I’m Sorry Y’all

Dear Paula Deen,

I know you are having a BAD WEEK.  First, you get inexplicably outed by the National Enquirer for remarks that you think are perfectly ok. Remarks about people of color especially.  And then somehow, everyone gets all up in your business about it. These remarks, incidentally, display a deeply imbedded racism so obviously part of your cultural dna that you seem to be more confused than sorry.  You were so confused you were a no-show on the Today Show this morning.   Now the media, while simultaneously enjoying this moment of deep-fried dirt, can also put you on the “black”-list. Sorry Paula. That’s what it’s called.

Lawyer: Have you ever used the N-word yourself?
Deen: Yes, of course.

As if this weren’t enough, someone told you to make a You Tube video to apologize. Not your best recorded moment, I must say. You seemed, well bewildered to find yourself sitting in some random chair in some random room fiddling with your pinky and trying to say something your agent told you to say that might as well have been in Swahili it was so foreign on your tongue. Alas, to no avail. By the end of the business day, the Food Network announced it had cancelled your contract. I’m sure you are stewing over this. After all, you apologized! On You Tube! Much better than the Today Show, more potential viewers. Isn’t that good enough?

Paula Deen's new book

the bible of southern hospitality

But what’s worse, at least from my bookseller’s point of view, you’ve got a big new cookbook coming out this Fall from Random House. Paula Deen’s New Testament. The announced print run is 750,000 copies. Somebody got a nice advance! I am pretty sure that you have just ruined a few publishing executives’ weekend, if not their entire year. I’m pretty sure that employees of the Random House will not be seeing that $5,000 bonuses they got last year for the stupendous sales of the 50 Shades of Gray “erotic” novels again this year for the anticipated sales of your book.  At 750,000 copies, it has the largest announced advance print run on Random House’s entire fall list.  I just bought that list today and the next biggest print run I recall came in at less than half that.

But it is possible that as I write this, Random House has already stopped the presses on Paula Deen’s New Testament.  I feel bad for them. I like the folks at Random House. They publish some of my favorite writers, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and Jeanette Winterson and Gertrude Stein. Black, and/or gay, and/or Jewish.  What a pickle you have gotten yourself in Paula!

You must be extra confused about this. As you testified in a court case last year, you saw no problem with your brother Bubba making anti-gay/Semitic/black jokes or looking at porn in front of his and your employees.  Yet last year, everyone at Random House got Christmas bonuses for selling porn, and you will probably be lucky if your book gets published at all just because of something you said. Something you also said everyone else says. Everyone you know, that is. Apparently in your world, it’s acceptable to make racist jokes and download porn at work. I’m sure it must feel like a double standard. But of course, Random House hasn’t issued a statement as to how it is handling your new book. Maybe you still have a chance. Especially if you keep your mouth shut.

But Paula, the real reason I am writing to you is that I have an apology of my own to make.  An apology and an immodest proposal. When I spoke to you at a Random House party a few weeks ago, I complimented you on how good you looked. And you do. You look great, especially for someone who was single-handedly responsible for elevating butter to its own place on the food pyramid. You have managed to take the inevitable diabetes diagnosis and turn yourself around. I expect that took a major effort. It wasn’t just your birthright and lifestyle, this advocacy of a diet that kills, it literally made you millions of dollars. I admire your fortitude. I admire the fortitude of your staff who most likely coordinated your new diet for you.

But that’s not what I have to apologize for. When we spoke, you had just met a high-ranking suit from the company that will be selling your book, if it gets published, to Walmart and Hastings and Target and the like. He promised to sell a ton of your books. (Of course, that probably isn’t all that many, calorically speaking.) He turned and left immediately and you turned to me. I told you that Left Bank Books wouldn’t be selling a ton, but we’d probably sell a half ton.  You seem satisfied with that.

So here’s the thing: we won’t be selling a half ton. We wouldn’t have sold a half ton even if you hadn’t revealed your true colors. And now of course we won’t be selling any. Because I didn’t order any today, when ironically, your book was being presented to me by my Random House sales rep, right about the time you were posting your “apology” and the Food Network was cancelling your contract. Talk about timing! So sorry, Paula, but I sort of lied when I saw you last month. You could say I “misspoke”. That’s a term you might want to borrow from your conservative friends, incidentally. You can use it to pretend that you didn’t mean all those things you said that got you into trouble.  It’s like saying you told a little “white” lie.

Paula Deen, I don’t think you are ever going to learn anything from this experience. You have lived in a bubble of Southern hospitality, a phrase I have come to see as meaning, “well honey bunches, I think you are a piece of deep-fried doo-doo and I have no intention of accommodating your wishes but I am going to slather you in buttery falsehoods so greasy that when you manage to stand up and wipe yourself off, you will think I was actually nice to you”.

And because you have perfected the art of Southern style “playah”, you have come to believe your own pretenses of actual compassion. There may be a way out of this for you, Paula. But you are not going to like it. I make this proposal inspired by where I live, St. Louis, Missouri. We are not regarded as a healthy town. We have high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the very sorts of health problems that result from following the diet you have profited from promoting all these years. And black folk, the very ones you seem to think make decorative slave motifs for wedding parties, suffer the most.

So why not use this opportunity to make it up to us, Paula? Why not—wait for it— give away your new book to poor communities and communities of color? Why not lead free community cooking classes in those communities to teach better dietary choices to the folks who have been harmed the most by your previous food religion?

No cheating either. No new syndicated “Feed My People” show. You have to actually look people in the eye. The revolution will not be monetized. After all, you can afford to do this. The only thing more over the top than the amount of butter you have consumed over the years is the amount of money you have made preaching its virtues. Could you do that, Paula? Could you go among the common people and do the right thing?

That, Paula, would be what the folks in AA call making amends. THAT would be a real apology.

Not holding my breath,

Another 60+ year-old white woman


We’ll Always Have Paris: Your Bookseller’s Guide To Les Misérables

On September 9th, Eleanor Sullivan will be joining us at our Central West End store to talk about her new Singular Villages mystery, Graven Images. Here’s a thing you need to know about Eleanor Sullivan: she claims Les Misérables as one of the five Broadway shows that changed her life.

Here’s a thing you need to know about me: I am obsessed with Les Misérables.

As my coworkers know all too well, I actually can’t shut up about it. I’ve watched the musical more times than I care to admit. I saw the movie four times in theaters. Some version of the soundtrack is a permanent fixture in my car’s CD player. My dream cast involves an actor that sings entirely in Spanish. My favorite character is, 50% of the time, not even said by name in the libretto. I’m currently in the middle of reading two different translations of the book.  My cat’s name is Valjean.

That’s how far gone I am, friends.

This summer, the Muny is doing a production of Les Misérables, and you might plan on going to see it (I highly recommend it, as my personal dream cast member Norm Lewis is playing Javert). I’m here to tell you that before you do, you should really read up.

Are you crazy?! you ask. You want me to read a 1400 page novel by July?!

Not….necessarily. You have options.

For Newbies (to the show):

ImageSaw the movie in theaters and can’t seem to get enough of Fantine and co.? Check out Les Misérables: From Stage To Screen. This gorgeous and fairly comprehensive guide tracks the show from its conception through Broadway runs, international productions, touring companies, and anniversary specials, concluding with a rundown of the making of the Oscar-nominated film. What’s really special about this book, though, is that it has pockets chock full of replica memorabilia, from ticket stubs to posters to original costume sketches to libretto samples (with director’s notes!) to movie call sheets. This is your one-stop-shop for catching up with all things musical.

For Newbies (to this world):

Want to share your love of Les Misérables with your young children, but don’t think they’re quite ready for Hugo’s classic novel? Cozy Classics has an absolutelyCozy Classics adorable board book version, illustrated with beautiful needle-felted figures, that gets the point across in a lot fewer words, while helping teach your children about such important thematic elements as “Poor,” “Run,” and, of course, the central message of Les Mis, “Love.”

For Newbies (to the novel):

Les Mis SignetYou’ve seen the musical, you’ve seen the movie, and now, you think you’re ready to give the novel a try. Maybe you attempted to read it in high school, and balked at its length (or you had to return it to the library before you could finish). I would suggest reading the Signet Classics paperback edition, translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee. It’s the edition I started with, and retains all the elegance of Hugo’s prose without making it dense and unreadable. Plus, shorter chapters for easy breaking points! Trust me, it’s a book you’ll want to stop occasionally and reflect on for a while before picking up again. It’s not abridged, so you’ll still have to wade through the 100 page digressions on the Battle of Waterloo and the Paris sewer system, but you’ll also emerge with a much better understanding of your favorite musical characters, the June Rebellion (not the French Revolution!), and the story’s central message of optimism, love, and redemption. (Also, getting through Waterloo is like a badge of honor. They should make t-shirts!).

For Seasoned Veterans:

Have you, like me, seen countless viewings of the musical, film, and have already torn through the book at least once? Time to pick up the Word Cloud Classics edition! Les Mis CloudNot only will it look spectacular sitting on your bookshelf, but the translation by Isabel Hapgood is a bit loftier, probably reminiscent of the prose of Hugo’s day, and will make for some fascinating comparisons to the Signet Classics translation. Plus, no matter the translation, your second reading of Les Mis is always more fun, and more revealing, than your first!

See? You have options. Don’t think of Les Mis as that book your professor wanted you to read in college and you Spark Noted (and after all, you’d already seen the musical). Think of it as delving into a complex and fascinating new (old) world, full of remarkable characters and themes still entirely resonant today, that you’ve only scratched the surface of. That’s the wonderful thing about Les Misérables: 150 years later, and there’s still more to see, more to talk about, more to learn, that’s just as fascinating now as it was then.

Sad News About a Good Friend

We called her “our knitter,” but really we had to share her with the rest of the world.   Sharon Coleman, who lead a Knitters Reading Group at our store and who was responsible for various “Guerrilla Knitting” projects in the St. Louis area passed away on May 23.

She had been our one-woman knitters’ group since not long after we opened the downtown store, sometime early in 2009. Off and on we would have several women join her but for a long time, it has just been her.

Undaunted by a serious cancer diagnosis  a few years before we met her, Sharon poured herself into her knitting full throttle. She told us it was the thing that kept her going. And keep going she did. She was three years beyond a “you have  weeks to live” diagnosis, and we enjoyed her company for 4 years more.

yarnbombShe knitted complex and lovely pieces that she donated to us to sell to support the River City Readers Program.  We had  a display at our downtown store for a long time.  She also yarn-bombed the store, wrapping columns in various colors and textures.  We looked forward to Fridays when we could see what surprise she left the night before. Some favorites are the rocks she covered in fabulous lavender and glam frizzy gold, or red curly-cue stitches that have served us a bookshelf stops.

Our last encounter with Sharon was at our Central West End store, where she had moved her group.  Kris was there and chatted with her about her latest project.  She was knitting apple cozies, great little pockets the perfect size for an apple. Kris thought it was the perfect gift for teachers and the two of them talked about her making some in quantity.

Sharon loved Left Bank Books and was passionate about River City Readers. Through her knitting, she found purpose. She found life. She fought illness with courage and grace. We are grateful for her support and friendship. She will be missed.

There will be a memorial service at Bopp Chapel this afternoon.  You can count on us to be there.

Sedaris 101: Diabetes and Owls for Newbies

Blasphemy alert: Two weeks ago, I’d never read anything by David Sedaris. I’d never heard anything by David Sedaris. “Not even the elf thing, at Christmas, on NPR?” you ask, disbelief in your voice, your eyebrows rising into your hair? Nope. Not even the elf thing, at Christmas, on NPR.

It’s not that I had anything against David Sedaris. On the contrary, customers and coworkers alike raved that he was spectacularly, side-splittingly, tears-in-your-eyes-can’t-breathe-right kind of funny.  But when you work in a bookstore, your To Read list has the tendency to, er, get away from you a little. Get away from you like the distance runners got away from me, a last minute 800 meter relay substitute, during my 8th grade track championship: quickly, and painfully, and dramatically.

So when I found myself scheduled to work David Sedaris’ May 25th event with Left Bank Books for his new book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, an event which sold out in less than 24 hours, prompting us to shut down a section of Locust Street and pipe his talk out for the masses, I was pretty excited. I hadn’t had the time to read any of his books, but now I had the opportunity to get a taste of what all the fuss was about. “You just have to hear him,” people would say to me, “and you’ll understand.”

Ladies and gentlemen, consider me a convert.

You’re looking at David Sedaris’ newest fan. And it’s not only because he’s hilarious. I mean, he is hilarious. So hilarious that it was actually hard for me to do my job – manning the book table outside the store for the listening party, which numbered around 300 strong – because I was laughing so hard. And it’s not only because his fans are so awesome, as all the ones I met were – from the group who ordered pizza and brought wine and set up their own picnic in the street, to the couple who traveled from Kentucky to hear him, to the two young Mormon men on their mission trip who wanted to personally thank Sedaris for getting them out of a tough spot, to the toddler who clapped at all the right moments and was especially interested in our May events calendar.

No, the real reason I’m now a card-carrying member of the David Sedaris fan club is because of how absolutely wonderful David Sedaris was to all his fans, and how generous he was with his time. He engaged with each and every person that stood in line to meet him. He listened to life stories with genuine interest, and tailored his book personalizations for each person with stickers and references to funny anecdotes and details they’d revealed in their conversations. This was much more than a signature and a handshake. This was an experience.

And this experience lasted until 3 am, which is when a still chipper and friendly and invigorated Sedaris ran out of people to sign books for. I clocked out around 1:30, because I had to open the store the next morning, and he signed my audio book, purchased for my upcoming trip to Texas, “To Lauren, Who Quit Early” (all in good fun, of course). Sedaris, it seems, isn’t about to forgive you for leaving his party.

But really, where else today can you get that kind of experience? More and more, people are expecting less and less. In this era of now, now, now, of e-books and smart phones and having the whole world available at your fingertips, who’s still going to sit down and have a face-to-face, one-on-one conversation with you, not only about a book, but about what a book means to you?

David Sedaris will. And for that, I consider myself a fan. I might be a few years behind the curve, but I’ll be devoting six hours on the road to Me Talk Pretty One Day because of my David Sedaris experience.

And next time, I won’t quit early.

A Farewell, A Thank You, A Welcome

Spike, Lord and Master

The past five years of Left Bank Books’ career in St. Louis has arguably been the best we’ve had.  The supposed death of bookstores and recession be damned, we’ve done some pretty cool stuff, even if the only one who got rich and famous was Spike, our beloved bookstore cat.

After our business partner, Barry,  retired from the bookstore in 2009, Kris and I worried about whether we would be up to the task of keeping this stubborn St. Louis institution alive.  His shoes were giant, and almost impossible to fill.  Add to that  the birth of the second location of LBB downtown and the pressure was on.

One of the many fortunes we count at ye olde bookstore, is the  smart, ambitious, talented, hardworking, dedicated and patient (with both the owners and the customers) staff of booksellers we are lucky enough to have.

I’d like to take a quick moment on this blog to thank one in particular who has been with us these past five years and has grown our events series into a force to be reckoned with.

Danielle Borsch interviewed for her job at the beginning of 2008.  One of the reasons she got the interview was because her resume had honest to god footnotes and hinted at the magnetic, dynamic person she is.  We were worried because she had two other jobs – one hosting bar trivia and the other producing and acting in The Immediacy Theater troupe she formed with

Danielle Borsch, Outgoing Events Coordinator

her friends.  I wish I could go back to the meeting with Kris and Barry after that interview and tell her how wrong we were to have worried about her ability to manage her time, how she would meet and exceed our expectations.  Every. Single. Time.

The three of us grew to love her and depend on her spot-on intuition about hosting events.  During her tenure, we hosted the likes of Jimmy Carter, Tony LaRussa, Terry McMillan, Jonathen Franzen and David Sedaris (more than once) and hundreds more.

It was fitting then, that her last event with us was this past Saturday, when David Sedaris stopped at our Downtown store to read from and sign his newest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls.  We’ve hosted David on every one of his book tours, and knew that this event would be big.  It would need experience.  It would need stamina.  It would need talent.  It would need Danielle.

Kris and I sat on our couch scowling out the window around 3pm when we heard thunder.

We were all set up to do our outdoor listening party on the streets of downtown St. Louis complete with tents, lawn chairs, beer, food – and books – lots and lots of paper objects that don’t mix kindly with Midwestern spring weather.  I say we scowled because of the thunder, but I have to admit that my scowl was also the result of the worst ear infection I’ve ever had.  So bad, in fact, that I missed one of my favorite

The downtown listening party primed and ready to hear David Sedaris.

authors AND the last event of one of my best friends.  My sister and her friend volunteered to work the event, and around midnight, she came back to my house reporting that when David arrived, the clouds went away and the sun came out.

It was 3 am before poor Kris got home, still buzzing from the event and far past her ability to be coherent about it, but I did hear stories from that night from those who were there.  Mostly the surprises were limited to the good to the weirdly good – the giant sticker books David brought with him, from which he selected one for each customer and incorporated the sticker in the autograph of the book; the patient waiting for a lung transplant who made it to the event and talked to her favorite author; the Mormons who left a very kind note for him because they couldn’t stay.

Hannah Nutt, Incoming Events Coordinator

The event went well, and ushered in the era of our next Event Coordinator, Hannah Nutt, who, like I did when Barry left, has big shoes to fill, but I’m not worried.  She has taken the reigns and will steer this event series in her own way, with her own (many, many) strengths.  We’ve also moved one of our best booksellers, Lauren Wiser, into our events and publicity mix.

I say this because I will miss Danielle for so many reasons both professional and personal that it has been hard to untangle the layers.  I’ve been writing this blog post, and even in its writing a piece of sunshine has peaked through the thunderous clouds in my head.  I’m remembering the anxiety we’ve had every time one of our bookstore family members leaves and the uncertainty that comes along with replacing that very unique, seemingly irreplaceable person.

Lauren Wiser, Publicity Manager

I’m also remembering the hope and joy and fun in discovering the humor, strength, passion and fortitude of the new members of our family.  I can’t wait to get to know our newest member better.  I can’t wait to see what she and Lauren come up with.

As I see it, the main strength we have as a store is our ability to look forever forward.  I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.

I can’t wait to see what we can do together.

From Guest Blogger, Josh Hanagarne

As promised, a post from author, Josh Hanagarne who will be signing his new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian on May 11.  The New Yorker posted this review (definitely worth a read).  You can also follow his blog at http://worldsstrongestlibrarian.com/.


Hey there, fans of Left Bank Books!

Josh Hanagarne

Meet Josh on May 11 at the St. Charles City-County Library!

I’ve been tasked with bringing you a list of spring/summer reading recommendations.  I’m all too happy to do so.  Relieved, even. This might surprise you, but even though I’m a librarian, I don’t get to talk about books at work very often.  Most people just don’t ask, they just want to be escorted to the Internet, which breaks my bookish heart.

I’d guess that 80% of what I read is either recommended to me by other bookworms, or it just happens to cross my desk at the library. I never know what I’m going to find. It’s kind of how I feel when I’m browsing an out-of-the-way bookshop and I head down the next aisle.

If a book looks remotely interesting, I grab it.  I definitely have my favorite authors, genres, and subjects, but my constant exposure to unfamiliar books means, happily, that I read outside of my comfort zone quite often.

I tend to think in stories, and the more stories I read, and the broader the scopes and subjects of the stories, the more connections I can make.  A mind that can is familiar with a greater variety of subjects is going to be more adaptable.

Now then–you wouldn’t be on this website if you weren’t a fellow book nut, so I’ll try and reward your curiosity with the latest and greatest books that have jumped out at me.

The Boys In the BoatThe Boys In The Boat:  Nine Americans And Their Epic Quest For Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

Before this book, I didn’t have any stories or ideas tied to rowing.

In fact, before reading The Boys In The Boat, if you’d asked me, “What’s less interesting than competitive rowing?” I would have said, “Nothing! What else can we talk about?”  But I had similar thoughts about horse racing before reading Seabiscuit, about running the mile before reading The Perfect Mile, about running in general before reading Bowerman And The Men Of Oregon, and about the history of Formula 1 racing before reading The Limit.  

 But of course, these books were great not because of the sports they profiled, but because of the people involved.

Not only is Brown’s book interesting, It’s thrilling, and he’s a fantastic writer.  The people in the story are a pleasure to know.  I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a book about sports and competition this much.  If you like stories about scrappy underdogs beating the odds, this is the book for you.

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean At The End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Someone recently asked me what the best part of being a debut author with an upcoming book.  “Getting a sneak peek at Neil Gaiman’s new book,” I said immediately. And truer words have never passed my lips.

If I’d read The Ocean At The End of the Lane as a child, I don’t know if I ever would have recovered.  This book contains what might be the most terrifying scene I can think of for a young boy.  When you get to the bathtub scene, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  My favorite thing about Gaiman is that he tells stories of impossibly strange worlds, while hinting at worlds behind the stories that are more unusual yet.  Ocean is a masterpiece of potent, concise thrills.

This is Neil Gaiman, so…you’re probably going to read it no matter what the story is. But okay, the plot:  A young boy unleashes a creature from another world and gets into a world of trouble.  That might sound like a story that could have come from any writer, but if you know Neil, you can guess that it’s not.

The Never List by Koethi Zahn

I read The Never List in one night and stayed up too late doing so. In the early pages, two women are abducted.  They awaken in a cellar, shackled to the walls with two other women.  Three years later, our narrator escapes.  The story picks up years after that and involves her abductor’s potential parole, the letters he is sending to her and his other victims, and a cult that would have fit right into a season of Dexter. The Never List  reminds me of Chelsea Cain but not as gruesome, and Gillian Flynn without the sick humor.  If you can have fun with an ugly, nasty story, check this out. You know who you are.

GulpGulp by Mary Roach

In her inimitable style, Roach has previously tackled the cadaver, the soul, sex, and everything you wanted to know about space travel but were afraid to ask.  With Gulp, she goes down the hatch.  This book contains just about everything you’d never want to know about what’s happening inside of you.  It’s fascinating, disgusting, and as Roach fans will already know, hilarious.  My only complaint?  I can’t believe she took this internal tour and never even mentioned the tapeworm.

I could go on and on and on, but now I’d like to turn it over to you.  I’d be grateful if you’d head over to my blog or send me a Tweet.  Let me know what you’ve read and loved lately! (please)

Hey – We have a blog!

Greetings from your friendly city bookstore. As I write this, another of our local indies is fighting what seems to be a losing battle with their landlord over whether they can stay in their location or not. The alternative is a storage facility on the lot where a 150 year old Victorian house once stood.

Yes, it might seem odd to make the first post on the Left Bank Books blog about a competing store’s struggles, but hear me out. Our store does not, and cannot exist in a vacuum. Without a vibrant local independent bookstore scene, the variety of local flavor and unique personalities of each area diminish. If one store fails, we all shine a bit less brightly.

Josh Hanagarne, decidedly strong librarian

My next post (very shortly after this introduction) will be from guest blogger and author of The World’s Strongest Librarian, Josh Hanagarne, where he’ll recommend some summer reading, but I wanted to introduce you to our blog and encourage you to follow our posts, as we’re much more interesting than Amazon and way cooler.

We’ll be tweaking this blog and looking for (begging for) more guest bloggers, but in the meantime do this:

  1. Sign the petition to save our good friends at The Book House.  It’s the right thing to do.
  2. Scroll down and take a look at the very well established blogs that some of our booksellers have already created including Page Appropriate, our children’s buyer’s blog!
  3. Read Josh’s blog post and then come to our event with him on May 11.  It’ll be fun, and you’ll be glad you came.

Jarek Steele

Co-Owner, Left Bank Books