The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party — Book Review

The Indifferent Stars Above COVERAnd they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above.
W.B. Yeats, “A Dream of Death” (epigraph to The Indifferent Stars Above)

But I think what Sarah’s story tells us is that there were in fact heroes in the Donner Party, and that heroes are sometimes the most ordinary-seeming people. It reminds us that as ordinary as we might be, we can, if we choose, take the harder road, walk forth bravely under the indifferent stars.
Daniel James Brown, The Indifferent Stars Above

Before he wrote The Boys in the Boat, which has been a New York Times paperback bestseller for 73 weeks (and is currently #1), Daniel James Brown published two other works of narrative nonfiction: Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 (2006) and The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride (2009). With the popularity of The Boys in the Boat, surely one of the decade’s best-loved books, Brown’s publisher has released a paperback edition of The Indifferent Stars Above, changing the subtitle and adding a “P.S.” section at the back. (Brown published his first two books with HarperCollins, switching to Penguin with The Boys in the Boat.)

TheBoysintheBoatWhat has made The Boys in the Boat so successful? It’s a story that’s not only universally appealing but also previously unknown to most readers. The book initially received no national media attention, but became a word-of-mouth phenomenon. According to the Seattle Times:

When The Boys in the Boat was published in hardback in the spring of 2013. It immediately gained an audience of rowers. Then “the rowers started giving it to their moms and dads,” Brown said. Robert Sindelar, managing partner at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, WA says that “The Boys in the Boat is the kind of book readers almost feel compelled to testify for . . . It’s a book that people are passionate about sharing.”

The Indifferent Stars Above is a fascinating historical narrative about the pioneer era and the limits of human endurance, but it’s not one that most people will be recommending to all their friends. It’s a “niche” book, not a book for everyone. Many readers, even history buffs, will find the book just too grisly. Let’s face it — when you think of the Donner Party, you think of cannibalism. Brown says:

Though we understandably tend to think of it as a story about death and cannibalism, I wanted to approach the Donner Party saga as a survival story. After all, roughly half the people who constituted the Donner Party lived through the ordeal, which means that at the end of the day there were some forty individual survival stories to be told. To my mind, how each survivor managed to sustain his or her life is ultimately more interesting than how the others died.

Despite Brown’s emphasis on the courage of the survivors, he is obligated to include many gory details of the lengths to which these people had to go in order to survive. I’m not squeamish, but I found a few sections of The Indifferent Stars Above to be difficult reading. I persevered, however, because all my life I’ve been captivated both by survival stories and the pioneer era. A childhood favorite was Patty Reed’s Doll, narrated by the doll of one of the survivors of the Donner Party tragedy. The doll had nothing to say about the cannibalism surrounding her, mentioning only that Patty cries because she has a stomachache from hunger.

The accuracy of Brown’s account seems undisputed. Not only does the book include 13 pages of sources, many of them primary sources (newspaper accounts, diaries, letters) but he retraced the Donner Party’s route — which gave him “innumerable small insights into the physical world Sarah had moved through on her journey.”

Brown, as you know if you’ve read The Boys in the Boat, is a talented storyteller. In The Indifferent Stars Above, he’s wisely chosen to focus on one member of the Donner Party —  21-year-old Sarah Graves Fosdick. Sarah, her new husband, and the entire Graves family (parents and eight children) set out from Illinois as part of a pioneer wagon train seeking better farming opportunities in California. Brown has a “tenuous connection” to Sarah. His great-uncle, George W. Tucker, journeyed west on the same wagon train with the Graves family: “He had traveled where she traveled . . . his bones had walked the same tedious trails, stretched out at night on the same patches of prairie sod, climbed laboriously through the same icebound mountain passes.” I haven’t read Brown’s first book, Under a Flaming Sky, but reviews note that Brown also has a personal connection to that story; his great-grandfather was killed in the Great Hinckley Fire chronicled in the book.

Originally, the book’s subtitle was The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, suggesting that the focus of the book would be on Sarah Fosdick. I’m not sure why the publisher decided to change the subtitle to The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party, but my cynical guess is that they thought male readers would be turned off by the word “bride”. Brown’s choice to concentrate on Sarah and her family makes the story all the more compelling, transforming what could have been a fairly dry historical account into narrative nonfiction about real people. However, as Brown points out, “Sarah hasn’t made it easy. She left little record of her own experiences, and while others who suffered through the ordeal with her that winter have left us with their own, sometimes quite detailed accounts, few of them have had much to say about her.”

Therein lies a problem with Sarah as a character. She serves to help the reader imagine what it would be like to be a desperately frightened 21-year-old woman, stranded in the wilderness and trying to rescue her family, but she doesn’t come alive as an individual. We just don’t know enough about her, and Brown is too meticulous a nonfiction writer to invent personal characteristics. The book, he says in the introduction, is a “lens through which I hope you will be able to gaze with compassion and understanding on one young woman and all that the world once was to her.” By that measure, the book succeeds — but I found it disappointing not to know more about Sarah as an individual. It’s unfair to compare Sarah’s portrayal with that of Joe Rantz and the other “boys in the boat”, but it’s almost unavoidable. Sarah remains at a distance from the reader, while the 1936 Olympic crew team and their coach are people the reader comes to know intimately.

One of my favorite aspects of The Indifferent Stars Above is the historical context that Brown provides. Often, he digresses from the Donner Party story, in a very engaging manner, to talk about nitty-gritty details of life in the 19th century. These asides give us a more rounded picture of the pioneers. They weren’t just “strong-jawed men circling the wagons to hold off Indian attacks and hard-edged women endlessly churning butter and peering out from under sunbonnet with eyes as cold and hard as river-worn stones”. Brown fills us in on common diseases of the time (the “Illinois shakes”), hygiene along the trail (minimal), birth control (not very effective), weapons (generally Revolutionary War-era), burial customs, attitudes toward children, and holiday traditions.

Like the crew team, Sarah and the group of brave pioneers who set out on jimmy-rigged snowshoes across the Sierra Nevada to get help for their starving families were ordinary people trying to do their very best under difficult circumstances. Theirs was a life and death struggle, not a quest for an American gold medal, but the same theme runs through both books: character, hard work, and heroism. Some of the moral decisions the Donner Party made, including the decision to practice cannibalism, are open to debate. Readers who have the stomach for The Indifferent Stars Above will find themselves wondering what they would have done if they were trapped in the snow during that cold winter of 1846-47.

10 Fall Paperback Picks

Last month, the New York Times published an article called “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print is Far From Dead”.  The article’s main point was that the predicted “digital apocalypse” hasn’t occurred — sales of e-books are declining and independent bookstores are more robust than ever. Some industry “experts” have taken issue with the article, noting that the e-books referred to in the story are only those published by major publishers, not the gazillions of very cheap e-books available online. Fortune magazine says: “What’s really been happening is that the market share of established publishers has been declining, while sales of independently published e-books have been growing. In particular, sales of books that don’t even have industry standard ISBN numbers have increased.”

A number of authors have been very successful selling their own e-books. John Locke (the 21st century self-published author, not the 18th century philosopher) has published dozens of books since 2010, including How I Sold 1 Million Ebooks in 5 Months, and receives rave reviews from his fans. In fact, 83% of Amazon reviewers gave Locke’s The Love You Crave 4 or 5 stars; in contrast, 62% of reviewers awarded Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch 4 or 5 stars. Are readers deciding to buy The Love You Crave instead of The Goldfinch? No, but as traditional publishers have raised the prices of e-books, more readers are buying the paperback version of The Goldfinch instead of the e-book.

The Association of American Publishers reported that paperback sales increased by 8.4% in the first half of 2015. In many cases, the price of a paperback is nearly the same as the price of an e-book. The Strand Bookstore in New York City has a large table stacked with paperbacks, strategically located by the store’s entrance, with a sign reading “Cheaper than the E-Book”.

Here are 10 recent paperback releases (five fiction, five nonfiction) to pick up this fall:

9781555977207-1On Immunity by Eula Biss
At first glance, On Immunity is an examination of the anti-vaccination movement, but this fascinating book can’t be easily categorized. The online magazine Salon describes it well:  “Part memoir, part cultural criticism and part science journalism . . . an elegant reflection on a very contemporary flavor of fear.” Book clubs will find plenty to discuss.

9780547939414_hres 2The Best American Short Stories 2015 edited by T.C. Boyle and Heidi Pitlor
Every year, I look forward to the new edition of The Best American Short Stories — along with its companions, The Best American EssaysThe Best American Food Writing, The Best American Travel Writing, and more. They are perfect for keeping on your nightstand  or in your car and picking up when you have 15 minutes or so to read.

9780143108399The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff
Ebershoff is executive editor and vice president of Penguin Random House, where he’s edited dozens of well-known books, including several Pulitzer Prize winners. He’s also written several three novels and a book of short stories. I loved The 19th Wife, a  bestselling double narrative about the Mormon Church in the 19th century and today. Now I’m reading The Danish Girl, Ebershoff’s first novel, which is based on the true story of the first transgendered woman. The movie version, starring Eddie Remayne, will be released next month and I want to read the book first — I’m really enjoying it so far.

9780062359940An Uncomplicated Life: A Father’s Memoir of His Exceptional Daughter by Paul Daugherty
Daugherty, career sports writer and father of an adult daughter with Down’s Syndrome, has written a wonderful book for any parent. Through the story of the first 25 years of his daughter Jillian’s life, Daugherty reminds us of the precious gifts our children are, “exceptional” or not. That sounds hokey, but the book isn’t. For my full review, click here.

9780143127314Last Night’s Reading: Illustrated Encounters with Extraordinary Authors by Kate Gavino
The author, like me, loves to attend author readings. Unlike me, every time she goes to a reading she draws a portrait of the author and writes down her favorite quote. She’s been to more than 100 readings in the New York area, and she keeps a map of all the events, adding a pin every time she goes to a reading. Everything about this book, from the drawings to the hand-lettered quotes, is absolutely charming.
9781492628996

The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister
Macallister’s debut is a historical novel about a young, female magician (the “Amazing Arden”) at the turn of the 20th century, who is accused of murder. She is captured and interrogated by a country sheriff who has problems of his own, and during the course of one long night in a rural police station, we learn about the magician’s past. How did an aspiring dancer, born into a wealthy family, end up running a successful traveling magic show — and running for her life? It’s a terrific period piece, with a murder mystery and just a touch of the supernatural. If you enjoyed Water for Elephants, you’ll love this book.

9780544570405_hresWhen Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning
Between 1943 and 1947, the government distributed 120 million paperback books (called Armed Services Editions, or ASEs) to millions of United States servicemen. Special favorites were A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Great Gatsby. Manning’s stirring book illustrates the power these books had to combat Nazi propaganda,  “soothe an aching heart, renew hope for the future, and provide a respite when there was no escape” and to “build a new literate middle class” after the war.

9780143127789The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books by Azar Nafisi
In this insightful follow-up to Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi explores three seminal American novels — Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. These novels, and others, “link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present, and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become.” Interwoven with Nafisi’s literary analysis is the story of her journey to become an American citizen. The book “is a priceless gift to readers who revel in literary fiction”, according to the Chicago Tribune. (Interestingly, the original subtitle of the book was America in Three Books.)

white-collar-girl_brown_Page_1-copyWhite Collar Girl by Renee Rosen (due November 3)
Rosen is carving out a nice niche for herself — historical page-turners set in Chicago. She’s written about Al Capone and organized crime (Dollface) and Marshall Field and the Gilded Age (What the Lady Wants); her new book, a paperback original, focuses on a young woman trying to break into journalism in the 1950s at the Chicago Tribune. (The newspaper column she writes is called “White Collar Girl”.) Like her other books, Rosen’s latest is full of well-known figures — from Mayor Daley to Mike Royko to Ernest Hemingway.

9780142426296Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
One of my favorite authors ventures into YA literature with this  imaginative novel about a   traumatized young girl who is sent to a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers.” After she and several other students are hand-picked for a special English class (based on Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar), they find that writing in their journals enables them to re-experience life before their traumas occurred. I’m looking forward to talking about the book with our store’s YA book group.

What paperbacks are you planning on reading this fall?

Mendocino Fire — Book Review

Mendocino-Fire-394x600-197x300She could swear that an enthralled reader nineteen years old is the most beautiful animal on earth — at least, she’s seen one or two who were, in their spellbound moment, the incarnation of extremest human beauty. They were not themselves. Literature looked back at her from their eyes and told her certain things she was sure they ought not to have understood at their age.

Elizabeth Tallent, “The Wilderness”

Heidi Pitlor, series editor of The Best American Short Stories, estimates she reads between 3,500 and 4,500 stories a year — yet even she cannot explain exactly what makes short story succeed. “It’s easier, in the end, to say what doesn’t work than to pinpoint exactly what does, as a successful short story does not expose its mechanics”, she says in an article entitled “What Makes a Good Short Story‘, adding that “a good story tells you something interesting about someone. Things happen in a good story. People reveal who they are.”

The stories in Elizabeth Tallent’s brilliant collection, Mendocino Fire, unveil the inner lives of a diverse cast of characters. The stories are peopled with men and women who face turning points in their relationships with others and emotional crises within themselves. The twenty-something son of a fisherman comes to term with his father’s rejection (“The Wrong Son”); an aging political activist blames a scavenged Persian rug for the demise of his hasty marriage (“Tabriz’); a wronged woman drives across the country to track down her ex-husband and his new wife, with surprising repercussions (“Nobody You Know”); a working-class couple pressure their teenage son into a shotgun marriage and become entwined with his troubled wife (“Never Come Back”); a young woman embarks on an impulsive affair with a famous writer (“Narrator”). These five stories, and the five more that comprise Mendocino Fire, exemplify short story writing at its best.

As every writing instructor I’ve ever had has emphasized, short stories depend on scenes. Pitlor emphasizes the importance of scenes:

Sometimes, story writers seem to forget to write scenes . . . Too often, we as readers enter a story via a small action (a door opening, a phone ringing) and then are held captive while the author utilizes a disproportionate amount of space introducing a character, his marriage, his children, his divorce, his parents and his emotional limitations before we return to the room he just entered or the phone call that just begun. In a 17-page story, each page matters. Each sentence matters. Pacing matters.

With one exception, the stories in Mendocino Fire are built on scenes. In “Narrator”, the protagonist describes the first hours she spent with her soon-to-be lover — a writer who understands very well the importance of detail:

We spent the night over coffee in a cafe on Telegraph Avenue, breaking story-length pieces off from our lives, making a slice of torte disappear in alternating forkfuls. Our waitress’s forgetfulness he explained as distraction: she had a sick child at home. How can you tell? Unicorn stamp on her left hand. How a local pediatrician commemorates non-crying visits.

Tallent, who has been an English professor at Stanford since 1994, is the author of three previous short story collections (In Constant Flight, Time with Children, and Honey), along with a novel (Museum Pieces) and a work of critical analysis (Married Men and Magic Tricks: John Updike’s Erotic Heroes). When Time with Children was published in 1987, the New York Times review commented that “Like John Updike . . . Ms. Tallent is interested in the ways in which the institution of marriage affects our contradictory yearnings for freedom and safety, independence and domesticity.” And like Updike, Tallent constructs beautiful sentences — some very short, some almost a full page in length. One sentence, in particular from “Briar Switch”, a story about a woman facing the impending death of her estranged father (and fittingly, the final story in the collection) is really a prose poem. Both physical and emotional coldness figure into “Briar Switch”, as this sentence excerpt illustrates:

At the other end of the closet is her father’s overcoat, and it stops her, his overcoat simply hanging there, not an overcoat she has any special associations with except that by virtue of being his it evokes the first overcoat she knew him in, no cold like the winter cold borne in with her father’s overcoat, coldest in its folds, but also, all over, distinctly cold, and as if the cryptic eyes your father turns on you were not mystery enough, this ghostly cold comes as a sly erotic assault, a little squall for your child’s senses when that coat shrugs its way down to you . .

Talent’s stories have been published in many magazines and anthologies (The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s,The Paris Review, The Best of Tin House, The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Short Stories) and have received many awards. Pitlor selected my favorite  story in Mendocino Fire, “The Wilderness”, for the 2013 edition of The Best American Short Stories.  This story breaks the rules — it’s a “sceneless” (to use Pitlor’s word) meditation. The story begins with an English professor contemplating her students’ dependence on electronic devices and their desire for constant connectivity, and ends with the professor ruminating on her great-great-grandfather’s experiences as a Civil War soldier in the Battle of the Wilderness and her own need for connection — with him and with other people. It’s a beautiful, poetic story that demands to be read again and again. The professor recalls a childhood visit to a museum, when she encountered mummies and “for the first time comprehended death”:

Her heart has always been the same size as it was that long-ago Sunday when she first saw those eyes pointed at both ends, and she has always felt the same to herself. Secretly, because people are supposed to go through enormous changes, to mature, she wonders if there is something wrong with her, to feel such consistency between who she is now and who she was then when she looked down into those alive-dead eyes.

The professor, like Tallent’s other characters —  Finn, the tree-sitter in “Mendocino Fire”; Clio in “Eros 101”;  the ex-wife in “Mystery Caller” — wants what we all want: intimate connection with other people, to know and be known. That universal longing links the ten stories of Mendocino Fire. The collection is Tallent’s first book in 20 years, but fortunately we won’t have to wait that long for her next book — she has a memoir,  Perfectionism, due for publication in 2016.

Don’t think you’re a short story fan? Check out Five Reasons to Read Short Stories

Books on the Table in New York — This Link Works!

Something happened to my recent blog post, Books on the Table in New York — it vanished from cyberspace, and the so-called “Happiness Engineers” at WordPress are unavailable until October 21st while they “work on a few projects internally as a team”. Why does this make me think that the glitch with my blog is just one of many? ANYWAY, click on the link below to read about my literary weekend in New York — and have a wonderful weekend!

https://booksonthetable.com/2015/10/12/books-on-the-table-in-new-york/

Carrying Albert Home — Book Review

y648-1The story of how my parents carried Albert home was a bit more than their fanciful tales of youthful adventure. Put all together, it was their witness and testimony to what is heaven’s greatest and perhaps only true gift, that strange and marvelous emotion we inadequately call love.

Homer Hickam (the younger)

Homer Hickam grew up hearing tall tales about his mother’s alligator, Albert. Elsie Hickam “loved Albert more than just about anything in the whole world”, but Elsie’s new husband, Homer, finally issues an ultimatum: “‘Me or that alligator.'” After thinking it over, Elsie reluctantly agrees to give up her beloved pet, returning him to his native Florida. The young couple’s road trip from West Virginia to Florida involves more adventures than most people have in a lifetime.

Elsie and Homer befriend John Steinbeck while visiting a vagrant camp; they have dinner with Ernest Hemingway in Key West just before the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935; they become paid actors when they stumble upon a movie set; and they have run-ins with a variety of lowlifes and criminals, from bank robbers to bootleggers to smugglers.  Albert himself plays baseball, flies in a plane, and plays a mysterious part in saving Homer’s life.

At its heart, Carrying Albert Home is a love story. In an interview, Hickam says, “It’s a book for people who are in love, want to be loved, know somebody who has been in love, or is interested in love even as a concept.” Continue reading

Books on the Table in New York

Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies.
Nora Ephron (from You’ve Got Mail, the best bookstore movie ever)

If I ever get rich, I’m going to come here and buy all the books I want.
Overheard at the Strand Bookstore

3782319053_344f405b95_bMy husband and I just spent a gorgeous fall weekend in New York with our son, and actually did buy some school supplies — at the famous Strand Bookstore, which claims to have 18 miles of books. That’s the length of the New Hampshire coastline. The books (new and used) at the Strand are not only crammed into hundreds of shelves, but piled on table after table.

The Strand has more tables than I’ve ever seen in a bookstore, and they aren’t your usual “new fiction” and “new nonfiction”.  Here are just a few of the Strand’s tables:

IMG_1787Award-winning books
My favorite: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (also on the Read the Book First table of books adapted into movies)

Culinary literature
My favorite: Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

Must-own short stories (What a pleasure to see a whole table devoted to short stories!)
My favorite: The Collected Stories by Grace Paley

Books everybody loves
My favorite: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
Most curious selection: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

IMG_1794Expand your horizons
I must really need to expand my horizons, because I hadn’t read much of anything on this table. Maybe I’ll start with Oliver Sacks, whose books are currently featured?

YA bestsellers
My favorite: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

One table in particular attracted a large crowd — the “erotica” table, which surprisingly is located right next to the children’s section. Maybe the staff has found that parents of young children are the store’s biggest erotica customers? I quickly moved away from that table, imagining how embarrassing it would be if my son found me browsing there. I couldn’t even say I was doing “research”, because Lake Forest Book Store definitely does not carry erotica. We don’t even have a romance section.

Just to prove that no bookstore can stock everything, the Strand didn’t have a book I wanted to take a look at — Symphony for City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson. I always feel a little bad, even though I shouldn’t, when customers come into our store with a book review ripped out of a magazine or newspaper and we don’t have the book — even though I know we can’t have everything in our little store, and that we do a really good job stocking the books that appeal to our customer base. So I felt better when a huge bookstore like the Strand didn’t have a book that had received a great review in that day’s New York Times.

9781857593280_p0_v1_s192x300I took a lot of photos in the Strand, although I was a little worried someone would confront me, thinking I was one of those awful people who take photos and then order the book elsewhere. Actually, I became one of those people later that day when we were in the gift shop at the Frick Collection. We bought a copy of the Frick’s Handbook of Paintings, along with Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America by Les Standiford, and then on the way out Jeff saw something that intrigued him called The Curious Map Book, which was large and heavy. So I snapped a photo (sorry, Frick Collection gift shop) and e-mailed an order to Lake Forest Book Store.

It’s nearly impossible to leave the Strand without buying something. Jeff and I each bought a blank book (our “school supplies”) and I bought a journal called Literary Listography: My Reading Life in Lists. I can’t resist that kind of thing, and this one is filled with hand-drawn illustrations. I successfully resisted buying more reading material to lug home, but Jeff and Charlie filled a  couple of shopping bags with books. (None of their selections came from the erotica section.)

9781400031702I tossed in a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, for Charlie’s roommate. At brunch, he had asked me whether I thought The Goldfinch was worth reading. I said it absolutely was, but recommended that he read The Secret History first. “If it involves a bitchy female protagonist, I’m in,” he said. I said that it did, which isn’t exactly true, but I’m pretty sure he’ll love the book anyway.

We had brunch at Pete’s Tavern, which says it’s the oldest bar in New York and bills itself as “the tavern O. Henry made famous.” Supposedly, O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi” there. Of greater interest to me is the fact that Ludwig Bemelmans created Madeline in a booth at Pete’s. According to a 1999 article in the New York Times:

Petes-tavern-2007_crop-1Madeline must be the only famous French orphan born in a tavern near Gramercy Park. It was there, 60 years ago, that Ludwig Bemelmans, her creator, jotted on the back of a menu the famous phrases, ”In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived 12 little girls in two straight lines.”

A plaque honoring Bemelmans, who died in 1962, was dedicated at that bar, Pete’s Tavern, in late September. The small crowd that gathered for the occasion included his widow, Madeleine (known as Mimi), and his daughter, Barbara, who were inspirations for Madeline.

9781101911617Because it’s a requirement to go to the theater during a New York weekend, we saw this year’s Tony Award winner —  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The performances and the staging in the play, adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel, were superb. You don’t so much watch the play as become immersed in the mind of the main character, a 15-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. To the critic who sniffed,  “I’m sorry to tell you a winsome puppy figures in (the play’s) denouement”, I’d like to say that we really liked the puppy. Haddon published a fascinating piece in the Guardian about the process of adapting his novel into a play, noting that “Just as the novel was a novel about novels and how we read them, so the play is a play about plays and how we watch them.”

I’m already looking forward to planning our next trip, which I’m hoping will include tickets to the hit play Hamilton (inspired by Ron Chernow’s book, Alexander Hamilton). And how about staying at the Library Hotel, in which “each of the 10 guestroom floors honor one of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System and each of our 60 rooms are uniquely adorned with books and art exploring a distinctive topic within the category it belongs to.)?

The Bookstore Conversation I Dread

Oscar_Wilde_SaronyI don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.
Oscar Wilde

If you’re an avid reader and you like people, selling books is not hard. It’s not as if you’re trying to sell a complicated computer system to a business, or cold-calling strangers with a two-for-one deal on burial plots. You’re chatting with nice people about books, and — most of the time — what could be more fun than that?

indie-bookstore“I’m just browsing, thanks.”

Several kinds of customers come into bookstores. When browsers wander in, they make it clear that they do not want or need any help. The bookseller’s job is to keep an eye on those people because sooner or later they actually do want help and often get annoyed if you don’t intuit this immediately. Other people come in with a purpose. Some of them need a specific book — the Real ACT Guide, or their book club selection (about which they have very little information, such as the title or author), or a London guidebook. These are both the easiest and the most difficult customers — either you pull the desired book off the shelf and hand it over, with a satisfied customer leaving in less than five minutes — or you waste a good chunk of your time on the computer trying to figure out which translation of the Odyssey the high school is using, and which warehouse has stock.

“What’s the hot new book?”

The customers who are the most fun are the ones who want recommendations:

“Something funny for my third grader who hates to read . .. he’s already read all the Wimpy Kid books.”
“A page-turner for a long plane flight.”
“A mystery . . . well, maybe a thriller . . . for my father, who’s recovering from hip surgery.”
“Something brand new for my girlfriend’s birthday — she’s read everything and she loves historical fiction.”
“My mom loves a little romance but nothing too racy, please — no Fifty Shades of Gray.”
“I just need a really, really good book.”

“No war, no dysfunctional families!”

As much as I enjoy talking with customers — discussing favorites and not so favorites, recommending undiscovered gems, and sharing ideas about book club picks — I dread one conversation that regularly repeats itself. I call it the Depressing Books conversation. A customer, usually female, asks me to suggest books for her book group. I ask her what the group has read recently, and whether these choices inspired good discussions. She starts to tell me, and then exclaims, “But they were all so DEPRESSING! Can you suggest a happy book? Doesn’t anyone write happy books anymore?” One customer gave me a list of taboo topics, which included war, illness, death, and unhappy families.

I’ve heard this question, or a variation of it, countless times — and I still don’t have a good answer. Often I answer the question with a question: “What do you mean by ‘depressing’”? It seems that what many readers want are books about likable people who have good things happen to them. If some not-so-good things happen, they shouldn’t be too bad, and in any case everything should turn out all right in the end. I talk about conflict, and drama, and how these are elements of good storytelling. As Deborah Triesman, fiction editor of the New Yorker, says, “Happiness is static, and fiction has to move.”

Small Blessings_tpWhy I can’t create a list of happy book recommendations

I’ve been trying to compile my own list of books that are non-depressing, yet meaty. Every once in a while, I’ll read a book — most recently it was the marvelous Small Blessings, by Martha Woodroof — that I think is a perfect for this list, only to have my bubble burst when someone points out a “depressing” plot element in my happy book. Guess what? There is almost no way to write a compelling story without including some of life’s unpleasantness. Aspiring authors, take note: there is a huge market for books the reading public perceives as “happy” and uplifting. The trick is to write one that’s not too saccharine. (Also, please bear in mind that the parents of middle-grade reluctant readers — who are mostly male — need MORE FUNNY BOOKS. Fart jokes are OK.)

I recently discovered a website called Positively Good Reads (“feel-good fiction with substance: an upbeat reading list for people who often find serious novels depressing”) which includes a list of books that make the site’s creator feel “hopeful about humankind”. It’s an odd list, weighted heavily in favor of classics that most people already know about (Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, A Room With a View, To Kill a Mockingbird), many of which are packed with upsetting topics.

88da2cf387cd631c_oprah-book-club-booksEveryone’s a critic when it comes to Oprah’s book choices

Why do readers so often use the vague and negative term “depressing” to describe contemporary novels? Oprah’s Book Club selections seem to elicit special scorn. Oprah Winfrey did an amazing thing back in 1996 when she launched her monthly book club. For 15 years, she shared her love of reading and promoted her favorite books (many by relatively unknown authors). Many highbrow critics scoffed at Oprah’s Book Club; Scott Stossel, an editor at the Atlantic, said: “There is something so relentlessly therapeutic, so consciously self-improving about the book club that it seems antithetical to discussions of serious literature. Literature should disturb the mind and derange the senses; it can be palliative, but it is not meant to be the easy, soothing one that Oprah would make it.”

If Stossel was interested in the opinions of everyday readers — which I doubt — he should have spent some time talking with my bookstore’s customers. Many of them found Oprah’s selections far from “easy” and “soothing” and were quick to dismiss her choices as “downers”. In an article in The Oprah Affect, a collection of scholarly essays about Oprah’s Book Club, R. Mark Hall says Oprah was “often chided by Book Club participants for choosing stories her readers find grim or even depressing.”

cover-1“Feel-good” literature — hard to find, harder to define

Cynthia Crossen, who wrote the “Dear Book Lover” column in the Wall Street Journal for several years, received a request from a book club for a list of “recent releases that are uplifting and joyful to read, yet also stimulating—something that would satisfy our intellectual needs but also make us feel good about the world.” She didn’t have many suggestions, citing the theory of Daniel Gilbert (author of a nonfiction book about what the very word happy actually means, Stumbling on Happiness) that “people are generally poor prognosticators of what will make them happy” and noting that “the same may be true of predicting books that will leave the reader feeling uplifted and joyful.” Maybe another reason she had few recommendations is that she’s not the kind of reader looking for cheerful books, as evidenced by her rave review of Hanya Yanigihara’s dark and disturbing novel, A Little Life, which she calls “one of the most compelling, original, and moving novels I have ever read.”

9781410468895Compelling. Original. Moving. Those are the three of the four qualities I look for most in a book, fiction or nonfiction. (I’d add “beautifully written” to the list.) I’m not expecting a book to make me feel good about the world, although sometimes that’s nice. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry gave me a warm fuzzy feeling, although I’ve talked to several people who thought the book was sad and that A.J. was unlikable. The only books that make me feel depressed are books I wish I hadn’t invested time in reading, because I didn’t gain any knowledge or emotional insight from them and the only feelings they evoked were negative. I picked up You, a thriller by Caroline Kepnes, because the main character was a bookstore employee. Turns out he was a psychopath who stalked a woman and then locked her in a torture chamber he’d built in the basement of his bookstore. The plot of this creepy book was filled with holes, and the characters were uninteresting — I didn’t even care about the victim. I hate to use the dreaded word, but this book was just plain . . . depressing.