Archive for June, 2009

The Audacity of Greed –Amazon Threatens the State of California

June 30, 2009

This is really the bottom of the barrel. California has a bill in the legislature that will require and other out of state Internet retailers to collect sales tax on transactions where the buyer lives in California. For years now, Amazon has been evading collecting these taxes. And the State of California has been turning a blind eye. This deprives the state and cities of much needed revenue to support education, police and fire services. It also gives Amazon an unfair competitive advantage over California businesses that are required to collect the taxes. Thus the state has been supporting out of state business at the expense of local business and community services. In essence, California has been giving a tax break to citizens who buy products on-line. It is a disgrace and is probably illegal.

But it gets better. At last, the State of California has started to get cojones and try to get Amazon to do its duty and collect the taxes. God knows we need that revenue. A similar law has already been passed in New York and is being considered in North Caralina and Hawaii. Yesterday Amazon sent a letter to the California state legislature. (read about it here). Amazon warned the legislature that if California tried to get them to collect sales tax, they would stop doing business with all Amazon “affiliates” in California. Amazon has hundreds of thousands of these affiliates. These are the websites that link to Amazon and get commissions back for all sales originating from the link.

So this is rich. Not only has Amazon evaded collecting California sales tax, thus adding to the burdens of state services; but in retaliation they are going to cut off these affiliates who drive business to Amazon and get money back in return. Most of these affiliates are non-profits and PTA’s, the very entities that are already being hurt by the California economic crisis and by tax evading large corporations like

I don’t know what the rest of you think about this. But I think it stinks.

Jeff Bezos ought to be ashamed of himself.


More Photographs from the Cody’s Authors Collection

June 28, 2009
Philip Whalen

Philip Whalen

This is another of my very old photographs. It was probably taken in the late 1970’s. Philip Whalen was one of the great Beat Poets. I believe that at the time this reading occurred, he had become a monk at the San Franciso Zen Center

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder

Photograph from the mid 1980’s. A much younger and very handsome image of one of our great poets.

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

This photograph from the early 80’s.

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel

From the Early 80’s. This picture of Studs captures his earthy charisma.  He was in the back room smoking a cigar. That was before smoking became illegal in California. After he left, we found the cigar butt in the ash tray. Somebody nailed it up to the wall with a sign saying “Studs Terkel’s Cigar”. The cigar remained on the wall for another 10 years.

More of Cody’s summer reading lists from 1998-2001

June 28, 2009

This is another selection from the Cody’s Recommended Summer Reading lists. Mostly from 1998 -2001. All of the books below are in print and as wonderful as ever.

Great Books, David Denby,  The author returns to Columbia after 30 years and takes his original core classes on great books.  It is both a reexamination of the great ideas of the West from a layman’s point of view and a look at the younger generation and their reaction to these ideas.  This book is fascinating and written with great vigor and clarity.

Roman Blood, Steven Saylor,   This is the first of a series of historical mysteries featuring a private detective in ancient Rome named Gordianus.  Originally he is an associate of Cicero.  But in succeeding stories, he encounters all of the great statesmen of the Late Roman Republic including: Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cataline, and Sulla.  It is a perfect blend of history and mystery fiction.  At the end of reading all five of his novels, I returned to Plutarch to discover the accuracy of his characters and events. Also read Arms of Nemesis, Catalina’s Riddle, and others.

 The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver,  Barbara Kingsolver is a national treasure.  Her new novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the century, the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium.  It is narrated  in turns by 4 sisters of startling perception and individuality, freshly transplanted by missionary parents to the heart of the Congo.  This is Kingsolver’s most ambitious work to date.  Also  read Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams.

 A Widow for One Year.  John Irving.  20 years after The World According to Garp, John Irving continues to surprise us with amazingly rich characters and bold unpredictable plots.  This new novel traces the life of Ruth Cole through 3 periods of her life.  As in most Irving novels, it is at times comic and disturbing and always unforgettable.  It is Irving’s greatest novel yet. Also try reading Irving’s Cider House Rules.

 Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Rosen,   The author of this book is a white American male who has, nonetheless, accomplished a miracle.  He has created a seamless and wholly believable world of a geisha coming of age in 1930’s Kyoto.  Her story is utterly compelling and her voice is perfect.  It is a magnificent first novel which recreates a fascinating and far off culture.

 Gates of Fire.  Steven Pressfield.   What a supurb historical novel!  It is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, one of the decisive battles of history, in which 300 Spartans held off the army of Persia numbering 2,000,000 men for 7 days.  This book is a great story of ancient Sparta and of the universal quality of courage.

 Straight Man.  Richard Russo..   Richard Russo is one of America’s contemporary masters of the realistic novel. Straight man is an hilarious   sendoff on the academic profession. It includes the usual farcical academic battles, sexual tensions, and funding struggles; but also great prose and brilliant characterizations.  Also read Russo’s Nobody’s Fool.

 Saints  & Villains.  Denise Giardina. This is a majestic and compelling biographical novel of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and an emblematic representative of the anti-Nazi resistance.  This book captures the spirit of Germany in the 30’s and the war years through Bonhoeffer’s life.  He is a flawed hero whose tenacious commitment to moral values in the face of the practical impossibility of serious resistance makes him a perfect representative of the noble, yet ineffective, acts of German opposition to Hitler.

 The Killer Angels.  Michael Shaara. The Killer Angels  is one of the great war novels ever written.  It is a sweeping narrative of the Battle of Gettysburg that captures its epic grandeur and its tragedy.  It is told through the eyes of the leaders  of both armies as a battle of ideas. The narrative of Pickett’s fatal charge up Cemetery Ridge on the 3rd day is heartbreaking.  Michael Shaara’s son, Jeff Shaara, has written both a prequel and a sequel that are worthy accompaniments: Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure.

Andy’s Night Thoughts on Summer Reading

June 28, 2009


This is about the books I’ve been reading this summer. Actually, I’m a little embarrassed. They are kind of low brow. I thought of trying to impress you by saying that I was re-reading Thomas Mann’s  masterpiece,  Doctor Faustus,  while playing Wagner’s majestic Goetterdaemurung  as backround music. But I don’t think I would be fooling anybody.

By the way, I do not in any way want to discourage genuine literary frauds, intellectual poseurs, and other assorted fakes and windbags from visiting “Ask The Agent”. We welcome you and even encourage intellectual pretension in this blog. We assure you that we will never show more than relentless withering contempt   a gentle ribbing  at such efforts.

But I digress. For the last 3 weeks, I have been reading a troika of authors who are masters of commercial fiction. The first would be Lee Child,  a thriller writer of renown and popularity. His books all play around the same character, Jack Reacher, a wonderful modern day noir hero: tough but sensitive, world weary but idealistic. And 250 pounds of brute force. Who crushes bad guys with his fists and beautiful women in his arms.  Child says of  Reacher: “he never killed a man who didn’t deserve to be killed.” All male readers secretly want to be like Reacher. All women readers  secretly want to save him from the ineffable sorrow of his secret past. The only flaw with these books is that Child inevitably employs the worst, most predictable, most hackneyed device in the thriller tool box (a genre that revels in hackneyed devices), the chase. My recommendation is to skip the last 20 pages of any Lee Child novel. We have all read enough chase scenes to last a lifetime.

 A less well-known practitioner of modern pot boiler is William Lasher. You may not have ever heard of him. But he is very good. As with Child, Lasher’s books all revolve around a single character. In this case it is Victor Carl, a not too successful criminal lawyer in Philadelphia. Another noir personality. Lasher has a great sense of humor, and only occasionally resorts to the hackneyed chase scene. In real life, Lasher is a lawyer. But happily, most of the stories takes place out of the courtroom. And he tends to harpoon the pretensions of the big firm practitioners. You’re a good man, Victor Carl.

 The third author I have been reading is Richard North Patterson. Now Patterson is a very good writer, and none of you need be embarrassed to bring his paperback with you to the National Book Awards Dinner. He started by writing legal mysteries that climaxed with dramatic courtroom pyrotechnics (another clichéd device,  but one with more possibilities for invention). Lately he has moved into the realm of political drama. And it is good. His best book, which I read several years ago,  is  Exile. It is about the struggle between Palestinians and Israelis. It portrays both sides with great sympathy and captures the nuances of this complicated dance of death. I read several of his other political dramas (they aren’t really thrillers) this month. He does create some very bad people that will make you feel good, because you hate them. As you would expect, these very bad people include: cynical and unscrupulous Republicans, gun nuts and their trade associations, anti-abortion nuts and their lobbying groups.  And the heroes, as you would expect, are idealists or shrewd realists with great integrity. Some of them even have mixed feelings about complicated issues like abortion.

Ok. I just want to mention one book that is not a schlocko summer read. It is a   literary masterpiece that also puts you into the trance-like state that happens with all commercial literature. The book is Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears. I read it in the Spring. It is an 800 page historical mystery with 3 parts that interlock like a Bach fugue. It is an epic. A book of ideas, and a magnificent bringing to life of Europe before the First World War. I read it in 3 days.  He has written 2 other books that I love just as much: The Instance on the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio.

Next week at Ask the Agent, we will engage in a little contrarian fun. We will have a list of books that you should  definitely not read in the summer. We welcome your contributions.


Author Photographs and Memories from Cody’s Books

June 25, 2009
Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini

Over a 30 year period, I took these photographs of authors reading at Cody’s. I’m going to post some of them and try to conjure up my recollections. The photographs were all framed and resided on the walls of Cody’s  . When Cody’s closed in June, 2008, they seemed to have disappeared. Happily they have been recovered recently and given to the Berkeley Public Library .

This photograph was taken while Khaled was signing books at a Cody’s  event at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley. At a previous Cody’s event, a conversation with Michael Krasney, he was asked a particularly incisive question.   “The Kite Runner was  imbued with these universal, epic, almost Wagnerian themes of sin and redemption, how did a first time writer conceive of such an audacious project?”  Hosseini said that he really intended to write and intimate personal narrative. It somehow ended differently. And the rest is history. His themes  resonated with the deepest feelings of the peoples all over  the world and according gained a world audience.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Circa 1980 at Cody’s Books. I don’t remember much about this event except that her travelling companion told me that Peggy thought I was cute.

Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller

 I took this picture   in 1979. This was one of the first photographs of the entire collection. When they set up the event, they said: “Don’t Publicize it.” So we didn’t and there were about 20 people there. Heller said he didn’t expect us to do such a great job of not publicizing. Fred Cody introduced him as a writer, who’s first novel, Catch 22, was modest book with some limited critical and commercial success. I wish my introductions had been that clever.

Andy Wants You to Stop Reading Blogs and Start Reading Philosophy

June 24, 2009

Let’s get started with some insight into Western Culture’s greatest thinker.

The Immanuel Kant Attack Ad

How the Book Industry will Save the World Economy

June 24, 2009

Several months ago, I conceived of a plan to restore the world economy through generous support of our beloved book industry. I sent this proposal to the President’s economic advisor, Lawrence Summers. I am optimistic that he will implement this plan. He signaled his agreement with the general principles by sending me an autographed picture of himself with his dog. I hope you all will see the wisdom of this plan.

A Modest Proposal: or What’s Good for Houghton-Mifflin is Good for the USA

 Like many of you, I am becoming  distressed by the fact that the nation’s treasure is being squandered on the leaches and parasites of  Wall  Street who have brought us to this sorry state, and the knaves and fools of the auto industry who continue to reinvent the Edsel.

 I believe that these trillions are not only attenuating  the moral fiber of America, but will fail to bring us out of our current economic malaise.  As I sat down to carve   my 20 pound hunk of roast   Spam on Father’s Day, I realized that there was a better way. For a mere 1% of the cost envisioned by Washington, we can not only restore America’s economic vitality, we can create a cultural resurgence that will make America the greatest intellectual super-power since the Golden Age of Athens.

 I offer you, dear reader, a modest 3 point proposal. We will channel a mere nine billion dollars into the book publishing industry which will (in  classic Keynesian fashion) restore America.

 1)   Grants to  book publishers:  Giving  $50,000,000,000 to the auto industry is like fighting fire with gasoline. Rather,  I propose  that the government grant a much smaller amount to  trade publishers large and small with no strings attached. Unlike the hapless and bumbling  auto executives, the titans of publishing are known for their wisdom, their courage, and their commitment to the great values of Western Civilization. It is undoubtedly true that some of these funds will be used for more bottom-feeding memoirs of depraved, drug-addled Hollywood starlets which chronicle their struggles against alcoholism and cellulite. This is an unfortunate side effect (collateral damage, if you will)  that should not distract us from the larger social benefit.

  There will certainly be a “trickle down” effect on the more literary titles. A subsidy of these worthy books will have the residual benefit of bolstering our “intellectual system”. It will allow publishers the luxury of making decisions based on reason and merit rather than on dubious and demeaning sales pitches such as: “This book is like Immanuel Kant meets Danielle Steel.”

 2)  Grants to booksellers.   As an independent bookseller for 35 years, I must say that I have a soft spot in my heart for these beleaguered merchants. It is true that publishers continue to publicly express their sentimental affection for the small merchants . But in the paneled suites of multi-media conglomerates, the word “Indie” is  invariably whispered  accompanied by the word, “whining”. How can this be? Think of the  specter of the pathetic automobile titans being chauffeured in their hybrid jalopies to Washington. Their appearance before Congress surely raised “whining” to  an apotheosis never before witnessed in the history of the West.

 I take my inspiration from the first efforts of the Treasury department to buy worthless mortgages at face value and sell them later  at a debased price of whatever the market will offer for these worthless pieces of paper. Similarly we will use this inverted economic paradigm, “to buy high and sell low”. We will buy up the leases on Main Street and rent to the faltering but virtuous Independents for $1 per year.

 For the mass merchants,  the great chains, we will offer them billions for saturation advertising  that will shift the emphasis on  day after Thanksgiving sales  away from 56 inch flat screen TV’s to something more culturally productive. Imagine the unruly crowd of buyers  breaking down the doors of Barnes and Noble  at 4 AM and cracking the knee caps of  fragile grandmothers  to snatch the last copy of The Oresteia by Aeschylus (Lattimore  translation).  

 3) Writers. Let us not forget the toiling and not-so- silent  proletariat of  culture, the oppressed workers who labor in the “dark satanic mills” of the book business.  We applaud the vision of  President Obama to pump prime the economy by investing in infrastructural upgrades. But realistically, can we expect Philip Roth and Malcolm Gladwell to engage in building bridges and dams? Do we really want Salman Rushdie to design the next generation of plug –in hybrids? Would America be a greater civilization if David Sedaris was fixing pot holes? I believe we know the answer to these questions.  Our modest proposal would direct taxpayer funds to support the continuing fatuous scriblings  of these economically worthless drones.

 We must be vigilant, though, that this money not fall into the hands of the unproductive forces of the culture industry. We cannot afford to subsidize the intellectual fellow-travelers: freelancers, ghost writers, and amanuenses. (I will not mention agents for risk of damaging my own credibility).

 And so, publishers, booksellers, authors. Let us march together and become the engine of our nation’s salvation. And we shall build the New Jerusalem on the ashes of Wall Street and Wal-Mart.

 © Andy Ross

Summer Recommended Books from the Cody’s Archive

June 23, 2009

I just discovered a previously lost file from the Cody’s Archives. For years, I prepared a summer recommended list. They were all books that I actually read and actually loved. I’m posting some selections from Summer 1996. That was a long time ago. And some of the books on the list are -well-forgettable. But the ones I am posting are still as delightful to read now as they were back then. In all modesty, people loved these lists . I will keep going through the Cody’s archives and post more.

Native Tongue, Carl Hiaasen. Carl Hiaasen is the most entertaining and amusing author of crime  fiction writing today.  Native Tongue is my favorite, but all of his books are equally enjoyable.  His novels are filled with ultra sleazoid weirdoes from South Florida all intent on raping the environment or fleecing tourists in South Florida.  You will marvel at the sheer loathsomeness of his characters.  Read the rest of his novels too: Strip Tease, Skin Tight, Double Whammy, and Tourist Season.


A Philosophical Investigation, Philip Kerr. This is a stunning mystery novel which truly transcends its genre.  A brilliant serial killer seeks to outwit Inspector Isadora “Jake” Jacowitz.  He is nicknamed “Wittgenstein”.  He is as brilliant as he is mad. You will love this marvelous and intellectually satisfying thriller.


Jasmine, Bharati Mukherjee. The author, herself an immigrant from India, has written a novel about the immigrant experience with great finesse and wit.  The heroine flees from her family poverty and Sikh terrorism of her village to New York and finally, improbably to a farm in Iowa.  The twists and turns of the plot tell us much about America from the eyes of an outsider.  It’s funny and profound.


The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is a great novelist and this is my favorite  of hers.  It’s a very funny tale of an evil anti-heroine who masterfully manipulates the lives of  3 decent women. There are serious themes in this story, specifically the power of evil and the weakness of good in the face of it.  You will find this book impossible to put down.


Small World, David Lodge. Lodge has written a brilliant spoof on academic manners.  It contains side-splitting satire of the pretenses of scholarly conferences and the drolleries of French literary theory, all mixed up with much seduction of spouses and graduate students.  Added to this is a new twist on the Holy Grail legend.  Also read the prequel, Changing Places, a satire of Berkeley in the 60’s.


The Eight, Katherine Neville. What do Charlemagne, Napoleon, Rousseau, Catherine the Great, Tallyrand, Johan Sebastian Bach, and Muammar Khaddafi have in common?  They are all characters in this remarkable feminist-historical-alchemical-cryptographic thriller.  It is a gripping tale told in time and space for the search for the famous chess set of Charlemagne, the pieces of which unlock the power of the universe.  The story is full of twists, riddles and mathematical puzzles. It’s great!


The White Hotel, D. M. Thomas.  Rarely has literature revealed so profoundly the mysteries of the human soul as in this haunting and masterful novel.  It is the story of Freud and his fictional patient, Lisa.  Through the unfolding, imperfect process of psychoanalysis, the novel reveals to us the ambiguous connection between love and death as a metaphor of the human psyche and of European civilization in the Twentieth Century.  this novel is astoundingly original and deeply, viscerally moving.

Barbarians at the Gates

June 23, 2009
There has been another rash of stories in traditional media about book proposals lately. One of the oddest involves deposed Miss California (and Miss USA runner-up) Carrie Prejean, who was fired by the pageant for alleged breach of contract. Prejean attracted controversy on a number of fronts, including her answer during the pageant opposing same-sex marriages in California.

Recently US News & World Report reported she had a book proposal, aimed at conservative publishers. Now in a follow-up, Donald Trump’s Miss USA pageant says her book proposal is actually one of the reasons that she was fired. But Prejean’s attorney notes she was “given preliminary approval” to write a book, had “a draft amendment to her contract for that purpose at the time that she was terminated,” and has not actually contracted to write a book yet anyway.

Another proposal on the market is from former John Edwards’ campaign aide Andrew Young (represented by David McCormick), offering a tell-all about his role in trying to cover-up Edwards’ affair and at least implying, according to the account in The Daily Beast, that Rielle Hunter’s child was fathered by Edwards. (Edwards has denied paternity, and Hunter declined to have a paternity test performed.) In a classic assessment, the story notes: “So far, there have been no takers for Young’s book, which one editor estimates could bring up to $1 million.” Or not.

-From Publisher’s Marketplace

Welcome to Ask the Agent

June 22, 2009

Well, it looks like I have joined the other 60,000,000 people and have created a blog. As many of you know, I was the owner of Cody’s Bookstore for 30 years. I finally threw in the towel on retail in 2007 and started a literary agency in February, 2008. Take a look at my website at . You can see some of the projects I’m working on. It is a very Cody’s kind of list. And I feel very proud of these projects.

Since I’ve been working in the book business for 35 years, I think I have a lot to say, and I hope to say it in this blog. We will be covering a lot of ground here. We will be talking about how to get published, how to find an agent, how to promote your book and your platform. I would like to have some conversations with writers who want to learn more about publishing. So I hope you will write me your questions.

I also want to interview people in the book business who have really made a difference: publishers, editors, booksellers, writers, reviewers. I want to recommend books that I like. And talk to other writers about what they are reading.

I’m also interested in hearing snarky comments about the pretensions of the publishing industry. Pernicious gossip and tattling will get prominent attention. Pretentious and gaseous pontifications, particularly those with interspersed quotes in Latin, will be honored and dealt with appropriately. Literary figures who wish to carry on long-standing feuds, the origins of which are shrouded in the mists of time, and which are of no concern at all to anyone other than the feuding parties, will find an hospitable home on “Ask the Agent”.

So I hope you will pull up a chair and spend a little time with me.