In Christmas Before Christianity, Lochlainn Seabrook presents a thoroughly researched examination of the “ingredients” that have, over centuries and millennia, contributed to our contemporary understanding of what many, right or wrong, consider the holiest day of the year. Early on, Seabrook discusses the paucity of historical evidence surrounding the figure of Jesus in order to subsequently demonstrate the ways in which the relative blank slate of his biography allowed early Christians to incorporate a myriad of other belief systems into what eventually came to be accepted as canon. Chief among these other systems, as the book’s subtitle suggests, was a firm belief that the sun was the center of all life. Indeed, the author points out that, in his words, “Jesus’ birth on December 25 specifically was not mentioned by any writer, scholar, or historian” during the time in which Jesus lived; what’s more, the date traditionally associated with the birth of Christ was not established until the year 534, “not because Jesus was born on that date, but rather because the Christian masses overwhelmingly identified Jesus with the Pagan Roman sun-god Mithras, as well as with other pre-Christian solar deities, all whose birthdays fell on December 25.” In addition to investigating the ways in which pre-Christian mythology fed into the story of the birth of Christ, Seabrook also examines the origins of the season’s accoutrements including the Christmas tree (a pagan fertility symbol originating in Egypt), the tale of the three wise men (an allusion to ancient astrology and the three stars that comprise Orion’s belt), and Santa Claus (an amalgam of Odin, Thor, and various maritime deities). Other topics Seabrook explores include the evolution of Christmas cards, plum pudding, Christmas wreaths, mistletoe, holly, and pantomime from their ancient forms to the ways in which we employ and enjoy them today. Altogether, a fascinating and meticulously detailed read for anyone curious about the origins of Christmas — or, for that matter, about the ways in which myths and legends evolve over time.
Word on the street is that Elvis Costello has a memoir due in October. For those who can’t wait, there’s Richard Crouse’s Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True, a meticulously researched account of Costello’s early years and the release of his first LP with independent label Stiff Records. Of particular interest with respect to this volume is Crouse’s attention to the milieu out of which both My Aim Is True and Costello himself emerged. Indeed, the sense one gets is that Costello’s identity congealed around the production and marketing of his first album in ways that few other acts ever did. “Elvis Costello,” the stage name adopted fairly late in the proceedings by singer-songwriter Declan McManus, emerges as somewhat of a construct, an amalgam of various mythical figures of rock’s colorful history — Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in particular. Crouse also does an excellent job of contextualizing the album in question. Not punk by any stretch of the imagination (Costello’s backing group for this project was an American country-rock band called Clover), My Aim Is True nonetheless appealed to the raw DIY aesthetic as well as the iconoclastic attitudes of the indie and punk movements of its time. Though relatively brief (and appropriately so, given its narrow focus), Elvis Is King presents a tight, thorough portrait of the musician as a young man that will appeal not only to die-hard Costello fans but rock historians in general.
Jacke Wilson’s The Race is an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics that attempts to explain why anyone in their right mind might run for political office. The answer, it turns out, is that they wouldn’t, as the political arena is reserved for the eternally deluded and arguably insane.
The narrative focuses on Tom Olson, a fictional disgraced former Governor of Wisconsin who is attempting to revive his career by running for Congress. In a “ripped from the headlines” kind of way, Olson’s fall from grace is highly reminiscent of former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s. Yet while Olson and Sanford both mysteriously vanished from their offices only to turn up at later dates in foreign love nests, there are hints of other political figures wrapped up in the novella’s central figure as well. Echoing Bill Clinton’s 1992 remark that Hillary would be so central to his presidency that he might as well adopt “buy one, get one free” as his campaign slogan, a common refrain surrounding Olson’s first bid for governor was “Vote for him and get the pair.” Likewise, something about Olson also harkens to Mitt Romney. He’s relatively handsome in the way many career politicians aspire to be, he’s idealistic in his own way, and he’s optimistic to a fault — so much so that his grand vision of the world completely eclipses reality.
There’s certainly plenty of dry humor to be had in the proceedings — particularly as Olson does his best to turn the rancid lemons of his tattered political career into saccharine-sweet lemonade — but the real strength of Wilson’s writing is in its Marxian critique of American politics. Early on, Olson’s biographer notes a key difference between himself and the politician: “He was bourgeois and I was proletariat.” He then goes on to muse, “Why don’t we use those words anymore? Too loaded with history?” Yes and no. The real problem isn’t history so much as substance in general. As Wilson depicts it, our political system is largely a popularity contest, and political platforms offer little more than trite platitudes and vitriol against the other side. As such, Olson is especially popular “with a certain kind of pundit who has overcome his or her natural ability to say anything interesting or accurate, or to have any personally appealing qualities, by instinctively taking the contrarian’s view of any issue.” Most of all, however, Olson demonstrates that what truly drives politicians is a desire to control the narratives of their own lives, as his tragically optimistic efforts at running for office are forever haunted by the specter of the good man he was before throwing his hat into the political arena.
Smart, well-written, and frequently funny, The Race offers some interesting speculation into the mind of the American politician.
With a tone and style reminiscent of George Saunders and situations that would feel right at home in a Don DeLillo novel, the stories collected in Jim Breslin’s Shoplandia offer an engaging and informed behind-the-scenes look at the home shopping industry. Drawing on seventeen years of experience as a producer at QVC, Breslin gives readers an intimate view of everything that goes into producing a live television broadcast day in and day out, and he excels at bringing the lives behind the endeavor to life. Indeed, while the stories in Shoplandia are all ostensibly about home shopping, they’re also about humanity’s search for meaning in a consumer-driven world that’s more interested in appearances than substance.
Many of Breslin’s characters are jaded with respect to their jobs, but they still go about them with workmanlike dignity. The sense is that if they believe in the work they do, the viewers at home will buy into the illusion that what Shoplandia has to offer will make a difference in their lives. As one character remarks, “The secret? Run away from the pain and toward the pleasure. Make them feel like if they don’t have the next great thing, their lives will be hell and they will be ostracized, their lives meaningless… But if they attain it, if they purchase it, if they part with their hard earned money for a chunk of metal in some fancy design, then they will become a god. They will be desired, they will be loooooved. If you own this, you will be worthy!” That the rant is delivered by a disgraced show host only adds to its import, for here is a man who’s peeked behind the curtain and has realized the true logic behind the system.
Ultimately, it’s the author’s talent for using intimate portraits of his characters to interrogate contemporary values that makes Shoplandia so engaging. As in life, meaning emerges — often unexpectedly — in the minutia of the little picture even as the chaos of the big picture threatens to overwhelm Breslin’s characters with its apparent emptiness. To put it another way, Shoplandia insists that there’s a point to it all, even if it’s a different point than the one we’ve been sold.
Carol Leifer’s How to Succeed in Business without Really Crying hits the shelves in April. With countless twenty-somethings slated to graduate from college the following month, the timing couldn’t be better. Drawing on four decades of making a living in comedy, Leifer’s book offers solid advice on getting ahead in the professional world. While the advice itself is nothing new–focusing largely on tenacity, dedication, and love for one’s business, whatever it may be–the anecdotes Leifer provides bring the book to life. What’s more, they also offer an honest glimpse into the workaday world of show business that the general public rarely gets to see. Indeed, it’s the hard work that Leifer has put into her career day-in and day-out that makes this memoir-cum-handbook so compelling. Whether performing her standup act as an opener for Frank Sinatra or writing for Seinfeld, Leifer has made the most of every opportunity that came her way, and the lessons she’s learned from doing so make this entertaining read an excellent gift for anyone about to enter the professional world. All told, reading How to Succeed is like hanging out with a favorite aunt who’s done it all and lived to tell the tale.
Last month I brought news of Small Press Roulette, a new service designed by Karen Lillis to add the element of chance to the business of connecting readers with small press books and journals. Personally, I love the idea. Confronted with the wide range of indie offerings that the 21st-century publishing world has to offer, it’s almost impossible to decide what to read next. Sure, it’s a bit of a gamble, but playing Small Press Roulette means I don’t have choose, which is a big deal for me because I’m the poster-child for indecision. Curious about Small Press Roulette, I placed an order (reviews to come!) and emailed Karen with a few questions…
How would you describe Small Press Pittsburgh?
Small Press Pittsburgh is an evolving small press showcase. It’s a bookstore that started out as a web resource. Right now it is four things: a pop-up street bookstand (in Pittsburgh) selling indie press books, zines, and journals; a curated bookstore service (“Small Press Roulette”) for small press readers everywhere; a web directory for literary Pittsburgh; and a Facebook page for Pittsburgh literary announcements.
The bookstand has a heavy emphasis on Pittsburgh authors and publishers, and browsers so far have been most excited by discovering Pittsburgh authors. With the bookstand, I’m interested in bringing the larger indie lit world to Pittsburgh, while also making Pittsburgh’s emerging authors (and publishers) better known to Pittsburgh readers (especially outside the lit scene). With the bookselling service, Small Press Roulette, I want to introduce the best of the underground small press to readers who aren’t over-familiar with the authors I’m sending them. There are more great writers than the ones who are getting all the hype. Or, sometimes a writer is getting the hype, but not in a wide enough area—they’re some city’s local celebrity while remaining a national secret.
The mission of Small Press Pittsburgh (in any form) has always been to promote small and micro- presses and make them more visible—easier to find for anyone who’s looking. It started with the web directory, creating listings for all the indie publishers of Pittsburgh. Now I guess I’m getting impatient—it’s not enough to passively promote. Now I’m willing to stand on the street with all those indie publishers’ books and talk to people until they buy one. “We’ve got fiction! We’ve got poetry! We’ve got graphic novels! What’s your poison?” I’m like a carnival barker once I smell a passerby who’s genuinely curious about the books.
Small Press Pittsburgh has also been interested in cross-fertilization from the start. One big aim of the website is to help writers and publishers from outside Pittsburgh who are planning book tours and readings—I want to demystify Pittsburgh’s reading venues and bookstores in order to bring outside readers here. Now I get to cross-fertilize readers and writers through the bookstand and the roulette bookselling. I get to sell Baltimore zines to New Orleans, Pittsburgh memoirs to New Jersey, Pittsburgh graphic novels to San Diego, and San Francisco fiction to Pittsburgh. And so on.
How long has it been in operation?
The website started in 2008, and expanded a few times. The Facebook announcement page has been around for a couple of years. The pop-up bookstand started in early July 2013, and Small Press Roulette began in late July 2013.
What gave you the idea to do it?
The website came about because I came to Pittsburgh and saw a small but vibrant, dedicated but balkanized literary scene. It seemed like the academics kept their distance from the underground writers, and the “literary” writers didn’t always associate with the zinesters or the slam poets. I was in library school when I created the website for a cataloging class. Thinking as a librarian, I wanted to show what a healthy literary scene Pittsburgh had by democratizing each facet. To a librarian, each of those literary scenes is equal. Whereas the people inside the scenes can be blinded by concerns of the ego: Worrying whether their scene has enough clout or convinced that their scene is so much better than the others. As an outsider, I thought it would create a point of strength just to show how much was going on in Pittsburgh, to record it all in one place.
Evolving into the pop-up bookstand happened much more recently. I was inspired by a few different sources. I was following Mellow Pages Library really closely, a new small press library in Brooklyn. And I kept organizing Pittsburgh’s small presses to give me copies of their books, and I’d send them as library donations en masse. I’d label the packages “from Small Press Pittsburgh.” Next the Polish Hill Arts Fest was coming up, a street fair here where I had tabled as an author the previous year. The organizers were asking me to come back, but I wasn’t convinced it was worth it to sit there with my own novels. One of the organizers, Laura Zurowksi, knew about the packages I’d been sending to Mellow Pages. She suggested I could do the same thing—get books together from local publishers and showcase everyone’s, not just my own. I loved the idea, it made me excited about tabling again.
I think sometime after hearing about The Newsstand in Brooklyn, I bought a book/magazine rack, supposedly to augment table space at the arts fest. But as soon as I bought it I felt like I could sell books anywhere. Since then I’ve been popping up at events like gallery crawls—my next event is the grand opening of a library.
What are some challenges you face with the SPP bookstand?
Rain, wind, gravity. Every outdoor event has been under threat of severe thunderstorms. The first time we set up the bookstand, a good gust of wind came through and blew almost every book off the stand and onto the sidewalk. We clipped a trash bag to the back of the stand, which helped that dilemma. The physics of the bookstand itself is something I’m still working out—the “shelves” are very shallow, which is good for face-outs, but it’s easy for a book to start a domino effect. One book leans forward at the wrong angle, and in a few seconds, twenty books have fallen off. This is tedious because the books start to get damaged if they fall two or three times. Not terribly so, but visibly. It reminds me of another challenge—when the books are threatened by damage from falling or rain, it makes me see a very-low overhead operation (a lot of consignment books) as hundreds of dollars of stock I’m suddenly responsible for. Which is fine, as long as I adjust my thinking.
What do you enjoy about it?
I love connecting people to books. Readers love discovering new books, so I love watching people get curious, start to browse. I try to gauge how much book talk they do or don’t want. Some people want to be talked into a book, others feel like that’s condescending. Often it’s more like conversation between book lovers—”I loved X book for Y reason, you should check it out.” Other times it’s just describing the basics so it piques interest without sounding like arm-twisting. “This is a true crime novel about a group of misfits working on an underground newspaper.”
Part of the enjoyable work is behind the scenes—curating a selection of books I know are great reads, or interesting small press items. I want books I can stand up for, and book design that’s bold and eye-catching, books that feel good in your hand. There’s books that are good reads but that have terrible design—they’re too POD, they have terrible font or colors, or they’re way too stuffy looking. Some books have a cover so dull it screams, “I CAN BE SOLD AT A READING OF SYMPATHETIC PEOPLE BUT NOWHERE ELSE.” I don’t always have time to convince people what’s between the covers. There’s a brief window where my potential customers might stay interested in my bookstand or might keep walking on to wherever they were actually headed. I want books whose design suggests in a glance how urgent and interesting the content is. I want books whose design is half the sell.
What gave you the idea for Small Press Roulette?
The Polish Hill Arts Fest was a big event for the bookstand, and I had gathered a lot of books for it. There was a lot of anticipation. I was checking the weather, which was calling for 0% chance of rain—I kept checking all week and that’s what it said, over and over, “0% chance of rain.” We ended up having five excellent hours of selling books—our area was always busy with browsers—and then a deluge came out of nowhere. Hard rain for over an hour. The stands weren’t quite all the way under a tent, and I had overstock sitting on a lawn….It was very stressful getting the books put away quickly and unharmed, and it was really disappointing to be cut off from the best day yet for the bookstand.
The next morning I took the momentum of all the browsers and invented Small Press Roulette. I wanted a rain-proof way for people to have access to the books. But at the same time, I’m not interested in promoting the books individually on the internet. Why are readers going to enjoy my jpeg book cover over Amazon’s jpeg book cover, over Powell’s jpeg book cover? Internet book sales is a cutthroat game. People want the lowest price, or they want their go-to bookstore, or they want to buy direct from the author or the publisher. One bookseller can knock themselves out hyping a book online and the customer will still go to Amazon or Ebay looking for a lower price. I can’t compete with those things. But I knew I could try to harness the excitement that far-flung readers had expressed when the news first came out about the Small Press Pittsburgh bookstand. I think that the Kickstarter phenomenon has shown us that people want to support ideas they’re excited about, and the people behind those ideas. And publishers Richard Nash of Cursor/Red Lemonade and Matthew Stadler of Publication Studio have both talked about giving customers a chance to support the author or publisher at different price points or different levels of involvement. Readers want to be involved with the writer, but different readers will have different financial capacities. Some people want to be involved for $2 and others want to be involved for much more. Right now Small Press Roulette goes between $2 and $15, but I’m planning to expand it. I already had an order from a bookstore for $75.
What makes it fun?
Connecting people to books I think they would genuinely like thrills me. I sometimes do a lot of research when I get an order. In a way, it means I’m working as a Small Press Librarian for the first time. A lot of people think I am a working librarian because of the title of my blog, but library jobs are scarce in this economy. I’m trying to invent the small press library job I’m built for. This is like Reader’s Advisory meets bookselling.
Helping writers and books I believe in find readers who devour them is another thrill. I hate watching talented writers work hard to languish in obscurity.
Links of interest:
Twenty Four Hours Zine blog interview about the Small Press Pittsurgh bookstand: http://twentyfourhourszine.blogspot.com/2013/07/small-press-go-go-talking-with-karen.html
Gigantic Sequins interview about the Small Press Pittsburgh bookstand:
Karen the Small Press Librarian blog:
Small Press Pittsburgh website:
Small Press Roulette:
Here’s a new game from Karen Lillis, a.k.a. Karen the Small Press Librarian: Small Press Roulette. Visit the Small Press Roulette page on Etsy, choose your price point and your basic genre, and Karen will send you a small press item from her indie press pop up bookstand, SMALL PRESS PITTSBURGH, that she thinks you might like. Many books are from Pittsburgh’s best authors or indie publishers, but Karen also has books, zines, and lit mags she’s carefully selected from other cities like SF, NYC, Baltimore, Chicago, LA, and more.