Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From O'Connor to MacArthur

An update of sorts to my previous post about Ron Rash winning the Frank O'Connor award.

One of the earlier winners of that award was Yiyun Li, and she has now been named one of the 2010 MacArthur Foundation Fellows -- in other words one of the winners of the famous "genius grants." Other winners this year from the fields of books and literature are Annette Gordon-Reed, best known as the author of The Hemingses of Monticello, and David Simon, nowadays known for his work in television (The Wire), but formerly the author of journalistic works such as Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner.

The MacArthur Fellows receive $500,000 paid out over five years.This complete list for 2010 can be found here    

Monday, September 27, 2010

Banned Books Week

If you come by Accent on Books this week, you'll notice our left front window has yellow crime scene tape on it, and books in the display which are upside-down. No, we were not victimized by a break-in; it's Byron's clever way of calling attention to Banned Books Week. Observed every year at the end of September, Banned Books Week calls attention to the reality that fear of knowledge and the power of the written word is still very much with us, and every year individuals or groups try to have books removed from schools or libraries. Sometimes the individuals have not even read the books they are challenging; in every case they have appointed themselves as the final authority in deciding what ideas are acceptable and what ideas are dangerous or corrupting. The recent controversy over the burning of Korans in Florida is but one example of what goes on in communities across the nation on a constant basis, if usually in a less spectacular manner. Banned Books Week is co-sponsored by a number of organizations -- including The American Booksellers Association, of which Accent on Books is a member -- and is administered by the American Library Association. The ALA's website has a lot of excellent resources on this subject including a list of the Radcliffe Publishing Course's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, with notations about which ones have been banned or challenged (nine of the top ten novels and 25 of the top 30 fall in that category). And the AP published an article last week listing some of the more unexpected titles to be subject to challenges over the years, including Brown Bear, Brown Bear, the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, and the "Captain Underpants" series.

So we hope you'll take some time this week to appreciate your right to read what you choose, a right which is often not available in other countries, and will not continue be available in this country without our constant vigilance. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Congratulations, Ron Rash!

Ron Rash, who teaches at Western Carolina University and sets much of his work in southern Appalachia, has won a major literary honor : the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Ron, probably best known for his novel Serena, won the award for his most recent book, Burning Bright, which was described by an O'Connor judge as a  "technically absolutely beautiful -- incredibly well wrought" collection of stories. Past winners of the award -- which includes a prize of 35,000 euros, or about $47,000 -- include Haruki Murakami, Miranda July and Jhumpa Lahiri.

In addition to being an outstanding writer Ron is a great guy, and we at Accent on Books would like to congratulate him on this remarkable and well-deserved honor.  

Monday, September 20, 2010

Update: Oprah Has Called

Well, it seems my "half-joking" suggestion was Oprah's actual choice: she chose Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (see previous post). Not that Franzen needed the boost: his new novel is already the most talked-about book of the fall so far.

Nonetheless, he now has Oprah's imprimatur as well. Guess Nelson Mandela's book will have to find some other way to catch the public's attention.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

When Oprah Calls

Next Friday Oprah Winfrey will announce her latest on-air book club selection. Over the past fourteen years these announcements have created something of a conundrum for the book trade. On the one hand, Oprah very reasonably wants to be able to announce the title on her show without word of what it is getting out beforehand. On the other hand, publishers and booksellers -- as well as the Oprah folks -- want to have plenty of copies available for the inevitable spike in sales.

And thus was born one of the odder rituals in bookselling. Several weeks ahead of time, Oprah's people inform the publisher of the selected title that it is the chosen one, but the publishers are sworn to secrecy. The sales reps for that publisher then contact their accounts -- Accent on Books, for example -- with basically this message: "We have the next Oprah selection. I don't know anything about it except that it's a [hardcover/paperback] and the retail price is [whatever]." The bookseller -- yours truly, for example -- then has to take a stab in the dark as far as placing an order.

This has led to inevitable guessing games among book people as to what the chosen title is. My own record in this regard is not exactly stellar: of the 63 previous Oprah choices I've guessed one correctly. What we know about her forthcoming choice is that it is a $28.00 hardcover either published or distributed by Macmillan. One book that fits the description is Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, which I -- half-jokingly -- suggested on Twitter, even though Oprah's previous choice of a Franzen novel led to a public spat between the two of them.

However, Thom Geier, at the "Shelf Life" blog, has a more convincing guess: Nelson Mandela's new book, Conversations With Myself, a title which wasn't on my radar because it hasn't actually been published yet. Geier gives his reasons here.

All will be revealed on September 17. Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Typewriter Repairman!

Back in May I mentioned that we still use a typewriter in the back room, a source of delight or mystification for a number of our customers.

If it ever needs to be repaired, I think I may send it to Manson H. Whitlock up in Connecticut, simply because he deserves the work. The Yale Daily News recently proclaimed him, "the oldest typewriter repairman in New Haven," a pretty safe bet since he's 94 years old. And to judge by the interview the Daily News conducted with him, he may be one of the wisest men in New Haven -- including everyone associated with Yale. Why does he prefer typewriters to computers? "Because I don't even know what a computer is. I've heard about them a lot, but I don't own one, and I don't want one to own me. Typewriters you can own. I think a computer owns you." The most unfortunate change in his neighborhood in recent years? "It used to be when you were walking down the street and someone said 'hello' he was being friendly. Today, he's just answering a phone."

Granted, Mr. Whitlock may not be a paragon of modern feminism ("I think it was a good idea to have the gals come to Yale. The campus is much prettier now."), but he's still a priceless philosopher. The whole interview with him is a gem.

By the way, the title of the post was inspired by this.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Exit, Not Quite Pursued By A Bear

The Governor's Western Residence is located on a mountainside in north Asheville, not too far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. In addition to being a retreat for the state's chief executive it also hosts high-powered meetings and social gatherings.

This past Tuesday evening, the Asheville United Way hosted a picnic there for leading volunteers and donors, with the guest speaker being local author Wayne Caldwell, author of Cataloochee and Requiem By Fire. Wayne asked Accent on Books to provide copies of his novels for the occasion, so I loaded up my Subaru and off I went.

I arrived about 5:30 for the 6:00 event, backed my car up on the path near the picnic area, and was unloading boxes when one of the United Way folks called out, "There's a bear!" I walked over to the wooden fence on the edge of the picnic area and, sure enough, there at the bottom of a grassy bank and at the edge of the woods was a black bear sitting calmly with her back against a tree. As we stared at her she stared back, and at one point grunted and made a lunging movement toward us, causing us to lunge backwards. However, she didn't actually move, but just resumed sitting silently. The event organizers, meanwhile, were beginning to make calculations along the lines of bear plus picnic, and getting nervous about the results.

They got a bit more nervous when, after a few more minutes, the bear roused herself and, now accompanied by two cubs, started lumbering towards the back of the picnic area. As I continued leaning on the fence I was unaware that all but one other person had abandoned the picnic area for the parking lot. Then I suddenly heard the only other person still with me yell something that included the word "Subaru" as she dashed to my car, opened the driver's side door and jumped in. Operating on the principle of run away first, ask questions later, I ran over to the car and jumped in on the passenger's side. Looking in the side view mirror, I saw mama bear looking back at me from a distance of about fifty feet away near the one-story building which stretched across the back of the picnic area. She then vanished from sight, and, after a few more minutes, we slowly and quietly as possible eased out of the car. By this time, the people who had escaped to the parking lot were beginning to make their way back to the picnic area. The cubs were now in a tree right behind the one-story building with mama presumably at the bottom of the tree. Concluding that a bear attack on their major donors might not be the best kind of publicity, the United Way folks had finally made the decision to move the picnic to the back porch of the residence itself. All that remained was for me to retrieve the boxes of books, which were on a table just on the other side of the building from the bears. This was accomplished without incident, though I kept looking around nervously for the sudden appearance of a black, bear-like shape.

The rest of the evening went smoothly and successfully: good food, a great talk by Wayne and even some book sales. The bears had no further impact on events, though some of the Western Residence employees and I saw them as they came down the hill and went back into the woods, the two cubs wrestling with each other in that cute, bear cub nature documentary way.

Of course it's always unfortunate in one sense when bears show up where humans live, since it indicates hunger on their part, encroachment on our part or both. And it would have been even more unfortunate had either bears or humans been harmed in the encounter. Still, in another sense, there was something almost reassuring about what the incident indicated concerning the balance of things. Now matter how important we humans think we are, no matter how many Community Movers and Shakers are gathered in one location, there are times when Mother Nature reminds us who, ultimately, is in charge.