Books on the Table in New Orleans

New Orleans is unlike any city in America. Its cultural diversity is woven into the food, the music, the architecture – even the local superstitions. It’s a sensory experience on all levels and there’s a story lurking around every corner.
Ruta Sepetys

2957291075_51fce98859Most American cities name their airports for politicians (Reagan, JFK) or military heroes (Logan, O’Hare). Not New Orleans. The New Orleans airport is named after one of the 20th century’s most beloved musicians, Louis Armstrong — which signals to visitors that the city has a unique character. Tennessee Williams reportedly said, “America only has three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

tennessee_williams_nywtsWe left the subzero weather behind in “Cleveland” (which in our case was Chicago) last weekend and spent three days in Tennessee Williams’s adopted city. During our food tour, which included six stops at New Orleans restaurants, we saw the house in the French Quarter where Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. (I don’t think the eight miles we walked that day came even close to burning the calories we consumed!) Kenneth Holditch, Ph.D., longtime friend of Williams, co-editor of the Library of America’s editions of Williams’s works, and the author of Tennessee Williams and the South, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that  “New Orleans was created by writers and visual artists . . . Sherwood Anderson once said this is a ‘city of imagination.’”

IMG_1838For me, no vacation is complete without at least one bookstore visit. On our first day, we stumbled upon Beckham’s Bookshop in the French Quarter , which was everything a used bookstore should be — quirky, dusty, and packed with treasures. There was even a resident cat. My favorite section in the store was “True Crime and Rascality”. Because I’m unable to walk out of a bookstore without buying something, I picked up a copy of The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story, by Julia Reed. Reed, a journalist, got married and moved to the Garden District of New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina struck. The New York Times critic, literary biographer Blake Bailey, gave the book a rave review despite his initial misgivings:

I really wanted to pan this book. First of all, with the exception of Walker Percy’s Moviegoer, I tend to dislike literature about New Orleans (oh the decadence! the quaintness!) . . . It’s also a Hurricane Katrina memoir. I’d considered writing my own Katrina memoir, and now I realize I probably never will.

Reed includes her “Favorite New Orleans Reads” at the back of the book.  She recommends, among others,  The Moviegoer (“it remains, even now, an accurate rendering of a certain subset of upper-class New Orleanians”); Bandits, by Elmore Leonard (“You can almost smell the inside of the Bourbon Street bars”); and The Feast of All Saints, by Anne Rice (“No vampires, just free people of color in pre-Civil War New Orleans”).

y648We rode the famous St. Charles streetcar to uptown New Orleans and visited a lovely independent bookstore, Octavia Books. I bought two more books: My New Orleans, Gone Away: A Memoir of Loss and Renewal, by Peter M. Wolf,and a signed copy of Why New Orleans Matters, by Tom Piazza. Piazza wrote his book in 2005, during “five agonizing weeks” following Hurricane Katrina. The updated edition, published in 2015, includes information about the city’s recovery. In the preface, Piazza says:

As long as New Orleans exists, it will attract the imaginative, the creative, the adventurous, and the soulful people of the world. Walking down almost any street and drinking in the cocktail of historical resonance, architectural whimsy, olfactory magic, savoring the peculiar mix of seriousness and play, of new possibilities, good and bad, around any corner, will remind you of why it is good to be alive.

IMG_1840Thousands of adventurous people were in evidence on Saturday afternoon during the memorial parade for David Bowie. The parade, led by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Arcade Fire, was announced on social media just two days ahead of time but attracted Bowie fans and curiosity seekers from all over. Even though we didn’t have appropriate attire (space suits, tutus, gold lame), we jumped into the fray and followed the parade. At one point, we were just a few feet away from Win Butler of Arcade Fire, who was dressed in a hot pink suit and singing Bowie’s “Heroes”.

Poster for the American Library Association marketing campaign, 1987

Apparently David Bowie was a world-class reader. Geoffrey Marsh, who curated the Victoria & Albert Museum retrospective exhibit of Bowie’s life,  describes Bowie as “a voracious reader” who often read as much as “a book a day”. Bowie told Vanity Fair that reading was his idea of perfect happiness — and that the quality he most admires in a man is “the ability to return books”.  According to the London Telegraph, Bowie (“a remarkably well-read man”) brought hundreds of books with him when he went on tour: “I had these cabinets– it was a travelling library — and they were rather like the boxes that amplifiers get packed up in . . . I have an extraordinarily good collection of books.” Readers who are interested in Bowie’s  100 favorite books can check out the list here. The books, both fiction and nonfiction, cover an enormous range of territory; art, music, history, religion, psychology, and poetry. I haven’t read (or even heard of) many of them, but we do share one favorite: Fran Lebowitz’s Metropolitan Life.

0802130208John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, set in New Orleans, appears on Bowie’s list. I’ve never read this book, which is often referred to as a “cult classic” and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Walker Percy said, “It is a great pity that John Kennedy Toole is not alive and well and writing. But he is not, and there is nothing we can do about it but make sure that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragi-comedy is at least made available to a world of readers.” If it weren’t for Percy, A Confederacy of Dunces would most likely never have been published. He was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans when Toole’s mother brought him her late son’s novel. Percy championed the book, and Louisiana State University Press published it. The book was the first novel from an academic press to win a Pulitzer — beating  out Percy’s novel, The Second Coming.

Rhoda Faust, owner of Maple Street Bookshop in New Orleans, also helped Toole’s mother find a publisher. She told the Times-Picayune that the novel “captures New Orleans better than anything else on the face of the earth ever has”, but that it’s popular with readers everywhere: “Humor translates . . . the people within A Confederacy of Dunces are going through the same things other people and their families are going through.”

Susan Larson, author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans and host of the local NPR affiliate’s show on books, “This Reading Life”, says: “Few American cities have such a visible and inviting literary culture, played out on its streets every day.” Larson often reads two books a day — when she was a judge for the Pulitzer, she had to read 300 books in six months. That New Orleans reader could put the rest of us — including David Bowie — to shame!







Top 25 Books of 2015 — Booksellers Share Their Favorites

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the  woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

unnamed201_2In North America, today is the winter solstice, which means it’s the shortest day of the year. Here in Chicago, that means we will have only 9 hours and 7 minutes of daylight today. I plan to take full advantage of the dark and dreary weather, spending the longest evening of the year curled up with a good book — The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. I’m loving this book, and if I were making a list of my favorite books of 2015, it would be a contender.

Paperback edition — available 1/6/16

Because I’ve talked about my favorite books so much already, I’m sharing some of my colleagues’ top picks. Collectively, our #1 choice was Christopher Scotton’s The Secret Wisdom of the Earth (Molly called it “my 2015 ‘Pulitzer'”), which is coming out in paperback on January 6.

Although several booksellers named five or six books as “favorites” — “I cannot possibly limit it further”, said one; “It’s funny how hard that question is to answer”, said another — I’m narrowing the list to one or two books each. I’ve included fiction, nonfiction, children’s and YA. Most of the books were published this year, but some are older books that we discovered in 2015.

9780307408860Laura S. recommends Erik Larson’s latest, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, as well as Sophie Kinsella’s YA debut, Finding Audrey.

9780062284075Diane‘s top choice for adults is A Deadly Wandering: A Mystery, A Landmark Investigation, and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age (Matt Richtel) –a book that I think everyone should read, along with Being Mortal (Atul Gawande). (For my review of A Deadly Wandering, click here.) For younger readers, Di’s favorite is The Thing About Jellyfish (Ali Benjamin), a National Book Award finalist.

Ann P.  loves a backlist title, Everything Beautiful Began After — Simon van Booy’s first novel.

9780802123411For Susan R., along with Laura B. (one of our Penguin Random House reps)  the choice was easy: an award-winner that has appeared on many “best of 2015” lists —H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. The New York Times called this memoir “breathtaking”.

Lisa’s pick is Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf’s last novel, which is also a book club favorite.

50th anniversary edition — “the most beautiful book in the world”

Diana can’t decide between one of this year’s hottest books  — Fates and Furies  (Lauren Groff) — and a modern classic, Stoner (John Williams), originally published in 1965 and re-released several years ago. Stoner — which is not about a pot-smoker, but a farm boy turned English professor (William Stoner, Ph.D.) — is “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of”, according to the New Yorker. It’s a superb book — don’t miss it!

Susan P.‘s bookselling heart was touched by A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan’s wise and witty debut novel about a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, a soul-sucking company that seems determined to put independent bookstores out of business. (For my review, click here.)

Kathy P.‘s #1  book of 2015 is The Buried Giant. Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in 10 years, set in England’s mythical past, is “a rumination on memory, love and war worthy of a place among the greats” (The Guardian).

Anne H. (our Macmillan rep) had a hard time deciding — she said, “This is such a hard question! It makes me think I need to start keeping a list of books I read.” She settled on Jenny Lawson’s irreverent memoir, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, and Paul Murray’s satirical novel, The Mark and the Void.  (Can you tell Anne has a good sense of humor?)

9780525429777Molly says Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier (Michelle Cuevas) is the best middle grade book she’s read this year — “and maybe ever”.  Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill is her nonfiction pick for the year.

Max loves Carrying Albert Home, the heartwarming, “semi-true” story of author Homer Hickam’s parents and their odyssey throughout the Southeast with their pet alligator. She was thrilled when Hickam stopped by Lake Forest Book Store to chat and sign books. (For my review, click here.)

Eleanor is a fan of The Red Notebook (Antoine Laurain), the charming, romantic and very French tale of a lost handbag — and a perfect gift book for anyone with a tender heart.

Cathy S. (our HarperCollins rep) sent me the longest list of anyone, mentioning that “I also realize that I’ve read a lot of ‘older’ books like Life after Life by Atkinson that I hadn’t had time to read before”.  Cathy — who never steers me wrong — recommends The Wolf Border (Sarah Hall), and the fourth installment in Elena Ferrante”s Neapolitan series, The Story of the Lost Child. (Countless other readers I trust have recommended this series as well.)

Nancy  is a fan of A Tale for the Time Being (Cynthia Ozecki), shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and a terrific book club choice.

9780312577223From across the lake at The Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor, Michigan, Sue sends two favorites: Days of Awe (Lauren Fox) and The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah), two books I enjoyed very much as well. The Nightingale is a real departure for Hannah, and although it’s not as literary as All the Light We Cannot See, it’s a good choice for readers looking for another absorbing story about Nazi-occupied France.

And my favorite? It’s impossible to choose one, but if I had to pick the most unforgettable books I read this year, I’d choose A Little Life (Hanya Yanigahara) and Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel). How about you?



A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai

512bpnaxg3rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_“We’re living in this terrible world with wars and broken hearts and starvation, but some of us are compelled to make art, like that’s supposed to help anything.”
The narrator in Rebecca Makkai’s short story, “Peter Torelli, Falling Apart”

Rebecca Makkai’s short story collection, Music for Wartime, was originally scheduled for publication on July 14, 2015 — the same day, her publisher learned, that Go Set a Watchman would hit the shelves. Short story collections, regardless of their literary merit, have a tough enough time attracting  readers’ attention without competing with the year’s most talked-about book. So Music for Wartime came out on June 23, and Makkai’s job as a salesperson for her book — which was 13 years in the making — began.

Makkai, the author of two acclaimed novels (The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House), is one of today’s most accomplished writers of short fiction. The Kansas City Star says: “If any short story writer can be considered a rock star of the genre, it’s Rebecca Makkai. She has had a story selected for the annual Best American Short Stories anthology in four consecutive years.” Music for Wartime includes those four stories, along with 13 others. Divergent in tone, style, and subject matter, the stories all address the same question — “what it means to be an artist in a brutal world,” as Makkai put it.

Rock stars don’t have any trouble filling arenas with screaming fans. Literary stars, on the other hand, are relieved when a bookstore has to set up extra chairs to accommodate readers who have come to hear a favorite author. Makkai’s appearance last week at Lake Forest Book Store (her hometown store) was her last bookstore event promoting Music for Wartime. On Thanksgiving, I’m sure she’ll be feeling gratitude that she can now turn her full attention to writing! She graciously took time out from a residency at Ragdale (a writers’ retreat), where she is working on her third novel, to discuss her short story collection.

10738849Here are some edited highlights of my 45-minute conversation with Rebecca Makkai.

I though we could start out by talking about short stories in general. I have to say, having been a bookseller for a long time, short stories can be a hard sell. I absolutely love them — I’ve always loved them. But the minute you tell a customer about a book of short stories, you can see the look on their face — “Oh no, not short stories!”

They always get critically recognized — it’s a matter of the commercial sales. My first experience a couple of years ago — which is proof of this — was when I was working on Small Business Saturday. Sherman Alexie started this initiative to get authors in bookstores the Saturday after Thanksgiving, to handsell books. I’ve done it here, and last year I did it at City Lit in Logan Square, and this year I’m going to Women and Children First down in the city.  I started to realize, selling here and selling in Logan Square, that I could not move a story collection to save my life.

You should have gotten a bonus if you did.

There was one guy, who came in shopping for his girlfriend who wanted to be a writer. That was the one person, who bought three story collections.

You’ll notice, they didn’t put “stories” on the cover (of Music for Wartime) — sneaky move!

I think part of the reason is there’s no hook for people the way there is with a novel. If someone wants to pitch a book to their book club, if it’s a novel, they can say “It’s the story of a woman who buys a bookstore, and this happens to her, and this happens to her”, and people get involved, and they want to hear more about it. With a story collection, you can’t pitch the plot that way.

And I have to add — tonight is the National Book Awards, and good news for the short story: two collections are on the short list: Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and Karen Bender’s Refund.

And last year, the one that won was a book of short stories — Redeployment, by Phil Klay.

You always hear about how people’s attention spans are shorter today, in the Internet Age . . . you can read a story in 15 minutes, versus investing all that time in a novel.

I don’t think that’s true. Look at what people watch on TV. The age of the little 30-minute sitcom is over. People want epics. They want to binge-watch seven hour-long episodes of something. I get it, I write novels too. But I feel that people are missing out if they don’t read short stories. They’re missing out on what can be done — the avant-garde of literature.

You can take so many more risks with a short story.

Yes, think of something like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”. You cannot maintain that for 300 pages. No one wants to read a 300-page novel about a cockroach. But you can do it for 15 pages. You can be experimental with form, with language in a short story in a way that would be unsustainable or unbearable in a 300-page novel. So when people miss that, they’re missing, I think, what literature can do.

I’ve made my peace with it because every year I watch the Oscars, and when they start with the awards for short films, I go make popcorn.

Getting back to Kafka, you have a couple of stories that sort of remind me of his. This collection is so great because of that — the stories are all different in terms of tone, subject matter, and style. There’s magical realism, there’s humor, there are family legends — there’s so much variety here, but there’s something binding them all together. Every story is about somebody who’s creating something. Can you talk about how you assembled this group of stories and how you chose which ones to include?

Part of the reason this wasn’t my first book  and that I focused on my novels first is that I couldn’t understand how to put the stories I’d written into a collection. I feel like a story collection should be more than just a pile of stories and more than just a sum of its parts — it should be like an album, that adds up to something more.

Very early on, before I’d published my first novel, I sent out a really incomplete collection — someone had gotten me an introduction to a publisher — and they very wisely passed on the collection, because it didn’t come together at all. But the editor who wrote back took the time to say, “I could see these stories eventually coalescing around a theme. I notice the themes of both music and war are really prominent in these stories.” I was thinking about that letter years later, and the title, Music for Wartime, came to me. I liked that it sounded like an album, like an old LP of World War I songs.

The idea that those themes could coexist, and the themes I was already writing about, the stories I was already writing about artists and music, and the stories I was already writing about refugees and dissidents and interrogations and war, that they were really speaking to the same question. I think of it as a question rather than a theme, the question being, “What does it mean to try to make beauty, to make art or order in the midst of a brutal and chaotic world?”

auth-ph-13-cropped-jpeg1-300x400There are some stories interspersed that are almost like memoir snippets — I assume they’re fictionalized family history?

Overtly fictionalized nonfiction . . . It’s already  in many ways a collection about the line between fiction and reality — there’s a story about a reality TV show, for instance. So it felt right that these stories went in there — I was taking the story I’d been told, acknowledging that I don’t really know what happened, and then working with my uncertainty to create a piece of fiction. But it’s very clear that that’s what I’m doing, rather than passing them off as fiction, or passing them off as nonfiction, kind of laying bare the process a little bit.

Can you share a little about your family history? 

My father was a refugee in 1956 following the failed Hungarian revolution. There are three stories in here that are about his parents. These are the pieces that I thought fit into a collection of fiction rather than a nonfiction account. Her mother was a really well-known Hungarian novelist. She wrote something like 40 novels — which I haven’t read because they’re written in Hungarian. My grandfather — and they were only married for a few years — was a member of Parliament and was in many ways, at least for a while, on the wrong side of history and was the author of the second set of anti-Jewish laws in Hungary. Later, he did other things that sort of contradicted that, but it’s not entirely clear to me why and what the pivot point was for him. So they’re fascinating people . . . ultimately, I’m going to be writing something longer about them — a sort of nonfiction investigation.

What do you think makes a great short story? I know you teach writing — if a student were to ask you what makes a story successful, what would you say?

What literary fiction is trying to do in the contemporary age is really different from what it was trying to do, say, 200 years ago. The contemporary project is largely concerned with how much people can change over the course of a narrative — over the course of a novel, over the course of 20 pages. Our question is really one of character development — which is where literary fiction tends to differ from certain genre fiction, which is much more about the conventions of plot, or establishing an alternate world. So when short stories fail, it’s almost always because the character doesn’t change, or only changes once. You need a change to set the story in motion, but you also need a change at the climactic scene of the story, you need an ultimate change for that character, a reason that the story has been told. It can happen in three pages, it can happen in 25 pages, it can happen in 320 pages.












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.

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?

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.)?

A Window Opens — Book Review


Sometimes you just know. And so you rearrange your life around what you glimpsed through a little window that opened for one second to show you a glimpse of something you might never get to see again. Even so, you know you will never forget the view.

Alice Pearse, heroine of Elisabeth Egan’s debut novel, A Window Opens, has an enviable life — a husband she’s crazy about, three great kids, a house in the suburbs, and a rewarding part-time job as the books editor of a women’s magazine. She even has a babysitter who’s a modern-day Mary Poppins, close and loving relationships with her parents and in-laws, and a best friend who owns the local bookstore. When Alice’s husband doesn’t make partner at his law firm and impulsively decides to open his own law practice (for which he has not a single client), Alice volunteers to become the family breadwinner. That involves making a deal with the devil — which in this case is Scroll, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture.

Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Alice Pearse falls down a rabbit hole and enters a strange new environment, peopled with exasperating and unpleasant characters. Alice soon discovers that Scroll, a thinly disguised version of Amazon, is the workplace from hell — especially for a book lover.  Greg, the president of Scroll (and architect of the “Paper is Poison” initiative), whose “revolutionary ideas about selling books” may not actually involve selling books at all, is thoroughly repulsive to Alice. At their first one-on-one meeting, Greg gestures to the stack of books on Alice’s desk and says:

“You really want to pollute the environment with that crap? . . . No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand. That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet?”

Alice’s immediate boss, Genevieve, is more interested in how Alice reads than what she reads, asking her in an interview whether she “toggles” between her “device and carbon-based books”. Still, Alice is initially smitten with Genevieve, whom she mistakenly identifies as a fellow bibliophile. She’s flattered and intrigued when Genevieve describes Alice’s potential role at the company as the “ScrollCrier . . . someone to liaise with the publishing community at large”. After Alice joins the company, it gradually becomes clear to her that Genevieve is not her friend, and not even an effective manager :”Then it occurred to me that Genevieve might be implementing a new leadership strategy from the One Minute Manager. Befriend, then berate. Was that a thing?”

“Toggling” is one of the themes of A Window Opens — juggling roles as employee, wife, mother, friend, and daughter; switching between traditional means of connection (handwritten notes, “real” books, bookstores, in-person book groups) and modern technology (e-books, email, social media, Scroll’s “GatheringPlace”). Alice is pulled in so many directions as she “toggles” that she temporarily loses sight of what’s really important to her. Egan, who, like her novel’s protagonist, is a literary editor at a women’s magazine and a mother of three living in New Jersey, spent a year working as an editor at Amazon. In an article in the New York Times, she says, “‘That fish-out-of-water feeling was drawn from my experience at Amazon.'”

The article also mentions that the novel “is already causing a stir in the literary world, in part because it feeds into pervasive anxiety about the role of Amazon and the future of independent bookstores and publishing overall. It also arrives, coincidentally, in the midst of a debate about the work culture at Amazon.”

As I read A Window Opens, I wondered why there are so few novels that take place in office settings, given that so many people spend the majority of their waking hours in cubicles and conference rooms. Certainly, conflict abounds in offices — drama is not only found in other workplaces, such as hospitals and schools. An article in the Guardian asks, “Why don’t novels do work?”, stating that “we spend most of our lives making a living, but it’s a rare novelist that tackles this centrally important subject.” Even novels that appear to be about work actually aren’t, the article claims; “the books are set in offices, but the fulcrum of the plots tend to be about the characters’ private lives.” In her novel, Egan nicely balances (or should I say “toggles”?) the story of Alice’s career and the story of her personal life.

On the advice of early readers, Egan changed the original ending of the book. I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t say anything more, but do me a favor: please read this wonderful book and let me know what you think of the ending. I’m dying to discuss it!

Bookstore Spotlight — Cottage Book Shop


Bookstores attract the right kind of folk. Good people like A.J. and Amelia. And I like talking about books with people who like talking about books. I like paper. I like how it feels, and I like the feel of a book in my back pocket. I like how a new book smells, too.
Officer Lambiase, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry 

Lots of people retire and move to a new home, slowing down and enjoying newfound leisure time. When Sue Boucher’s husband retired last year, the Bouchers sold their house in the Chicago suburbs  and settled in a place they’ve vacationed in for years — Leelenau County, Michigan. The move also meant that Sue had to sell her beloved store, Lake Forest Book Store. Sue enjoys gardening, knitting, hiking, biking, spending time with friends and family — and of course, reading — but she wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the book business.

“I never thought I’d fall in love with another bookstore,” Sue said, but fall in love she did — with one of the most charming bookstores I’ve ever seen, the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor, Michigan. Housed in a log cabin that was built in 1920 and moved from its original location to its current one in 1998, the shop is packed with a wide assortment of carefully chosen books — plus puzzles, games,toys, and cards. The walls are covered with the work of local artists. Sue bought the store in the spring of 2014 from longtime owner Barbara Siepker, who was planning to retire. (Her vision of retirement apparently didn’t involve running a small business!)

11824925_10153528233884803_6439038564801579186_n“Summer is our version of the Christmas season,” Sue said, when I mentioned how busy the store was on a Monday afternoon. Glen Arbor overflows with visitors and summer residents from June through August, with a tiny local population the rest of the year. Last week — which should have been one of the store’s busiest all year —  a storm of Biblical proportions with 100 mph winds hit the town, downing hundreds of trees and causing power outages for nearly a week. The Cottage stayed open almost every day, conducting business with old-fashioned technology (lanterns) and modern technology (iPhones).

9781908313867I had fun “working” as a guest bookseller in the shop for a few hours on Monday, which meant that I put on an official Cottage Book Shop apron and walked around the store straightening shelves and chatting with customers.  I recommended some of my favorites, and  — since I know the alphabet — I was able to help a few people locate specific titles. A constant trail of families entered the store, looking for summer reading for both parents and children. “This is my favorite time to read,” a woman told me as she picked out a stack of paperbacks. “Every summer we come here for two weeks and I come here right away to stock up. It’s my first stop right after the grocery store.”

FullSizeRender-1What’s popular right now at the Cottage Book Shop? Bestsellers include A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman), The Red Notebook (Antoine Laurain), Leaving Time (Jodi Picoult), The Martian (Andy Weir), Ordinary Grace (William Kent Kreuger), Lisette’s List (Susan Vreeland), The Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown), and My Salinger Year (Joanna Rakoff) — all great choices for vacation reading. Local interest books are big sellers as well, including gorgeous photography books (Ice Caves of Leelenau), children’s picture books (Petoskey Stone Soup) and field guides (Birds of Michigan).

9780143127666Not surprisingly, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been selling briskly — and Sue had a great turnout for a screening of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird the night before the release of Go Set a Watchman. I haven’t read it yet . . . unfortunately, I’ve read so many articles about the book that I can’t imagine enjoying it. Too many preconceived notions can spoil the excitement of starting a brand new book. I did enjoy, and wholeheartedly recommend, Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door, a delightful account of Mills’s friendship with Harper Lee and her sister.

I suggested The Mockingbird Next Door for the September selection for the Cottage’s Book of the Month Club. (But maybe it’s not a good suggestion — maybe everyone has heard enough about Harper Lee?) Every month, club members receive a paperback in the mail. Sue and her staff try to pick high-quality books with broad appeal. The August choice is  a wonderful one — Neverhome, by Laird Hunt, a lyrical novel about a farmer’s wife who leaves her husband behind to fight for the Union in the Civil War.

I can’t wait to go back to the Cottage Book Shop — maybe in the winter, when the little log cabin will be buried in snow? I’d love to hear which bookstores you’ve visited on your vacations.

5 Books NOT To Give This Holiday Season

Books for the holiday book drive in Glen Arbor, Michigan
Books for the holiday book drive in Glen Arbor, Michigan

A book is a gift you can open again and again.  Garrison Keillor

Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them.  Neil Gaiman

Garrison Keillor and Neil Gaiman both state what we booksellers believe with all our hearts: books make the best gifts. But books, like all gifts, can be tricky to choose. There’s no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to books. We all have books sitting on our shelves that were given with the best of intentions — and that we will never open, much less again and again. I feel a little twinge of guilt every time I see the bright yellow cover of Heaven is for Real in my stack. I know I’m never going to read it . . . but it was a gift, and I can’t bring myself to donate it to the library book sale. That book isn’t my cup of tea, but at least it’s not insulting. I have a friend who actually received a book on weight loss as a birthday present. (She’s not overweight, but which is worse? Giving a diet book to someone who’s overweight or someone who’s not?)

Besides diet books, what else should you think hard about giving?

  1. Books you think a person SHOULD read. Example: grandparents who buy beautiful hardcover editions of beloved classics for teenagers. Pride and Prejudice makes a lovely gift IF you have an Austen-loving granddaughter. But if you have a granddaughter who loves YA dystopian novels, best to stick with those.
  2. Cookbooks; they should only be given to people who actually like to cook. (Exceptions: newlyweds or recent graduates. Everyone needs some basic cookbooks. They may not be thrilled to receive them, but they need them.) I used to interrogate men who bought cookbooks for their wives: “Are you sure she wants this? Wouldn’t she rather have a nice juicy novel?” I have softened over the years and now I just mind my own business and wrap the cookbook, knowing it can always be exchanged.
  3. Goodnight Moon. Every new baby receives multiple copies of Goodnight Moon. Pick a lesser-known favorite, and if the baby has siblings, choose a brand-new picture book. Chances are the family already has the classics.
  4. The big blockbuster of the season that everyone is reading (or says they’re reading) and that is popular with both genders and all age groups. Three years ago, that book was Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. Many of those books came right back to the store in January. I admit I was one of those who jumped on the Steve Jobs bandwagon; I don’t think my friends returned the books, but you never know . . .
  5. Books that carry a lot of emotional weight. Gift books should come with no strings attached. Maybe it’s just me, but my heart sinks when I receive a book with an inscription. Although apparently not everyone feels that way. A couple of years ago, a young man came into our store and returned a book on Bob Dylan he’d received for Christmas. It wasn’t until after he’d left the store that I noticed the inscription: “Dear _____ , Since we are both Dylan fans, I know you will love this book as much as I did. Enjoy! XXOO _____”.
1. Books work straight away. No batteries required. 2. Books are easy to wrap. We wrap for you! 3. You don't have to fret about size or color. 4. There's a book for every kind of person. :) 5. You can do all your shopping in one place . . . here!!!
1. Books work straight away. No batteries required.
2. Books are easy to wrap. We wrap for you!
3. You don’t have to fret about size or color.
4. There’s a book for every kind of person. 🙂
5. You can do all your shopping in one place . . . here!!!

Working in a bookstore over the holidays is a lot of fun; it’s rewarding helping people choose books for people they care about. It can also be challenging, especially when we are asked to find books for a nephew who doesn’t like to read;  a father-in-law who is extremely conservative and likes large print; and a mother who likes mysteries that aren’t too violent. But, as our chalkboard says, there’s a book for every kind of person.

My favorite gift book this season is By the Book: Writers on 9781627791458Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review. It’s a collection of columns from the “By the Book” column that appears in the Book Review every Sunday. Authors  are asked a series of questions, such as “What book is on your nightstand right now?”, “What was the last book that made you cry?”, and “What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?” About 70 authors are included — everyone from  David Sedaris to Carl Hiaasen to J.K. Rowling. As the editor, Pamela Paul, says:

We all want to know what other people are reading. We peer at strangers’ book covers on an airplane and lean over their e-books on the subway . . . When I launched By the Book in The New York Times Book Review, it was an effort to satisfy my own genuine, insatiable desire to know what others — smart people, well-read people, people who are good writers themselves — were reading in their spare time. The idea was to stimulate a conversation about books, but one that took place at a more exalted level than the average water cooler chat. That meant starting big, and for me that meant David Sedaris. Who wouldn’t want to know which books he thinks are funny? Or touching or sad or just plain good?

In coming up with the questions for David Sedaris, and then for those who followed, I decided to keep some consistent — What book would you recommend to the president to read? — while others would come and go. If you’re going to find out what books John Grisham likes, you’ve got to ask about legal thrillers. When talking to P.J. O’Rourke, you want to know about satire.

Ann Patchett, who is one of the interview subjects in By the Book, is also the owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. Her store has a wonderful blog, and today’s post (“What Book People Give When They Give Books: The Ultimate Holiday Guide”) lists some spot-on gift-giving suggestions for the readers on your list.  The clever categories include “for the party host, a better gift than a bottle of wine”, “for anyone who’s looking for a book as good as Unbroken“, “for the picky, discriminating book addict who has already read everything on earth”, and “for anyone whose soul is not made of ice and rocks”.

Happy Black Friday — stay home with a good book! If you’re lucky enough to have an independent bookstore nearby, tomorrow (Small Business Saturday) is a great day to stop by for some recommendations.




The Point of No Return

Recently I returned an ill-conceived purchase to a large chain store. (OK, it was Target.) The cashier was polite to me, but I still felt uncomfortable about the whole transaction. She wanted to know the reason for the return; I’m sure the store keeps records and she had to ask that. I wasn’t sure what to say: “I thought I would look OK in this, but it was horribly unflattering?” “I didn’t want to try it on in your dressing room because last time I went in there the walls collapsed and I was lucky to escape without a fractured skull?” (Yes, that actually happened. The Target fitting rooms shouldn’t actually be called rooms. The whole setup is like a house of cards. I’m not sure how the walls stay up.)

c28cd382f5579f8fbc5790606933c652At Lake Forest Book Store, we don’t ask people why they’re returning something — although they sometimes feel duty-bound to tell us. Actually, we don’t get many returns. I don’t have the data, but I’d guess that other kinds of stores get many more returns than bookstores do. People probably think they’re going to read (or regift) that copy of The Luminaries someday. We are quite generous with our return policy. We don’t even require that the book was originally purchased at our store, as long as the customer just wants to exchange it for another book. Most people are pleasantly surprised at how accommodating we are. The most common reason people bring books back is that they’re duplicates. I often encourage customers to buy actual books as  gifts, rather than gift cards. “Think of the book as a more personal version of a gift card,” I say. “They can always bring it back.”

cvr9780743227445_9780743227445_lgMaybe I shouldn’t say “always”, because over the years some people have taken me quite literally:

  • An elderly woman returned a dog-eared copy of one of Philippa Gregory’s books, saying she found it “filthy”. Apparently she needed to read it very thoroughly to determine just how offensive it was. I wondered if she also asks for refunds on restaurant meals after she has eaten them.
  • A man brought back a copy of a travel guide to London, claiming he didn’t need it because his trip was canceled. I guess this cancellation happened after he circled restaurants, hotels, and sightseeing spots he planned to visit.
  • A woman returned the hardcover copy of Team of Rivals (publication date: 2005) in 2013, wanting to exchange it for the paperback edition.cvr9780684824901_9780684824901_lg
  • A customer lugged in two large shopping bags full of old, yellowed mass market paperbacks from the previous century, claiming they were all purchased from our store. When I pointed out that the public library down the street would accept them as donations, she asked if I would drop them off there on my way home from work.
  • People often return books they received as gifts, look around the store for a while, and then ask for a credit because there’s nothing they want to buy. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Jerry Seinfeld would say, but really? In the whole store, there isn’t ONE irresistible book? I will never understand that.
  • A mother returned a children’s paperback book ($3.99), announcing that it was much cheaper at Amazon ($3.59).
  • A very well-dressed woman brought in a pile of coffee table books (some recently published, some not so recently published), because she was “trying to reduce clutter” in her newly redecorated home.

These incidents, thank goodness, are few and far between. Now I have to head out to the local grocery store to return the strawberries I bought yesterday that are already moldy. Do you think they’ll replace them?