Shelf Awareness for Friday, January 15, 2021

Blackstone Publishing: An Honorable Assassin (Nick Mason Novels #3) by Steve Hamilton

Clarion Books: The Man Who Didn't Like Animals by Deborah Underwood, Illlustrated by LeUyen Pham

Holiday House: Bye Forever, I Guess by Jodi Meadows and Team Canteen 1: Rocky Road by Amalie Jahn

Wednesday Books: Dust by Alison Stine

Running Press Kids: The Junior Witch's Handbook, The Junior Astrologer's Handbook, and The Junior Tarot Reader's Handbook by Nikki Van De Car

Scholastic Press: Ruin Road by Lamar Giles

Editors' Note

The King Holiday

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we will not publish on Monday. We'll see you again on Tuesday morning, January 19.

Help a Bookseller, Change a Life: Give today to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation!


Busboys and Poets Opening in Baltimore, Md., This Spring

A new Busboys and Poets restaurant and bookstore will open in Baltimore, Md., in the next two or three months, the Baltimore Business Journal reported. The new location will be close to Johns Hopkins University and reside in a space that previously housed  the Red Star Bar & Grill.

Andy Shallal, owner and founder of Busboys and Poets, told the BBJ that the Baltimore location is large enough to seat 200 people once Covid capacity restrictions are lifted. The food and drink menu will be the same as those at other Busboys and Poets locations, and when in-person events are allowed again, the Baltimore store will host readings and open mic nights.

Andy Shallal

Another Busboys and Poets location is currently under construction in Columbia, Md., that will span 10,700 square feet and have a seating capacity of 400. It will be the largest Busboys and Poets.

Shallal noted that the pandemic has led him to be more discerning when it comes to landlords, and he wants all of his future landlord-tenant relationships to be collaborative. He explained: "Landlords that are working with their tenants are making it work. Those that are not are going to end up with a lot of empty spaces and pissed off tenants."

The original Busboys and Poets opened in Washington, D.C., in 2005. The Baltimore location will be the eighth; to date there are five locations within D.C. and two in the surrounding area.

IBD Catalogue Goes Live

The catalogue of exclusive merchandise for this year's Independent Bookstore Day goes live today, and booksellers have until Friday, February 5, to place their orders through the IBD website.

This year's catalogue features books by Stephen King, Nikki Giovanni, Jeff VanderMeer, Kawai Strong Washburn, Nigella Lawson and others. While it is not necessary to order any exclusive merchandise to participate in IBD, stores must sign up to participate and must agree to host an in-store or online celebration on Saturday, April 24.

Participating stores will receive information and marketing materials pertaining to IBD and will be listed on the searchable map.

How Bookstores Are Coping: 'Well-Oiled Machine'; Best Holiday Season Yet

In Brooklyn, N.Y., Books Are Magic saw record-setting sales in December, co-owner Michael Fusco-Straub reported. A "huge majority" of those sales were made online, either for shipping or for pick-up, though the store was open for limited browsing. There were lines outside of the store on most days, but "everybody was cool" about having to wait outside.

Compared to past holiday seasons, sales were a bit more spread out across November and December. During December the store was receiving more than 200 online orders per day, and Fusco-Straub noted that generally "the job is a lot more labor intensive now." Getting books into customers' hands is harder than it used to be, and the process can be "very, very tiring and really difficult." He credited his staff, who by necessity had to learn new skills and put new systems in place during the early months of the pandemic, for the store being able to get through December as smoothly as it did.

Fusco-Straub said there weren't any widespread inventory issues or stock shortages, though a few specific titles, like Accidentally Wes Anderson by Wally Koval and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, went out of stock quickly. There were also significant shipping delays throughout the season, and while most customers were understanding, a small percentage of disgruntled customers seemed intent on ignoring the fact of an ongoing pandemic.

Fusco-Straub and the bookstore team have spent the last few weeks resetting, and he hopes that they'll find time during the first few months of 2021 to get to some store projects that have been put off since the pandemic started. He added that although things have slowed since December, business is still going pretty well, thanks to some new releases like The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr., Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters and Outlawed by Anna North. The store is doing about three virtual events per week at the moment, and he expects that number to start to ramp up as the spring approaches.

Reflecting on the challenges Books Are Magic faced during 2020, Fusco-Straub said the store will "come out of this a much more well-oiled machine," once again crediting the way his staff pivoted and came up with solutions. The store was able to donate more than $40,000 last year to various groups and causes, which, he pointed out, is "more than we've ever donated." Doing that in 2020, he continued, made him realize that "we can do that every year."


Holly Weinkauf, owner of Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., said her store had its best holiday season ever in 2020. Sales were up 20% over the year before, which offset the store's missing event- and school-related revenue in November and December. She and her team are "incredibly grateful" for the support the community has given the store.

Red Balloon Bookshop has been open for limited browsing since August, and days and hours of operation are reduced to give the staff time to process online orders. The store is also still offering curbside pick-up and neighborhood delivery. Reflecting on customers' shopping habits, Weinkauf said they weren't particularly different during December. Some customers shopped early, but the store was still "incredibly busy" from the end of November through December, and the store's single busiest day was still the Saturday before Christmas. Weinkauf added that by the end of the season, everyone was "exhausted."

Among the store's top sellers were several adult titles, including A Promised Land by Barack Obama and The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy, and many children's books, including The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Deep End by Jeff Kinney, Cat Kid Comic Club by Dav Pilkey, as well as picture books The Bookstore Cat by Cylin Busby and Kitties on Dinosaurs by Michael Slack.

Weinkauf noted that while sales have slowed this month, the numbers are still good compared to last January. Lots of customers are using their gift cards, and Weinkauf expects to see good sales both in store and online. Looking ahead, Weinkauf said she and her team need to continue to find ways to offset lost school and event sales, and their other focus will be on finding ways to better control expenses and manage their online business more efficiently. --Alex Mutter

Ownership Transfer at Abraham Associates

Stu Abraham, founder of Abraham Associates, has transferred ownership of the independent rep group to longtime sales rep John Mesjak, effective January 4. As part of the ongoing transition plan, Abraham will continue to work for the group for several more years, handling selected accounts and projects. The group's overall territory and account coverage will remain the same.

"Stu and I have been working on this change of ownership for more than five years, but the Coronavirus pandemic provided us time and motivation to finalize the details and agreements," Mesjak said. "Our goal has always been to make sure that the stability of our rep group, our responsibilities for our client publishers, and our relationships with our booksellers around the Midwest, continue into the future."

Abraham commented: "Even though it's a difficult time in the book trade right now, reorganizing our group under John's leadership will allow us to support our client publishers and our accounts well into the future and I am excited for the new year and working with John, Sandra, Emily and Ted."

Abraham Associates provides sales and support to publishers and sideline & gift product creators, covering accounts in 13 states in the Midwest. The company was founded by Abraham in 1992, and Mesjak joined the group in 2007. Current sales representatives and staff also include Emily Johnson, Sandra Law and Ted Seykora.

Anchor Books to Begin Publishing Hardcovers

Anchor Books will begin publishing hardcovers, complementing the Vintage/Anchor paperback program and launching with six to eight titles in spring 2022. The list will focus primarily on psychological suspense, mystery, and commercial fiction, as well as popular nonfiction. Edward Kastenmeier, previously v-p and executive editor, Vintage/Anchor, will lead the program in his new role as editorial director. Editors Anna Kaufman and Caitlin Landuyt will work closely with Kastenmeier on the Anchor hardcover list.

A 30-year veteran of Vintage/Anchor, Kastenmeier has edited and published books by Alexander McCall Smith, James Ellroy, Jo Nesbø, Robert Harris, and Lars Kepler, among others, and he has overseen the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard publishing program. He said, "This new hardcover line will bring popular fiction and nonfiction to a wide audience, applying the visionary publishing we're already known for to a hardcover market. I'm excited to expand into this new space."

The first list of titles includes three debut novels: Brendan Slocumb's The Violin Conspiracy, "a high-stakes tale that follows a classical musician on an increasingly desperate search for a missing Stradivarius"; Amy McCulloch's Breathless, "a wildly suspenseful thriller set against the back drop of commercial mountain climbing"; and Taylor Hahn's The Lifestyle, "a sexy romantic comedy about a Manhattanite who will resort to anything to save her marriage."

Suzanne Herz, publisher of Vintage Books and Anchor Books and executive v-p of Doubleday, said, "In addition to this exciting new initiative, our primary role at Vintage/Anchor remains unchanged, serving as the paperback publisher for the Knopf Doubleday Group. Our stand-alone paperback program delivers editorial, publicity, marketing, and operational excellence. And equally important in the current marketplace, we have heightened our focus on backlist and delivering new audiences, which affords our books the enduring shelf life they deserve."

Emily Meehan New Head of B&N's Sterling Books

Emily Meehan

Emily Meehan has been named chief creative officer and publisher of Sterling Books, Barnes & Noble's publishing division. She replaces Theresa Thompson, who has left the company.

B&N CEO James Daunt commented: "We are delighted that Emily is to lead Sterling Publishing and excited at the potential of the business. We are very grateful to Theresa Thompson for her years at the helm."

Meehan said: "I'm thrilled to embark on what I know will be a rewarding and exciting new chapter not only for me, but for Sterling and Barnes & Noble. There is a lot of opportunity to publishing in bigger, forward-thinking ways with a keen eye for the best quality in editorial, design, and production."

Meehan formerly was v-p, publisher, Disney Book Group, where she led creative and global commercial strategy for the trade publishing imprints, Hyperion and National Geographic, as well as branded trade title strategy for brands such as ESPN, Marvel and Lucas. Before that, she was associate publisher and editor-in-chief of Disney Hyperion. Meehan has also held senior editing roles at Disney and at Simon & Schuster.

Executive Changes at Random House Group

Three Random House Group senior executives are being given additional responsibilities beyond their existing duties. They will continue to report to president & publisher Gina Centrello, who noted: "This year, we will learn from the past, focus on the present, and target future growth areas to increase our market share."

David Drake

David Drake, previously executive v-p, publisher, has been promoted to president, Crown. In this role, he will retain responsibility for charting the strategic publishing direction for Crown. He also will continue to partner with Aaron Wehner and the teams at Clarkson Potter and Ten Speed Press to develop further the Crown-affiliated imprints. Additionally, Drake will head selected projects across the group.

Scott Shannon

Scott Shannon, who has been executive v-p, publisher of Del Rey, has been additionally appointed director, strategy. He will focus on identifying opportunities for immediate and long-term front list and backlist growth across all publishing platforms and formats. Shannon and his team will work with publishers and marketers to craft new-category growth plans, create new business metric reporting to adjust to changing consumer trends, and collaborate with marketing and sales to help develop new programs and processes.

Kara Welsh

Kara Welsh is promoted to president of the newly renamed Ballantine Books, comprised of the Ballantine, Bantam, Dell, and Delacorte imprints. She will lead Ballantine's growth strategy, which will focus on repositioning the Bantam and Dell imprints to continue to meet the evolving tastes of readers and capitalize on newly emerging categories.

Jennifer Hershey, formerly editor-in-chief of Ballantine, has been promoted to senior v-p, publisher of Ballantine Books. She will work with Welsh "to help build the Ballantine, Bantam and Dell/Delacorte lists as we look to grow the scope of the lists and categories we publish in." 

In other changes, Avideh Bashirrad is being promoted to senior v-p, deputy publisher. Andy Ward, Random House executive v-p, publisher, said, "In her time at Random House, as she has risen from marketing manager to marketing director to deputy publisher, Avideh has demonstrated an unfailing dedication to our books and a commitment to publish them as creatively as possible."

Tricia Narwani is now editor-in-chief, Del Rey Books. Since joining the imprint in 2005, Narwani has created a wide-ranging list of authors and, as editorial director, "has led Del Rey's growth into both a category-leading and category-redefining imprint," the company said.

Keith Clayton has been promoted to v-p, publishing director, licensed publishing, where he will oversee the licensed publishing program for the Random House Group. He will also continue in his current role as v-p, deputy publisher for Del Rey.

Gillian Blake has been promoted to senior v-p, publisher, and editor-in-chief of Crown. Blake joined the company in 2018 from Henry Holt, where she had been editor-in-chief since 2011 after serving in editorial roles at Scribner, Bloomsbury and HarperCollins.


Display: Do You Have that Book with the Orange Cover?

Inkwood Books, Haddonfield, N.J., shared a photo of the shop's decidedly orange-themed display, noting: "Just arrived--a huge box of my favorite oranges (Honeybells) grown in my dad's groves in Florida! Come get one while they last--purchase of orange-covered book not required."

Personnel Changes at Macmillan Children's Publishing; Sourcebooks

Elysse Villalobos has joined Macmillan Children's Publishing Group as marketing coordinator.


Emily Luedloff has joined Sourcebooks as library marketing associate.

Media and Movies

TV: The Sparrow

Scott Frank, co-creator, writer and director of Netflix's hit The Queen’s Gambit, is developing an adaptation of Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel The Sparrow for FX, with Johan Renck (Chernobyl) directing, Deadline reported.

Frank will write all of the episodes of the limited series and exec produce with Renck, Better Call Saul executive producer Mark Johnson and AMC Studios. The Sparrow is being produced by FX Productions. Deadline noted that the novel "was previously in development at AMC back in 2014 with Michael Perry (The River) writing. Brad Pitt was also previously attached to a feature film adaptation with Plan B and Warner Bros."

Books & Authors

Awards: Porchlight Business Book, Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation Winners

The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Women's Empowerment by Linda Scott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) has won the Porchlight Business Book of the Year Award for 2020, sponsored by the Porchlight Book Company, formerly 800-CEO-READ.

In addition, Harriet Rubin was the recipient of the seventh annual Jack Covert Award for Contribution to the Business Book Industry, which is named for Porchlight's retired president and founder.

Linda Scott is a professor emeritus of entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Oxford, a senior consulting fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and founder of DoubleXEconomy, a consulting firm specializing in women's economic empowerment. She is the founder of and senior advisor to the Global Business Coalition for Women's Economic Empowerment. The Double X Economy is her first book.

Porchlight managing director Sally Haldorson said, "It has been said many times this year that the challenges we have all faced due to the pandemic are unprecedented. The resulting economic uncertainty has impacted everyone, but women have experienced a disproportionate loss of jobs, and we are unlikely to understand the effects of that job loss on women's equality for years to come. Repairing the increased damage to an already difficult road for women, whose progress toward financial security and economic power has always been rife with obstacles and setbacks, is going to be critical. And when that road is repaired, it opens pathways forward for all. That's why the Porchlight Business Book of the Year Award goes to a book rich in feeling and insight, research and solutions to address this issue: The Double X Economy by Linda Scott."

Harriet Rubin had a successful career in publishing that spanned more than two decades, and then founded Doubleday's Currency imprint in 1989. She has also written Soloing: Realizing Your Life's Ambition, The Mona Lisa Strategem, Dante in Love, and The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women.

Porchlight owner and CEO Rebecca Schwartz commented: "Jack has always said that the single most important thing about any book was the quality of the writing. Before taking the reins of my family business, I spent a career teaching literature to high school students--so I couldn't agree with Jack more. And I've come to learn that business books, once so stolid and dry, have become something that not only instruct, but inspire through their very expression. This year's recipient of the Jack Covert Award helped make that happen, bringing the beauty of literature to business publishing when she founded Currency, an imprint dedicated to bringing business literature to a popular audience. There she focused on the one thing we cherish most--the soul of the book, the power and poetry of words, and their ability to move people and change lives."


Velvet: A Novel by Huzama Habayeb, translated from the Arabic by Kay Heikkinen, won the £3,000 (about $4,070) Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. The prize is administered by the Society of Authors in the U.K., with support from the Times Literary Supplement and Arts Council England. Prior to its translation into English, Velvet had been awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.

The judges praised the winning book as "an intense and vivid story of one woman's life in a Palestinian refugee camp, told with sensitivity to the sensuous but tragic world of its heroine but above all to her almost heroic defiance of reality. On one level, the novel is a study of the claustrophobia of poverty and oppression, of daily lives shorn of all tenderness, and of the stranglehold of family and patriarchy. Throughout it all, however, there remain dreams of individual fulfilment and the possibility of love and escape, turning the novel into a celebration of the triumph of the imagination over the mundane. The richness of the Arabic original is captured by Kay Heikkinen in a translation that faithfully adheres to its elegance without undue artifice and without losing the deeply tragic tenor of its events."

Heikkinen said: "I am delighted at the recognition of such a beautiful human story of a courageous woman, who retains a capacity to be light-hearted in the face of crushing circumstances, and of Habayeb's accomplishment in writing a new kind of Palestinian story, one that engages with politics only very indirectly."

Reading with... Madeleine Watts

Madeleine Watts is an Australian-born writer of fiction, essays and journalism. Her work has been published in the Believer, the White ReviewLithub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Irish Times and elsewhere. Her first novel, The Inland Sea, about coming of age in a dying world, is available now from Catapult. Watts is also a bookseller: she's worked at McNally Jackson in New York City since 2014.

On your nightstand now:

I always have a terrifying number of books on my nightstand. As of this morning there are 13 on the nightstand proper, and nine on the floor by the bed. They're all in various states of completion, but they include essay collections by John Berger (Landscapes), John D'Agata (Halls of Fame) and Jenny Diski (Why Didn't You Just Do What You Were Told); poetry by Sharon Olds (Stag's Leap) and Eavan Boland (The Historians); Ugly Feelings by Sianne Ngai; Smiling in Slow Motion, the last volume of Derek Jarman's journals; She Come by It Natural, a book on Dolly Parton by Sarah Smarsh; and some novels: Weather by Jenny Offill, The White Dress by Nathalie Léger and Cabin Fever by Elizabeth Jolley.

Favorite book when you were a child:

As you might be able to deduce from my adult reading habits, I always had many favorites. The ones I remember loving most were When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr and Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park. I also loved children's versions of myth and folk tales, and had well-worn copies of Enid Blyton's Tales of Ancient Greece, Stradbroke Dreamtime by Oodgeroo, and the Everyman's Library book of Russian Fairy Tales.

Your top five authors:

Patrick White, Lydia Davis, Joan Didion, Eula Biss and Helen Garner (or at least that's how I feel today).

Book you've faked reading:

I've definitely implied that I've read in their entirety books I haven't finished--foremost among these are Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Book you're an evangelist for:

The Children's Bach by Helen Garner, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, For Love Alone by Christina Stead, Ghosts of My Life by Mark Fisher, Notes from No-Man's Land by Eula Biss and Being Here Is Everything by Marie Darrieussecq--I've been pushing all of these at McNally Jackson for years (although the Christina Stead book is unfortunately out of print).

Book you've bought for the cover:

The Sick Rose or; Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration by Richard Barnett is a beautiful and gruesome book filled with pictures of infected lung tissue and syphilitic limbs. The cover is that of a beautiful girl with blue lips. Thames & Hudson publish several of these gruesome books on medical illustration that I've also bought--one on dentistry and another on the anatomical Venus.

Book you hid from your parents:

My parents were never really bothered about what I was reading, so I don't remember hiding books from my parents so much as I remember hiding that I was reading at all. I did a lot of hiding under the covers with a torch when it was past my bedtime.

Book that changed your life:

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis completely changed how I thought about writing. Ulysses by James Joyce completely rearranged how I thought about language. The Tree of Man by Patrick White made me reconsider how I felt about where I was from.

Favorite line from a book:

I have favorite lines of poetry more often than I have favorite lines from prose. "Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances," is one such line, from Robert Hass's poem "Meditation at Lagunitas."

Five books you'll never part with:

Books of sentimental value! My grandmother's copy of Patrick White: A Life by David Marr. A first edition of Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill, bought on a day walking around Manhattan with my friend Landon. A copy of Wuthering Heights, inscribed to me with a note from Patti Smith. A Day in the Life of Rowland S Howard by Peter Milne, a photo book I received as a birthday present from my friends Madelaine and Rob. My grandfather's high school copy of The Tempest, his childhood address inked onto the title page, and marked with my mother's high school bus pass.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald and Modern Nature by Derek Jarman. Both books were complete revelations to me. I regularly return to some books, like Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene and Bluets by Maggie Nelson, because each time I find something so new and wonderful it feels like it's the first time all over again.

Book Review

Review: Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America's Cheap Goods

Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America's Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang (Algonquin, $27.95 hardcover, 288p., 9781616209179, February 2, 2021)

Oregonian Julie Keith was decorating for Halloween in 2012 when she came across an SOS letter, written in careful English with a mix of Chinese characters, stuck inside a package of cheap decorations she'd purchased at Kmart years earlier. The letter, from Chinese political prisoner Sun Yi, sparked a series of news stories and interest in Chinese forced labor camps. Despite the international attention turned toward the "open secret" of the Chinese manufacturing world, little changed in the long run--in large part, argues journalist Amelia Pang in Made in China, because of Americans' demand for trendy products at impossibly low prices.

Pang, a journalist with ties to the religious activist group of which Sun Yi also was a member, spent three years peeling back the layers of this stranger-than-fiction story, including interviews with Sun Yi, undercover trips to China to pose as a buyer, and covertly following trucks in and out of various Chinese factories to track suppliers and producers. Made in China is a careful account of all she learned, from the establishment of the first Chinese labor camps in the 1930s to the persistence of the present-day laogai ("reform through labor") industry--which "remains the largest forced-labor system in operation today... a vast network of prisons, camps, and various extralegal detention centers." (As recently as 2016, the Laogai Research Foundation, a human rights organization focusing on these Chinese gulags, estimated that more than 1,400 of these camps and prisons existed.)

Pang's investigative journalism is global in scope, drawing on interviews with human rights activists, government watchdog groups, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and laogai prisoners, as well as extensive research in news archives and analysis of various corporate purchase orders and supply chain records. Made in China is not cumbersome, however, despite these many threads; each is necessary to understand the laogai system as a whole, and what drives it. Pang draws clear lines between each seemingly disparate piece to reveal the "darker side to China's rags-to-riches transformation--and our [Americans'] own pleasure in the cheap products we consume daily." With clarity and sensitivity, she exposes the human cost of the global demand for cut-rate products, and provides clear calls to action for individuals, corporations and governments to stem these abuses. Any reader with half a heart will be hard-pressed not to re-examine their own buying habits after reading this incredible, moving account. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Shelf Talker: Journalist Amelia Pang peels back the layers of one Chinese prisoner's SOS letter to reveal the human cost of American demand for cheap, trendy products in this moving account of China's forced labor industry.

Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: 'I Would Never Give Up My Electric Blanket'

"When I told my friend the poet Jean Valentine that I had begun keeping a diary she said to me, 'Only put down the facts, not the feeling. If you put down the feelings, you will forget the facts. If you put down the facts, you will remember the feelings,' " André Gregory observes in his new book, This Is Not My Memoir (with Todd London, FSG). "This diary and the many diaries that followed contained these stories, the ones that became the basis for My Dinner with André.

Anyone who has read this column for a while knows about my fascination with the web of intricate threads connecting all of us who inhabit the book world--readers, writers, booksellers, librarians, publishers and more. Even death cannot unravel the threads, a point driven home again last week when I learned that Jean Valentine had died. As sometimes happens in these moments, I read her work, including the poem "Cambridge by Night," and the lines: "Down the aisles of this dark town/ Pass faces and faces I have known."

Then I remembered that André Gregory mentions her in his new book, a copy of which I'd ordered in November from the Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass., which had hosted a great virtual event featuring the renowned theatre director and writer in a conversation with actor/activist Cynthia Nixon.

Gregory opened by reading the first chapter of This Is Not My Memoir, beginning: "When I was a freshman at Harvard in 1952, I had horrible roommates and got slightly depressed." Then Nixon asked him to expand on his Cambridge memories, "since we are virtually at the Harvard Book Store and that was about your Harvard time."

"I actually got to hear T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and E.E. Cummings read their poetry live in Sanders Theatre," he recalled. "I studied English. My friend Wally [Shawn] went to Harvard because he had read the political books of a man called Henry Kissinger. And he so admired the work that he wanted to go to Harvard. So he got into Harvard. He went to his first Henry Kissinger lecture, and he was so nauseated by the man that he got out of political science and moved to English like me."

That led me to thinking about playwright/actor Wallace Shawn, as well as the friendship and creative partnership he and Gregory have forged over half a century. This fine work includes two of my favorite films, My Dinner with André (1981) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), both directed by Louis Malle.

In the early 1990s, I experienced a kind of "My Bookshop with André" moment one afternoon at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vt. I was working at the main desk when a man, wearing a bulky cardigan and holding Buddhist prayer beads, entered the shop. My first reaction as he strolled past and disappeared into the stacks was a silent exclamation: "That's got to be André Gregory!"

Because the Northshire is a tourist destination retail store with an unofficial celebrity policy (Let them browse in peace!), that moment of celeb recognition would normally have been all. A few minutes later, however, André broke the bookseller's fourth wall by coming to the counter and asking if we carried any books by Deborah Eisenberg.

This was a test. Every bookseller knows the variations. But André didn't know that I knew the author he mentioned was Wallace Shawn's partner, the "Debbie" mentioned in My Dinner with André. So after escorting him to the fiction section and pulling a copy of Under the 82nd Airborne from the shelf, I felt comfortable enough to add, "You're André Gregory, right?" Immediately the test became a conversation, a new thread. He mentioned that he and Wally were currently working on a project, which would become Vanya on 42nd Street.  

You find these threads of connection where you can. Sometimes they find you. Last week, in what has already been a crazy new year, Jean Valentine's death eventually led me to thinking about electric blankets.

Although set in a New York City restaurant, My Dinner with André was actually filmed in a long-abandoned, unheated grand hotel in Richmond, Va. Gregory writes that for those who know the film, "you'll get the irony: Under the table, I had an electric blanket draped over my knees." He's referring to a scene in which Wally ardently defends using an electric blanket, while André flatly states: "I wouldn't put on an electric blanket for anything" and lectures in withering detail about the contemporary horrors of surrendering to the temptation of that blanket, metaphorically speaking.

"Yeah, but, I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket," Wally counters. "Because New York is cold and our apartment is cold. It's a difficult environment. Our lives are tough enough as it is. I'm not looking for ways to get rid of the few things that provide relief and comfort. I mean, I'm looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive. I'm trying to protect myself because there are these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look."

In This Is Not My Memoir, Gregory writes: "In My Dinner with André, there is an André who believes and a Wally who never will. The film needs both to exist. Probably we all do." Probably we do.

--Robert Gray, editor 

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