Shelf Awareness for Friday, December 3, 2021


Sharjah Book Authority: Publisher's Conference

John Scognamiglio Book: In the Time of Our History by Susanne Pari

Candlewick Press (MA): Better Than We Found It: Conversations to Help Save the World by Frederick Joseph and Porsche Joseph

Parallax Press: How to Live: The Essential Mindfulness Journal (Mindfulness Essentials) by Thich Nhat Hanh, illustrated by Jason Deantonis

Shadow Mountain: Delicious Gatherings: Recipes to Celebrate Together by Tara Teaspoon

Berkley Books: The Last Russian Doll by Kristen Loesch

Charlesbridge Publishing: Too-Small Tyson (Storytelling Math) by Janay Brown-Wood, illustrated by Anastasia Williams

MIT Press: Rethinking Gender: An Illustrated Exploration by Louie Läuger

News

East End Books Ptown Secures Current Location, Launches Partnership for New Store

East End Books Ptown in Provincetown, Mass., which has been raising funds for the past few months in order to buy its space, has secured private financing that will allow the bookstore to remain at 389 Commercial Street.

Bookstore owner Jeff Peters learned earlier this year that the store's landlord intended to put the building up for sale, though Peters and his team were given a short window to buy the space for themselves before it went on the open market.

The store's GoFundMe campaign, which has raised more than $23,000 so far, will continue, with raised funds going toward the down payment. Peters noted that he still need to raise around 25%-30% of the purchase price for that down payment, but "that's much better than trying to raise the entire amount." He plans to give more information about further fundraising goals shortly.

Peters also announced a new partnership with Provincetown's Fine Arts Work Center that will see East End Books operate a new bookstore in FAWC's newly renovated facility at 24 Pearl Street. FAWC, a nonprofit organization that encourages the growth and development of emerging visual artists and writers, will host a reopening celebration this Saturday from 6-8 p.m.


Camcat Books: Armadas in the Mist: Volume 3 (The Empire of the House of Thorns) by Christian Klaver


Investor Group Buys Open Road; David Steinberger to Become CEO

A newly formed investor group has bought Open Road Integrated Media, which focuses on e-book marketing, both for titles it distributes digitally as well as for titles from other publishers. David Steinberger, former CEO of Arcadia Publishing and CEO of Perseus Books, who is also chairman of the National Book Foundation, has become Open Road's executive chairman and will become CEO, effective January 1. He will work with current CEO Paul Slavin to ensure a smooth transition, and after the leadership change, Slavin will continue to work with the company in a consulting role.

David Steinberger

The investor group include private equity firm Abry Partners; MEP Capital, a media and entertainment private equity fund and Open Road publishing partner through its investment in Rosetta Books; Grove Atlantic, also an Open Road publishing partner; and "a number of prominent individual investors from the worlds of publishing and finance."

Founded in 2009 by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, Open Road uses "proprietary data science technology to connect readers with books, resulting in dramatic increases in sales," the company said. "Open Road's technology platform collects and analyzes vast amounts of data and then recommends and executes tens of thousands of individual marketing campaigns each month. The typical sales increase for an individual title marketed by Open Road is more than 100%."

Open Road is the e-book publisher of more than 10,000 titles and markets more than 25,000 e-book titles for its 70 publishing partners, which, besides Grove Atlantic and Rosetta Books, includes Kensington Publishing, Europa Editions, Abrams, Workman Publishing and Yale University Press.

Steinberger commented: "Data science represents the next frontier in book publishing. The title-by-title impact on sales is unlike anything I've encountered in my 25 years in the industry. I'm looking forward to working with Paul and his outstanding team to build on Open Road's powerful momentum in the marketplace."

Slavin said, "I came to Open Road with the goal of building upon Jane Friedman's brilliant idea. We built a terrific team and a powerful tech/data driven marketing machine that led to significant growth in revenue and profitability. As David has recognized, it is a platform without peer and the results to match."


She Writes Press: Canaries Among Us: A Mother's Quest to Honor Her Child's Individuality in a Culture Determined to Negate It by Kayla Taylor


International Update: Violence Against Australian Booksellers, Italian Book Sales Up

In Australia, the Dymocks bookstore on Collins St. in the Central Business District in Melbourne has been forced to hire security guards "after employees were attacked by customers refusing to follow Victoria's Covid-19 rules, with one worker being pushed down an escalator," the Age reported. The store's owners said the move would cost hundreds of dollars a day, but safety of staff was paramount. The incidents are being investigated by police.

"We, as small business owners never thought that making our staff do this Covid marshaling checking would result in this kind of violence," co-owner Melissa Traverso said, adding that just hours before one employee was assaulted, another staff member had been slapped by a woman who refused to give her personal details. The Age noted that "later on Friday, a third worker was tackled by an angry customer who did not provide a valid proof of vaccination, but managed to steady himself and avoid falling down the escalator."

"We don't want our staff to be unsafe, but how is this the responsibility of small business owners that have already suffered enough?" Traverso noted. "We are booksellers, we are not security guards. Why are we made to be bouncers?" 

The increase in violent incidents prompted Australian Retailers Association chief executive Paul Zahra to write an open letter to Premier Daniel Andrews last week expressing concern over the situation and asking for an end to the vaccine mandates.

Australian Booksellers Association CEO Robbie Egan wrote in the latest newsletter: "Protests from a very small but increasingly angry segment of our population have led to violence against retail workers. This is a completely unacceptable corollary of vaccine certificates and mandates, and I believe that high level of vaccination in Australia make these mandates less necessary. A specific incident at an ABA member store in Melbourne, where a staff member was knocked unconscious, has made this problem all the more acute. We cannot continue to be the Covid-19 police."

In more positive news, Egan noted that member stores are "reporting good sales, and generally good cheer from consumers. We are in the thick of it now." He added that he has "agreed to another three-year contract, and despite the difficulties of the first three years, I have enjoyed the task of rebuilding the ABA and look forward to consolidating on the work we have done to date. Take care everyone. Happy bookselling!"

---

The Italian Publishers Association has predicted trade publishing sales will be up between 12.6% and 16.3% at the close of 2021. The Bookseller reported that during the period from January 4 to November 11 2021, retail price sales came to just under €1.4 million (about $1.6 million), up by 22% compared to 2020 and by 15% to 2019. This accounted for 92 million books, in terms of sales volume, with a 25% jump from 2020 and 17% from 2019.

According to information aggregated by the AIE, online bookshops were at the same levels as 2020 (43.5%). Physical bookshops have held 51.5% of the market this year, and major retail chains 5%. The growth in the market in 2021 is credited to major increases in sales for online bookshops, rising from €329 million (about $373 million) sales in 2019 to the €506 (about $573 million) of 2020, to then reach the €590 million (about $668 million) this year; as well as the recovery of physical bookshops.

In 2019, physical bookshops accounted for €711 million (about $805 million) sales, which dropped to €601 million (about $680 million) in 2020, during the pandemic. This has now risen in 2021 to €698 million (about $790 million) sales, while major retail chains sales have fallen to €68 million (about $77 million).

The data was presented in an online preview of Più libri più liberi, the national fair for small and medium publishers organized by the the association, taking place at La Nuvola in Rome December 4-8.

--- 

"Keeping it simple," New Zealand bookseller Muirs Bookshop in Gisborne posted on Facebook, sharing a photo of its latest chalkboard message: "Red Light rules for Muir's Bookshop: 1. Wear a mask. 2. No certificates required.  3. One meter distance. 4. Buy books for Christmas." --Robert Gray


CamCat Publishing: The Darker the Skies (Earth United) by Bryan Prosek


Arvida Book Co. Growing in Tustin, Calif.

After opening last year in the midst of the pandemic, Arvida Book Co. in Tustin, Calif., has grown with the help of its community and recently added a coffee shop, Spectrum News 1 reported.

Owners Sam and Mike Robertson opened the new and used bookstore last October in Old Town Tustin. At the time they decided to open the bookstore, Sam Robertson was working as a flight attendant and was facing the prospect of being furloughed, while Mike Robertson had already been put on furlough from his insurance job.

"For us, it felt like a do or die time," Sam Robertson told Spectrum News. "We always wanted to open a bookstore with a coffee shop inside."

The Robertsons loved to visit bookstores, especially when traveling, and felt that an independent bookstore was one of the major things missing from their corner of Orange County. They've felt support and welcomed by the community ever since they opened the store, with Sam Robertson noting that some of the store's bookcases as well as their cash wrap were donated by other business owners.

Arvida's event offerings include book clubs, talks with local authors and writing workshops. In addition to new and used books, the Robertsons sell a variety of gifts and locally made arts and crafts. On Indies First/Small Business Saturday, they hosted several pop-up businesses in their parking lot and offered customers who spent $100 or more a free enamel pin designed by a local artist.


Barefoot Books: Save 10%


Knopf Cooks: A Renewed Emphasis on Cookbooks

Knopf, which since 1961 has published books by many major chefs, is expanding the program, now called Knopf Cooks, which is being headed by Lexy Bloom, whose new title is editorial director. Knopf Cooks will have dedicated editorial, publicity and marketing staff. It will publish "bold and dynamic new voices that highlight international cuisines and cultures (along with special projects curated by culinary guest stars across the food world)" and aims to "bring renewed attention" to Knopf's cookbook backlist, as Knopf executive v-p and publisher Reagan Arthur wrote in a memo outlining the changes.

Knopf has published titles by James Beard, Lidia Bastianich, Julia Child, Marion Cunningham, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis, Joan Nathan, Claudia Roden, and Nancy Silverton. Arthur noted that "new cuisines, ingredients, and voices from our varied catalogue--many introduced and championed by the inimitable Judith Jones--reframed the way home cooks experience, prepare, and think about food. Knopf cookbooks have always been elegantly produced editions designed to be both functional in the kitchen and beautiful on the shelf."

Lexy Bloom

Bloom joined Vintage and Anchor Books in 2004 as an associate editor and became a senior editor at Knopf in 2019. Since then, she has edited a range of titles, with a focus on international literature, working with writers such as Haruki Murakami, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Yoko Ogawa. She has also edited cookbooks and other food-related titles since 2010, including titles by Deb Perelman, Alex Prud'homme, Melissa Weller, Deborah Madison, Bill Buford, Anna Jones, Ruthie Rogers, and Bren Smith. She also works with the Julia Child Foundation to manage Child's backlist. Arthur added: "Lexy's passion for cooking, emphasis on global voices, deep institutional knowledge of the food world, and thoughtful devotion to her books, authors, and colleagues make her the perfect person to take on this new role."

In related moves, Tom Pold has been promoted to senior editor; Sara Eagle has been promoted to associate director of marketing; and senior publicist Sarah New will focus in part on Knopf Cooks.

Pold joined Vintage and Anchor Books as an editorial assistant in 2012 and was promoted to editor in 2019. Among his acquisitions is Kwame Onwuachi's Notes From a Young Black Chef, which was nominated for a James Beard Award and an IACP Award.

Eagle joined Knopf in 2006. Arthur stated that "her dedication to our cookbook authors (such as Julia Child, Lidia Bastianich, and Deb Perelman), deep well of creativity, and keen eye towards readership growth (particularly via the Knopf Cooks newsletter) make Sara a key component to the ongoing success of the Knopf cookbook list."

New, recently promoted to senior publicist, is, Arthur added, Knopf's "resident cookbook publicity expert, tireless in her efforts for our authors past and present. Her extraordinary work on our entire culinary list, and her relationships with our authors, agents, and contacts in the foodie world have made her an indispensable part of our cookbook publishing program (in addition to her current and forthcoming work on non-cookbook titles at Knopf and Pantheon)."


Candlewick Press (MA): The Real Dada Mother Goose: A Treasury of Complete Nonsense by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Julia Rothman


B&N College to Run Alamo Colleges Bookstores in Texas

Barnes & Noble College Booksellers will replace former vendor Follett Bookstores this spring for the Alamo Colleges District in Texas, which includes Northeast Lakeview College, Northwest Vista College, Palo Alto College, St. Philip's College and San Antonio College. In preparation, all Alamo Colleges bookstores will be renovated and hire 20-25 students. 

Last May, the Alamo Colleges District awarded a contract to B&N College, the Ranger reported, adding that in a September 21 meeting, the Alamo Colleges board of trustees "amended the initial contract and named their changes the First Day Complete Model. The biggest change the board made was adding a free textbook program through summer."  

In addition, the new contract states that B&N will award up to $50,000 annually in scholarships and forgo commission from course materials. The company will incur all distribution costs, including warehousing and mailing books to students. The district will receive a 40% discount on textbooks. The Ranger noted that B&N's "initial contract awarded the sales of textbooks and instructional materials, a 3% sales commission on gross sales, 12% commission on any general merchandise sale and the bookseller’s scholarship limit was $10,000."


Notes

Conn.'s R.J. Julia Booksellers' New & Improved Patio

On Wednesday, R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, Conn., held a ribbon-cutting event for its new and improved patio, which features a rebuilt stone floor, a fire pit, more seating, and should allow for outdoor use all year, "barring snow," for R.J. Café & Bistro, according to R.J. Julia owner Roxanne Coady.

In a video, Coady noted that the 30-year-old copper beech tree that had shaded the patio is gone and that wood from it is being used to build a table to replace the one on the second floor and to build magic wands.


Bookshop Wedding: Exile in Bookville

Exile in Bookville, Chicago, Ill., shared a photo of a recent wedding the shop hosted, noting: "When two of your friends get married in your bookstore, you can't help but think this store, their marriage, was meant to be. 'If intimacy is marriage, every time you are my first thought upon waking we marry again.'--@marie.helenebertino, Parakeet. We hope nothing but the exact same for you all. May life bring you friends, love, and Parakeet."


Bookstore Mural: Books & Mortar

Books & Mortar, Grand Rapids, Mich., shared pics of its wall mural in progress, noting: "@booksellerjenny here. When I talked with @stephenbrom about creating a mural for our new building, we had all sorts of ideas. I sent him a flurry of photos for inspiration and added a hopeful note that we could throw in a VanderMeer-inspired idea.  As many of you know, @jeff_vandermeer123 is a writer who moves me and pushes me to grow as an individual and bookseller. He is also totally weird.

"Knowing that we would bring our favorite ideas to a public vote, I doubted that the strangest idea would come out on top, but IT DID. Stephen's mural is a gorgeous work that seems to morph when the light hits it. It screams Area X. It echoes the dark and lush dreaminess of VanderMeer's writing, and I geek out every time I walk past it. We have added some of our favorite quotes from Annihilation to the piece, so when you get a chance, come and soak it all in. We think the Biologist in all of you will be very pleased."


Reading Group Choices' Most Popular November Books

The two most popular books in November at Reading Group Choices were Maybe We're Electric by Val Emmich (Poppy/Little, Brown) and Heard It in a Love Song by Tracey Garvis Graves (St. Martin's Press).


Personnel Changes at Sourcebooks; Simon & Schuster

Jess Elliott has joined Sourcebooks as senior national account manager, mass market kids. She most recently worked at HarperCollins.

---

Alicia Chinatomby has joined Simon & Schuster's special markets team as assistant manager, gift sales.


Media and Movies

TV: Last Lesson

Screenwriter Stephen Greenhorn (BBC1's upcoming Around the World in 80 Days) is penning an adaptation of James Goodhand's YA novel Last Lesson for Sanditon producer Red Planet Pictures, Deadline reported.

Red Planet joint managing director Belinda Campbell said Last Lesson is "perfect for TV," although the move into YA represents a "slight departure" for the producer. "It's written in such a visual and visceral way and is utterly gripping, moving and thrilling." Goodhand described the adaptation as a "dream come true."

Deadline noted that the project "caps off a busy year for Red Planet, which also secured the rights to Sunday Times bestseller Our House--now being turned into an ITV drama starring Line of Duty's Martin Compston. The Asacha Media Group-owned outfit has also optioned Megan Hunter's The Harpy and Anthony Johnston's The Euphoria Code."



Books & Authors

Awards: Cundill History, Royal Society Science Book Winners

Marjoleine Kars won the $75,000 Cundill History Prize, which is administered by McGill University to recognize "the book that embodies historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal," for Blood on the River: a Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast (The New Press)

Chair of the jury Michael Ignatieff commented: “Superbly researched and narrated, Marjoleine Kars's Blood on the River achieves something remarkable: it transforms our understanding of two vitally important subjects--slavery and empire--and it tells a story so dramatic, so compelling that no reader will be able to put the book down. It was the unanimous choice of our jury.”

Also praising the winning title were jurors Eric Foner ("a model of historical scholarship that promises to change our understanding of slavery and slave resistance in the Atlantic world"), Henrietta Harrison ("a book by someone who is interested in stories but also interested in people and how they work"), Sunil Khilnani ("remarkable archival discovery and rigorous scholarship") and Jennifer L. Morgan ("fundamentally alters what we know about revolutionary change").

The two runners-up are Rebecca Clifford's Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust (Yale University Press) and Marie Favereau's The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World (Belknap Press of Harvard). Each receives a Recognition of Excellence Award of $10,000.

---

Merlin Sheldrake won the £25,000 (about $33,355) Royal Society Science Book Prize, which is intended to "promote the accessibility and joy of popular science writing," for Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures

Chair of judges Luke O'Neill said the winning book "is a fantastic account of the world of fungi, which to the uninitiated might seem unpromising as a topic, but which Merlin Sheldrake brings alive in the most vivid of ways....  This is science writing at its very best, which yet again emphasizes how the scientific method is so important in our effort to understand the world around us. Entangled Life is an important, scientifically rigorous and most of all entertaining read."


Reading with... Rax King

photo: Nikki Austin-Garlington

Rax King is a James Beard Award-nominated writer and host of the podcast Low Culture Boil. Her writing can be found in Glamour, MEL magazine, Catapult and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her hedgehog and toothless Pekingese. Her book Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer (Vintage, November 2, 2021) is a collection of essays on the joys of low pop culture and bad taste, exploring coming of age in the 2000s in the age of Hot Topic, Cree and frosted lip gloss. 

On your nightstand now: 

I just finished Margaret Visser's Much Depends on Dinner, and am about to start Jackie Ess's Darryl, which I'm stoked about. In the interests of full disclosure, I also have between five and 10 unread books that should be in line ahead of Darryl, but the brain wants what it wants, no?

Favorite book when you were a child:

Oh, man, I lived for Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. The movie came out a couple years after I read the book, so I spent my adolescence in thrall to the entire franchise. To this day, I don't think I've read a more poignant depiction of a young girl's unrequited love. I also read, and loved, and totally missed the point of, Lolita as an impressionable preteen. 

Your top five authors:

Flannery O'Connor, Toni Morrison, Eve Babitz, James Baldwin and maybe Shirley Jackson. (In reality, those are just five favorites who came to mind, and the list goes on and on. Like, you wouldn't ask me to pick five favorite family members!)

Book you've faked reading:

I'm not one for faking reading! I'm a terrible liar and I'd be too scared of being found out. The closest thing I can think of is when I'm on a first date that I'm not invested in, and the conversation turns into one of those one-sided "have you heard of this book, have you heard of that book" cross-examinations. I've been on that first date many times, and I always end up zoning out while I assure the other person that I've heard of all the books they've heard of, regardless of what those books are.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Hanif Abdurraqib's They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Not that Hanif needs any evangelism from little ole me, but I always teach at least one essay from it in my classes, and I always strenuously recommend that people buy it, which is the definition of an evangelist, so.

Book you've bought for the cover:

I found this bright yellow, aggressively 1970s edition of Marx's 18th Brumaire in a secondhand bookstore for $4, one of my proudest finds. I'd already read the text itself but didn't have it on my own bookshelf, so I figured I might as well go for the most garish version possible. I'd also totally buy my own book for the cover if I saw it in a store and hadn't, you know, written it myself.

Book you hid from your parents:

Gossip Girl. In fact, I don't even think I ever actually bought the books--too loath to talk to my parents about them. I'd lean against the Barnes & Noble young adult display for hours, speed-reading them.

Book that changed your life:

Lisa Carver's Drugs Are Nice. All her books are full of breathtakingly original writing, but this one's the life-changer. Lisa Carver's writing made me an extrovert--she's so exuberant that she makes you want to be exuberant, too!

Favorite line from a book:

"There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one's head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people's pain." --from James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room

Five books you'll never part with:

A bad question for me--I part with books all the time, I adore parting with books. They're heavy, and circumstances have always forced me to move a lot, well over a dozen times since I turned 18. I do have a 1969 edition of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex that I'd rather die than give away, but that's because badly outdated sex advice is really funny, not because the book is good. (It's not.)

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

Maybe one of the Sally Rooney books? I don't care for the intensity of the discourse surrounding her as a figure, but her books have always been able to suck me in, even when I've felt disillusioned with reading (hell, with everything). The same goes for Elena Ferrante's books. Thinking about any book I want to read again for the first time, I guess I want to reverse engineer the sense of wonder that the book was originally able to engender in me. So a reread's just as good.


Book Review

Review: The Christie Affair

The Christie Affair by Nina De Gramont (St. Martin's Press, $27.99 hardcover, 320p., 9781250274618, February 1, 2022)

The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont is an ingeniously plotted historical mystery in the style of an engrossing Agatha Christie thriller, except the character at the center of the mystery is the beloved lady novelist herself. Bringing to glorious life the more intimate roles Christie played, including as a mother, wife, loyal friend and passionate lover, de Gramont's graceful novel will enthrall Agatha fans of all persuasions.

The story is set in 1920s England, during the early days of Agatha's rise to literary fame and the implosion of her marriage to Archie Christie. In real life, Agatha's devastation over her husband's demand for a divorce led her to flee her Berkshire home and disappear for 11 days; no one knows where she went and she took that secret to her grave. Here, de Gramont (The Last September) offers a skillful reimagining of what transpired when Agatha vanished in the dead of night with her typewriter, setting off a media-driven scandal and a massive country-wide police manhunt. The result is a particularly gripping story, brilliantly embellished by the enigmatic narrator, Nan O'Dea, who also happens to be Archie's mistress.

Although Agatha is at the heart of Nan's narrative, The Christie Affair is a story of two women from vastly different backgrounds struggling to control their own destinies. With her genteel bearing and social standing, Agatha is a woman who "was born on her feet and that's how she'd always land," while Nan had to claw her way out of poverty and a tragic backstory to be accepted into London society. Nan rejected her true love, a dashing Irishman named Finbarr Mahoney, and readily admits there is a mercenary element to her relationship with Archie. But whether it's his money, status or something entirely different she is after will become apparent only many delicious plot twists.

Much of the action takes place at the quaint Bellefort Hotel & Spa in Harrogate, where Nan has come to stay while Archie deals with the crisis of his wife's disappearance. A retired policeman searching for the missing novelist is just one of the many guests present when a double murder occurs at the hotel. An accomplished author, de Gramont takes a page from the great mystery writer herself and makes swift work of tying up loose ends as the story reaches its boiling point, leaving readers marvelously entertained and breathlessly connecting the dots. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer

Shelf Talker: This gorgeously written mystery reimagines Agatha Christie's real-life disappearance after the collapse of her marriage and the intriguing story of the woman responsible for the breakup.


Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: 'If This Isn't Nice, I Don't Know What Is'--Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

Once upon a time (the summer of 2005, to be precise, just two years before Kurt Vonnegut's death), a slender book with a provocative title--A Man Without a Country (Seven Stories Press)--gained what the publishing industry likes to call "traction." It was written by a great American author.

During the early 1970s, like thousands of others, I "discovered" Slaughterhouse-Five, and continued reading Vonnegut for several years until I just... wandered away. ("So it goes.") Inspired by A Man Without a Country, I returned to his books again, but with the perspective of a much older Earthling. His hard-won wisdom and sense of humor seemed even sharper and more relevant.

A Man Without a Country is a study in justifiable anger, generously spiced with compassion and humor. Consider the answer Vonnegut once gave a woman asking for his advice about bringing a child into this terrifying world: "I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society."

Or this: "But I have to say this in defense of humankind: In no matter what era in history, including the Garden of Eden, everybody just got here."

As it happens, I was rereading A Man Without a Country when I learned about the new IFC documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (in theaters and VOD). Directed by Emmy winner Robert R. Weide and Don Argott, the film chronicles the brilliant, wise and complicated author's better-than-fiction life story. It also opens a window on his unlikely but deep 25-year friendship with Weide, who filmed Vonnegut over the course of two decades, then spent a long, long time reaching the point where he could put the film together.

The reasons for this are complex and addressed beautifully in Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, which spans the author's childhood in Indanapolis; his experiences as a WWII prisoner of war in Dresden before and after the horrific firebombing in 1945; his complicated family life; his early careers as a publicist for General Electric and a car salesman; and his long years as a struggling writer before a bolt of fame hit him with the 1969 publication of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Robert Weide and Kurt Vonnegut in Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, courtesy of C. Minnick and B Plus Prods. An IFC Films release.

This amazing film project really began when Weide was a teenager. "I discovered him like most readers did, in high school," he recalled. "My English teacher was pretty hip. Her name was Valerie Stevenson and she was only in her 20s herself, and she assigned us Breakfast of Champions. It changed my life. I always want to acknowledge the role that she played, which would make Kurt happy because he was constantly talking about how teachers are so undervalued. They really serve the most important job in a democracy, he always said, and we treat them like dirt."

Several years after first reading Vonnegut's books, Weide, now a 23-year-old aspiring filmmaker, wrote a letter to his literary idol proposing a documentary on the author's life and work. To his surprise, he received a handwritten response in which Vonnegut said, "Anything that is any good of mine is on a printed page, not film," but also gave his blessing and a phone number, inviting Weide to call. Shooting began in 1988 and continued intermittently until the author's death in 2007. 

Kurt Vonnegut in Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, courtesy of C. Minnick and B Plus Prods. An IFC Films release.

Nearly four decades would ultimately pass, however, from Weide's first reading of Slaughter-House Five until he was ready to literally and figuratively unpack all the footage and accompanying memories. The result is deeply compelling. Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is time travel at its best. As Vonnegut and Weide age on screen, their personal and professional lives alter, as lives do. Filmmaker and subject become close friends ("family" to use Vonnegut's word).

Robert Weide (photo credit: Colin Hutton)

Weide, whose portrait of Vonnegut is a candid one, observed that "there is certainly pain and loss in his life and in his work, so it was inevitable that this melancholy would come through in the film. In his books, sometimes it's text, sometimes it's subtext. But the beauty of his work is the cliché that he's got you crying one minute and laughing the next. The humor and the tragedy, and the blend between the two make up a very distinct part of his voice.... [This film] should also leave the viewer feeling like he or she just spent two hours with one of the funniest, smartest, most creative people they could ever hope to meet."

Vonnegut remains a significant presence in the life of Weide and his wife: "A day never goes by where he doesn't come up in conversation," the filmmaker observed. "Also, his artwork is all over our house, and we still use the candlesticks that he got for our wedding as our Shabbat candles every Friday night. We also practice Kurt's suggestion that during happy moments in your life, you should say out loud, 'If this isn't nice, what is?' It's all just a continual reminder as to how much this guy has impacted my life."

The line is in A Man Without A Country, too, when Vonnegut recalls his late Uncle Alex's ability to appreciate being in the moment. I could say the same about Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time: "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

--Robert Gray, contributing editor

Powered by: Xtenit