Friday, May 18, 2012

Back to Bookselling

After almost a year of unemployment, I have a summer job, managing the Provincetown Bookshop! This is wonderful for many reasons. One is that I love bookselling. Another is the Provincetown Bookshop itself. In a world where bookstores are becoming extinct, the Provincetown Bookshop is a dinosaur among dinosaurs. Not only is it a local, independent bookstore, but it is the kind of old-fashioned literary bookstore that has a large poetry selection and carries all the classics (from Austen to Zola). As a friend of mine once said, "It's the place to go when you need a copy of The Iliad." It has many treasures.

The Provincetown Bookshop is a very local bookstore, with lots of books about Cape Cod. Their current bestseller is The Outermost House by Henry Beston, beautiful nature writing about a year in a dune shack on Nauset Beach -- in 1926! They carry books by local authors past and present (which happen to include Norman Mailer, Eugene O'Neil and Mark Doty). Longtime Provincetown resident Mary Oliver signs every book of her poetry in stock. Fabulous filmmaker John Waters used to work there. The bookshop was founded in 1932.

All this history can lend the store a somewhat fusty, musty aura. In fact, many people believe that it is a used bookstore (probably because that copy of The Iliad can sit around for a couple of years before it's needed). The owner and staff tend to believe that people either know their way around books or they don't. Hence there is little to help them find their way. The signs appear to have been scrawled by hand sometime back in the Fifties, probably the same summer that Tennessee Williams was at the Atlantic House, interviewing Marlon Brando for a spot in A Streetcar Named Desire. I can't wait to get in there!

Meanwhile, I have to brush up my bookselling. As you probably know, the art of bookselling is not so much to share the books that you love as to recommend to people the books that they will love. This requires a lot of information about a lot of books that you personally don't even like. I might be fine recommending mysteries, but I need to have some ideas on other fiction, biographies, non-fiction, poetry, fantasy, etc. Even dystopian young adult fiction: I'm sure some tween will want to know about another book as good as The Hunger Games.

This is where you come in! I need to know some of the best new books that are out there, and I want you to tell me. Please leave comments in answer to two questions:

  • What was the best book you read in the last six months?
  • What is the book you're most looking forward to reading?

Of course I also need to know why -- what makes it so good, or why are you interested? And it's only fair if I start.

I had real trouble picking out the best book of the last six months, and not from a surfeit of candidates. Many were enjoyable but few were memorable. But then I remembered Midnight Fugue by Reginald Hill.  After excoriating depressing British police procedurals in a previous blog I rediscovered Hill's wonderful constabulary team of Dalziel and Pascoe.  Over a couple of dozen books, Hill has created almost Shakespearean characters and plots, mixing high tragedy and low comedy in quintessentially British fashion. In particular, Superintendent Dalziel rivals Falstaff as a force of nature -- vulgar, canny, and damn near omnipotent.  Midnight Fugue is one of Hill's best because it's so tightly structured, set in a 24-hour time frame when Dalziel returns to duty after a near-death experience. As The New York Times Book Review said, "Hill writes of these tricky matters in a fluid and witty style that eventually lifts the old lion from his torpor and restores him to roaring health."

The book I'm most looking forward to is Alison Bechdel's new graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? Bechdel is the brilliant cartoonist who drew the strip Dykes to Watch Out For throughout the Eighties and Nineties (from Bush Senior to the end of W, in fact). Her graphic memoir about her father, Fun Home, was smart, sharp, funnny and painful -- sometimes all in one frame -- plus classical allusions (Icarus/Daedalus, James Joyce, etc.) and fine, detailed pen-and-ink drawing. Even Bechdel's old, highly topical comics are worth re-reading, given all they pack into the language and the visuals.

Now it's your turn. Tell me about the best and most exciting books out there. And I'll tell you tales of the old curiosity shop, I mean the Provincetown Bookshop. Leave a comment.