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Last Bookstore

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I was on my homeward bound flight from Los Angeles when the magazine informed me about the wonderful Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles. Then Tina from Book Chatter mentioned it again when i posted my book adventure in West Hollywood. I think I need to make a trip back just to visit this one. I heard you can make a day trip of Last Bookstore and still not check out the entire collection. I texted my friend and he was very kind to go and take some snapshots for me. All books on the upstairs “labyrinth” are $1 each. New books and myriad of arts made with books will greet you in the main level. Formerly a bank building, the high ceiling gives the bookstore a very welcoming, open atmosphere.

Gold Country

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(Above: Historic Angels Camp Downtown, Calaveras County) California Gold Rush is one of the most important defining moments in American history and culture. Much of the literature from this period comprises of a variety of storytelling forms: newspaper reports, published letters and diaries, such as those by Dame Shirley; traveler’s guidebooks; short stories and poems by Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Jack London; popular legends; and, more recently, films and cartoons. Of particular note is the extent to which Gold Rush writing developed alternately as a literature of humor and as a literature of grief-acquired wealth was a relatively rare aspect of the experience.

Many Gold Rush titles are in stock at Sustenance Books & in Murphys, CA. Of course, most famous is Mark Twain. Born Samuel Clemens, who headed West for the Gold Rush and became a famous writer of his experiences. Mark Twain’s second-best book draws not on the Missouri towns he made so famous, nor on his long attraction to the Middle Ages, but on his little-known sojourn in the Wild West. Roughing It, published in 1872, deserves to be better known. So does Samuel Clemens’s literary apprenticeship in the gold rush mining camps of California and Nevada and the frontier newspaper offices of Nevada City and San Francisco.

1mark1(Above: Reconstructed Mark Twain’s Cabin, Calaveras County) In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the California gold rush comes Gold Rush: A Literary Exploration by Michael Kowalewski, a definitive literary anthology. Another jewel of a find is Calico Palace by Gwen Bristow, an excellent story on the California Gold Rush and growth of San Francisco 1848–1851. The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H.W. Brands is the story of the California Gold Rush, its impact on the American people then and now, and its contribution to the Civil War and the ultimate forging of the American nation.

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(Above: Columbia Historic State Park in Calaveras County) To experience the period of history in person would be a visit to Columbia State Historic Park. It is a living gold rush town featuring the largest single collection of existing gold rush-era structures in the state. Visiting Columbia is like traveling back in time to the sights, smells, and sounds of a nineteenth century mining town—merchants dressed in 1850′s attire, a whiff of coal smoke from the blacksmith shop, and the rumble of a stagecoach pulling into town!

The Strand: 18 Miles of Books

The Strand

Found in 1927 by Ben Bass, The Strand is a literary landmark of New York. Along with Powell Books in Portland, Oregon, The Strand is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. A trip to New York is not complete without paying a visit (or two) to this literary mecca. After attending to the emails, files and paperwork in preparation to the BEA, which will open tomorrow, I took a stroll in Manhattan and ended here at The Strand. Shelf after shelf of books in rabbit warren. Books are stuffed to the ceiling and windows. The entire basement is home to review copies and proofs. Suffice to say that I went in after a quick lunch and came out with a rumbling stomach ready for dinner—and I only browsed the fiction section! Among the finds is The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, a 1958 novel about five young employees of a New York publishing house. It’s been recently re-released. Borges’s Last Interview was staring at me from the shelf. So I decided to take it home with me before I proceed to the second half of Collection Fictions. The staff here is more than helpful. They are very knowledgeable of books and of the industry. I’m glad to see New Yorkers are passionate about their local bookstore. The Strand marks a great headstart to my week in the Big Apple.

Book Expo America ’14

Book Expo America '14

So I’m back to New York City for another BEA. It’s exciting to be part of this nationwide consortium for the book industry. I’m here for work, which focuses on the digital platform in information services. I’m attending the 2-day IDPF Digital Book conference that concerns the key issues in publishing in an increasingly digital world. As a representatice from an academic sector that is both a client of the digital media and a provider of such services, I find the IDPF Digital a previous experience as I’ll be meeting and discussing with executives, marketers, designers, developers, authors and agents on how to serve out students and scholars better with digital resources.

That said, personally I’m still a stickler to old fashioned books. I love turning the pages, making pencil marks on the margin, riffling them at the bookstores, and showcasing them. Printed books don’t seem to go away. That initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration. From the start, e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novels representing close to two-thirds of sales. Digital bestsellers are dominated in particular by genre novels, like thrillers and romances—screen reading that us well suited to the kind of light entertainment that have been traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports. These are, by design, the most disposable books.

Readers of weightier fare, like literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital, myself included. There’s something about the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures that appeal to these readers. Books that merit retreads. So my prediction is that eventually most genre fiction and textbooks will go digital while highbrow literature will remain in print.

[648] Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story – Tony & Maureen Wheeler

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” Despite all its drawbacks and problems, travel is enormously important. It is the biggest business in the world—more people depend upon travel and tourism for their employment than any other business—but travel is much more than money. It is through travel that we meet and understand other people and at this time, when there is so much anger and misunderstanding in the world, travel is more important than it has ever been. ” (Ch.11: Not Always the Good Guys, p.335)

Unlikely Destinations is the memoir of Tony and Maureen Wheeler, founders of the Lonely Planet guidebook series. In mid-1972, laid off from a job at Chrysler, Tony and his new wife Maureen set out on a year-long trip (kangaroo hop?) from England to Australia by way of the Middle East and Asia overland. As they trudged through some of the roughest trail in uncharted countries, they keenly recognized the need for a complete, detailed “how to” travel guide to suit the new breed of laid-back, independent travelers. The stash of notes scribbled along the way transpired to the self-published Across Asia on the Cheap, the instant success that captured Southeast Asia which, at the time, was almost a terra incognita.

During this trip, I began to suspect that travel for us had changed forever. No longer were we simply following the road suggested by our curiosity and dictated by our financial state; we had a purpose, we were laying down the roadmap for like-minded travelers. We took this responsibility very seriously. We had to go further, higher, harder than anyone else, in order to document it all, and it was hard. (Ch.3: Get Going, Going Broke, p.94)

The book, part memoir, business, and travel, captures the incredible birth and growth of a global publishing empire that has weathered the various periods of a company’s evolution, from surviving by the skin of the teeth, to penny-pinching one-man operation, to growing, outsourcing, and expanding, to becoming a leader in the field. The momentum is fueled by a passion and curiosity.

Baedeker’s had been joined by the Blue Guides, books that told you in exciting detail about the history of a castle or the architecture of a church, but the ‘how to’ of travel rarely crept into their guides . . . but suddenly how to get there, where to stay and where to eat was as important as the difference between a Baroque church and a Gothic one. (Ch.8: All About Guidebooks, p.224)

What drives Lonely Planet to its unmatched success is exactly what appeals to me as a solo traveler: the painstaking, tedious, time-consuming, and meticulous research effort on the part of Lonely Planet‘s writers. There’s a high level of commitment to and conviction of providing accurate information available long before the advent of mass tourism. Unlikely Destinations is a vast armchair travel around the world, but is also a chronicle of how the staff would go to make the tedious run to update the information. There’s a personal touch to the book as Wheeler reflects not juggling between work, family, and travel. The book is a remarkable testimony to how a love and passion of travel has led to a life of fulfillment. Long live Lonely Planet!

374 pp. Periplus Books 2005. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Owen at Aardvark Books

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Owen is one of the reasons why I find local bookstores so lovely. Owen is the much-admired orange tabby at Aardvark Books, the local indie new/used bookstore. The storefront is Owen’s living room. You can find him asleep in the front display window, sitting at the register, or just parading the ground. We’re friends since I scratched his back during a visit. He would come say hello and jump up on my lap.
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The find today is Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story, a book that chronicles the evolution of Lonely Planet, the largest travel guide book publisher in the world. Lonely Planet’s first book, Across Asia on the Cheap, was written and published by an Englishman, Tony Wheeler, who met his wife Maureen in 1970. In July 1972, they set off on an overland trip through Europe and Asia, and arrived in Australia in December. The popularity of this overland route, first undertaken by vehicle on the 1955 Oxford-Cambridge Overland Expedition, declined when Iran’s borders closed in 1979. Written with strong opinions, it sold well enough in Australia that it allowed the couple to expand it into South-East Asia on a Shoestring (nicknamed the ‘Yellow Bible’). The series of guidebooks, which I swear by, caters to a generation of independent, budget-conscious (although I do not consider myself budget-conscious with accommodation) travelers long before the advent of mass tourism. I like the road less tread. Lonely Planet has accompanied me to Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Japan, England, and France. It would be so much fun reading how they started the company, more so their spirit of adventure, curiosity and enthusiasm.

Myanmar Craze

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The best way to know a country is to know its people. Talk to the locals, observe them, follow cultural practices, and taste their food. Until it was open to travelers in mid 2011, Myanmar (Burma) has remained the most mysterious country in Southeast Asia. “This is Burma”, wrote Rudyard Kipling. “It is quite unlike any place you know about.” How right he was: more than a century later Myanmar remains a world apart. While I can’t immerse the travel experience until I’m physically there, on my own preferably, to break new cultural connection, I can read up on the country, its people, the literature, and history. Until I make the trip in January 2015, these books would contribute to a great introduction to the country—surreal and traditional Myanmar. I want to know the basic history and facts behind the sights, not just treating it another Kodak moment.

To Myanmar, With Love

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On the flight home from Asia after a 5.5-week trip, I decided Myanmar would be my next destination.

Other than what George Orwell wrote, I knew nothing about Burma, now called Myanmar. Things are changing in Myanmar. Perceptions outside are changing as well. Salvaged by war and reigned under militarism, Myanmar, a deeply wounded and fractured multi-ethnic society, is working through its “democratic transition”. To me Myanmar is the most mysterious country in Southeast Asia. For the past two decades western writers and readers have focused their minds on the brutality and cronyism of the dictatorship.

My trip in Bangkok sparked my interest in Myanmar. I brought home some books that chart the tumultuous history of the country.

Golden Earth: Travels in Burma by Norman Lewis. Account of his visit in the 1950s. It is a bittersweet portrait of the then-optimistic, now-lost land – before communist incursions and tribal insurrection shattered the dream.

The Burman: His Life and Notions by Sir George Scott. Scott served as frontier officer for three decades at the end of the 19th century, but his enduring legacy is as collector and sympathetic chronicler of the old ways in a country “where people are small and ghosts are big”.

‘A Hanging’ by George Orwell. It’s actually a short story but more moving than Burmese Days. Orwell marks the preciousness of human life and the heartlessness of power.

From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe. Thwe is a native of Shan State. His mesmerising biography stretches from his grandmother’s creation stories to civil war and a chance conversation about James Joyce that leads to a new life in Britain.

Freedom from Fear and Other Writings by Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s no longer a banned book. Few women in public life have suffered more for their beliefs than Aung San Suu Kyi, and inspired so many people by their example. “Concepts such as truth, justice, compassion are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power,” she once wrote.

The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U. Another ex banned book. For 200 years, Thant Myint-U’s forefathers served Burma’s royalty. His grandfather rose to become UN secretary-general. This remarkable family story is woven into Burma’s history in a work that is moving, lyrical, shocking – and essential for anyone wishing to understand the country emerging today.

Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma by Rory MacLean. It looks like a good read which provides an inside to Burma’s culture, people, landscape and daily lifestyle including its Golden Land’s history told in a beautiful story.

Myanmar, hope to see you soon.

Some Observations

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Observations of Hong Kong bookstores

* Female browsers always outnumber male.
* Bookstores are well-lit and have fancy decor. Eslite in Causeway Bay resembles a museum. (Picture above)
* Much more than selling books. Think organic soaps. Incenses. Tea leaves.
* Given the high rents bookstores have to sell more than just books to break even.
* Books are saran-wrapped to discourage prolonged browsing.
* Weight-loss books always top the bestseller list.
* Big on movie tie-in fiction.
* Banned books in China mostly likely in stock.
* UK editions are very popular.
* Scanty seats.
* Fiction usually divided into literature, classics, and general. Sometimes confusing with overlap.
* The latest sub-category is Women’s Fiction. All the shades of greys can be found in this section.
* Bookstores can be as noisy as subway stations.

Back to Normal

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As I turned the first page of Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee this morning, I returned to my usual reading exercise after a month of frivolous perusal of mysteries, legal thrillers and crime fiction. A month and ten books later, I’m back in the fold of literary fiction and books that usually cannot be read in a single sitting. They require a degree of reflection and meditation. I brought with me, to Thailand, a bunch of crime thrillers by Scott Turow and Thomas Harris. In Thailand (and Asia in general), bookstores would separate the popular fiction from high-brow literature. Literature is usually in UK paperback edition. Browsing is almost just as fun as reading. It’s always fun and interesting to compare what is trending there and back home. In addition to Native Speaker, I brought back The Year After by Martin Davies (never heard of this author until I saw the book at Asia Books in Bangkok), The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (been looking for this one), In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill, and The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif.

Back in San Francisco, I was very surprised and somewhat disappointed that customs didn’t ask to open my luggage because I want to see their reaction to a spinner full of books. Asian travelers are usually profiled because they are notorious for bringing fruits and meat jerky back without declaring. Oh well I guessI don’t look like I’m fresh-off-the-boat ethnic.