists
have no currency anymore,
and he is plucking them from
a coffee tin - its logo from the forties -
and wrapping a happy thought in each one,
then dropping each,
and when he gets to the doors
of the distant wholesale warehouse,
he will sit and hold the can
and hope no one spits in it
because he can't afford to let it rust.

All my dreams are like this now.
I don't go to a doctor; I read enough
to know what I'd be told;
clonazepam and maybe a vacation.
I'll tough it out.

But when I pull the brown bag

out of my briefcase
and reach for the loaf of bread
and a knife to spread some butter
and I'm ready,
the white twist-tie stops me.
What would he have put
in this one?
His daughter's first step,
a flawless tomato,
a wet cloth on his forehead,
the squeak of new shoes?

It's 8:43 already.
I've done the math: going 45
in a 35 doesn't actually make time.
I buckle in at the stoplight.
Coffee comes in bags now,

and even if it didn't,
what would I think to save?

Nobel Prize in Literature 2010

Good news for all you South American novel fans, Mario Vargas Llosa is the Nobel Laureate for 2010. We've got several copies of his books in stock, including The Bad Girl and The Feast of the Goat.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Free Association Friday. Every day, at the Haunted Bookshop." - Jon

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Don't try to understand, just go back to cleaning Noam Chomsky." - Jon

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ali: "And I was thinking, 'Only 6 feet ahead of me and then I'm back on American soil' and then we were stuck in the terminal for four hours, and I was losing my mind going 'I need a book I need a book I need a book I'm going crazy I'm going crazy I'm going crazy', because the last time I bought a book was 9 hours before in Madrid, and it was a (author's name) novel and it was crap!"
Anna: "I hope I'm never stuck in an airport without a book. That would be awful."
Ali: "That's the thing, I had a book, but I'd already read 'Lord of the Rings' three times in two weeks and you can only take so much of Frodo's singing before you go 'Aaagh! I've had enough!'"
Nialle: "Sacrilege!"
(uproarious laughter)
Anna: "But I have Sumatra (coffee), and it's right above Australia. It's one of the more easily defensible places on the map."
Nialle: "Anna, honey, you have to leave Risk behind when you come into the office."
Anna: "But why? You get to play at hostages!"

Friday, October 1, 2010

M: Ice cream.
A: Ice cream!
T: Ice cream!
[pause; all look at N]
N: ...We don't all scream for it, you know.
R: Personally, I just cuss for asparagus.