Sunday, January 31, 2010

What's Your Favorite Book of the Decade?

Let's Vote!

From now until February 18th, polls will be open for The Bookstore's Favorite Book of the Decade. You can place your vote here on the blog (see the sidebar), or you can fill out a ballot at the store.

It might take you some time to think about it. Unless you're really good about keeping book lists, you might wonder, what have I read? What did I love? It's fun to think about. Maybe you'll have time to meet with your book club yet this month to talk about it.

That's why we went through The Bookstore's computer to put together a list of our bestselling titles over the last 10 years, both paperbacks and hardcovers. We also brainstormed about some of our favorite staff picks over the last decade. Just e-mail with your selection. The ballot box in the store is strictly write-in, but there is a list of ideas at the counter too.

Bookstore Bestsellers 2000-2009 (Hardcover Fiction/Paperback Fiction):

2009: Little Bee/ Olive Kitteridge

2008: The Art of Racing in the Rain / The Shack

2007: 1,000 Splendid Suns/ Water for Elephants

2006: Water for Elephants/ Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

2005: The Mermaid Chair/ The Kite Runner

2004: The Five People You Meet in Heaven/ Dearest Dorothy Are We There Yet?

2003: The Da Vinci Code/ The Secret Life of Bees

2002: The Secret Life of Bees/Empire Falls

2001: A Common Life (Mitford)/ The Ladies Auxilliary

2000: Friendship Cake/ The Red Tent

A Few Favorite Bookstore Staff Picks 2000-2009
Suite Francaise, Peace Like a River, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, History of Love, The Known World, The Time Traveler's Wife, What is the What, Rope Walk, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, People of the Book, The Inheritance of Loss, Gilead, March, Middlesex, The Corrections, The Road, The Hours, Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth, Atonement, Echo Maker, Let the Great World Spin, (not to mention kids and teen books like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and Twilight . . .)

Plenty of ideas out there, and hopefully more of your own. So vote already!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Our Wonderful Event with Melanie Benjamin

Tweeps at our Melanie Benjamin Party on Thursday, January 28th: Sue Kowalski (@suejustbooks), Melanie Benjamin (@melanieben) and Jen Karsbaek (@devourerofbooks). Like the mom in most family photo albums, I'm not in the photo (Margie White, @justbooks).

It was a great night at The Bookstore. We had a great turnout, we had plenty of food and wine, we ordered enough books (whew!) and we squeezed tons of people in our little store without the Fire Chief finding out.

Melanie did a fabulous job chatting about the background to her book, Alice I Have Been. You can tell she loved the research she did on Lewis Caroll, because she's a fountain of really juicy information. She's also a great public speaker, with a nice theatrical presence. When she read a passage from her book, you get the feeling she could actually play Alice on stage.

Customers have been calling and stopping by to thank us for a wonderful evening. But I don't feel like The Bookstore deserves any thanks at all. It's authors like Melanie who deserve all the thanks. They're the ones who have the imagination and the talent and the artistry to put their stories on the page. They're the ones who make the sacrifices to do what they love; they rarely get rich and make a pittance on each book. They schlepp around the country on book tours because that's what it takes to generate sales, when all they really want to do is sit down, be still, and tell us another story.

So here's to Melanie and all the writers out there. If it wasn't for you, we wouldn't be here. You guys keep writing, and we'll keep selling.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin: Wondering about Wonderland

What fun it is to be selling this book!

First of all, Melanie Benjamin is a local author and friend of The Bookstore. She's gotten some great press over the last couple of weeks, so a lot of people come in already planning to buy the book. Then there are those who see our fun Alice In Wonderland window display and come inside to ask about it. And finally (these are my favorites) there those who just saunter in to browse. Next thing you know, we've handsold the book and they've signed up for our book signing party! (Details below.)

In our chat-ups with our customers, we love sharing the story behind this book. Melanie Benjamin says she was inspired to write Alice I Have Been when she went to an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. (This is when our customers smile. Isn't a train ride down to the Art Institute just the best way to spend a day?) Anyway, several years ago there was a photo exhibit that featured the photos of Lewis Carroll. Melanie saw a photograph of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Lewis Carroll to write Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Melanie says that the photograph haunted her and made her uncomfortable. It sparked her imagination and made her wonder about Wonderland.

I used to wonder about Wonderland myself. As a child, I'd found it unsettling, a little creepy. Alice was always shrinking and growing and getting into these nightmarish situations. Kind of like Kafka for kids. (But of course, I was a pretty wimpy kid. I was also freaked out by the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz.)

As an adult, however, I read Alice in Wonderland and I see Alice, not the craziness that surrounds her. I see a curious, independent young girl who defies stereotypes, exercises her powers of reason, and speaks her mind. She learns how to adapt to her surroundings and seeks to establish order out of the chaos. And to think that Lewis Carroll created such a strong female character nearly 150 years ago - in the middle of the Victorian era. It gets curious and curiouser!

So who was the real Alice and what exactly was her relationship to Charles Dodgson, the real Lewis Carroll? We'll never know, but we do know there was mystery and scandal. Was the scandal the result of an overprotective Victorian society, or was their relationship inappropriate? The photo at the Art Institute (shown in the book) really makes you wonder.

Thanks to that day at the Art Institute, Melanie's curiosity and imagination were sparked. She knew it would be great raw material for a book. There was mystery, scandal, a literary icon, and a rich story begging to be told. With an innate talent for writing historical fiction and a sense of womanly wisdom, Melanie imagined Alice's story. And not only what happened when Alice was a child, but also what kind of young woman she was and how the scandal changed her life forever. As Alice becomes an older woman coping with loss and regret, we feel like we've aged and suffered with her. Melanie has created a wonderful character, just like Lewis Carroll did so long ago.

We hope you agree that Melanie and her new book deserve a party! Please join us at The Bookstore on Thursday, January 28th at 7pm for a signing and celebration. Melanie will speak about the book, and we'll toast to her success. To register, please call (630) 469-2891 or e-mail Purchase of the book or an equivalent gift certificate is required. You can stop in and pick up the book early, as long as your book has our sticker on it, you'll be welcome to join in the festivities!

Finally, we've decorated our window in honor of Melanie and Alice I Have Been. Come downtown and check out our own Alice in Wonderland, who seems to be enjoying Melanie's new book!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Remarkable Creatures, Remarkable Women

Tracy Chevalier, the author of Girl With a Pearl Earring, has written a new novel and I'm thrilled to add it to our Staff Pick shelf at The Bookstore. It's hard to beat a book like Pearl Earring, and I don't think any of her other novels have matched it until now. Remarkable Creatures is a remarkable read.

It's a beautiful piece of historical fiction based on the life of Mary Anning, a 19th century working-class fossil hunter in southern England who discovered the world's first ichthyosaur at the age of eleven. Her discoveries are still on display at the Natural History Museum in London.

The book explores and celebrates Mary Anning's scientific curiousity, which was considered an improper pursuit for women of that era and an unacceptable challenge to religion. The book also examines the complicated, cross-cultural friendship and rivalry between Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, an unmarried upper-class woman twenty years her senior. The women shared a fascination with fossils and the search for recognition in a world that marginalized women.

Book clubs will enjoy the distinctly feminist edge. The Geological Society of London didn't permit women members, so when Elizabeth Philpot seeks to participate in one of their meetings, she is forced to sit and listen on the backstairs.

Lord Henley, who owned the cliffs in which Mary Anning discovered her first ichthyosaur, attempted to claim ownership over the specimen: "It belongs to me. Besides which, Mary Anning is a female. She is a spare part. I have to represent her, as indeed I do many Lyme residents who cannot represent themselves." (It's enough to make you want to travel in time to give him a reparative kick to the shins. Represent this.)

Chevalier tosses out plenty of issues for great book club discussions. Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot had a mutual admiration that crossed into envy. Have you ever had a moment with a dear friend that crossed over into a no-man's land of anger and jealousy? You instantly regret it but you don't know how to take your words back and retrieve what you had.

The religious issues that were stirred up by Mary Anning's scientific discoveries are still unresolved centuries later. We'd still like to be able to reconcile the bible's story of creation with our knowledge of evolution; we still wonder where God's hand ends and nature's begins.

Mary Anning's and Elizabeth Philpot's interest in fossils became more than just a hobby or a pastime. It became their vocation and their identity in a world where women weren't supposed to have either. However, they paid a price for their passion. Neither ever married and were viewed by closed-minded villagers with superstition and derision. Would you be willing to risk acceptance to pursue your passion? Do you have a secret interest that you're embarassed to embrace? What kind of childhood collections are hidden away in your closet that you can't bring yourself to throw out?

Speaking of childhood collections, I have a special connection to this book that made it particularly enchanting to me. My son had a sweet boyhood passion for dinosaurs. We took him to the Field Museum to welcome Dinosaur Sue, we played paleontonogist with coral, rocks and shells discovered on the beach, and we helped him amass an enormous collection of plastic toy dinosaurs at great cost from museum gift shops.

We were horribly permissive parents, allowing him to watch Jurassic Park as a mere toddler. Remember the scene when the velociraptor ripped off the lawyer's head as he sat in the outhouse? My son was completely unfazed. He turned to me and said very matter-of-factly: "Dino num-num." He slept in dino PJ's, he ate dino chicken nuggets, and proudly wore a brightly colored felt hat with Stegasaurus spikes. His toy dinos had nicknames like Steggie, Rexie, Cera and Compie. Ah, the wonder years.

After I read this book, I went down to the basement, dug out my son's old plastic bin of toy dinosaurs and arranged them all on the ping pong table. And then I had a really good cry over things of wonder -- like childhood curiosities, the passage of time, and evolution, both large and small.
My son even had an ichthyosaurus. Mary Anning would be proud.