Friday, January 25, 2008

Powell’s to Expand Flagship in 2010, Absorb Technical Store

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 1/23/2008 8:00:00 AM

Starting January 2010, Powell's Books in Portland, Ore. will begin construction to add some 10,000 sq. ft. of retail space to its existing flagship location, Powell’s City of Books, and incorporate the 7,000 sq.-ft. of inventory from Powell’s Technical Books, effectively closing the freestanding store, which operates just two blocks from the flagship.

“We don’t see it as closing a store, since we’re incorporating the inventory into our store and it will be given a dedicated room” said Powell’s CEO for strategic development, Miriam Sontz.

The additional retail space will likely be utilized to expand City of Book’s children’s section, which currently occupies some 5,000 sq.-ft. of 75,000 sq.-ft. flagship store.

Sontz said that the store “may decide to add even more retail space, but no decision has been finalized.” Any expansion, which is likely to take the form of adding additional stories to the existing building, will have to be approved by the city.

“We made the announcement so far in advance,” said Sontz, “in part because we wanted to spend 2008 talking to our staff and surrounding community about what they want to add to the store. This is an opportunity for change. Then in 2009, hopefully we can approve the plans and in 2010 start construction.”

Monday, January 21, 2008

Everyday Ghosts: Joshilyn Jackson's suburban gothics

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 1/21/2008

All Southerners believe in ghosts,” says Joshilyn Jackson, whose third novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, out this March from Grand Central, opens with a middle-of-the-night visit from the ghost of a teenage girl. The novel's protagonist, Laurel Hamilton, is used to haunting (her dead uncle appears regularly), but this ghost is unfamiliar and leads Laurel to the dead body of Laurel's teenage daughter's friend, Molly, floating in the pool. The ensuing story could be called “Suburban Gothic,” filled with both real and spectral figures coming to haunt her gated community in Pensacola, Fla.

Jackson, 39, began her writing career after years of struggling as an actress in regional theater; both her previous novels, Gods in Alabama (Warner Books, 2005) and Between, Georgia (Warner Books, 2007), were #1 Book Sense picks, making Jackson the first author to have back-to-back top picks. Gods has more than 200,000 copies in print; Between, Georgia, 150,000.

Still, the Georgia author's renown as a novelist remains primarily Southern. Jackson lives in Powder Springs, Ga., with her husband and two children, 10-year-old Sam (named for Samuel Beckett) and five year-old Maisey (named for the Henry James novel What Maisie Knew). But Grand Central Publishing believes The Girl Who Stopped Swimming will be her breakout book, banking on the gated suburban setting resonating with readers across the country. The plan is a 75,000 first printing, with two more novels contracted for.

In person, Jackson exudes the charisma of a stage actress, with a speaking voice that won her a PW Listen Up award for the audiobook version of Between, Georgia. Acting also surfaces in the character of Thalia, Laurel's loose-cannon older sister in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, who runs a black boxtheater in Birmingham, Ala. After Laurel finds the dead girl in her pool, she turns to Thalia for help.

“Laurel and Thalia is that virgin/whore thing that all Southern girls have,” she says, admitting that her “strong sense of decorum” was difficult to overcome early on. “Now I've learned to set a character on fire and see what happens.”

Though there are literal ghosts in Jackson's latest novel, she acknowedges that: “The real ghost in the book is poverty,” adding that it's a very personal topic to her.

Jackson's maternal grandmother grew up in a town very much like the fictional DeLop in Girl. “The book,” says Jackson, “was an effort to empathize with the grandmother with whom I have not spoken in 20 years. My grandmother was a sharecropper. I remember driving through the town with her when I was a child and her saying things like 'that's my corn, those are my trees, that's my house.' But none of it was hers—she just felt the way she did because of the work she put into that land.” Living in such grinding poverty left her grandmother obsessed with social propriety, but emotionally aloof.

In the novel, Laurel's mother—who is obsessed with propriety—is a stand-in for Jackson's grandmother. DeLop represents the shameful past Laurel is trying to outrun—she never lets her husband, Dave, or daughter, Shelby, visit it—but she inadvertently invites the past into her life in the form of Bet, an at-risk teenage girl from DeLop who starts as Shelby's pen pal and ends up as a house guest.

In the same way that her family's history has been injected into her fiction, Jackson has started taking elements from her fiction and turning them into reality. To mark the publication of Between, Georgia, Jackson took a totem that appears in the book—a statue of a little fox—and gave versions of it as gifts to bookstores where she toured. This time, she commissioned a quilt based on a design that Laurel, a fabric artist herself, is working on in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. That quilt, called The Bride, will accompany Jackson when she sets off on her 17-city book tour, which for the first time will extend beyond the South to include cities from San Francisco to Albany, N.Y.

“I guess I always wished, as a little girl, that I could reach into books and pull things out of them,” says Jackson, “Now, I can.” The thing she couldn't conjure through her writing, though, was a real ghost. “I'm probably too much of a pragmatist to see ghosts,” she says. “But I do believe in quantum physics and the idea that there is not lost energy—just energy that reconfigures itself. Who hasn't walked into a room at one time or another and felt the hairs rise on the back of their neck?”

Sunday, January 20, 2008

'Fight': A blow-by-blow guide to unarmed combat

SPORTS: Eugene Robinson's ode to 'fistic arts' gets it all down in black and blue
12:00 AM CST on Sunday, January 20, 2008
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Eugene Robinson doesn't sound like the kind of guy that someone (a scrawny book critic, for example) would want to annoy. Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 200-plus pounds, Mr. Robinson is a bundle of muscle and sinew. He boxed at the Boy's Club in Brooklyn and has since dedicated himself to the study of kenpo karate, muay thai (a form of kickboxing) and mixed martial arts (MMA). He is, he admits at the start of his new book Fight, a "fightaholic." OK, so I'll be careful what I say ...

Fight is Mr. Robinson's paean to what he calls the "fistic arts" and is replete with page after page of color photos of tattooed, bloodied men locked in some form of battle. Within you'll find a compendium of trivia, lists, advice and anecdotage about all forms of unarmed combat, from barroom brawls to boxing. He offers seven pages explaining different "grappling holds," offers advice on how to win a knife fight (first rule: Expect to get cut), as well as the mathematical formula for calculating the force of a punch.

If all this sounds like vulgar machismo to you, you're probably not one of the millions of viewers who tune into the many hours of television each week that features hand-to-hand combat, from the masked wrestlers of lucha libre to Discovery Channel's Fight Quest to Spike TV's popular Ultimate Fighting Championship.

John McCain once derided MMA as "human cockfighting," but in recent years it has become, if not entirely respectable, then at least mainstream. Even Mark Cuban has jumped on the bandwagon and, since September, has offered a weekly MMA chat show on his HDNet TV network.

Mr. Cuban should take note: Mr. Robinson might make a good host. The core of his book is a series of interviews with various fighters. The best known is boxer Evander Holyfield, who muses on having his ear bitten in a fight by Mike Tyson. Elsewhere, Mr. Robinson channels George Plimpton and entices some of the best brawlers in the business to beat him up.

Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson is such an enthusiast, he forgets that many of his readers may not be as devoted to the scene as he his, and his bravado risks alienating the uninitiated.

That is a shame, for there are some moments of intriguing journalism here, such as Mr. Robinson's conversations with a member of the Aryan Brotherhood who discusses how to survive a brawl in a 5-by-7-foot prison cell; the barroom bouncer who offers advice on how to take down a bigger opponent (get him down on the floor where his size isn't such an advantage); and an amateur fighter who inadvertently killed a man in a street altercation.

Needless to say pacifists should avoid opening the book. But most anyone else with a curiosity about this growing subculture – and let's hope for the sake of civilization that it stays a subculture – will be rewarded with a new knowledge of how to give and take and the professionals who do so for a living.

A conversation with 'Sacred Games' author Vikram Chandra

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Itseems unlikely that the avant-garde short story writer Donald Barthelme would have had such a profound influence on Indian novelist Vikram Chandra. Barthelme was a master of the miniature: His stories are terse, focusing on the intimate details of a tiny cast of characters. Chandra, by contrast, is a maximalist, who in two novels — 1995's 600-page "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" and last year's 950-page "Sacred Games" — has tried to capture the sweep and drama of life in colonial and contemporary India.

When Barthelme died of a heart attack in 1989, Chandra says he "felt it terribly personally." The two had met when Chandra enrolled in the creative writing program at the University of Houston, where Barthelme taught.

"It took us awhile to understand each other," says Chandra by phone from his home in Berkeley, Calif. "But it's precisely that kind of detailed attention that you could see in his stories that was valuable to me. Watching him read the story was an education: the keenness with which he could spot a word out of place or alter the effect of a sentence by moving a comma or cutting a phrase was revelatory." Barthelme's death meant Chandra had lost a mentor.

Chandra lived off-and-on in Houston from 1988 until 1995, writing and working part-time as a computer consultant. (The Houston Zoo was one client.) Texas, he says, was a comfortable place to live as an aspiring writer. "In New York, literary life is very hierarchical, but in Houston, even as a graduate student, the scene was very accessible." But the Bayou City wasn't big enough to contain him: When "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" was published in 1995 and honored with a Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Published Book, Chandra was lured away to take a teaching position at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. Today, he teaches at the University of California.

"Red Earth" hinges on the storytelling of Sanjay Parasher, a 19th-century poet and revolutionary who has been reincarnated as a monkey in present-day India. After getting shot by a college student home from America, Parasher the monkey, in a direct echo of "One Thousand and One Nights," is granted amnesty from death by the gods so long as he continues to peck out stories from his various lives on a manual typewriter. In this way, Chandra is able to recount a broad swath of the history of 18th- and 19th-century Mughal India. Chandra interweaves these tales with the story of the college student's road trip across the U.S., thus also delivering a gimlet-eyed critique of late-20th-century American culture as well.

Chandra's second novel, "Sacred Games," just out in paperback — and named a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist on Monday — is even more ambitious and cacophonous. Its cast numbers in the dozens and the plot is nearly impossible to summarize succinctly. Suffice to say it views the roiling past half-century of Indian history through the prism of two very different men, police inspector Sartaj Singh and devout gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. On the surface it is a traditional detective thriller and, at nearly 1,000 pages, something of a commitment. But it rewards the reader's effort, giving a visceral sense of the city of Mumbai, a place where everybody has a price (or a price on their head).

Chandra, who splits his time between Mumbai and Berkeley, spent nearly seven years researching and writing "Sacred Games," including trailing a local crime reporter, setting up meetings with real-life bad guys and otherwise nosing around Jambli Mohalla, the dangerous locality that Mumbai newspapers refer to as the "Palermo of India."

Chandra says he chose a detective as the hero of his book "because a detective can move across all layers of society." In addition, the detective novel is itself "a particularly mobile form and anywhere you go you will find it." It's "globalized," so to speak, and provided Chandra with a way of delivering a portrait of life in Bombay (Chandra's preferred name for Mumbai) to a large, international audience.

While some novelists, such as Kazuo Ishiguro, go so far as to purge their novels of local flavor to facilitate understanding and translation into other languages, Chandra balks at the very idea. His characters themselves flit in and out of various languages, from Hindi to Marathi to Urdu, as well as slang from the streets of Mumbai.

"In the book, some of the language that is used is so slangy and specific to Bombay that even people in another part of India wouldn't understand what was being said," says Chandra.

Fortunately, in Chandra's hands, context often provides the meaning. Also, there's a 16-page glossary.

"Sacred Games" is very much a novel appropriate to this moment in time, when Americans are keenly curious about India. "When I first came to the U.S. in the 1980s the stories were all about India being a place of mysticism," says Chandra. "In the last 10 years it's been about outsourcing and the revival of the economy.

"This has been interesting to watch from (American) shores, but I worry that it has been slipping into phobia. I want people to know India is a place where people have been living their lives and doing business for thousands of years and doing rather well with it. At least some new knowledge can come from the fear."