Sunday, March 18, 2007

Review of Matthew Sharpe's 'Jamestown'

Matthew Sharpe's 'Jamestown'


SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, March 18, 2007

For reasons that are too obvious to belabor, over the past five years storytellers have become obsessed with the apocalypse. Think of Cormac McCarthy's haunting "The Road," the stunning film adaptation of P.D. James' "Children of Men" and television series such as "Jericho," "Heroes" and "Lost." The common thread among these stories is that each features a group of refugees trying to recover some semblance of their old lives.

Add to this list Matthew Sharpe's "Jamestown," a gonzo re-imagining of the founding of the famous Virginia colony. Sharpe moves the story from 1607 to a post-apocalyptic near future in which the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan are engaged in a war that has left New York besotted with ninja-like assassins.

After watching the Chrysler building tumble into ruin, a coterie of Sun Tzu-toting business executives representing the "Manhattan Company" set forth along Interstate 95 ("whoever controls I-95 controls the world," we're told) in an armored bus for Virginia, where they hope to find food and oil for their war machine. Soon, the would-be colonists/occupiers encounter the "spectacularly ugly" natives, all marked with "an unnaturally reddish hue."

A key element of Sharpe's beguiling, but ultimately baffling, satire is to refashion historical figures into contemporary caricatures. Jamestown's leader, John Smith, has become Jack Smith, a mechanic responsible for maintaining the bus; Algonquian chief Powhatan is recast as a lethargic, fat patriarch; Pocahontas (nicknamed "Poke a Huntress," among other, bawdier names), becomes a gabby, sex-starved "irreverent scamp"; her husband, the tobacco farmer John Rolfe, is reimagined as the book's narrator, Johnny Rolfe, the Manhattan Company's designated "communications officer" who is recording the events on his PDA. New to the story is Powhatan's right-hand man, a psychiatrist named Sidney Feingold (sometimes referred to as "Sit Knee Find Gold").

For the most part, Sharpe hews to what details are known from the historical record. Nearly half of the original Jamestown colonists were self-described "gentlemen" who knew little about surviving in the wilderness. Centuries later, the suit-wearing refugees are no different, derided by the natives as a "pack of weaklings" without "a single skill to live beyond their fortress town up north."

This inability to cope with their new circumstances has transformed the men into brawlers who, spurred by even a moment's frustration, turn on each other with knives drawn. As Rolfe writes early on: "Some great, quaint pre-annihilation philosopher described the movement of history as thesis, antithesis, synthesis, whereas I've seen a lot more thesis, antithesis, steak knife, bread knife."

A number of historical events are recreated here, the most mythological of which is the saving of Capt. John Smith from execution by Pocahontas. (In Sharpe's version, Smith is to be beaten to death with baseball bats.) But Sharpe's true agenda lies in recasting language and storytelling itself.

While typing her journal on her own PDA, Pocahontas explains why she is recounting her story in English, instead of her native "secret" language: "I feel like if I were to lie or dissemble in English you would know right away because every English sentence goes by so slowly that you have this time to examine it and decide if it's true." Sharpe's prose demands such close attention: "Jamestown" is narrated through a trippy barrage of different forms, including snatches of pop songs, vulgar frat-boy limericks and, in particular, a hilarious and bizarre exchange of instant messages between Pocahontas (whose online name is CORNLUVR) and Rolfe (GREASYBOY).

It's all quite entertaining, but will baffle anyone hoping for a more conventional narrative (not to mention anyone unfamiliar with the history of the real Jamestown colony). If Sharpe's exuberant prose has any literary forebear it's Samuel Beckett, especially the early satirical novel "Murphy," which revels in wordplay, literary pastiche and also stars a sexually charged heroine. In fact, Sharpe even offers an exchange of dialogue between two voices described as "A Couple of Fops" that sounds like a reworked riff from "Waiting for Godot":

'How did we get here?'

'By bus.'

'No, I mean how did we get to the end of the world.'

'By bus.'

'I mean metaphysically.'

'By bus.'

'Do you ever wonder what did it, finally, what killed civ?'

'What's civ?'

'Civilization.'

'You have a nickname for civilization?'

'We were close before it died.'

"Jamestown" is a sui generis work of the imagination, but, like much of Beckett's work, it often feels cold in its cleverness. At one point, Pocahontas breaks the fourth wall to explain that she has a "secret name" that, if uttered, will kill the reader — the very model of the sort of postmodern game Sharpe enjoys playing with his readers.

It's also unclear whom we're supposed to sympathize with here — the ill-mannered settlers come to a bad end or the na├»ve natives who are transformed for the worse by exposure to the nefarious Manhattanites. Perhaps it's best to root for the lovers Pocahontas and Rolfe, who in their gleeful IM exchanges offer a glimmer of hope that love might persevere in the face of annihilation.

Despite his literary curlicues, Sharpe's rather complicated novel boils down to the old saw about what happens to those who ignore history — a point, perhaps, too obvious to repeat.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

L.B. May Purchases Nashville Remainder Show

by Edward Nawotka, PW Daily -- Publishers Weekly, 3/14/2007

L.B. May and Associates, owners of the Spring Book Show in Atlanta, has purchased Nashville's five-year-old Onboard Remainder Book Show from founder Larry Austin for an undisclosed sum. "We purchased the show because we felt we had economies of scale to do it right and it offered us an opportunity to enter into a new market," explained Larry May, president of L.B. May and Associates.

The show will be relocated to Atlanta, where it will take place from August 10-12 at the Georgia World Congress Center, the same location as the Spring Book Show set for later this month. Both shows focus on the sale of remainders, though the summer show will add sidelines. The summer show is also likely to be 20% smaller than the Spring Book Show, reducing the number of tables available to vendors from 530 to 430.

The still-to-be named show will take place a few months before the big CIROBE event. "A lot of retailers and vendors feel CIROBE is just too late in the season to get books into stores for Christmas," said May. "The Onboard Remainder Show was originally called the Onboard Remainder Christmas Show, specifically so people knew they could come in and get their product in time for Christmas. With this second show, we aim to sell to booksellers who want to get their bargain stock in time for the holiday shopping season."

May is inviting interested parties to suggest names for the relaunched event. The winning name will be selected by May and the new event will be christened on the first day of the show. The individual who submits the winning name will receive a grand prize that includes air fare, hotel accommodations, dinner and a skid of books. Three runners-up will be given a free skid of books.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Abu Dhabi Tries to Put Its Book Fair on the Map

By Edward Nawotka

From Publishers Weekly, 3/12/2007


Now in its 17th year, the Abu Dhabi Book Fair is undergoing a radical transformation, via a new, six-month old partnership with the Frankfurt Book Fair. The event, which takes place in the capital of the United Arab Emirates from March 31 through April 7, aims to help establish new relationships between Arab and Western publishers, authors and agents. For the most part, book publishing in the Arab world is a fractured and unregulated industry, with no central distribution, little copyright enforcement and limited retail outlets. "By partnering with Frankfurt," said Abu Dhabi Book Fair director Jumaa Abdulla Al Qubaisi, "we saw an opportunity to try and professionalize publishing in the region."

In previous years, the Abu Dhabi Book Fair—which is run by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage—was an opportunity for local residents to purchase books from around the Arab world, primarily from publishers from Egypt and Lebanon, many of which were not available through local bookstores or online. Approximately 200,000 people visited the fair last year and 350 publishers exhibited books.

This year, the venue has moved from outdoor tents, which offered approximately 10,000 feet of space, to a wing of the new multibillion-dollar Abu Dhabi Exhibition Center, which offers some 40,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space. The additional space allows the fair to dedicate a special section to children's books, as well as provide room for new exhibits covering production and distribution. But the revamped fair is struggling to attract Western publishers in its first year. About 12 small European publishers had registered to exhibit at press time, and no American houses had committed to attend. For his part, Al Qubaisi has tempered his expectations. He told PW, "We partnered with Frankfurt because they are most organized, recognized and professional brand in the business. We have a lot to learn from them. This year we are just getting experience."

The partnership with Frankfurt has yielded a new slate of professional seminars, covering such publishing practices as marketing, public relations and rights acquisition. There are also panels on "Tolerance as a Pre-Condition for Peace" and "Fundamentalism and Terrorism." Among the Americans speaking at the fair will be Rick Vanzura, president of Borders Group International, who will discuss Borders's franchise deal with Dubai-based Al Maya Group to open stores in the UAE.

As in previous years, books will also be for sale. Al Qubaisi emphasized that the fair will be open to all types of publications, save those that "discriminate, are pornographic or foment conflict in the region."

Central to the fair's new agenda is the launch of the Sheik Zayed's Book Awards. The new book award program, named for the late president of the United Arab Emirates, offers eight awards in categories ranging from children's books to best technology in the field of culture, and all carry a $200,000 cash prize. A ninth category, for "person of the year in the field of culture," offers a $270,000 prize. Any work published in the Arabic language and/or a translation from or to Arabic that was published within the last two years is eligible.

Mohamed A. Al Shehhi, a project coordinator for the fair, said he hopes the event will be one part of a larger effort to raise the standing of reading in the Arab world. "Traditionally, leisure book reading has not had as significant a role in Arab culture as religious scholarship, poetry and even reading newspapers. Through the book fair, we hope to help that change," Al Shehhi said. He added, "Ultimately, Abu Dhabi aims to be a safe haven for arts and culture in the Middle East and become a gateway for the West to the region. The Book Fair is an important part of that larger goal."

Georgia: Bookselling in the Peach State

By Edward Nawotka

From Publishers Weekly, 3/5/2007


Georgia boasts 188 bookstores, including 68 chain stores, with the heaviest concentration in Atlanta, the state's largest city and one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States. There, a coterie of dynamic specialty booksellers—including the feminist Charis Books & More, gay Outright Bookstore and children's bookseller Little Shop of Stories—thrive amid the burgeoning chains, which include some 22 Borders and Waldenbooks stores (out of 31 total in the state), as well as five B&Ns and B. Daltons (out of a total of 21, with a new B&N store expected to open in Newnan, Ga. shortly).

Marlene Zeiler, owner of Atlanta's Tall Tales Book Shop, said her 28-year-old 3,000-sq.-ft. general bookstore caters to a "sophisticated" readership that includes employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Emory University. "Some people in other parts of the country may think we Georgians are dumb, but they're wrong," said the former New Yorker.

All this growth and prosperity has its downside. "Bookselling in Atlanta has definitely become more challenging. Atlanta is now so big and with so much happening, it's hard for a bookstore to get noticed," said Frank Reiss, owner of A Cappella Books, which started in 1989 as an antiquarian bookstore, but has transitioned to offering new and used titles from its location in the hip Five Points district.

Likewise, Doug Robinson, owner of nearby Eagle Eye Books, said growth at the four-year-old store has been "modest" if not "flat," and it is primarily the store's Web business that continues to grow, as students are more and more comfortable ordering books online.

The competitive environment in Atlanta has had the greatest impact on the home-grown Chapter 11 bookstore chain, which at its peak had 16 stores and was lauded in the Wall Street Journal as a model independent bookseller. The chain has since fallen into bankruptcy and been reduced to three locations.

Outside of the metro area, the concentration of stores is less dense, but the market no less interesting, said Tom Murphy, v-p of book reps George Scheer Associates. "Though it's true Atlanta has some wonderful bookstores, the real action for me is now in the more rural corners of the state," said Murphy, who has been selling academic and small trade press books, including those from the University of Georgia Press, for 18 years. He pointed out that stores such as Cowan's Book Nook in East Ellijay (est. population in 2005: 706), which is in the mountains near the Tennessee border, and Hattie's Books in Brunswick along the southeast coast, are in out-of-the-way locales isolated from competition and have readers hungry for regional titles.

Leigh Baumann, owner of Jekyll Books at the Old Infirmary on Jekyll Island, one of the Sea Islands, agreed. "We do have a strong regional bias in our book selection," she said. "There's a sense of history here—it's where Vanderbilt, Pulitzer and Morgan had their summer homes and remains a high-end tourist destination—so people who come here want to read about the history and local community." She cited the novels of the late Georgia author Eugenia Price, as well as titles on ecology, birding and the store's self-published Golf Lovers Guide to Jekyll Island as big sellers.

Jeannie Young, manager of G.J. Ford bookshop on St. Simons Island, agreed that her store's temperate island locale is a boon. The wealth of the year-round residents—which include celebrities and athletes, such as golfer Davis Love III—ensures a consistent trade in hardcover books. Tourists are also important customers, and Young sends her store's newsletter to residents in 40 states who continue to order books throughout the year. "I feel very fortunate," said Young. "We continue to grow year after year."


Florida: Bookstores in the Sunshine State

By Edward Nawotka

From Publishers Weekly, 2/26/2007

In the literary world, Florida may be best known for having produced its own indigenous genre—the Wacky Florida Mystery. Purveyors, including Carl Hiaasen, Bob Morris and Tim Dorsey, are big sellers up and down the state. "Those authors—especially Hiaasen— easily draw hundreds to every reading," said Crystal Chancellor, district marketing manager for Borders Bookstores in south Florida. "But that's not all that sells," she added. "Florida is so diverse that you might have one store in which Jewish-interest and health books sell especially well, and another just a few miles down the road where the customers are primarily Spanish-speaking and interested in high-quality literature."

With 284 bookstores, Floridians have plenty of choice: the Sunshine State has the fourth-largest number of bookstores of any state in the country, behind only California, Texas and New York. Of the major bookselling chains, Borders has the greatest saturation, with 66 stores. The breadth of bookstores is as varied as the geography, which ranges from the beachy southern end of the peninsula and the hurricane-prone eastern seaboard to the Georgia border and the balmy panhandle.


Books & Books is Florida's best-known independent bookseller; it's celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Owner Mitchell Kaplan, a former president of the ABA, said that for many years he fought the stereotype that due to the weather, the residents of the Sunshine State wouldn't be interested in reading.

"Florida has traditionally been a place where there was a strong market for indies," he said. "When the superstores expanded into the state, there were initially a lot of closings. But smaller niche stores have begun to spring up." For his part, Kaplan has built a minichain with three locations: Coral Gables, Miami Beach and the upscale Bal Harbour mall.

"When we first opened, Miami was going through a rough period. But we've seen the city remake itself," said Kaplan, who pointed out that half of his sales are to bilingual Spanish/English readers.

Kaplan told PW that his idea of a successful bookstore was shaped by Haslam's Book Store in St. Petersburg on the Gulf coast. Founded in 1933 during the Depression, Haslam's remains the largest independent in the state. It offers 100,000 new titles, as well as several hundred thousand used books, in a 20,000-sq.-ft. setting. Co-owner Ray Hinst, the third generation of the family to run Haslam's (his son is a manager there), said that the "size of the store is the biggest statement we can make." It stays true to its "olde-timey" roots: no mailing list, no sidelines, and it's not open evenings.

In contrast, the Book Mark in Atlantic Beach in the northeast corner of the state is a mere 1,500 sq. ft. The store opened in 1990; Rona Brinlee purchased it in 1995. She said that her location serves three distinct types of clientele: locals, snowbirds who come for a few months and tourists. The combination, said Brinlee, means that her business isn't as susceptible to seasonality or weather. Brinlee is regularly interviewed by tastemaker NPR to recommend books.

Its Own Brand of Southern

Another misconception about Florida that needs correcting: "It's not really the South," says Leslie Reiner at Inkwood Books in Tampa. "Stereotypical Southern books like the Sweet Potato Queens don't work for us. Our customers pretty much read what the nation is reading."

Tom Rider, co-owner of Goerings Book Store in Gainesville in the panhandle, concurs. "We're not quite as empty-headed as we might seem," he said.

Located just a mile down the road from the U. of Florida, Goerings is both a 5,000-sq.-ft. trade bookstore and a separate textbook store. Rider said Gainesville has been experiencing significant growth in recent years, like many larger cities in the South. As a consequence, the chains saw an opportunity; two Books-a-Millions, a Borders and a Barnes & Noble are all nearby.

The boom in population also creates unique challenges: "Since we're still chopping down trees and plowing fields for suburban tract developments," explained Rider, "our customers continue to move further away from us. That means that a location you picked 10 years ago might not be as good, and you need to reassess constantly. Now that's a problem that we in Florida have that others around the country don't."