Friday, May 30, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Rebecca

I got bogged down with some difficult books this month, which slowed my reading considerably. I reviewed my actual favorite book on my personal blog, so I'm kind of covering the leftovers here. BUT! That's not to say I didn't like any of them. In fact, my second-favorite novel of the month was Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, and I liked it quite a lot.

But first, real quick, what slowed me down: I waded through Long Man, a new novel that's receiving rave reviews but which just never quite grabbed me. Possibly I needed the audiobook companion ... more and more, I find it difficult to get into books unless I have a couple solid hours with a good audiobook version. On the flipside, I listened to an audiobook lecture titled Philosophy of Mind that was not exactly boring, but was technical and difficult. I thought I was reasonably good at philosophy, in a layperson way, but no. I found a lot of the content so abstract and almost mathematical as to be nearly impenetrable. And because it was only aural, I kept losing my concentration. Lesson learned: have an audio and visual copy of most anything before jumping in. (Yay for libraries.)

On to Rebecca. Although I got a degree in English literature, I'd never read du Maurier before. Last year Rebecca kept coming up in book review after book review. It seemed every new novel was an homage in some way to this 20th-century classic. So, because a book about a haunting kept haunting me, I figured I ought to give it a whirl.

My first surprise was that it was a 20th-century novel. I was thinking... ghosts and English estates and brooding lords-of-the-manor, gotta be 1820 or so. That would be because the novel draws heavily on the Bronte sisters. However, it's actually fairly modern, more Great Gatsby than Wuthering Heights. Rebecca was published in 1938, the same year this photo was taken:

That is my grandmother. Isn't she lovely? She was 21 at the time, approximately the same age as the nameless narrator who tells the story of Rebecca. The narrator is a stand-in for du Maurier herself, who wrote the novel as an exploration of her own jealousy—her husband had a previous paramour that du Maurier suspected he was still a little in love with. (My grandmother, as far as I know, never had this issue.) Rebecca is not really a ghost story, I discovered—or at least not the story of an actual ghost. There is nothing supernatural here, in spite of the gothic setting and tone. The titular Rebecca does indeed haunt the narrator, but she does it by simply having existed and lived a huge life that the narrator, her opposite, constantly bangs into. Where the narrator is small, self-effacing, plain, uptight, moral, and a bit weedy, Rebecca was tall, extravagant, beautiful, luscious, and wicked.

Of course, the real center of the story is the truly evil Mrs. Danvers. The housekeeper steals every scene she is in. I couldn't help thinking of Frau Blücher from Young Frankenstein whenever she was described ... which made me giggle a little, which in turn took some of the creeping horror away from those scenes. That didn't stop me from gasping at one of the truly over-the-top scenes in the middle of the book, which was as delicious as it was theatrical. (For those who've read it: the bit where the narrator and Danvers are looking out the window over the paving stones.)

Stay close to zee candles. Zee stairway can be ... treacherous
Once I got into this book, I was turning pages pretty feverishly. But it took a while. The narrator is a wimp, and wimpiness doesn't sit too well with modern readers, myself included. I had to keep reminding myself that novels aren't (always) prescriptive, and protagonists are not and shouldn't always be expected to be heroes. Protagonists should be allowed the full range of human experience, and cowardly, sniveling people have stories to tell too. We may not like being inside such a person's head, but if the story is plausible and well-written, with interesting characters, it's worth sitting with a problematic protagonist. It was for me.

Want to read other Cephalopod Coffeehouse reviews, and/or participate in future ones? Visit our host, the Armchair Squid

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Starring: Tom Hardy's Face

I went to see the movie Locke this week, after hearing nothing but praise about the film from every critic I trust. It was not showing in the megaplex, but in a theater that tends toward Sundance and Cannes winners, so that gives you a notion of what the film is like. The other thing you need to know before going (which I did know, and which I warned my two companions to expect) is that the entire movie is set inside a BMW. Tom Hardy is the only human being we see, and he does nothing more than talk on the phone (and to himself) for the 85-minute duration. It's set in real time, so his 85 minutes are your 85 minutes.

When I told my son about the premise, he said, "That sounds awful." And I have to agree ... it does sound awful. And yet—it works. It certainly is a refreshing change-up from the CGI-filled, city-destroying, fire-breathing, smash-everything, superhero explody megamovies one usually finds in the theaters this time of year. (Or any time of year.) There's not much less cinematic than a dude talking into space for an hour and a half.

So how does this film work? Well, first, think of the screenplay as akin to Waiting for Godot (cited in the film, surely not by accident), in which the setting is static and dialogue is everything. Very good dialogue can carry a story forward, and the writing does about half the heavy lifting in this film. (So, writers: take note.) Tom Hardy's face does the rest of the lifting. For those who are familiar with his work, you already know what a phenomenal actor Hardy is. He is a chameleon, not a type actor. He can be the impassioned Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, the cold, evil Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, or the silky, charismatic Eames from Inception. If there is one thing that holds true from character to character for him, it's a sense that he's simmering. Hardy always a bit coiled, a bit ready to explode. He brings that panther-like impression to his Locke character in this movie, which is one way the audience's attention is held rapt. When will this Locke fellow lose his shit? You know it's got to happen at some point.

You know it's going to happen because during the 85-minute car ride, Ivan Locke's life falls apart. We begin with him at his workplace, somewhere outside of London, where he is a foreman in a construction company that is just about to undertake “the biggest concrete pour in the history of Europe, barring nuclear and military.” So this is the eve of the biggest job of his career, and in the next few hours quite a bit hinges on the decisions he makes—and that's just at work. He's been a company man, a solid man, reliable and steady, for nine years. But as everyone is about to discover, he has not been entirely responsible. Almost, but not entirely. Almost a perfect employee. Almost a perfect husband and father.

As his wife is soon to remind him, almost counts for nada. One of the first calls he takes is from Bethan, a woman who is not his wife and who, we learn, is about to give birth to his child. Bethan is "quite old, she's forty-three," and "not an oil painting." The child was begat seven months ago, on a night that included two bottles of wine, forced time away from the wife, quite a bit of stress and loneliness, and a dose of pity for poor "old" Bethan. [On behalf of all 43-year-olds out there, meanwhile, I protest.] Bethan's labor has begun two months before term, so Locke has made a sudden decision to meet her at the hospital, rather than go home to a wife and two sons who have been waiting for him, anxious to watch the big football match.

Ivan Locke is a man determined to make things right. He knows he made a horrible mistake and he's determined not to muck things up more than they already are. He is a man, above all, trying to be a man. A real man, the kind who faces up to his responsibilities. What's driving him, we soon find out, is the spectacular failure of his own father. One of Locke's most impassioned conversations in the car is the one he has with his invisible, long-gone father. I would not qualify this bit of the film as one of its successes: all three of us were convinced for a bit that Locke was raving at a body in the trunk or something. The camera picks a few stand-ins for the father, including a patch of light in the rear window, a pair of headlights, and a backseat. It's confusing and a little odd.

While he's dealing with his daddy issues, meanwhile, things are going to hell with the construction project. (Of course they are: you don't have a story unless things are going to hell, and you especially don't have a man-driving-a-car story in which disaster isn't imminent.) Locke was supposed to guide the project to completion that very night, but because of the Bethan emergency he's ceding control to his deputy, the hapless Donal. While things go sideways with scared, drunken Donal, Locke also has to let his boss (whom Locke has labeled "Bastard" on speed dial ... layers of meaning there, of course) know that he's taking off for London, and why. "Bastard" is not happy. Locke gets yelled at. A lot. By everyone.

Hardy chooses to play Locke with a beautiful, melodious Welsh accent, which helps illustrate the careful control the character is trying to maintain. As tears well up and eventually spill down Locke's cheeks, his voice remains firm, reassuring, reasonable. Meanwhile, because it is Hardy on the screen, we can see the control beginning to slip. When will he explode?

In spite of what I said about Godot, this film is not entirely static. It wouldn't make a good play. The cinematography, in fact, is key to maintaining tension. There are lights all around Locke. His face is bathed in light. Headlamps in his rearview mirror, traffic lights, oncoming headlights, brake lights ... and a lot of emergency vehicles. The audience may not even consciously notice all the ambulances sharing the road with Locke's Beemer, but these flashing lights and sirens plant the expectation of disaster. Locke is also as distracted a driver as you could get: he chugs down cough medicine, stares at his phone, reads pages of information to Donal, and argues with his invisible father in the backseat. His eyes are off the road quite a lot, and when they are on the road, we notice oncoming lights going in and out of focus, as if that's how Locke is seeing it. He looks exhausted, he's tearful, he's half-asleep. And then we get the call that the birth may not be going well, so in addition to wondering how that story is going to turn out, we're left wondering whether Locke will even survive long enough to get to the hospital. Tension, tension. It's how you keep an audience at the edge of their seat while never leaving one small claustrophobic setting.

In the end, I felt Locke was a redemption story, the story of an Everyman who has made his mistakes and is dealing with them head on. Locke is not a superhero, he's a regular hero. An ordinary working stiff and family man who's doing his level best not to screw it all up too badly. Students of philosophy won't miss the reference to John Locke, and indeed director Steven Knight says the title character's name is not a coincidence. "Although these events won’t make the paper or the local news, for the people involved it’s the end of the world and that does deserve a film, it’s worthy of drama," Knight says in this interview. "Just deciding that in an ordinary man’s life there are events that are tragedy, in the classic sense. He’s called Locke because he’s the John Locke philosopher of rationality, and he’s trying to do stuff logically." Not only that, but John Locke believed humans were blank slates, whose selves were determined by deliberate action and choice. The choices Ivan Locke makes in these 85 minutes determine what kind of man he is and will be; by his own definition, by his own will.

A few interesting facts I learned about the movie as I researched it for this piece:

• Hardy didn't learn the lines; he read them from a script that was projected in front of him, and in some scenes he reacted organically to live phone calls from the other actors.

• The whole film was shot in eight days.

• The movie was filmed in real time, as if it were indeed a play. They did not stop for reshoots. From the NY Times: "In effect, they shot the entire film twice a night, breaking only to change the cameras’ memory cards, every 27 minutes."

• Most of the time Hardy sat in a car that was itself sitting on a flatbed attached to the back of a truck. The truck was driven down a highway as the crew filmed.

Have you seen Locke? What did you think? If you haven't seen it, does the premise intrigue or repel you?


Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Word with Diana Gabaldon and George R. R. Martin

Last weekend, my writing sisters and I attended a fun event sponsored by our city library and a local bookstore. A Word with Writers consists of a candid conversation between two acclaimed authors who share experiences and anecdotes about their writing. The inaugural lecture featured none other than the beloved Diana Gabaldon, the author of the Outlander series, and George R. R. Martin, the brains behind the successful Game of Thrones. They both had a lot to say about what inspired their work and what their writings processes are like. Here are some of the evening’s highlights.

About their backgrounds and what inspired their books:

Gabaldon’s background is very interesting because she’s a scientist with degrees in zoology, marine biology and ecology. She blames her father for this copious amount of studying since when she was young, he had told her that she was a “poor judge of character” and would probably marry badly. To avoid a life or poverty, he recommended that she became a self-reliant professional. Gabaldon obediently got her PhD.

In her mid-thirties, Gabaldon decided to write a novel, more as practice than anything (she didn’t intend for anyone to read her work). Since she was so good at doing research and she liked history, she decided it would be a historical novel. Now the only question was where/when should she set it? The answer came to her while she was watching an episode of Dr. Who and spotted a man in a kilt. She was so taken by this man that she decided to write about a Scotsman. Being that a novel requires conflict (to her own admission, this was all she knew about novel-writing) she settled on the Scottish wars against England during the 1700s. Of course, she needed a woman to create some sexual tension with this beautiful man. Claire came to Gabaldon through an image of a woman in a cave full of men. She was English and very different from other 18th century women. When Claire opened her mouth, she recited her full name. There was nothing Gabaldon could do to tame her modern spirit. She fought with her throughout the novel, but eventually gave up and told her: “Go ahead and be modern, I’ll figure out why later.”  In that sense, she confesses, the time-traveling element in Outlander was an accident.

In contrast, Ser George had always been a writer and a reader. He was a Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror fan—which used to be the same genre—and as a child, he wrote and sold horror stories to other kids. He eventually earned a master's degree in journalism. For many years, he worked in Hollywood as a TV writer in shows such as The Twilight Zone and The Beauty and the Beast, but there came a time where he wanted to work on his own stories, and so he turned to novel writing. When asked about his inspiration, he mentioned Tolkien as a big influence.

About their writing processes:

Martin offered an interesting analogy for writers. He said there are two kinds of novelists: gardeners and architects. An architect designs a blueprint, plans how he’s going to develop it and then does it. A gardener digs a hole in the ground, throws seeds and water, and hopes something will grow. Martin admits he’s a gardener. When he started A Song of Ice and Fire, he didn’t have a clear idea of where he was going with the story. All he had was the first scene and characters who kept telling him what they wanted. But characters can be treacherous, he says, and like a gardener he sometimes has to pull out weeds—which might explain why he kills so many of them!

Following the same analogy, Gabaldon also calls herself a gardener. However, her process is not linear, like Martin’s, but “organic.” She gets an image in her head and fleshes it out into a scene. Once she has several chunks, or scenes, she stitches them together into a narrative. She admits that when she started she didn’t know anything about writing novels (she had, however, written a 400-page dissertation). So she set two rules for herself: a) she wouldn’t stop, no matter what, and b) she would do the best she could.

Before she was done with the first Outlander book, she found an agent who was so taken with her story he signed her on right away and sold her book in four days. She didn’t originally plan to write so many sequels, she just knew that “there was more.” Her agent originally got her a three-book deal, but the novels kept coming.  Her writing is so accidental that her next series following the adventures of Lord John, a secondary character in the Outlander series, came about because she was invited to participate in an anthology of short stories. Since she didn’t want to interfere with Outlander’s main characters and plot, she thought of Lord John—who then took a life of his own.

Martin agreed with Gabaldon in that he didn’t plan to write such a long series either, but he was happy to do it since readers nowadays love to follow characters for 10-15 years. He says his entire series is one continuous story told in several books.

Diana Gabaldon and George R. R. Martin signing autographs

About their use of language:

Since Martin’s novels are set in a “quasi medieval world” he had to find a balance between modern syntax (so the audience wouldn’t be lost) and flavoring his text with archaic words to give the novel a proper context and avoid anachronisms. He called this the “common tongue of all fantasy novels.” He initially overused words like “mayhaps” or “forsooth,” but his editor objected. They reached a compromise by having the older characters use these terms and the younger ones employing a more modern language—as it tends to happen in real life.

Martin did not invent languages the way Tolkien did (he joked that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings just so he could use his languages) but he made up five words of High Valyrian, and will make up a 6th if necessary. For the show, however, whole languages had to be invented since you can't just say, "She said in High Valyrian." Now when he writes a scene, he has to call HBO to ask how a character might say something in whatever language. The show hires people whose hobby is to invent languages with proper syntax and grammar to develop Dothraki and High Valyrian. As a funny anecdote, Martin mentioned that a fan once requested a High Valyrian dictionary.

Gabaldon mentioned that she has a few translators who help her with Gaelic, and she loves the sound of it.

About their TV shows:

Gabaldon announced that the Outlander series is now in production. The producer, who had previously worked in Battlestar Galactica, took two days to talk to her about the show. They decided that as a prologue, they would show a scene of Claire in a military hospital during WWII. Gabaldon had a blast inside the “Outlander world.” She admitted that at first she didn’t like the actor selected to play Jamie Fraser, but after seeing his audition she knew he would be absolutely perfect for the role (even though he accidentally said "OK" during a scene where Jamie was being pressured to marry Claire).

It took a lot longer to find Claire and poor Sam had to go through innumerable "chemistry tests.” Eventually, they found an actress who had the right chemistry with Sam and would play the perfect Claire. When someone asked Gabaldon if she would like to write for TV, she confessed she’s not a team player and likes to keep control of her writing.

Martin, on the other hand, mentioned that he writes one script per season and would love to write more, but he has yet to finish two 1500-page books. Yeah, you read correctly.

What’s interesting is that both shows will share actors. Apparently the BBC has churned out twenty or so actors, who participate in everything involving an English or Scottish accent. Every single one of them is in Game of Thrones, and, according to Martin, will appear in the Outlander series after they are killed off from GoT. (Ha!)

Anecdotes and questions:

Martin was asked which part of Westeros he'd choose to live in, if he could. He said Dorn. "It's warm, the women are warm and the food is spicy. It's New Mexico!"

Gabaldon mentioned that during an interview with a German reporter, tired to keep her tongue in check, she said she loved a man in a kilt because "you know he could have you up against a wall in 30 seconds."

When asked about their thoughts on self-publishing, neither one of them recommended it. Martin said writers are supposed to write, not publish or market books. He commented how sad it was to see writers desperately trying to sell their work in Bubonicon conferences and such, and how people often avoid them. Martin thinks that self-publishing is only a good idea for well-known authors whose names alone sell books.

They both acknowledged that it’s not easy to break into publishing, but the only thing a writer can do is keep writing.

In spite of the fans who wanted hints about how both series will end, neither Gabaldon nor Martin said a word. The only thing Gabaldon admitted to was having written the last scene ten years ago. “How I will get there is an entirely different question,” she said.

On a side note:
This has been a year of changes and exciting new opportunities for me. I would like to share some of them with you, my dear readers. First, I have a new agent for my generational saga (the first novel I wrote) the awesome Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency! Last but not least, my historical novel, The Black Letter, has made it to the Amazon Breakout Novel Contest Quarter Finals! If you’d like to take a look, you can find an excerpt here

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Some of the Best (and Worst) Moms in Entertainment!

I had a completely different post in mind for this week, but the Sisters convinced me to go with a Mother's Day theme. I thought a lot about how to narrow down the broad range of mother portrayals out there, and I couldn't come up with just one medium of entertainment to use. So, here are moms you'll find in film and television and which ones I enjoy and ones that make me so glad I had my own mom raising me. It's kind of a mixed bag, so feel free to let me know about your favorites!


Now, I know there are those single fathers who are thrown into the mix like Belle's father in Beauty and the Beast and Jasmine's father in Aladdin, but, hey, dads have there own day, so let's focus on the mothers.

Snow White's Evil Queen
Wouldn't you want to sit across from her
at Thanksgiving?

  • Worst mothers in a Disney film:  I'd think most of you would agree that stepmothers get a bad rap when run through the almighty Disney machine and spit out on the other side. You have Snow White running for her life and eventually living with seven little men. I can't imagine any mother wanting her daughter to live with another man at Snow White's age, let alone seven of them. But, when your Evil Stepmother is out to kill you, you take what you can get. At least they were nice little men. Snow White's mother takes the cake for horrible mothering skills, but Cinderella's stepmother ranks right up there with her. Not only does she ban Cinderella to the ashes of the kitchen, but she locks her away in the attic when the Prince shows up. Keeping a girl from her man, especially a nice man like the Prince, is like playing with fire. Last but not least is Mother Gothel and the Tangled web she weaves. Like the witchy Evil Stepmother's downfall in Snow White, I also enjoy Mother Gothel's disappearing demise in the end.

  • Queen Leah looking very worried.
  • Best mothers in a Disney film:  I don't know if all of you would agree with me, but I have a soft spot for Aurora's (Sleeping Beauty's) mother. Here is a woman who sadly gives her brand new baby over to three fairies just so her daughter can stay alive. For me, that is such a heart-wrenching moment in the film. Grant it, maybe she should have swallowed her pride and invited Maleficent to the christening, but who would've wanted such a malicious woman like that at the special event? I think Maleficent dug her own grave when she placed a spell of death on the innocent baby. Then there's the saddest mommy story of all when it comes to a Disney film: Bambi's mother. 'Nuff said.

Do you see my animation theme here? Don't worry. I'll get into some harding hitting stuff here in a minute.

She's not seen very often in the films, but here's Andy
with his mom in the Toy Story 3.

  • Worst mothers in a Pixar film:  Where's Boo's mother in Monster's Inc.? This little girl is missing for what seems like days in the human world, but we never know if her mother is worried about where her toddler has run off to. On another note, I think Remy's mother has way too many children to look after in Ratatouille. There should be a limit on the number of rats a rat can have.
  • Best mothers in a Pixar film:  Worst is harder with this category. Pixar does a great job at creating kick-ass, loving, and hard-working mothers. One of my favorites would have to be Andy's mom from Toy Story. She seems to have a sense of humor, and when you watch all three films and follow her over time, you know she's always had Andy's best interests at heart. Another personal favorite of mine is Elastigirl from The Incredibles. She puts up with a lot, especially when it comes to fights at the dinner table and saving her family from imminent danger. She's one tough cookie. Finally, I don't think I could round out this category without mentioning Queen Elinor, Merida's mother from Brave. It's not my favorite Pixar film, but their story is one of sincere mother and daughter love.

I know, I know. This is a broad category and I bet many of you fear I'm going to include June Cleaver. (Ironically enough, Barbara Billingsley, the actress who played June, was a single mom off-screen.) No, my plan is to focus on samples from the last twenty years, so don't worry.

If you haven't watched it and you
love the 80s, well...what are
you waiting for!

  • Worst mothers on television:  If you're a fan of Revenge, then you've got to know that the most scheming mother in the world shows up there: Victoria Grayson. She has one of the most fantastic wardrobes, but sometimes all her malicious scheming makes my head hurt. Then there's Regina from Once Upon a Time who has an adopted son she barely pays any attention to. Why should she when she's busy taking down Storybrooke? I always find it interesting that Alexis on Castle has a mother who's consistently AWOL. I haven't been able to watch the last half of this season, so I don't know if she pops up at all. All I know is that she certainly didn't partake in many of the child rearing duties. I don't want to inundate you with too many, because I'm sure you have many other awful mothers circling in your minds. These are simply a sample.
  • Best mothers on television:  Can I just say that even though she's a bit dippy at times that I absolutely love Lindsay and Sam's mom on Freaks and Geeks? Even though she reads her daughter's diary during that one episode, she learns from her mistake. Another, more recent, television mother who makes me roar with laughter is Beverly Goldberg on The Goldbergs. She loves her "scrumptious" boys, puts up with a pants-less husband most of the time, and does her best not to cuss out the neighbors when their son breaks up with her daughter. Priceless. Another mom I'll throw into this category to round it out is Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights. She juggles a new baby, a temperamental husband, and an irate teenage daughter. And she always looks good doing it!

Movies are perhaps the most relatable, since many of us have viewed the same films. Again, as I did with the other categories, I'll only give a sample of the many moms who have graced the Silver Screen.
If you haven't seen Grey Gardens,
then you're missing out on a
crazy good film!
  • Worst mothers in film:  If you're a fan of films from the 70s, then you know that Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer is the poster child (mom?) for child abandonment. She leaves the family once, only to come back over a year later to gain sole custody of her son. She gets custody, but then leaves him behind once more. Nothing like glamorous abandonment with Meryl Streep playing the role. One bad mommy role that always gives me the creeps is April Wheeler from Revolutionary Road. The woman is so hell-bent on aborting her child that she's willing to risk her own life by doing the procedure herself, but winds up botching the whole thing in the process. And, of course, the role of horrible mothers wouldn't be cemented without a little Mommie Dearest on the side for portraying the psychotic nature of Joan Crawford. Last, but not least, I want to give a shout out to Grey Gardens. If you haven't seen it, you definitely should. Just bring a strong stomach with you.
  • Best mothers in film:  In Little Women, mother Margaret (Marmee) is always there for her daughters. She lets them be themselves during a time when it was hard for a woman to step out of any role set in stone for her. At the same time, though, she makes sure to teach them about helping the poor, loving their neighbor, and strengthening their own self-worth. Stepmom with Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts is one of those films where you're glad to see the bond between two women trying to take care of the same set of kids. It's touching to see as their relationship melts from one of anger and cold indifference to an understanding that the baton will be passed and how to best go about doing it. Stepmoms don't seem as evil as they should be in this film. Finally, The Blind Side is one of those movies that makes you glad that people are willing to adopt children at any age. Leigh Anne Tuohy doesn't see only an aspiring ball player, but a young man struggling to keep his head above water enough to graduate high school.

A sweet one to watch with your
mom if you haven't done so
Okay, so that's just a sampling of films to give you an idea of what I see as good mommy roles verses bad mommy roles. You may agree, disagree, or simply be indifferent to the whole thing, but whatever you do, go watch a great Mother's Day film with your mom. 


Let me know what great mom films you like (or despise)!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Death of the Independent Bookstore

For a few years we had a real treasure in our neighborhood: a locally-owned bookshop. It was in a shopping plaza nestled between a coffee shop and a bike store. Both those businesses failed but the book store persisted. And then it expanded: from a fairly mainstream setup, like a smaller-scale Barnes & Noble, it went niche and grew. They acquired another location nearby — though not, unfortunately, adjacent — and opted to brand themselves as a children's bookshop. One location stocked mostly baby through middle-grade books, with a few shelves of nonfiction; the other concentrated on YA books and speculative fiction, although it had a healthy stock of general fiction as well. Around Christmas, when I went in to do my usual holiday shopping, I saw they were clearing a space for a coffee bar. A few months later I went in on a Friday night and a local band was playing: this was, they told me, a regular Friday event now. The YA store had become (appropriately) a hangout for teens. Only ... very few teens were actually in the store. Nobody was really in the store.
Then, last week, I saw the news on their Facebook page: "With heavy hearts we are facing the last days of our wonderful bookstore adventure. We will be closing our doors this summer." I can't say I was entirely shocked, as too frequently I was the only shopper there, but I was very disappointed. This bookstore added to the community what independent bookstores always add: a place to meet other book nerds, a warm and intellectual richness to the plaza, a shopping space that was quiet and peaceful, and a place to go and get book recommendations from real people. Knowledgable people. I had come to know the men and women who worked at our bookshop, and we'd fall into long geeky conversations about our favorite books, often excitedly running to the shelves to pull out some treasure, pressing into each other hands and gushing, "You have got to read this!" The kind of recommendations I got from these guys was totally different than what Amazon's big-data bots would tell me to buy. Just yesterday, the Bookshop Guy handed me this book to read — a quirky little delight, he said, that I'd never have heard of otherwise.

So what's killing these bookstores? I suspect one problem in this case was just a matter of sinking too much money into the store too quickly, expanding beyond what it was able to sustain. It was doing OK when it was just the one store. But in general, one cause is obvious: print books are giving way to ebooks. For a quality rant on this topic, you can read Seth Godin's grumpy-old-man screed here. Although I do find it a bit odd for a young technophile to be this curmudgeonly about ebooks, he has plenty of company. Most people, I have found, feel and think this way about books these days ... even as they participate in the new, "worse" paradigm.

Another cause, which encompasses the former, is capitalism. As much as I favor Adam Smith over Karl Marx, it's not hard to see various downsides of laissez-faire these days. Market forces are rarely going to favor tiny-local over giant-corporate, so any shop that is local and independently owned is inherently fragile. You can find lots of blogs and articles urging consumers to buy local, to support independent alternatives, to keep City X "weird," and so forth. But exhortations are unlikely to overcome the allure of cheap goods ... especially when said goods can be delivered right to your door. (Or to your e-reader.) I can't see a way out of this, myself: it seems we're on an irrevocable course to the disappearance of all things small and local and to the Walmartization of everything.

Hmm ... now I'm the one being curmudgeonly.

But wait! Rescuing me from this doom and gloom is a wisp of promise. As I began writing this piece, I googled "death of independent bookstore," because of course. Curiously, however, most of the hits I got were about the resurgence of independent bookstores. Apparently, in spite of the death of my neighborhood shop, many indie bookstores are doing all right. The key seems to be "small and niche." Of course, our store tried that tactic and it didn't work, but they may have been working against a few other obstacles, too. Expanding too quickly, as I noted earlier, and locating themselves in a shopping plaza without much foot traffic. When I've gone to successful indie bookshops in other cities, such as this one and this one, I've noticed that they're located in pedestrian-heavy areas, especially in vibrant downtowns. Foot traffic and local-indie go together. People who are out shopping as an event, like tourists, or girlfriends having a shop + coffee afternoon, are the kind of people who end up patronizing the cute little bookshop. It's not the sort of destination people build into their schedule, like trips to the grocery store.

For local indie bookstores to survive and thrive, they (and we who love them) have to think of what they offer that Barnes & Noble does not, that Amazon does not. What magical ingredients could we think of to help this happen? Combining bookshop with coffee shop? Book shop with ... wine bar? (Now that would draw me in.) Cookbookery shop with cookware and specialty foods store?

What do you think could keep these community assets alive ... or do you (like Farhad Manjoo) think it's time for these "cultish, moldering institutions" to give up the ghost, already?

Parnassus Books: author Ann Patchett's own indie bookshop