The daffodils are blooming, the clumps of mud from soccer cleats are multiplying on the floor like the teetering number of volumes in our damaged book bin in the back room, and everyone on staff is sneezing behind their masks – ahh, spring in the Heartland, and how I’ve missed the sunshine of your friendship, dear colleagues! Just like those brave and cheerful blooms, I’m peeking out to post this week and rejoice that the warmth of spring and the end of a long Covid winter lets us all spend some time together, politely distanced but hopeful, dreaming of summer and future reunions.
Here’s a little welcome back, by way of a Saturday shift with me in the shop. Put on your comfortable shoes (or ANY shoes) and let’s get to work.
The pandemic, like an evil mage, has transmuted many things in unexpected ways, even handselling. Booksellers, as protagonists in the tough part of the story, yearn to overcome its deleterious effects. In the case of handselling, given limited scope and opportunity, one longs for an unimpeachably great title to commend, which not only will bring joy but also both relevance and escape at the same time. A rarity to be sure, but it is just such a book that we turn our attention to today.
As a narrative, Amari and the Night Brothers mirrors its content. Drawing in readers via deeply satisfying and familiar elements and then shifting their character in a beguiling and revealing manner is just the sort of spell one of the book’s characters might have cast. The spell, intertwining the timeless and the timely, mixing familiar ingredients in a novel way, reveals the power of addressing the moment through story rather than allegory. Though the security of allegory is alluring, Amari chooses the harder path of working her way to understanding through immersion. To find out more about the congenial spell cast by this new middle-grade fantasy I caught up with its gracious caster, B.B. Alston.
In a time of unraveling, the need for restoration is strong in many fields of life and endeavor. Take DDG’s Stocking Stuffer of the Year Award. This somber and august undertaking, long renowned for its unimpeachable integrity, has been marred in recent years by the actions of its judges. Each year since 2015, a shocking development has transpired. Our judge awarded the grand prize to itself! This corruption has galled me to the quick, and with the world so sorely in need of stability, it is the very main of my ambition to ensure that this year’s contest does not take upon itself yet another ill-fitting mantle of injurious self-acclaim.
Fortunately, with the Long Tongued Frog as our choice of Judge, we are on solid ground. It has assured me that under no conceivable circumstance would it select itself champion.
Furthermore, as it pointed out, the Long Tongue Frog will choose the winner for each category by flicking its tongue and striking its selection. Also, as it pointed out, the frog’s tongue shoots straight out and it would be physically impossible for its tongue to bend in such a way as to select itself.
Kenny: Oh, Long Tongued Frog, thank you for agreeing to take up the judgeship of this year’s contest.
Long Tongued Frog: Oh, long worded human, still thy mouthing and let us get straight to the judging.
Kenny: Right ho then, magisterial one. Our first category is The Most Pleasing Jigsaw Puzzle and our contestants are the sublime and understated Charley Harper Tree of Life, The startling Tiger from Djeco, and that stirring floral creation, Let the Sun Shine In.
Long Tongue Frog (paces about and then suddenly strikes, flicking its tongue to hit the Tree of Life): I declare this worthy pedestal of frogs the champion.
Kenny: Umm. Well chosen. Our next category is the Most Shockingly Great Value and our contestants are the Mini Zingy Springy, the Llama Pen, the remarkable Cyclone Top, the amazing Ecological Discovery Real Gem Stones, and the notorious Animal Retractable Pens.
Long Tongued Frog: (paces about and then suddenly strikes, flicking its tongue to hit the Mini Zingy Springy): These are all worthy objects but lo, a metal version of a frog is surely the most exalted choice.
Kenny: Hmm. Well that is a fine stocking stuffer. And now on to the Best Science Toy or Art Kit. Our entries here are the keen and useful Salt Powered Truck, the mind-bending Archimedes Screw Kit, the astounding Bright Strip Mash Up Art Pack Batik FX, and the arresting Aftershock! Quake Lab.
Long Tongued Frog: (paces about and then suddenly strikes, flicking its tongue to hit the Aftershock! Quake Lab): These contestants are all praiseworthy but Aftershock! most closely recreates the feeling engendered by being struck with my tongue.
Kenny: I see. And now we come to it: the grand prize for The Stocking Stuffer of the Year Award. Our finalists are that paragon of entertaining education the Magnatab A-Z, the Inuit-inspired Soapstone Carving Kit, the unimpeachable darling Tiddly Tot Wooden push-along puppy, and the pillar of pillars, the astounding Zig & Go construction toy. This will be a hard choice, to be sure.
Long Tongued Frog (stands stock still and does not move for over a minute)
Kenny: Have you come to a decision?
Long Tongued Frog: I have.
Kenny: I did not see you select an item. Your tongue has not moved.
Long Tongued Frog: That is because it is already touching the winner of this year’s contest. I have chosen myself as most worthy of the award.
Kenny: No! Nooooo. Nooooooo! You vowed to me not to choose yourself. This can’t be happening! Ahhhhhh!
Long Tongued Frog: And now I choose to mark the least worthy among us.
A professor of mine once remarked that “when I need to find someone to get something done I look for the busiest person I can find.” I called Professor Bruchey’s comment to mind when looking for someone to delegate my annual selection of holiday gift books, The Holiday 20. Following his reasoning meant that I would have to find someone busier than myself or the task would fall to me. This seemed like a toughie as I’m buried alive in work right now, processing a giant school grant along with running the store in a pandemic with a dubious fourth quarter looming. Fortunately there is someone who works at the store whose industriousness is legend, even among my hard working staff.
That person’s name is Mina and she is a mouse. We began to find piles of rice in the most unexpected places recently, underneath displays, inside boxes in our storeroom. The rice was coming from our neighbor, the Farmington House of Pizza, but Mina was clearly bringing it through the wall to cache at DDG as she obviously liked to read between foraging expeditions. I asked her to rally round and select and annotate this year’s holiday picks. Here is her report.
“Hi Kenny, this is Ellen Resman. I am the cook at the Strafford School and was told to pick out $500 worth of books. Would it be possible to have you pick out the books? I have pk-8 grades at our school.”
I received that email a few days ago. The name and school name have been changed for privacy. Reading it with decades of experience in serving rural school libraries, the email was neither surprising nor far from the norm. A little out of the norm, sure, but not much.
To explain why. let us answer a few questions.
How did it happen that a person whose primary job is school cook was tasked with picking out books?
Devaluing expertise in school librarians is an entrenched state of affairs here. In Maine, each district is required to have at least one librarian with a Masters in Library Science (MLS) degree. The rest of the school libraries are usually staffed by ed techs. The pay differential between a librarian with an MLS and an ed tech is vast. Ed techs get minimum wage, have no benefits, and have no pay over the summer. From an operational standpoint, the distance between an ed tech ‘librarian’ and a cook is nonexistent. Gym teachers, bus drivers, and receptionists have all, in my direct experience, made the lateral transfer into ed tech library positions.
I’m sure most of you have found yourself in the galling position of finally reading a book that one of your reps or colleagues has been urging you to read for years and discovering that lo, they were absolutely right. What have you been thinking all this time? That is the position I find myself in regarding All Systems Red, Murderbot Diaries Volume 1.
Ellen Pyle, my esteemed MPS/Tor representative for this slim science fiction novella by Martha Wells, has nudged me to read Murderbot at every opportunity. “Tell me you’ve read Murderbot,” she would put forward. After replying in the negative time after time I stand before you today to acknowledge that my reticence was spectacularly ill grounded, that my premonition was askew, my laggardliness shameful, that I was an ass not to dive right into this supremely enjoyable little book.
The primary reason for the book’s quality is its fascinating, sardonic, likeable and vulnerable first person narrator, a part organic part robotic Secbot (security robot) provided by The Company to a private survey team on an unexplored planet. The Company, to its survey group customers, provides equipment, habitat, technical support and security, one Secbot per 10 crew members. Unlike its Secbot peers, the being who privately refers to itself as Murderbot is a free agent. It has hacked its governor module, a fact it is hiding from both the Company and its new crew. The story is a tightly knit, rapidly unfolding series of unpacked mystery elements with interpersonal developments powered along in its wake. Indeed, All Systems Red is one extended series of reveals and surprises, conveyed by a uniquely engaging voice.
It is, like all great books, timely as well. Who better to explore and elucidate the nature of humanity under strain than a partly human being? It works wonderfully as a crossover too; Murderbot’s unfiltered emotions, its combination of shyness and virtuosity, vulnerability and confusion over what it wants for itself gives the story a wide age appeal. It’s also really short, making it a sure favorite for high school assignment selection.
And so I here I am come full circle, taking up Ellen’s mantle. If you don’t love Murderbot, the Company must have gotten to you first. If you haven’t read All Systems Red don’t follow my slothful example. I literally made up for lost time by reading it over again as soon as I was done. Get your copy straightaway and then do obvious things, like reading more in the series and selling them with abandon at the bookstore!
Whether ’tis nobler in the store to suffer the slings and arrows of interminable phone calls, or to wear masks against a sea of droplets, and, wiping surfaces, (hope to) end them?
In a landscape of stores and businesses re-opening to the public with varying levels of safety precautions, we remain closed for in-store browsing, and the customers are growing restless. I understand why; going into the fourth month of COVID-19 restrictions, we all desperately want to feel ‘normal’ again, to broaden our circles of human interaction, to experience the small joys of discovery and connection that happen serendipitously in spaces that are not our own.
Our customers want to come in again. They want to see ALL the books, not just the ones they can peer at through the windows. They want to chat with my wonderful staff at our counters, not our curbside pickup spot. And some are getting a titch impatient that our doors are still closed.