This Week’s Reviews

Obit
Victoria Chang | Copper Canyon Press | 9781556595745 | April 2020

“Chang’s employment of [language] is beautiful and resonant.”—New Republic

Beautiful Aliens
Steve Abbott, edit. Jamie Townsend | Nightboat Books | 9781643620152 | December 2019
“What this Reader explores most of all is the ethical question of how we might live our lives across the ties and blocks of love, friendship, activism, and family (with the latter understood well beyond the heteropatriarchal nuclear unit). The role of the poet (or writer in general) as an orientation, an identification, a stance of being in the world, was above all Steve Abbott’s most precious chosen call.”—Chicago Review of Books

Beppina and the Kitchens of Arezzo
Elizabeth Romer | Prospect Books | 9781909248663 | October 2020
“Beppina is a dazzling culinary treatise, and Romer is a proud, knowledgeable guide through Arezzo’s distinctive foodways, underscoring that ‘food is a major expression of culture.’”—Foreword Reviews

The Piano Student
Lea Singer, trans. Elisabeth Lauffer | New Vessel Press | 9781939931863 | October 2020
“This is an engrossing, beautifully written novel that brings into focus an inimitable artist who ascended to great heights as a pianist despite his hidden life as a gay man.”—Van Magazine

The Drive
Yair Assulin, trans. Jessica Cohen | New Vessel Press | 9781939931825 | April 2020
“Assulin’s narrator is a complex and believable human being rather than a character whose role is to criticize the army’s role in Israeli identity and policy … ‘The Drive’ is a purposefully uncomfortable tale. To be sure, Assulin is an assured and accomplished writer, and his short novel captures and holds our attention, roils our emotions, and challenges our comfortable assumptions. Above all, the author is fully aware he has created a character who is both troubled and troubling, and he makes no apology for it.”—Jewish Journal

Villa of Delirium
Adrian Goetz, trans. Natasha Lehrer | New Vessel Press | 9781939931801 | August 2020
“A re-creation of … a family that had both immense wealth but was also ultra-intellectual. Based on real-life figures, Goetz describes a fascinating world. . . . There’s a passionate love affair, too . . . Goetz fashions quite an appealing novel out of this rich historical material . . . an engaging, colorful read.”—The Complete Review

Copper Yearning
Kimberly Blaeser | Holy Cow! Press | 9781513645612 | November 2019
Copper Yearning does what only poetry can do. It puts us so deeply in the perspective of the poet that every line which connects us resonates with a profundity that borders on the sacred, and every line that divides us is uncomfortable in its discordance, a chord we need to resolve. Truly powerful art is not afraid to make its audience uncomfortable, nor does it feel the need to offer resolutions. It demands engagement, and in this way, Blaeser’s poems are radical.”—World Literature Today

The Secret of the Tattered Shoes
Jackie Morris, illus. Ehsan Abdollahi | Tiny Owl Publishing | 9781910328378 | November 2020
“It is sometimes a challenge to describe his artwork. The images are somewhat abstract, yet clear and beautiful at the same time. His use of color and light seem to make the pages glow–especially in this story where many of the events happened in the dark of night.”—Youth Services Book Review

Paris Cat
Dianne Hofmeyr, illus. Piet Grobler | Tiny Owl Publishing | 9781910328620 | September 2020
“This is a cute story about a little cat in Paris who travels around the city creating a wonderful and magical life.”—Youth Services Book Review

The New Baby and Me
Christine Kidney, illus. Hoda Haddadi | Tiny Owl Publishing | 9781910328187 | September 2020
“This is an absolutely perfect book to have for a family with young children that are expecting another little bundle of joy.”—Youth Services Book Review

Sion’s Misfortune
Chen Jiafei, illus. Wang Ran | KaradiTales Picturebooks | 9788193654255 | September 2020
“A philosophical tale cleverly highlighting the shifting nature of perspectives as they evolve over time.”— Youth Services Book Review

Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Gerda Muller | Floris Books | 9781782506287 | September 2020
“This is a gentle re-telling of the traditional tale.”—Youth Services Book Review

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“2020 Is Turning Out to Be a Heck of a Year”: A Word with . . . Lily Tschudi-Campbell

In this week’s A Word with You, we talked to Lily Tschudi-Campbell, buyer and marketing coordinator at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she’s worked since 2015. She also has an MFAC from Hamline University and is writing children’s books of her own. You can find her at @lilywritesstuff

So . . . how are you?

I never know how to answer this question any more! I mean, good, mostly—I still have a job, my family is healthy, things are going about as well as can be expected. But that “can be expected” is a bit of a lower bar than it used to be, isn’t it? It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the ways our world is changing, by the vast uncertainty of the future, by the many new stresses that have been piled on top of our already-stressful lives. 2020 is turning out to be a heck of a year, and we’re only halfway through. *insert Jake Peralta screaming guitar GIF here*

Has the crisis affected how you buy and think about books?

Oh, absolutely. As an indie bookseller, I’ve always known that the experience of buying/selling a book in person, face-to-face, is completely different than buying/selling a book online, but operating like this has really driven that point home. As a buyer, there are books I would have purchased for the store in the Before Times that I no longer think we can sell without the option of handselling or physical shelftalkers. This feels especially true for books for adults, since as a children’s bookstore, our grown-up section is quite small.

Hours & Directions | Red Balloon Bookshop

Additionally, one of the things I love best about indie bookselling is the way you can see the effect of an individual bookseller on a particular book’s sales. We’ve seen certain books that will be selling consistently and well at our store, and then go into returns six months after their champion bookseller(s) has left. But now that only a couple of our staff members are on phones and no one is coming into the store (yet), the books we sell are skewed towards those people’s tastes.

In losing those things—the power of a handsell, the full breadth of our staff’s taste and opinions and knowledge—I think we’re losing a lot of what makes indie bookselling so special, as well as losing many of our opportunities to promote smaller titles from smaller presses. I haven’t really come to terms with that, to be honest. It definitely means we’re going to need to shift the way we do our business/promotion. I’m not sure yet what that looks like. For now, it’s just another little thing to grieve, among the many changes and losses our society is experiencing.

What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?

I’m hugely inspired by the folks who immediately found ways to help. During the recent protests following the murder of George Floyd in the Twin Cities, Moon Palace immediately stepped up to be a source of community safety and support. I am amazed by their generosity and strength. The Raven Book Store has been a force for good on the interwebs for some time now, and they’ve only increased those efforts in the past few months. The owner, Danny Caine, even purchased some books from us so we could color in Kansas (with a crayon—we are a children’s bookstore) on our map of places we’ve shipped to since COVID (an idea I enthusiastically stole from them in the first place). I can’t even tell you how supported that made all of us feel.

And I’m in awe of the fortitude Black booksellers/bookstore owners have shown in dealing with massive orders of antiracist books from (white) customers who immediately turn around and demand impossibly instant delivery of books (and which those customers will absolutely still need to read in a month). Places like Loyalty Bookstore and Frugal Bookstore, among others, have been dealing with this entitled nonsense with incredible grace despite the frustration they must be feeling. Plus, last but not least, a brand new bookstore is going to open in the Twin Cities—Black Garnet Books—which will be the first Black-owned bookstore in Minnesota. I can’t wait to see what they do.

What has the switch to virtual storytimes and events been like? Do you think the experience of being read to changes when it’s virtual?

It has been so, so strange, especially as a children’s bookstore. I think the experience of being read to virtually is hugely different than being read to in person, especially the younger your audience gets. Just like the transition to online schooling has been generally harder for first graders than for high schoolers, moving our storytimes to video has completely changed the experience, both for the kids and for our storytellers. Kids learn differently through a screen than they do in person. Storytime for the very young is absolutely a form of education. It teaches listening, sitting with a group (which is obviously gone), following simple directions, and early reading comprehension. And for the storytellers, it becomes impossible to react and adapt to the audience—there’s no way to tell if they’re confused, excited, distracted, all of the above. Virtual events are slightly easier, as their audiences are older, but it’s still quite different from the kind of book parties we used to throw.  

Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides?

We just recently started having staff Zoom meetings where we can talk about book world and regular world issues, especially race and racism, but also more generally about representation, which authors we choose to support (or not), what constitutes support (carrying a book on our shelves vs. recommending it vs. hosting events around it), etc. I’m really excited to see where these conversations go—I’m hopeful it will make it possible for the store to more accurately represent all of us, and not just those who run the social media, choose which books to carry, or own the store. And much as I miss seeing all of my lovely coworkers together at once, Zoom makes the meetings a little bit more accessible for those with other commitments. I’d love for these to become a regular part of us being a bookstore.

What do you hope for the future of bookselling, and especially children’s books?

I hope that we can keep independent bookstores going strong, in whatever form that takes. In some ways, this feels like another 2008—a year when we’re going to lose a lot of indies and where the rest will need to find ways to adapt and change to survive.

I hope we can keep doing the work on making books and publishing more diverse. The difference in the Diversity in Children’s Books Reports between 2015 and 2018 is far too small for what should have been possible in three years. That data doesn’t even address the ways that, while the characters in children’s books have become slightly more diverse, their authors barely have. That’s a conversation that the whole of publishing needs to get involved with, and that white authors, publishers, and booksellers need to do the work to advance, instead of relying on their BIPOC counterparts. Our industry needs to be better, and independent booksellers need to involve themselves in that conversation as well.

What are you working on and what are you reading? Do you have anything you would pair it with (a food, a movie, another book, etc.?)

I’m all over the place in what I’m working on, to be honest! Writing is coming slowly for me right now—despite the romantic (and nonsense) ideal of the struggling artist, stress is actually very counter to creativity. I have been working on my own version of Jane Mount’s Ideal Bookshelf artworks, though, which I’m finding a very soothing project that still lets me connect with books. 

Reading wise, I’ve been working on our store’s summer reading bingo challenge. Some particularly stand-out titles have been A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow and The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (coming in August)—both are excellently written books about anti-Black racism and police violence, and one of them has magic! I’d pair those books together, along with a lot of the other antiracist books that have been making the news.

I also recently read Desert Notebooks by Ben Ehrenreich, which was an incredible creative nonfiction combo of personal essays, history, philosophy, contemporary politics, and nature writing. It’s an intelligent and compassionate look at the way our world seems to be falling apart around us (though it does not mention COVID, as it was written before that began). And it’s been very hot in the Twin Cities lately, so I’d pair all of these books with some mango popsicles so you can have something cool and sweet while you read about hard times!


Looking for a way to support independent bookstores? Make a donation to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC), purchase a book online from your favorite bookstore, or visit Bookshop.org.

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This Week’s News

Dennis Mahoney, author of Ghostlove (Ig Publishing), was interviewed in Times Union on June 30.

Jericho Brown, author of The Tradition (Copper Canyon Press), talked to Mark Doty for The Advocateon July 3. Brown also wrote an article on June 19.

Amy Irvine, author of Air Mail and Desert Cabal (Torrey House Press) wrote a piece for Outside on June 25.

Susan M. Gaines, author of Accidentals (Torrey House Press), was in Rain Taxi on July 6.

Electric Literature recommended Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed (Coffee House Press) on June 11.

Jonathan Hammond, author of The Shaman’s Mind (Monkfish Book Publishing), was interviewed on Bringing Inspiration to Earth on July 2.

Spirituality & Health Magazine featured an article by Sarah Bowen, author of Spiritual Rebel (Monkfish Book Publishing) on June 30. 

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This Week’s Reviews

Fiebre Tropical
Julie Delgado Lopera | The Feminist Press at CUNY | 9781936932757 | March 2020
“The potent sights, sounds, smells and textures of Miami don’t begin to compare with the vibrant, witty interior of a Colombian immigrant teen discovering herself in Juli Delgado Lopera’s dazzling first novel, Fiebre Tropical.”—Shelf Awareness

Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood
Rachel Biale | Mandel Vilar Press | 9781942134633 | April 2020
“[A] breathtaking pursuit novel full of brutality and tenderness.’—Shelf Awareness.”—Reviews by Amos Lassen

A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire
Yuri Herrera, trans. Lisa Dillman | And Other Stories | 9781911508786 | June 2020
“A book that demands to be read.”—The Spectator

Like Bismuth When I Enter
Carlos Lara | Nightboat Books | 9781643620190 | April 2020
“Lara’s work—aggressively gorgeous; confident—possesses a syntax (& voice), that despite its brazen eccentricity, we associate with reason.”—Tourniquet Review

Sun of Consciousness
Edouard Glissant, trans. Nathanaël | Nightboat Books | 9781937658953 | February 2020
“This book articulates Glissant’s vision for a future in which literature defies nationality, as he adopts the stance of the poet-seer, calling for a gradual decolonization of the mind.”—Modern Poetry in Translation

The Drive
Yair Assulin, trans. Jessica Cohen | New Vessel Press | 9781939931825 | April 2020
“An intense, com­pact work that presents a point of view on Israeli life that may be unfa­mil­iar and quite sur­pris­ing to non-Israelis. . . . The nov­el presents a ver­sion of the eter­nal con­flict between the indi­vid­ual and soci­ety. . . . The Dri­ve reveals facets of mod­ern Israeli cul­ture not usu­al­ly known out­side of Israel.”—Jewish Book Council

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“There Are Always Market Constraints. But the Best Stores Kick Against Those Constraints”: A Word with . . . Brad Johnson!

For this week’s A Word With You we chatted with Brad Johnson, owner of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, California. He was formerly a manager at DIESEL, A Bookstore in Oakland, which he purchased with the help of customers in 2017. Follow him @AhabLives.

So . . . how are you?

It’s unfair that “I’m tired”—that most mundane but necessary of human traits—is now a little clichéd. I don’t know a bookseller who’s been able to work during the past few months who hasn’t had some seriously exhausting, soul-searching, long nights during all this. In between the exhaustion I feel more engaged with the job than ever though, which in turn makes me work harder and get more exhausted. Feedback loops are fun. 

What’s some good advice you’ve received recently?

John Evans (my former employer at DIESEL, a Bookstore) made a point to remind me that I need to step away from the job from time to time, even when it doesn’t seem like I have the time. That sometimes the most responsible thing is NOT to do the work. It’ll make you that much sharper when you do step back into it. He didn’t use those exact words—John’s a poet, so it was both more succinct and enigmatic. But that was my takeaway, and it seemed right . . . even if I don’t always follow it really well.

What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?

I’m especially excited about the work being done on the university press level. The University of North Carolina Press, for example, consistently publishes some of the most interesting and radical BIPOC political theory. University of Texas really sinks their teeth into regional culinary and musical studies. What I love most about university presses are the riches their backlists offer readers (and buyers). Other publishers have great backlists too, but university presses are where worlds are upended & recreated. I’m a lover of the deep dive. I may not have the breath to get as deep as I’d like, but to know that others have, and to have that as a resource when I need it, is powerful and inspirational. 

The stores that excite me most are the ones that most clearly pursue a vision of what their store is about. I think we’re now—and maybe always have been— coming up against the limits of the “general bookstore” model that tries to be all things to all people. Being an indie, to me, means blazing a path that is truly independent. There are always market constraints. But the best stores kick against those constraints.

How is contactless bookselling going? How has the East Bay Booksellers community (writers, readers, patrons, etc.) responded to the pandemic?

For the most part our customers and community have appreciated our conservative approach to the pandemic. We haven’t set a time-table to open for browsing. Some will grumble, but more often than not, our customers have appreciated our position. I’ve been upfront about the fact that I think we’re only at the end of the beginning, and that the emergency (not just for the store) is a long one. If we’re in this together, then all things—including how we go about business—have to look and be different. 

Can you talk about the Surprise Me function on your site?

It grew out of a conviction early on that I wanted people to focus on buying things we already had in the store. What better way to showcase both your store’s & your booksellers’ tastes? We offer a $20 and $30 option, and ask people to give us a little description of what they’re looking for or what they’ve liked. The best are the most impressionistic. And then we try to find something that’s as far off the beaten path as we think our customer is willing to go. It’s sometimes hard, but it’s always exciting. We wish we had a chance to have face-to-face chats with people about the selections made. 

What does business look like right now?

We’re working to transition into a state that isn’t simply order fulfillment. This form of bookselling is exhausting on a spiritual and emotional level, and not at all what I signed up for. We want to devise better ways for people to engage our bookstore in a somewhat similar way to how they would when they were shopping inside it. Right now that means we’re reimagining how we convey “who we are” and “what we’re about” by way of what we actively try to sell. As an example, our Anti-Racist Literature display, which takes up the entirety of our front-window, is pretty politically radical and doesn’t shy away from being intellectual or theoretical. We make no bones about the ideological bones we’re picking and the world we want to help make happen.

Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides?

I really quite like the shortened hours. I talk to customers about embracing, not apologizing for, the human-scale of our retail. This means right now if you email us on a Friday at 7pm, you’re not likely to hear from us until Monday. I don’t know that I’ll have the conviction to sacrifice Saturday retail, whenever the dust settles on the pandemic. I think that kind of honesty is important and ultimately helpful. 

In addition, like it or not, e-commerce is going to be something we have to keep getting better at. Ideally this also means more variety in e-commerce platforms, different stores have different needs and aesthetics. We need platforms that work with us, rather than ones that we have to work around. 

What do you hope for the future of bookselling?

Think more radically than “we’re not Amazon.” To me, that’s just an extraordinarily low ethical bar. What I want to see from bookselling is a firmer embrace of independence and a more finely tuned resistance to corporate taste-making. If our independence is only in the regional interests section of our stores or staff recommendations shelves, how independent are we? And this isn’t just a matter of what books we buy, but in the convictions and personalities that motivate what books we’re actively trying to sell. There’s no way to get to this sort of independence without a full commitment to diversity; and there’s no true commitment to diversity without the hard (sometimes uncomfortable) work of transparency and honesty. 

What are you working on and what are you reading? Do you have anything you would pair it with (a food, a movie, another book, etc.?)

My co-worker, Elizabeth Freeman, and I recently started a bookselling podcast called Faced Out. It’s pretty raw and opinionated, but our ultimate aim is to be a sort of open door for fellow booksellers (and people in their orbit) to discuss important issues of our industry. Thus far we’ve featured interviews with Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Books, and Lisa Lucas, of the National Book Foundation. 

I’m on the National Book Award jury for Translated Lit, so I’m reading so much international fiction I can’t officially talk about! Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism, however, has completely rocked my world. Pair it with Joshua Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself, and very little about the world will look the same. 

Looking for a way to support independent bookstores? Make a donation to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC), purchase a book online from your favorite bookstore, or visit Bookshop.org.

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