Monday, September 29, 2008

Dark doings in the land of the midnight sun

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' by Stieg Larsson

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, September 28, 2008

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

Think of Sweden, and what comes to mind? Ikea and ABBA? Bikini-clad bombshells? Meatballs?

How about dark secrets, sexual perversion and murder?

To those who read the country's best-selling detective novels, whether the classic 1960s Martin Beck novels of Maj. Sjowall and Per Walloo or the more recent Wallander mysteries by Henning Mankell, know the country is full of homicidal maniacs.

It is no different in Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Mikael Blomkvist, a fortysomething Stockholm business journalist and publisher of Millennium magazine, is convicted of libeling rich industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. He's forced to take a strange but lucrative assignment from Wennerstrom's rival industrialist, octogenarian Henrik Vanger – to investigate the disappearance of Vanger's 16-year-old niece in 1966 in the remote northern town of Hedested.

There he discovers that the Vanger clan has enough criminal perversions in its history, the least of which is Nazism, to make the Addams Family look like the Brady Bunch.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander, the twentysomething tattooed girl of the title, works as an investigator at a private security company in Stockholm. A pro computer hacker, Salander chooses to engage the world primarily through the screen of her iBook and pushes away everyone who might get close to her. Why? It keeps her safe. Slim and standing less than 5 feet tall, she is, as one character describes her ominously, "the perfect victim."

It turns out she's far from the only one in the book.

Despite its crime-story trappings, solving the mystery isn't The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's primary purpose. Mr. Larsson was an activist journalist; before he died in 2004, he edited an anti-racist magazine. He uses the novel to issue a cultural critique of Sweden. And he has much to criticize, spinning numerous subplots touching on such things as journalistic ethics, corporate malfeasance, sexual sadism, religious fanaticism, familial loyalty, misogyny and the right to privacy, to name just a few.

Understanding the subtleties of these issue-oriented subplots may be lost on American readers. Just following the myriad foreign words, names and places ("She took the tunnelbana from Zinkensdamm to Ostermalmstorg and walked down towards Strandvagen," reads one typical passage) is challenging enough.

That said, the strain of mentally maneuvering through the foreign milieu is part of the pleasure of reading a translated book (especially translated detective novels), where their very foreignness adds an extra layer of intrigue to the plot.

As fine, complex and rewarding a novel as this may be, my main quibble is that Salander, who is secondary to Blomkvist, really should be the focus, since she is by far the most interesting and distinct of the characters.

I fear not, for this is the first in a trilogy that was already delivered to the publisher. In the next, I'm told, the tattooed girl gets the starring role.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

The Girl With
the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson

(Knopf, $24.95)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The very small world of Alexander McCall Smith

The 'No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' series author explains why he focuses on everyday affairs and petty things

By Edward Nawotka

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Before the publication of Alexander McCall Smith's "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" novels, Gaborone, Botswana, wasn't exactly a magnet for tourists. The city served as a destination for executives from the diamond industry and a gateway for travelers heading to the safari camps of the Okavango Delta.

Today, by contrast, fans of the best-selling mystery series walk down the real Zebra Drive, where the fictional No. 1 Lady Detective, the "traditionally built African woman" Precious Ramotswe, lives; find the garage that inspired the fictional Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors; and quaff many cups of "red bush" tea.

If none of these references means anything to you, then perhaps you haven't stepped into a bookstore recently.

Alexander McCall Smith is among the most prolific and popular authors in print. A native of Zimbabwe who was educated in Scotland and later returned to Africa to help open a law school in Gaborone, he has published nine "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" novels, the latest of which to be published in the U.S., "The Miracle at Speedy Motors," came out in April. The books have been translated into more than 39 languages and sold 15 million copies around the world.

In addition, Smith has published five installments of the "Sunday Philosophers Club" series, including "The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday," which came out Tuesday, and three academic satires starring Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. There are also five volumes of "44 Scotland Street," about the residents of an Edinburgh apartment building written as a daily serial for an Edinburgh newspaper, and yet another serial, "Corduroy Mansions," about a large house of people in London, which he began earlier this month. A thousand or so words of it are published each day in the online Daily Telegraph. If you want, you can hear it as a podcast voiced by Andrew Sachs, who played the Spanish waiter Manuel on "Fawlty Towers."

Smith's enormous output takes him about "an hour and a half each day," he says by phone from his hometown of Edinburgh as he prepared for a six city U.S. tour, which includes Austin as his final stop.

"I have no difficulty writing on the road — airports, hotels, anywhere really," he says, "though writing on tour can be quite a bother." Smith gets about 20 requests for appearances each day and, as a consequence, his life is mapped out some 18 months in advance. That Austin will have hosted him twice in the past three years (he was a featured speaker at the Texas Book Festival gala in 2005) is a privilege but no accident.

"I'm rather quite fond of Texas," he says. "I've done two teaching stints at SMU in Dallas, and I was there in 1998 when the first 'No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' book was published in the U.K. I had 200 copies of the first edition — of about 1,500 copies in print — flown over, and my colleagues threw a small book party for me."

When Smith returns to Austin on Thursday, he'll give a 50-minute talk titled "The Very Small Things in Life." It's a surprising topic for a man whose life as an attorney was occupied with the weighty subject of medical ethics.

"Books need not always concern themselves only with the large issues of life," he explains. "Not everything has to be 'War and Peace.' By focusing on the small things, everyday affairs and petty things, it allows for humor and the evocation of human sympathy."

This celebration of the ordinary is evident in Smith's novels, which focus on such practical matters as running a business or a household. Precious Ramotswe is a detective who specializes in the mysteries of the human heart, rather than solving crimes, as such. Most of her investigating is done in conversation over a cup of red-bush tea employing little more than intuition and common sense.

Perhaps as a result of his having honed his craft as the writer of children's books, true villains and, most notably, AIDS, which is a major problem in Botswana, are all but absent from his work.

"My books don't tend to be intensely realistic," he says by way of explanation, "They are more like fables."

Though he's often compared to Agatha Christie or P.G. Wodehouse, Smith would prefer comparison to Barbara Pym and E.F. Benson, prolific 20th-century British writers known for their charitable, if humorous, portraits of provincial and middle-class life.

Indeed, Smith's books tend to be sunny and optimistic, paced for leisurely Sunday afternoons on a porch swing (rather than, say, a James Patterson novel, which is best suited for the frenetic anxiety of air travel).

"I always strive to keep it simple, to get the essence of something," he says.

How well this translates to the screen is yet to be determined. HBO and the BBC are collaborating on an adaptation starring the American R&B singer Jill Scott. Smith is enthusiastic about the unlikely choice of a Grammy Award-winning Philadelphia pop star to play a Botswanan Motswana private detective: "She's perfect," he says. "Her accent, her body language. It's all perfect."

One thing is for certain. Once the show airs, sometime next year, Botswana can expect a wave of Americans who will flock to see Gaborone firsthand.

When they get there, they will find a place that is a bit more dusty, a bit more rundown, a bit more hopelessly dire than the one described in Smith's books. But they will also find a ray of hope: what must be the only new opera venue in sub-Saharan Africa. The No. 1 Ladies' Opera House opened this past June under Smith's direction, complete with a little white van and a coffee shop and restaurant where dishes are named after the characters from his books.

Anyone for a plate of Mma Makoutsi's pancakes with a pot of Mma Ramotswe's bush tea? Just four and a half pula, please.

Friday, September 26, 2008

MPIBA Brings Sexy Back to Bookselling

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly,09/22/2008

At the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association regional trade show held this past weekend in Colorado Springs, the association’s booth featured canvas messenger bags for sale bearing the motto “Reading is Sexy.” It was the latest product introduced as part of a fundraising and awareness campaign for the organization. The bags, which feature the woman’s silhouette, stirred a minor frisson among some of female attendees.

MPIBA president Andy Nettell, co-owner of Arches Book Company in Moab, UT, told PW that he originally objected to the design, which was first printed on stickers. “I initially didn’t think it was appropriate,” he said, “Then we sold 250 stickers in a few months. I saw it was only women who were buying them – mostly librarians – who would pick them up by the stack. That sold me and I stopped worrying about the image.” Jennie Shortridge, author of the novel Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe, (NAL) was at the show to sign books. She told PW she felt “disappointed” when she saw it. “It strikes me as sexist and sends the wrong message,” she said. Still, the bags seemed to be generally popular with booksellers.

This year, the MPIBA was forced to move to Colorado Springs after the host hotel in Denver where it had been held the previous 24 years declined the booking. The change of venue, combined with the faltering economy, resulted in a substantial drop in bookstore attendance, the number falling from 102 last year to 65 stores this year. “It was the fewest we’ve ever had,” said MPIBA executive director Lisa Knudsen, who was herself celebrating her 20th anniversary with the organization. (Two Houston booksellers scheduled to attend – Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop and Tamra Dore of Katy Budget Books – failed to make the trip as they were still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.)

The show also lost 25 exhibitor tables, according to Knudsen. “It was a result of consolidation and recession,” she said. The drop in show attendees does not, however, indicate a decline in membership. The association announced 22 new members last year, ranging from 24,000 sq.-ft. Legacy Books in Plano, Texas, due to open in November, to Fact and Fiction bookshop on the University of Montana campus in Missoula.

Among those opening new stores in the region is Joni Montover. She is building a 1,500 sq.-ft. general bookstore, on South Padre Island, Texas. Montover, a Denver accountant who has vacationed on the resort island, was confident that despite the downturn in the economy, this remains a good time to open a bookstore on South Padre. “More and more people are moving to South Padre as boomers retire,” she said, adding “the nearest bookstore is at least an hour’s drive away and with the gas prices so high people don’t want to drive so far for a book.”

Sue McBride, owner of Whistle-Stop Books and Gifts, a 1,900 sq.-ft. store in Douglas, WY also found a silver lining in the high price of gas. “Previously people might drive 45 minutes to Casper to do their shopping,” she said, “but now, they are staying put.”

All this should prove positive for the ABA as it continues t roll out its new IndieBound marketing program. Haven Stillwater, owner of The Bookhaven in Salida, CO – a town of 6,000 people – said that though her five-and-a-half year old store has been growing each year, “incrementally, not exponentially” the biggest challenge she faces remains “convincing locals and newcomers the value of buying locally.” She’s had the IndieBound branding on display in her store since it was announced at BEA. She called it “eyecatching” and remarked that it was “an easy-transition from BookSense.” Still, it was mostly tourists to her store who understood the concept. Though she expressed uncertainty about its future, she thinks it’s still “a great shot in the arm for booksellers.”

Vicki Burger, co-owner of Wind City Books in Casper, WY opened her bookstore on September 12, 2007. She said that since the economy in Wyoming is generally strong due to growth in the energy sector, business “has been good and we’re riding the boom.” She said she’d like to do more with IndieBound, especially since here strongest competition comes from a nearby Waldenbooks. “But since I work a 12-hour day as it is, I really don’t have the time,” she said. Arsen Kashkashian, buyer at the Boulder Bookshop in Boulder, CO, pointed out that for a store in a town such as Boulder or Austin, Texas which already have strong business alliances, “that concept is already out there,” and less relevant.

Looking ahead, Kashkashian echoed what many booksellers felt: With politics drawing media attention away from books and the economy taking a downswing, “It’s looking like a tough fall for booksellers,” he said.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Stephanie Elizondo Griest: Mexican enough

'Around the Bloc' author belatedly discovers her Hispanic heritage

Sunday, September 07, 2008

By the time she turned 30, Corpus Christi native Stephanie Elizondo Griest had traveled by bus to 42 states, lived in Russia and China and collected dozens more stamps in her passport. Yet she'd hardly set foot in Mexico.

"Growing up in South Texas, you only hear the worst things about Mexico," the University of Texas graduate says. "The perception is that it's totally dangerous, and I would have sooner hitchhiked through Kyrgyzstan than go to Mexico."

It was in the midst of her early travels that she had an awkward epiphany.

"I was in Cuba, meeting all these amazing people," she says, "and I realized I could barely communicate. There I was, a Mexican American, wishing that the Cubans would speak Russian."

That epiphany has blossomed into her latest book, "Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines."

Though Griest's mother was second-generation Mexican American, she never taught her daughter Spanish, fearing Griest would experience the same discrimination she had in her youth. Griest's father, a retired Navy jazz drummer from Kansas, is Anglo.

An early passage in "Mexican Enough" describes a moment of reckoning when, after Griest announced she "was Hispanic" on the first day of class at elementary school, a primer was passed around the room and the children were asked to read aloud:

That's when I realized the difference between the other students and me. Most of them spoke Spanish at home, so they stumbled over the strange English words, pronouncing yes like jess and chair like share. When my turn came to read, I sat up straight and said each word loud and clear. The teacher watched me curiously. After class ended, I told her that I wanted to be 'where the smart kids were.' She agreed and I joined the white class the following day.

For eight more years she stuck with being white. That is, until it was time to apply to college and her guidance counselor explained that she would get more scholarship money if she identified herself as Hispanic.

While a student at UT, Griest "flirted with a Chicana stage" during which she changed her "white-bread middle name," Ann, to her mother's maiden name, Elizondo — but never learned her mother's maiden tongue. She studied Russian and journalism instead. After graduating in 1997, she traveled through much of the former Soviet Union, China and Cuba, an experience chronicled in her first book, 2004's "Around the Bloc." (The book was the 2007 pick for Austin's annual Mayor's Book Club)

"Mexican Enough" picks up later, explaining how, on her 30th birthday, Griest decided to "Mexicanize" herself. She moved to the Mexican city of Querétaro and enrolled in a language school.

What follows is a nearly two-year journey of self-discovery during which Griest befriends gay activists, seeks out Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, lingers at the Laredo/Nuevo Laredo border to talk with Border Patrol agents and meets countless women abandoned by men who've immigrated to El Norte. She tracks down ancestors in the town of Cruillas, a place reportedly wiped off the map when its residents were hired in 1854 to work on the King Ranch in South Texas. (The story is untrue. However desolate, the town remains.)

The resulting conversations amount to a journey into the psyche of the country itself. Griest learns that Mexicans are as divided about their cultural inheritance — be it from the Aztecs, Mayans, Spanish and even Americans — as she is of her own.

"Because we are biracial by definition, cultural schizophrenia is practically encoded in our DNA," says Griest. "What I came to realize is that nobody feels Mexican enough. Even in Mexico, my gay friends don't feel macho."

Griest's mixed ethnicity has turned out to be an asset in her traveling lifestyle. "I have dark hair, caterpillar eyebrows and blue eyes," she explains, "The way I look is handy, because I fit in a lot of places. But where I fit in the best wasn't Mexico, it was Turkey."

Since completing her Mexican sojourn, which lasted through much of 2005 and 2006, Griest has been busy. In 2007 she published her second book, "100 Places Every Woman Should Go." Earlier this year, she spent a month in Mozambique working with the charity group Save the Children and a month in Barcelona happily ensconced at a writers retreat. The remainder of 2008 will be taken up with touring the U.S. and, in all likelihood, proselytizing about human rights issues in Mexico.

"I became very aware of the different issues in Mexico and see it as my role to talk about them with people," she explains.

Indeed, when we met to talk, Griest was about to give the keynote speech at a Hispanic women's conference in Houston. She planned to discuss how Mexican society unfairly treats gays and lesbians, prisoners, indigenous groups and laborers.

"I don't want to get up and point a finger at people," says Griest, "but I think people in the U.S. need to be more aware of how much they are responsible for what's going on in Mexico. I feel very strongly that NAFTA has systematically destroyed the Mexican economy, and while I'm not naïve — Mexico is very corrupt and has to take 50 percent of the blame — the other 50 percent of the blood is on the U.S.' hands."

She also wants to inspire people to visit Mexico firsthand and see the country for themselves, instead of being intimidated by rumor and conjecture.

"What traveling has taught me is that any place can be amazing," says Griest. "But I'm now convinced Mexico really does have the best of everything — the most dramatic landscapes, the tastiest food, the warmest people, the craziest stories. It has to be the best all-around place on Earth."

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

New Orleans Stores Still Closed; Area Stores Fare Better

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 9/3/2008 9:00:00 AM

As bookstores in New Orleans slowly start to re-open after Hurricane Gustav, some booksellers along the Gulf Coast that were outside the immediate area affected by the storm reported a more mixed picture.

Russ Adams, owner of Bienville Books in Mobile, Ala., said that the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans meant more customers coming into the story as they fled the hurricane. Adams’ store experienced minor water damage in the attic due to the storm and lost some ceiling tiles.

Dale Julian, owner of Down Town Books in Apalachicola, Fla. echoed Adam’s observation that there were more customers with Louisiana accents coming into his store, though that was balanced out with a slight downturn in normal weekend traffic. “I think the Weather Channel scared people off,” he said. Though Julian sent his staff into “battle stations” – taking everything out of his windows and raising all stock up off the floor – there was no damage to his store from the storm.

As of Tuesday morning, many bookstores along the Gulf Coast in areas hit by the storm remained temporarily closed. Calls to booksellers in New Orleans were not answered, as the booksellers are likely still waiting for permission to reenter the city following the mandatory evacuation.

Borders reported having closed three Borders stores in Louisiana and another seven Waldenbooks outlets, as far east as Tallahassee and Key West, Fla. Most have reopened, or will reopen today.

The answering machine at the Barnes & Noble in Gulfport, Miss. indicated the store was closed on Tuesday, but would reopen Wednesday. A call to the Books-A-Million outlet in Biloxi was not answered yesterday.

Review: 'Alive live in Necropolis' by Doug Dorst

Novelist wakes the dead only to bury them in subplots

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, August 31, 2008
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

If Colma, Calif., didn't already exist, a novelist would have to make it up. A town of just 2 square miles on the outskirts of San Francisco, Colma has served as the de facto burial ground for San Francisco since the early 20th century. Its population is more than 2 million, though only 2,000 of them are living.

Doug Dorst, a professor of creative writing at St. Edward's University in Austin, has picked this nicely noirish locale for his first novel.

Alive in Necropolis starts, as a book about a city of graves must, with death: Wesley Featherstone, a 27-year vet of the police force, has a heart attack in his cruiser. Eight months later, Michael Mercer, 30-year-old slacker turned cop discovers another body, that of Jude, the teenage son of a famous movie director, bound, naked and stuffed headfirst into a tomb. The boy is barely alive but won't say what happened.

There is a connection, and the dead know what it is, but they too aren't talking. They have their own problems to contend with: Doc Barker, a criminal who died in 1939 while escaping from Alcatraz, and his gang are terrorizing other ghosts, robbing and humiliating them at knifepoint.

Soon, Mercer, who has befriended Featherstone's widow, inherits boxes of police reports chronicling Featherstone's encounters with these phantasms. Mercer begins to see how the worlds of the living and the living dead commingle.

On the surface, Alive in Necropolis has so much going for it, in particular the great setting and colorful characters. Yet Mr. Dorst is a restless storyteller, and the book caroms between being a police procedural, a ghost story, a coming-of-age tale and a horror novel. As such, it ends up delivering a little too much of everything, be it people, subplots or metaphors.

His incorporation of some of the historical personages buried in Colma, such as baseball player Lefty O'Doul, Lillie Coit who built San Francisco's Coit Tower, daredevil aviator Lincoln Beachey, as characters is an intriguing conceit, but they never quite – there's no other way to say it – come to life and their presence feels almost dutiful, as if research was done that couldn't be wasted.

Meanwhile, the living characters are reduced to types against which Mercer measures himself: They include Mercer's girlfriend Fiona, a 43-year-old ER nurse with a dying cat; his best cop buddy Toronto, a wisecracking lothario turned married man turned Zen practitioner; and a coterie of same-age San Francisco friends who nicely divide up into hipsters, careerists and homemakers.

By the end, it all reads like a grand existential metaphor, something about death in the midst of life and life in midst of death. While this may be a worthy philosophical point, it snuffs the vitality out of the novel.

This is one story that gets buried alive by the author's ambition to make the book more meaningful.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

Alive in Necropolis

Doug Dorst

(Riverhead, $25.95)

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Caribbean Booksellers Cope With Higher Fuel Costs

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 9/1/2008

Even bookstores in paradise are not immune to the vagaries of the U.S. economy. Rising fuel prices have impacted bookstores as far away as the U.S. Virgin Islands, and store owners are coping with the higher costs in different ways.

Jonathan Gjessing, owner of Dockside Books on St. Thomas, still sells books at cover price, but doesn't know how long he'll be able to hold out before raising prices. “I'm just not sure where the economy is going to go from here,” he said. His power costs went up 50% in July and shipping costs are also rising, as freight companies pass along added expenses to customers.

Gjessing bought the 2,000-sq.-ft. bookstore in 1982, four years after it was opened. Though he is located next to the port where cruise ships dock at the island, tourists don't contribute much to his business. “Cruise ship passengers don't buy many books at all,” he said. “Two-thirds of my customers are locals and the other third are cruise ship crew.” English-language guides are popular, as are food and wine guides.

On the neighboring island of St. Croix, Kathy Bennett adds a dollar to the cover price of books for sale at her store, Undercover Books. “It just about covers my expenses,” she said. Bennett relies on a freight forwarder rather than the U.S. Postal Service to keep costs down. A former stockbroker, Bennett moved to St. Croix 27 years ago from New York City and opened her 1,600-sq.-ft. store in 2000. In addition to selling new books, she offers her own oil paintings for sale, as well as the work of other local artists. She, too, acknowledged that the rising price of power is a concern: “My electrical bill is way more than you would ever see in the States.”

A member of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, Bennett has been trying to persuade publishers to send writers to the Virgin Islands for tours—Jimmy Buffett is at the top of her wish list—but rising travel costs are not helping her cause. In addition, stocking books for events is tricky, since shipping back returns for unsold merchandise is costly. “We had two very popular events in the past couple years,” said Bennett. “One with Tina Louise, author of the children's book When I Grow Up, who is better known as Ginger from the TV show Gilligan's Island, and another with celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito.” Each event sold 200 copies, all the books that Bennett had ordered.

Elsewhere on St. Croix, at Treasures Attic Bookshop, Yolette Nicholson has avoided rising shipping costs for the most part because the bulk of her initial inventory came from a stock of some 40,000 used books she bought on eBay, which prompted her to open the store in 2004. “At the time, it cost me more to ship those books here than to buy them,” she said. Nicholson is still unpacking books from the shipment, but because she has built a steady used book business she only opens about two cartons per week. Nicholson does sell new titles—still at cover price—but only in genres where it's difficult to get used copies on the island, such as new bestsellers and manga.

On St. John, John Dickson, owner of the Papaya Cafe (formerly Books and Beans), adds 15% to the cover price. Dickson, a Florida transplant, bought the 500-sq.-ft. bookstore in January. He said that his customers—a mix of locals and tourists—are not surprised by the higher prices. “It's just a fact of life that everything costs more here,” he said.