Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Joy of Melluci

Maybe a week after I decided that what I really need is a good basic cookbook like The Joy of Cooking to round out my pretty vegan specific collection, I received in the mail a copy of I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Guilia Melucci from our good friends at Hachette.

What can I say? My cookbook had arrived! Pancakes (check!), Eggplant Parmigiana (check!), Basic Frittata for an easy weeknight meal (check!).

Not only are Ms. Melucci’s tales of dating in NYC amusing and pretty glamorous, she weaves the most amazing and simple recipes with the stories (similar to the wonderful movie “Waitress” where the main character makes different pies based on her life) explaining how the dish fits the (ahem) guest and her feelings toward him.

Her tales of dating and mating and then dating again succeed where so many less talented writers have failed. Her details are specific. She seems a realist, but a happy one. She isn’t (too) hung up about being 40 and still single. One of the most memorable moments has her wondering why God has given her such sound domestic skills and such a lovely home but no one to share them with.

I’m convinced this book will be a sensation when it comes out in April.

How could it not? After such a dismal winter in the worst economy most of us can recall, Melucci will seduce every reader with her wit, her warmth, and yes of course, the food glorious food.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Repost from the Emerging Writer's Network Website

February 23, 2009

Just back from . . .

. . . Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor. There have been some recent posts about independent bookstores at various blogs and the need, or lack thereof, to support them. Personally, my own thoughts lend toward taking each case store by store. I've been to many fantastic indie stores over the past ten years. I've also been in stores where I was positive the person behind the counter couldn't wait until I got the hell out of the store so he/she could get back on the phone, or online, or back to the magazine they he/she was reading.

Shaman Drum is not doing well these days. There have been articles in the Ann Arbor papers recently and owner, Karl Pohrt, just sent out an open letter trying to explain, to those questioning the articles, just how the store has fallen into financial difficulties.

Having had the pleasure of getting to know Karl a bit over the past year and a half, I can say that his open letter didn't contain much surprising material - he's known where things were headed and has been trying to combat it in various ways. He, along with his lawyer, financial team, and others in the Ann Arbor area are pretty desperately trying to figure out the means to make the store still be a viable part of Ann Arbor's just off-campus business district.

If I follow my own thoughts above and go store by store? Shaman Drum would be near the top of my list for those to try to help. I wandered in there today, partially to do just that (which I hope I did by picking up Dan Chaon's novel, and Don Waters' story collection, Desert Gothic), and partially because there isn't a better store within my driving distance to browse for 30 to 60 minutes. The front shelf had an amazing NYRB display (they really are attractive books, especially when standing face out, side by side, over and across a six shelf bookshelf). The front table had a great selection of debut authors, books in translation and a couple of graphic novels.

It's a store that carries one or two copies of every book that Dzanc Books has published to date, because they both support independent publishers, but also because they support local publishing ventures. They've always stocked Hobart and Absinthe: New European Writing as well. When Orchid was coming out regularly, same deal for them.

The shelves had great selections from publishers like Dalkey Archive, Coffee House Press, Milkweed, probably more University of Iowa Press books outside of Prairie Lights, and the aforementioned wall of NYRB titles. They had a table displaying Open Letter Press titles. They had books in stock by Percival Everett, Steve Yarbrough, James Wilcox, and every Bolano that's been published. Full shelf of Cormac McCarthy (including the plays) and at least three Barry Hannah titles.

They also employ a great group of people. Ray McDaniel has no peer I've seen in regard to introducing authors that are reading in the store (plus he's a damn good poet himself). David McLendon, publisher of Unsaid, works in the store and is always great for a suggestion or two. At least one worker, Ryan, is a regular volunteer at 826Michigan. Today, even though I gave her the wrong title, AND the wrong publisher, the wonderful Emily figured out what book I was looking for, and even though it's not available, by the time I finished my browsing and returned to check out, she had taken the time to write out the title (correct version), author and publisher, along with the date I actually could purchase it. I'm embarassed to say that I only know Emily's name because she answered the phone while I was in the store today, even though I've seen her at countless readings and have chatted briefly at least a dozen times.

The store has readings this month alone by Jeff Kass, local poet (and soon to have a short story collection), translator Aliza Shevrin, Jesse Ball, Keith Taylor, Kyle Minor, Kathleen M. Rooney, Don Pollock, Karyna McGlynn, and Hillary Jordan. Each will be well attended as their Meagen Kujac does a fantastic job of garnering attention for their events (not to mention does a kick ass job of reading to kids one day a week or so around lunch time).

It's the type of store that the community (both local, AND literary) should have a vested interest in saving. Turns out that you can order books from them online. I don't think your shipping will be free, and you probably won't get that 20 to 40% discount you'll see at Amazon, but maybe, just maybe, you'll be keeping around this store, that is in the process of turning itself into a non-profit Literary Arts Center, that Karl is creating with the sole purpose of being able to leave something to the community when he is done, and helping it last long enough to figure out what steps to take to be able to continue thriving in these difficult times.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Repost from the Ann Arbor Chronicle Article Comment Section

We saw this and wanted to thank Amber personally for writing such a touching letter. Reading some of the off-putting comments such as "I don't need Drums or Shamans" has been rough. But this one made us smile - so thanks again!!

By Amber Elle
February 19, 2009 at 12:36 am permalink

I can comment as a former UM student (late 90’s) and later as a textbook employee on the second floor.

While I was a first-year student, I grumbled at having to go to the Drum as there was always a long line. As years went on, I learned how to avoid the line. However, no one ever wasted my time on the text-book floor. One person could show me where my three classes were shelved, what classes were cross-referenced, they knew what titles were out and when the titles were expected in. Of course there were always better employees than others! But I was always astonished that anyone could keep all those books straight. If you have never seen it, imagine small oddly-sized rooms with textbooks stacked floor to ceiling, with more titles being shelved or re-stocked all the time. I was always quite impressed with the whole chaotic yet orderly vibe of the second floor maze. You really did need your own guide.

Which brings me to my employment at Shaman Drum on the textbook floor. I have never seen a store more committed to their customers. I’ve seen them take back books, at full-return price when the student has already started high-lighting sections when the prof. decided to change out the title. I have seen the managers be so kind and forgiving to prof’s who didn’t bother to place an order till after classes started (in winter semester the weather can delay deliveries for weeks) and then turn around and pay for express shipping. I admit they were not perfect and sometimes they made mistakes too, but usually it was the Drum who would pay in order for the customer to feel satisfied, prof. or student. I know there are more instances, but I remember clear astonishment at what the second floor would take in order to keep a customer satisfied.
I can tell you it is not every business that is so dedicated to customer service. Even in the years after I was an employee, I never felt uncomfortable reading a whole magazine on the first floor. The staff is chill, so as to give us freedom to browse uninterrupted. If people are feeling unwelcome in that store, it comes from within. The store is designed so you can find a little corner and browse the titles you are considering. Forgive them for not being in your face trying to pull questions out of your head. Get over yourselves and don’t blame the store for your own uneasiness.

Last comment is on the local impact this will have, not on the book-buying community, but on the students and locals who have worked there for whatever number of years. I was hired on during book rush, which is 3-5 weeks around the beginning of fall and winter semester. I can only estimate I would be working along side 12-15 people during any given day. I am sure that no less than 40 would be hired on at a fair hourly wage with almost unlimited hours to work in, as the store extended into 12 hour days to get as many people in and out as possible. In thinking back, I have many fond memories of how all the employees would ban together to serve as many people as efficiently as possible. Cleaning up after close and re-stocking books, eating the free bagels and we would all bring in coffee or tea to share.

People would come back into town just to work for a month at Shaman Drum, make bank, then go back to whatever it was they were doing before. The camaraderie was unique to the second floor. You really made some friends if you could make it through the rush. Then, based on your competence as an employee during the rush, and your willingness, they might ask you to stay on after the rush. I even remember getting a holiday bonus at the end of the year from Karl himself. I hadn’t even been working there for 3 months and he gave me the same as everyone else at my level.

I wouldn’t say Karl was my friend, or that I had more respect for him than any other human being, but no one can deny this fact: he helped a great many people by paying them a fair wage to work in his weird store. People shouldn’t be talking about his personal life or what he has done with his profits, they should look at the impact he has had on the local community, regardless of the future of books.

Books are better than the movie- or are they?

--Our Lists--

Books better than the movie:
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Ghost World
All the Pretty Horses
War of the Worlds
Cold Mountain
The English Patient
Cider House Rules
Revolutionary Road
The Virgin Suicides
Slaughterhouse Five
Memoirs of a Geisha
The Golden Compass
The Reader
Thank You for Smoking
About a Boy
Breakfast of Champions
From Hell
The Punisher: Welcome Back Frank

Debatables (They were both equally good):
Fight Club
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Naked Lunch
Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep?
Kite Runner
Grapes of Wrath
The Ring
Sin City
Harry Potter books

Movies better then the book:
No Country for Old Men (sorry Cormac!)
The Godfather books
Requiem for a Dream
Minority Report (short story)

Books that will be made into movies soon:
The Road
Time Traveller's Wife
The Watchmen
The Hobbit (live action)
The Lovely Bones
Where the Wild Things Are
My Sister's Keeper
Invisible Monsters
Blood Meridian
Cities of the Plain

I am always interested in hearing what others think - and their picks!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cormac McCarthy - Child of God

As far as Cormac McCarthy goes, I’ve always found it odd that the man somehow stumbled onto Oprah’s coveted list of Live Your Best Life! endorsements. No knock against Her Majesty of course (“she’s picked some good books,” as Jonathan Frazen emphatically asserts) but I’ve never had my thumb in the middle of a McCarthy novel and, say, looked up to smile at someone on the street, or started whistling ‘What a Wonderful World.’ If anything, McCarthy’s work repeatedly reminds me of just how terrifying human beings can be to each other, our unsettling excellence at violence, at subjugation, at destroying everything until living your best life is next to impossible.

I mean, she caught the part with the de-limbed guy strapped onto a mattress, right? She knows why the cannibals were keeping him alive?

In other words, to read McCarthy is to be wide awake in the middle of a nightmare and when I went back to Child of God a few weeks ago, I was reminded at just how horrifically precise that nightmare can be with him.

Lester Ballard, the novel’s deviant and surprisingly young antagonist lurks aimlessly through the Smokey mountain foothills of Sevier County, Tennessee. As a marginalized member of the community, Ballard has little to show for himself; no folks, no house, no job or money. The closest he comes to friendship is with an incestuous junkyard owner. The only people that really pay any attention to him are the cops.

Each chapter gives us another glimpse at Ballard’s hopeless day-to-day struggles. None can be called ‘funny’ really, but there is a streak of dark comedy to those misadventures with bill collectors, carnival hucksters and general store managers – moments where Ballard gets dangerously close to resembling an everyman.

Which is a nauseating thought in hindsight. After all, Ballard is a sadistic killer. I know he’s a sadistic killer. Yet, what makes Child of God more than just two-dimensional slasher bilge, is Ballard’s nuanced transformation from petty criminal to sadistic killer, how he’s still compelling to watch even after he becomes so uniformly destructive. Part of this has to be chalked up to the sheer spectacle of his grotesque behavior. But there’s a genuine complexity to him as well. Something that, if not empathetic is still eerily familiar.

McCarthy refrains from offering us an answer to the deranged mind of his anti-hero. Which never seemed to be part of the plan, anyway. Instead, if the novel tells us anything it’s that the most frightening monster is a believable one as opposed to some fabulist creation. Hockey masks and machetes are one thing, but a depraved and inhuman fiend who I can vaguely recognize as someone I’ve seen before is an altogether new nightmare.

So, you know, kudos to McCarthy for tricking me into feeling for Leather-Face.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Open Letter from a Distressed Bookseller

By Karl Pohrt, owner of Shaman Drum:

This fall and winter Shaman Drum Bookshop went into a steep financial decline. Textbook sales declined $510K from last year. We managed to cut our payroll and other operating expenses by $80K, but that didn’t begin to cover our losses.

There was some good news. Our trade (general interest) book sales on the first floor were actually up in December from last year by 10%, which is extraordinary given what many other retailers were reporting. And trades sales in January were up 15%. Still, this hardly compensates for our losses in textbook sales.

The evaporation of our position has been astonishingly swift. We had been holding relatively even financially until September. Suddenly we’ve moved into the red.

I sort of saw this coming.

In July, 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts published “Reading At Risk,” a report detailing the decline of literary reading in America. This was followed by a second report in November, 2007, "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” chronicling “recent declines in voluntary reading and test scores alike, exposing trends that have severe consequences for American society.”

Around the same time the NEA reports came out, I audited a University of Michigan course on the History of the Book in which I learned that every 500 years a major technological shift occurs. Five centuries ago Gutenberg invented (or perfected) moveable type. Now, with the digitization of print, we find ourselves in the middle of another sea change. I recall wondering what the new business model for bookstores would look like, and I worried that our industry would suffer from the same chaos roiling the music world.

And a few years ago the University Library held a conference on Digitization. I was invited to be a panelist and I defended the traditional book as still the most efficient technology for delivering information. I also said I was worried about collateral damage during our forward march into the joyous digitized future. I’m no Luddite, but everyone there seemed to me to be hypnotized by the new technology. Of course, it is dazzling.

In my own retail neighborhood I’ve watched the collapse of Schoolkids Records, an awesome independent record store, due largely to the impact of digitization, and it looks like I’ve got a front row seat on another sad decline. Borders Books, which I think at one time was the best general interest book chain in the English-speaking world, is a shadow of its former self and seems headed for oblivion.

Early this fall I told a group of booksellers that our industry (including the publishing sector) had a business model that didn’t work very well for any of us. A few of the booksellers said they didn’t think this was true, the others were silent.

Two weeks ago I met again with booksellers and publishers from around the country at the American Bookseller Association’s Winter Institute. Now everyone seems to agree that the book business is in trouble. The disintermediation resulting from customers migrating to the internet coupled with the frightening economic crisis makes it terribly difficult for us to see a way forward.

The crisis at Shaman Drum Bookshop is due to our loss of textbook sales. This fall the university introduced a program which allows professors to list their textbooks online, which effectively drives a significant number of students to the internet. It is impossible for local textbook stores to compete under these circumstances. I don’t think there are any villains here (well, maybe some greedy textbook publishers), but this is one of the consequences of the university’s policy.

The efficiencies of Amazon – even given the clever algorithms that bring us if you like this, you’ll like that – are no substitute for browsing in a bookshop.

In 1942 the economist Joseph A. Schumpeter said, “Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in….” This is our system and Schumpeter is undoubtedly correct, but there is a countervailing fact that is equally true: Stability is essential for a civilized society. The second truth is what I’ve learned selling books in this community for forty years, being married for thirty-seven years and raising two children.

It also seems to me that if we are witnessing the collapse of Big Capitalism, the way to revitalize the economy is through supporting locally owned businesses. If you agree, please lend your good energy to Think Local First, the movement supporting locally-owned independent businesses in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County (

What Is To Be Done?

Shaman Drum Bookshop is around one hundred steps from the central campus of the University of Michigan, one of the top ten public universities in the world. I believe the university community and Ann Arbor citizens who love literature need a first-rate browsing store for books in the humanities in the university neighborhood. This is what we aspire to be.

However, as I mentioned earlier, it has been clear to me for a while now that the current model doesn’t work. In March 2008 I announced my wish to give the bookshop to the community. I hired Bob Hart, a recently retired Episcopal priest, to research the feasibility of forming a nonprofit bookshop. We wrote up a careful business plan, met with a good lawyer, filled out the IRS forms and submitted our papers in July. In November the IRS notified us that our application was still under consideration. The review is taking longer because a for-profit business is a component of the project.

The new entity is called the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center, whose mission is “to develop excellence in the literary arts by nurturing creative writing, providing quality literature and fostering a literate public.” We’re already hosting two classes in the store. If we do not survive this downturn, I hope the Great Lakes Literary Art Center will continue under other auspices. It is a good idea.

Last week I consulted a lawyer and a financial advisor. They both felt the store could manage the debt load with some temporary help from our friends and a bit of luck. My landlord, who is a decent man, will allow us to keep our first floor space, vacating only the second floor of the building.

The issue now is this: After we scale back the store, do we still have a viable business? I asked my business manager to crunch the numbers based on our projected sales for the next two years. He reported back that we do not have a sustainable business model. Given our current sales projections, we will continue to lose money.

This means very simply that we would need additional revenue sources/streams to make the store viable.

For many booksellers – certainly including me – this is our darkest hour. I know this sounds melodramatic, but that’s the way it feels to me in the middle of the night when I’m trying to figure out how I can possibly make this work.

If I can’t figure this out, the most realistic and responsible thing I can do is shut the store down and move on.

The question then becomes: What is the next version of a bookstore? This is something worth thinking about carefully. Like you, I want to live in a community that has many good bookshops. But then I’ve been spoiled living in Ann Arbor.

Whatever happens, I am filled with a sense of gratitude for having been able to sell books in this town for the past 29 years. It’s been absolutely wonderful.

Karl Pohrt is owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, which opened in 1980. He is a former board member of the American Booksellers Association and a leader among the nation’s independent booksellers. The Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History is named in his honor, recognizing his work in fostering relationships between the community and the University of Michigan.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Love & Rockets - Locas

The Hernandez brothers have been around for quite some time now, but I was only recently introduced to them. The other day I finished the storyline Locas, which follows a group of latino friends from their teenage years into adulthood. The main focus is on two women who are best friends– Margarita Luisa "Maggie" Chascarrillo and Esperanza Leticia "Hopey" Glass.

Sounds like a pretty standard story right? Well let's also take into account when this series got started Jaime Hernandez started off with a very 1960's sci-fi theme, which involved Maggie as a rocket ship mechanic, in love with her coworker Rand Race. Couple that with stories about Hopey - a punk rocker/musician who happens to be in love with her best friend Maggie.

Ok. Sci-fi, punk rock, and an ambiguous love triangle. Fabulous.

Eventually, Jaime phased out a lot of the sci-fi aspects and dove deep into all of his characters. The end result was an intense on-again off-again romance between Maggie and Hopey, and a rich cultural backdrop of their hometown, Hoppers.

Not only is the story line amazing, the artwork is absolutely stunning. Line and ink work are as good as it gets. Not to mention Jaime's attention to the details; as the story progresses through the years, all the characters age accordingly (unlike almost every other comic I've read).

In short, this series is one of the most captivating comics I've ever had the pleasure of reading. His characters are so profound and distinct I feel like I know these ladies like my own friends. I highly recommend this series! The book Locas is a collection of stories that *only* involve Maggie and Hopey. However there are several collections that encompass the entire series.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cat's Eye book review

Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye tells the tale of remembered adolescence from the perspective of Elaine Risley, a middle-aged artist on a return trip to her hometown of Toronto. This reflection doesn't come with rosy-hued nostalgia. Instead, Risely enacts an emotional dissection of her grade school tormentors, her high school reciprocity and the affect these phases of her life had on her adulthood and artistry. Atwood subtly links the chapters of Risley's contemporary life with those of her past through revisited locations and fleeting, reawakened memories of her childhood friend/enemy Cordelia, who, for better or worse, was the biggest influence in Risley's life. Remarkable for Atwood's spectacular prose and its uncompromisingly honest take on adolescent interaction and its lifelong ramifications, Cat's Eye should be required reading for everyone at least a decade away from their teens.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

True Love & Books

Shaman Drum Bookshop hosted its best event ever—a marriage proposal! We were approached by a customer named Scott who asked if he could propose to his girlfriend, Amy, at the store, as we are her favorite bookstore. He placed the ring on a bookmark inside Jeffrey Eugenides’s collection My Mistresses’s Sparrow is Dead. He then put the book on display and waited patiently while she browsed the entire store. Finally, she came to the kiosk with the book and he pointed it out to her. She picked it up and looked confused until she opened it. Of course, she said yes! The bookseller at the desk was applauding, the bride-to-be was so surprised and delighted, and the groom-to-be could only thank himself for planning such a romantic moment.

The Shadow Factory

Despite its title, James Bamford’s The Shadow Factory does everything it can to bring the most secretive of government agencies, the National Security Agency, out of the shadows and into the light. Bamford’s extensive research reveals for the first time what this powerful spy factory does. He carefully describes how the Bush administration allowed the NSA to bypass the traditional warrant requirements of wiretapping to effectively listen in on nearly every digital signal in the U.S. He uncovers the countless number of secret rooms in AT&T and Verizon buildings which house equipment that monitors all Internet traffic. He reveals what the NSA sees and hears: your email, your phone calls, the websites you visit, what you buy with a credit card. And what’s worse, he describes in detail the outsourcing of this massive wiretapping system to foreign companies such as Narus and Verint, whose founders are now on the run from charges of bribery and extortion. At times, it’s impossible to believe The Shadow Factory is anything more than a sci-fi, conspiracy theory thriller written decades ago. Bamford's book, however, is a very real account of very real events which affect every American citizen.

Tonight on PBS there will be a NOVA special dedicated to Bamford's studies - it airs Feb. 3rd at 8pm on PBS and streams online at

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