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The 2020 Stocking Stuffer of the Year Award

Kenny Brechner -- December 3rd, 2020

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.

The 2020 Holiday 20

Kenny Brechner -- October 19th, 2020

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.

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‘I Am the Cook’

Kenny Brechner -- August 27th, 2020

“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.

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The Celebrity Picture Book Challenge

Kenny Brechner -- August 19th, 2020

When famous people write picture books the world is the winner
So many people hungry for schmaltz have a 32 course dinner

They have excelled at acting, governing, singing, leaping, writing novels or thrillers
And now with dubious assurance reach their hands to picture book tillers

When a  celebrity rhymes it must be admitted
That on the surface it seems like a crime was committed

In well trafficked life messages they abound
With leaden morals the couplets resound

If fame makes their otherwise noisome words sound great
Be thankful that celebrity picture books creates of them a spate

So let us drown in their insipid provender
To their odious charms let us surrender

Challenges these books urge us to undertake
And so in our endeavor should you surely partake

And what is our challenge?
What shape our literary phalange?

The most dreadfully meaningful rhyming couplets submitted will, as you surmise,
Win an unnamed yet desirable prize

So cast your entry into the comments below
And fame or something like it victory shall bestow.

Murderbot At Last

Kenny Brechner -- July 29th, 2020

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!

To Ope, Or Not to Ope, That Is the Question

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 16th, 2020

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.

Customer @kit10cahill captures her greeting by my puppy, Lola, at our pickup window.

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.

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The New Normal

Josie Leavitt -- June 10th, 2020

I popped by the Flying Pig recently to pick up my book order. I found myself in the strange world of pandemic shopping. The store, normally staffed by two or three people, was helmed by just one person. In this case it was Elizabeth. When I first heard about how they were staffing and running the store, part of me thought, “Oh, you get to be by yourself and work, there are no customers browsing, most of the orders are online, how hard can this be?”

Turns out it, it’s actually very hard. Elizabeth let me in so I could use the bathroom. First we had the new normal of being in the same room. She greeted me in a mask and gloves, which is still so strange to me. My mask was on as well. I was very lucky that Kate Sullivan of Random House made me a Dr. Seuss mask. And we never once took them off in the hour I was at the store. We maintained social distance as we chatted and got caught up briefly. I realized that it’s been a long time since I got a hug from Elizabeth, and I noted how much I missed them and wondered how long it would before we could share that simple greeting. Then I turned my attention to the books.

I noticed the two cases by the pick-up window were not just full, they were bursting with orders that had not been picked up. So many books. I thought again how easy this all looked. Then I noticed the phone was ringing off the hook. I disinfected a phone and helped out, from the back room, six feet away from Elizabeth.

Phone calls to a bookstore in a time of pandemic are not speedy. They’re laborious. It’s like watching someone browse while you’re on the phone. Minds wander as customers remember more books they’d like to find out about, which is great, but it’s hard. Rather than being able to just look something up and hand a book to someone, I had to look up the real title (even in the hour I was there, many people still identified books by their color), search our inventory, and place my hands on the book. If we didn’t have the book then I would have to remember the title (not easy at 55) and look it up at our distributor, check availability and ask if they wanted it shipped directly to them or they wanted to pick it up at the store. My first phone call wanted one book shipped and one to pick up at the store. As I was gathering the myriad address information, the other phone was ringing and someone was knocking at the pick-up window an hour before it officially opened.

Adding to this stress is the anxiety of getting someone’s credit card number right. I try to just input the number into the Square reader so I don’t have it written down anywhere. This is a great idea but often flawed in execution. I was ready to ring up a customer. I told her what her total was and she said, “Oh wait, let me get my purse downstairs.” As she did that my machine timed out and I had to start over. I was in the middle of getting it all back when she started giving her card number. I asked politely if she could give me a second and all the while I’m aware that the phone is still ringing off the hook, Elizabeth is working with a customer on the phone, and someone is at the window.

Then I asked for the credit card number. I need to add at this point that I’m audially dyslexic, so hearing numbers is extremely hard for me. I need them slow and in a predictable rhythm. What I got was the following: two four two seven (so far so good) eighty six hundred (not so good) three zero zero two (back to good) and ended with three thousand nine hundred and five. I’m fairly certain there are still parts of my exploded brain on the keyboard. Of course I entered the number wrong and had to start all over again.

What I realized about this was it was everything about bookselling that I didn’t like. It was all the things that require many multiple steps and none of the fun customer interaction that happens when folks are face to face. This kind of selling is stressful. There are so many more steps to be done to just get one book in a customer’s hand, it’s tiring. I left after an hour with a headache and great new respect for Elizabeth and the staffers who work alone (by choice) to keep the store running and providing books for customers who are, without question, thrilled to be supporting the store.

S.A. Chakraborty Holds Forth

Kenny Brechner -- June 4th, 2020

An unhappy irony of the last few months has been that I have been too busy and tired with the bookstore to have time to read. The one book I chose to keep me company was the third and final volume of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy, Empire of Gold, being published as adult on June 30, though I declare it to be a YA crossover.

It was a boon companion. To be conveyed back to the world of City of Brass and Kingdom of Copper, to a fantastical and beguiling world with indelible characters, wily plot shifts, and powerfully resonating dangers and struggles of the heart, mind and body, was a brief nightly respite I valued exceedingly. I was loathe to leave its pages.

Empire of Gold is a triumphant conclusion by any standard. It both transports to a magnificently constructed other world, and edifies with deep relevance to our own time and place. Pestilence, racism, autocratic tyranny, systemic abuse of power, all are powerfully explored in this taut and intricate narrative. Its combination of timelessness and contemporaneity, of the magical and the mordant, make it a book peculiarly welcome during these hard days we are living through.

I asked the author to share a few thoughts on her work with us and she graciously held forth.

Kenny: Manizeh’s fate raises powerful issues of accountability and nature vs. nurture. Does the sense that she would have been very different in a different world lessen her accountability?

S.A.: I don’t believe the “what-ifs” lessen her accountability. With the Daevabad Trilogy, I wanted to show how otherwise “good” people could be driven to commit horrible acts, along with the ways they might justify such acts to themselves and others—but without ever making them seem acceptable to the reader. There’s room to see tragedy in Manizheh’s fate, in wondering what other life she might have lived, and be emotionally moved by those possibilities while still recognizing the evil she’s done. Especially because we have other characters who’ve suffered just as much but chosen not to inflict more harm. I think in science fiction and fantasy, we sometimes have the dangerous tendency to make the idea of committing “a lesser evil for a greater good” a trait of a wise leader. It’s not. That’s the trait of the kind of leader who strips away freedom of expression or continues the oppression of the marginalized and then tries to justify it as “peace” or “security.”

Kenny: There is a pronounced difference between the idea of faith and the idea of worship in your books. Can you discuss that? How do creatures such as Sobek, the peris and the ifrit fit in?

S.A.: Religion is a fascinating part of human culture, and the interplay of personal faith alongside—and sometimes in opposition to—organized ritual and its associated societal presence is something I wanted to explore in the books. So we have someone like Ali who is deeply, truly devout in a way that drives him to rebel against his family and society, whereas Nahri initially struggles to connect to the faith and rituals of her people until she finds meaning in the very importance and strength that faith gives to her people. There’s also religion as a communal experience and identity marker, one that proves as divisive as it does unifying.

Creatures like the peris and ifrit are a rich part of the folklore of the Islamicate world, but they also have roots and parallels in earlier traditions and religions (as does Sobek). And this was something I felt personally important to show. I’m a practicing Muslim myself, but I think recognizing the diversity and richness of the stories that came before is important, and in The Empire of Gold, I wanted to show Ali wrestling with and then coming to peace with such a history.

Kenny: Tolkien once observed that “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” Your story closely considers the tension between freedom and purposed domination. How do you see those same issues reflected in the author reader relationship?

S.A.: My head and my heart would probably answer in very different ways! The Daevabad Trilogy was not only a very personal story—one I began as a project for my eyes only—they were the first books I ever wrote, as well as published. Seeing them read and interpreted in a thousand different ways has been an emotional rollercoaster, one I’m privileged and honored to ride, but one that takes me very quickly from “yes, that’s exactly what I meant!” to “how could the reader possibly think that?”

And that itself has been its own learning experience. There were certain parts of the story I meant as a narrow allegory and certain parts I meant as a broader theme. But at the end of the day, it almost doesn’t matter. The book is done, out in the world, and there’s no more editing. Of course, readers are going to read through their own life experience; that’s their right. And as I’ve gone further into this journey, I find myself more and more a proponent of “death of the author,” both for readers to have the freedom they deserve to interpret and critique a work, but frankly for the author as well. There’s a peace in accepting that a book is done and moving on to new worlds and new stories with everything you’ve learned along the way.

Kenny: The Daevabad Trilogy contains a love triangle for the ages. Did you always have that charted out or was it an internally dynamic element in your story creation?

S.A.: I didn’t have it charted out; in fact, I’m still not certain I would call it a love triangle! I believe love triangles can be a clever and emotionally evocative storytelling device, but I am also wary of calling any story that involves a woman being attracted to more than one person a love triangle. With the Daevabad Trilogy, I wanted to center the romance from Nahri’s point of view and explore the different ways love, attraction, and passion might weave in and out of her life throughout a period of years. And I wanted it to feel as real, nuanced and messy as love often does in real life. What is it like to have her first crush? To learn how to trust? To be betrayed? To have to navigate a political marriage? How would all this work in terms of her own agency and desire rather than prioritizing the feelings of male characters? And I wanted the story to reflect how Nahri herself felt about love: that it could be a sentiment not to be trusted, a distraction. That in the end, there were other things she desired just as much, if not more.

Kenny: Do you see your trilogy as a crossover? I certainly do. I can’t imagine anyone who can engage with it not being the richer regardless of age.

S.A.: I do see it as a crossover. While I started writing it in my twenties and suspect it has a particular resonance for that group, many of the things it grapples with such as family, faith, and finding one’s place in an unjust world are subjects that don’t have an age limit. And when it comes to the history of storytelling, I think more works than not appeal to a wide audience. Part of the delight of reading is expanding our horizons and certainly that applies to age.

Kenny: How did you balance the literary and actual histories surrounding the Abbasid caliphate both of which inform your work?

S.A.: Fairly easily—although it wasn’t only histories of the Abbasid caliphate. I wanted the Daevabad Trilogy to feel like an homage to a broad, global Islamicate world of the past, and so I used both literary and actual histories as inspiration. Much of the folklore, storytelling tropes, and magical worldbuilding is inspired by literature and folktales—the creativity of which I don’t think many modern writers can beat! In terms of actual history, it was a mix of larger themes and smaller “Easter eggs.” Aspects of Ali and Muntadhir’s sibling rivalry, for example, are as inspired by that of Mughal brothers Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh as they are by the Abbasid civil war between al-Amin and his brother al-Ma’mun. One of Daevabad’s mosques is a mirror of the oldest mosque in Cairo, the Ibn Tulun mosque while other buildings are nods to the coral castles along the Swahili coast or Safavid gardens. It is of course an impossible task to represent everything, but I wanted what I could manage to feel like a celebration.

Kenny: It does! Thank you so much for holding forth here!

S.A.: You’re welcome. Thanks for the opportunity!

‘Our Friend Hedgehog’

Kenny Brechner -- May 21st, 2020

That Lauren Castillo’s Our Friend Hedgehog is evocative of childhood classic read-aloud stories is unmistakable. Why though? To answer that question we should start out by asking which classics it is evocative of. I wouldn’t be surprised if that varied reader to reader but to me the books it summoned were Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series, A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, Else Minarik’s Little Bear stories. All these books are marked by classic illustrations and when I pounced upon Our Friend Hedgehog a few pre-pandemic months ago it was because Lauren Castillo is a personal favorite illustrator and I was excited to see, in her first published written work, what sort of a story she had to tell. That the accompanying illustrations would be delightful was a given.

The characteristics Our Friend Hedgehog shares with the four books it evoked for me are a sublime blend of warmth and wonder, gentle adventure, kind humor, allayed misapprehension. discovery and friendship. The sense of possibility in a young reader is developing all the time of course, and it can also be curtailed by sad circumstances of environment. These classic books provide an exercise in world building which clothes childhood possibility in a living, magical garment. When the Snork Maiden tries to talk Moomintroll out of diving for breakfast dishes from the attic down to the kitchen in their submerged house Moominmama announces, “why shouldn’t he if he finds it thrilling?” That same sense of permissiveness and support for interest and adventure quietly illumines Our Friend Hedgehog.  It is conveyed through the interwoven actions of friendship and the natural world.

As with Emily from Little Bear and Christopher Robin from Pooh, Hedgehog and his animal companions make a human friend in Annika Mae Flores. The engaging and appealing Annika Mae provides a perfect guide for young readers to inhabit and explore this sunny world.

The comfort found in the timeless charm of Our Friend Hedgehog will be a happy discovery to many readers who are living through this most unsettled and uncertain of times.  For adults, sharing it with a child, it will be a welcome passage back to treasured inner landscapes of their own childhood,  the very agency of association enhancing the comforting effect of experiencing a new world so imbued with beloved aspects of the past. For children it will be just sheer delight, companionship, and wonder. Our Friend Hedgehog is a book that will still be there whenever you return to it.  It is of course a book to share. That’s why I’m sharing it with you.

The Flying Pig Games

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 19th, 2020

Imagine our delighted but bemused surprise when large boxes of Suzanne Collins’s The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes arrived at the bookstore last week from Scholastic. Sure, back in January, we’d planned a big hoopla around the fourth Hunger Games release and couldn’t wait to read it, but COVID-19 had knocked those plans—and even thoughts of the book itself—into the far outfield (or, more aptly, into a far and disused corner of the arena).

With scores of beautiful copies to sell and a very much shortened promo window on our end, there was nothing for it but to create a video. So on my day off, I recruited three people from my “pod” (the little group of friends and family I can hang out with in person these days, still socially distanced) to help me out. Here’s what we came up with:

There’s no way of knowing how many books we’ll sell, but given the excitement around the book (I’ve started it, and it’s REALLY REALLY great so far!), a well-placed roadside signboard, and our two hammy actors, we have high hopes. Let the Games begin!