Why I Love Epistolary Novels – and Real Letters

9781101971390If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T.E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Wendell Holmes, E.B. White, Vera Nabokov, J.P. Morgan — if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it’s because of their letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters.
Roger Angell, This Old Man: All in Pieces

Dear Fellow Bookworms,

When I was in grade school, I learned to write what was called the Friendly Letter. The Friendly Letter always included the Complimentary Close — “Yours truly”, “Your friend”, “Sincerely”, or “Love”. (Mrs. Pierce, my third grade teacher, warned us only to use “Love” when writing to a family member.) There are dozens of ways to end a letter, from the ubiquitous “Best”, (best what? I always wonder),”Fondly”, “Regards”, to the more elaborate closings of days gone by. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, for example, ends this way: “This salutation by my own hand–Paul. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen.” Thomas Jefferson popularized the closing, “Your most humble and most obedient servant”. Charles Dickens often closed personal letters with the charming phrases “Ever your affectionate friend” or “Yours heartily and affectionately”.

cover-1-jpg-rendition-460-707Mina Harker, one of Dracula’s victims, closes her letters by saying “Your ever-loving Mina Harker.” Frankenstein’s ill-fated fiancée, Elizabeth Lavenza, ends a letter with “Adieu! Take care of yourself, and I entreat you, write!”. What do these two characters have in common? They both appear in epistolary novels, books written either entirely or mostly in letters.

When you read a good epistolary novel, you have a sense of immediacy and realism that’s usually not found in a book narrated in the first or third person. You feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a cache of private letters. I think the first novel of this type I read was Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, published in 1912. It’s the story of a young girl raised in an orphanage who, through the help of a mysterious benefactor with whom she corresponds, is able to attend college. Katherine Reay wrote an absolutely delightful, and award-winning novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, which is a modern version of the Daddy-Long-Legs story.

Over the years, many of my favorite novels have been based on letters:

  • Alice Walker’s modern classic, The Color Purple, tells Celie’s story through her letters to God.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, aunt and niece) is a series of letters from a London writer to the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey.
  • In Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye, a young poet from the remote Isle of Skye receives a fan letter from an American student, and their correspondence turns into a complicated love affair.
  • Marilyn Robinson’s beautiful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, is a letter from a dying minister to his young son.
  • Carlene Bauer based Frances and Bernard on letters between poet Robert Lowell and novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor. Like Gilead, this novel is concerned with the characters’ spiritual lives.
  • In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a brilliant teenager tries to track down her missing mother — and Maria Semple used letters, emails, blog posts, notes, and interview transcripts involving a wacky cast of characters to show just how she does that.
  • Julie Schumacher cleverly assembled a hilarious novel made up solely of recommendation letters that a beleaguered English professor is constantly called upon to write in Dear Committee Members.
  • Code Name Verity, a YA novel by Elizabeth Wein, is the gripping story of two young British women captured in occupied France during World War II, told through the “confessions” they write to their interrogators.
  • A completely different YA novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (by Stephen Chbosky) is a coming-of-age story consisting of letters from a shy and precocious teenager to an unnamed recipient.

51691419-1Of course, sometimes only real letters will do. I treasure several anthologies of letters from both famous and ordinary people.  War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (edited by Andrew Carroll) and Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (edited by Shaun Usher). Volume 2 of Letters of Note just came out last month, and I’m savoring every letter. My all-time favorite epistolary book is Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road (which, surprisingly, was made into a movie that does justice to the book), which chronicles a 20-year correspondence between Hanff, a writer in New York, and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller in London. Another favorite is My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, which contains just a fraction of the 1,100 letters that the couple wrote to each other during the many separations they endured over the course of their 54-year marriage. Their letters bring the world of this country’s founders alive more than any other surviving documents.

signed-sealed-delivered-9781451687163_hrIn a recent book called Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, Nina Sankovitch describes finding a trunk filled with hundreds of letters in a shed attached to a house her family was renovating in the Upper West Side of New York. The letters belonged to the original owners of the home, the Seligman family, and the vast majority of them were written by James Seligman to his parents (whom he addressed as “Dearest Mamma” or “Darling Parents”) during his years at Princeton, 1908-1912. Nina feels that rereading the letters James left behind “proves all over again, the power of the written, the handwritten, word.” Aside from a listing on an online family tree, James left no other evidence of his life. Nina says:

Paper and ink have created a lasting connection between James and me. The connection has made me a better person, if only for having laughed so much and indulged in so much pleasurable company through his letter. And isn’t that what we say about our friends, that they have enriched our lives and made us better people?

Ever your affectionate friend,

Ann @ Books on the Table

 

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Marrow: A Love Story — Book Review

y648It’s one thing to write about the marrow of the bones — there’s a lot of research out there to back me up when I’m describing bones and blood and stem cells. It’s another thing to write about the marrow of the self. The marrow of the bones is home to your stem cells. The marrow of yourself is home to your soul.
Elizabeth Lesser, Marrow

When her sister, Maggie, is diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma, Elizabeth Lesser learns that Maggie’s only chance for survival depends on a bone marrow transplant — and that Elizabeth is a perfect match. Marrow chronicles the sisters’ childhood and adult relationship, as well as the bone marrow transplant process.

Straddling the line between memoir and self-help and filled with both medical information and psychological insights, Marrow will appeal both to readers of Eat Pray Love and When Breath Becomes Air. I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s account of her solo travels boring and self-obsessed (although I loved her 2013 novel, The Signature of All Things), but I know Eat Pray Love struck a chord with many readers.

On the other hand, I absolutely loved — and will never forget — Paul Kalanathi’s gripping and beautiful memoir of his final days. Sad as it is, When Breath Becomes Air inspires the reader to live better, to be the best person he or she can be. Marrow may lack the stark and immediate power of When Breath Becomes Air — for one thing, the dominant voice is Elizabeth’s rather than Maggie’s; for another, the narrative frequently strays into territory that detracts from the central story of Maggie’s illness and the love between the two sisters — but in the end, it offers readers hope and inspiration.

When her second book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, Elizabeth didn’t expect her pragmatic sister “to even crack the book’s cover.” Maggie was “an avid reader, but her taste did not include anything that smacked of self-help. She liked novels or nonfiction books about beekeeping and bread baking.” (Maggie sounds like me, although my nonfiction tastes run to medical and historical topics, along with true crime.) However, Elizabeth notes that “there’s nothing like trauma to change one’s reading habits”, and she learned that Maggie had copied a passage from Broken Open and kept it on an index card in her car. In that passage, Elizabeth recounts that a psychic told her: “It is time for you to answer the call of your soul. It’s calling, but you’re too scared to listen. You think you know what’s important, but you don’t . . . What’s important in this life is to learn the soul lessons.”

I admit that when I start reading about psychics and soul lessons, I get a little skeptical. So it was a relief when I reached the chapter titled “Mother Cells”, in which Elizabeth describes reading a textbook called Essential Cell Biology and, in the simplest and clearest language, explains how a bone marrow transplant works: “The patient must endure a near-death experience in order to live.” The chapter ends with an entry from Maggie’s journal, in which she says, “I will try to proceed with good cheer.”

And, amazingly, she does just that, with the support of Elizabeth, their other sisters, her boyfriend, and their families. She gets fed up, as anyone would, with well-meaning friends who offer unsolicited advice about juice fasts, overseas clinics, and her “face twists into a look of wrathful disbelief when someone suggests that negative thinking, or grilled meat, or early exposure to pesticides might have caused the cancer.” An old friend suggests that if Maggie “refrains from using refined sugar and ingests large quantities of Japanese green tea she can totally heal from her disease.” Elizabeth offers readers some guidance on helping people who are sick:

Do not offer unsolicited advice  . . . If you must, go ahead and ask them if they want to hear about promising new treatments or stories of those who beat the odds. Ask in such a way that the very vulnerable, very tired patient, or the equally weary caretaker, can easily say, “No, thank you” to articles, books, and links to treatment plans and meditative YouTube videos.

Many patients and caregivers roll their eyes at “inspirational” books filled with platitudes about positive thinking, but Marrow is not one of those.  As I read, I grew to appreciate Elizabeth’s brave and honest approach to spirituality and self-discovery. Self-help books, she says, are not “superficial books that give pat answers to life’s unsolvable mysteries. They are “an ancient genre — the literature of wisdom, the philosophy of living.” (I even read one of the self-help books she recommends, The Four Agreements, which she says is “about the power of simple, honest, and bold communication.”)

Familiar books offer us consolation during difficult times. Elizabeth notes that the self-help books on her shelves give her strength and comfort, while her mother found that Walt Whitman provided solace and her father read Tolstoy repeatedly. I think that Marrow, a story about the strength of love, will be a book that many readers turn to again and again.

For an interesting interview with Elizabeth Lesser, check out this article in Psychology Today. 

 

 

10 Hurricane Books

I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds . . .
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Along with millions of others in the southeastern United States, my mother was told to evacuate her home as Hurricane Matthew approached. Once I found she was safely in a motel 150 miles inland, I had one important question for her: did she have enough reading material? She assured me she did, and then told me she couldn’t wait to get back to The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware. I guess that when faced with a hurricane, some people escape with psychological thrillers. Others might want to read about catastrophic storms. Here are ten books featuring hurricanes — both fiction and nonfiction — to pick up when you’ve watched enough swaying palm trees and crashing waves on the Weather Channel. None of these is a new book, but they’re all worth your time if you haven’t read them.

Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey
I didn’t apprecitime_of_wonderate this lovely, poetic book as a child — like my own children, I much preferred Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal — but now it’s my favorite McCloskey book. (And Robert McCloskey, along with E.B. White, is my favorite children’s author.)

Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder – for wondering, for instance: Where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger
Actually, The Perfect Storm isn’t about a hurricane — it’s about a real-life tempest caused by the confluence of three storm systems. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the book is well worth reading. It’s great narrative nonfiction, combining science with human drama.

220px-isaacsstormcoverIsaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson
Isaac Cline, chief of the United States Weather Bureau’s station in Galveston, Texas, failed to anticipate the deadly strength of a hurricane that barreled through the Gulf of Mexico, killing an estimated 8,000 people — the largest loss of life in a weather-related disaster in U.S. history. According to the New York Times, Larson “weaves together the terror and stoicism of ships’ captains, housewives, children and forecasters, infusing their tales with palpable tension. Few historical reconstructions sustain such drama.”

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
On a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, a murderer has escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane. Federal marshals search for the dangerous patient as a hurricane  bears down on the island. The story is complicated, filled with twists and turns that I defy you to predict.

220px-zeitounZeitoun by Dave Eggers
When I read Eggers’s account of a New Orleans family devastated by Hurricane Katrina, I thought it was his best book so far. The New York Times reviewer said: “My guess is, 50 years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
The author is a physician and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s written a gripping account of the life-and-death decisions medical staff at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans were forced to make during Hurricane Katrina

13618100Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
The 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction, set in Mississippi just before and during Hurricane Katrina and loosely based on the author’s own experiences, has “the aura of a classic”, according to Ron Charles of the Washington Post.

Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Rise and Fall of the Spectacular Railroad That Crossed an Ocean by Les Standiford
Flagler, one of the founders of Standard Oil and the visionary who developed Florida as a vacation destination, built an engineering marvel: the Key West Railroad, crossing 150 miles of open sea. It was destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Standiford, who’s also a novelist, has written a fascinating chronicle of a man, his accomplishments, and his era.

jamaica_200-4607c185a1e675e24bc7b743396f781e879f40f3-s300-c85A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
This is one of those neglected classics that deserves to be rediscovered. Written in 1929, and still in print, it’s the story of a group of children whose homes are destroyed in a Caribbean hurricane. When the children are sent to England, pirates seize their ship. It sounds like an adventure story, but it’s more of a psychological drama. In an NPR segment, Andrew Sean Greer said, “To say A High Wind in Jamaica is a novel about children who are abducted by pirates is to make it seem like a children’s book. But that’s completely wrong; its theme is actually how heartless children are.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Another classic (published in 1937), perhaps more widely read than A  High Wind in Jamaica, Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in Florida in the early 20th century. The Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 figures prominently in this beautifully written coming-of-age novel.

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

Summer 2016 Paperback Picks

9781594634024 (1)The number one search term that’s led readers to Books on the Table over the past eighteen months is “Girl on the Train paperback release date”. That query led thousands of readers to a post from April 2015, 10 Spring Paperback Picks. In that post, I tried to identify the elusive quality that makes some books sell like crazy in hardcover while others — just as appealing — languish on the shelves. I mean, The Girl on the Train — supposedly one of the fastest-selling hardcover novels for adults in publishing history –was fun to read, but I’ve read plenty of similar books that disappeared from bookstore shelves in no time at all.

Hardcover books have a very short shelf life. Publishers accept returns from bookstores after three months, and if a book hasn’t sold in that time, it’s taking up valuable space and it’s sent back. Most unsold hardcovers will go to purgatory in a warehouse while their fates (a remainder store? the dreaded shredder?) are decided. If the authors of those books are lucky, their books will be released in paperback and reach a much wider audience.

Some terrific books you may have missed in hardcover are out in paperback this summer, just in time to read during the dog days of August.

a-window-opens-9781501105456_hrA Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
This book touched my bookselling heart — it’s sort of a mashup of Goodnight June (Sarah Jio) and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. It’s the clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture. Perfect for all those readers who don’t want to read “dark” or “depressing” books, the novel pays tribute to independent bookstores — and tells a heartwarming family story at the same time. (See full review here.)

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Our Souls at Night is a beautiful and sad story, made sadder by the fact that Kent Haruf died shortly after completing his final edits on the novel. Haruf’s books are all set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado and focus on everyday people and their need for connection with each other. The New York Times says: “His great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.” Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed and in their seventies, are long-time neighbors who seek respite from loneliness in an unusual way: through a platonic friendship that includes sleeping in the same bed. Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters in less than 200 pages than many authors do in books double that length. I read the book in one afternoon and had to slow myself down so I could appreciate the plain yet poetic language.

9780544715264Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos
I read this book last summer and thought it was absolutely wonderful, but I feel like no one else read it in hardcover. Language Arts explores many of the same themes as Our Souls at Night, especially the themes of loss and human connection. How do you connect with someone you love who doesn’t have language? Charles Marlow, an English teacher and a lover of the written word, is the divorced father of an adult autistic son. His daughter has just left for college, and Charles is desperately lonely. I don’t want to say too much about his book, because it’s full of surprises.

The New Neighbor by Leah Stewart
If you’re in the mood for a well-written page-turner, don’t miss this novel about two lonely women in the isolated college town of Sewanee, Tennessee who are both hiding painful secrets. Jennifer Young and her 4-year-old son move in near 91-year-old retired nurse Margaret Riley, and Margaret soon becomes obsessed with digging into Jennifer’s past. The New York Times says “Both women, whom we come to know in great depth, are guarding secrets and neither can afford to make friends . . . Stewart never relaxes her tight focus on these complex characters.” Stewart based the novel in part on her grandmother’s experiences as a World War II battlefield nurse.

y648Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
Yet another book that deserves a second chance in paperback, Crooked Heart is “a wonderfully old-fashioned, Dickensian novel, with satisfying plot twists that invoke the flavor (and scams) of wartime London” (New York Times Book Review). A precocious 10-year-old orphan is evacuated during the Blitz — and is placed with a couple of marginally successful con artists. Darkly humorous yet poignant, this book is Roald Dahl for grownups.

Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alex Kershaw
I am fascinated by the French Resistance, and Alex Kershaw’s Avenue of Spies is a worthy addition to my collection of World War II books. It’s not on a par with In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, but it’s still a riveting story: an American family, living in occupied Paris, shows unusual courage in the direst of circumstances. American physician Sumner Jackson, his Swiss wife, Toquette, and their son, Phillip, are given the opportunity to leave France when the French surrender is imminent, but they elect to stay and join the Resistance — while living almost next door to the Parisian headquarters of the Gestapo.

y648-1The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan
One of my favorites of 2015, The Hummingbird deserves to be widely read. The story of a hospice nurse, her terminally ill patient (a history professor specializing in World War II history), and her war veteran husband, this novel is beautiful, suspenseful, and inspiring. I loved the multiple story lines (including a book within a book) and it’s a real joy to read a novel about people whose lives are rooted in integrity. (For a full review, click here.)

All the Time in the World by Caroline Angell
Caroline Angell’s debut novel, a paperback original, is a coming-of-age story about Charlotte, a gifted musician who takes refuge in a babysitting job with a prominent family on New York’s Upper East Side, after she is betrayed by a fellow composer. Tragedy strikes her employers, and Charlotte must make difficult decisions about her future. I loved this novel’s authentic portrayal of young children, as well as its glimpse into the world of musical composition.

The sequel to the tearjerker Me Before You, After You, came out in paperback last week. I haven’t read it yet, but my mother just finished it, and says it’s a worthy follow-up. What paperbacks are you packing in your beach bag?

 

 

The View from the Cheap Seats — Book Review

I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.
Neil Gaiman, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming”

152949Confession: I’d never read anything by Neil Gaiman until last week, when I read his new collection of nonfiction pieces, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction. Well, I read most of it. I admit to skimming the essays in Section II, “Some People I Have Known”, since they presupposed a certain amount of knowledge about influential science fiction and fantasy authors. The NPR reviewer calls the 550-page book a “hefty tome”, noting that Gaiman started as a journalist in the 1980s and that a complete collection of his nonfiction would “take up volumes”.

Why did I even pick up Gaiman’s book, given that I’m not a fan of the writing he’s best known for — science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and graphic novels?  (Don’t ask me what the difference is between comic books and graphic novels. All I know is that they both have tiny pictures and all-caps type, which look as though they would cause this middle-aged, non-edgy reader to take to her bed with a headache.) I don’t mean to denigrate his books; they just don’t appeal to me, the same way Jane Smiley’s trilogy about an Iowa farm family probably doesn’t appeal to the people who devour Gaiman’s Sandman series. I knew that Gaiman is considered a literary giant — as well as a huge proponent of libraries and bookstores — and I wanted to learn more about him and his writing.

I’ve never really liked genre fiction — even as a child,  I didn’t care for science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels. I did love Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (which is still on my list of favorite books), and like Gaiman, I adored C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. But mostly I liked, as I still do, realistic books that were more about character than plot. If the only books that were given to me as a child were set in other worlds, or populated by non-humans, I probably wouldn’t have loved reading — just the way many young readers dislike reading when they’re force-fed a diet of “relationship” novels. In an essay called “The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography”, which isn’t about pornography at all (“that was just put in to make it a catchy title”), Gaiman discusses what makes something genre fiction:

If the plot exists to get you from the lone cowboy riding into town to the first gunfight to the cattle rustling to the showdown, then it’s a Western. If those are simply things that happen on the way, and the plot encompasses them, can do without them, doesn’t actually care if they are in there or not, then it’s a novel set in the old West.

I like novels set in the old West; I don’t like Westerns. But Gaiman points out that genre offers writers “something to play to and to play against. It gives you a net and the shape of the game. Sometimes it gives you the ball.” The framework of working within a genre makes for a better story, he argues, and nothing is more important to him than a good story. The very best stories, he suggests, transcend genre.

Gaiman, who’s written many children’s books, discusses an issue I’ve often wondered about, “that most vexing of questions . .  what is a children’s book anyway?” I’d buy a copy of The View from the Cheap Seats just to read his thoughts on children and reading. Parents, he says, should not concern themselves with what children read because, first of all, children are “really good at self-censorship. They have pretty good sense of what they are ready for and what they are not, and they walk the line wisely.” They also don’t discriminate between good and bad books:

What a child takes from a book is never what an adult takes from it. Ideas that are hackneyed and dull for adults are fresh and new and world-changing for children. And besides, you bring yourself to a book, and children are capable of imbuing words with magic that not even the author knew was there.

I’m a big underliner, but it’s been a long time since I underlined as much in a book as I did in The View from the Cheap Seats. Gaiman’s views on Moby Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, James Thurber, C.S. Lewis, The Moth Radio Hour, libraries, the value of reading . . . all underlined in my copy of The View from the Cheap Seats. In one of my favorite passages, he reminisces about his favorite bookstores:

And writing this, all of those bookshops come back, the shelves, and the people. And most of all, the books, their covers bright, their pages filled with infinite possibilities. I wonder who I would have been, without those people and those places, without books.

If that’s the view from the cheap seats, I’ll take it.

Are You a Bibliomaniac?

Bibliomania: a mild form of insanity which is obtaining wide prevalence. A bibliomaniac must be carefully distinguished from a bibliophile. The latter has not yet freed himself from the idea that books are meant to be read.
Thomas Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (1892)

tumblr_m3ebpdtrdx1qd9a66o1_500

“There’s no such thing as too many books. However, there is such a thing as not enough room.”

Last week, I went to the book industry’s annual trade show, BookExpo America (BEA) at McCormick Place in Chicago. The stated purpose of this event is for booksellers, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals  to “discover new titles and authors, conduct business and network, and learn the latest trends”. What it is for many attendees is the opportunity to grab as many free books as they can carry. There’s a reason the show prohibits “carts, luggage on wheels, and empty strollers”. Publishers distribute canvas tote bags emblazoned with their logos or the cover of one of their hottest titles, and bibliophiles (or are they bibliomaniacs?) rush to fill those bags.

lat_fool050116b_17111237_8colMore than 500 authors are on hand to sign their books, and attendees queue up — sometimes for hours — to meet their favorite authors and receive personally inscribed books. I don’t have the patience to stand in line for much of anything, unless I’m forced to wait in a TSA line at the airport, so I didn’t get any signed books. If I were less antsy, I would have enjoyed meeting Candice Millard (signing Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill, coming in September), Jonathan Safran Foer (signing  Here I Am, due in September and his first novel since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in 2005), Emma Cline (signing The Girls, her debut novel, which is the #1 Indie Pick for June), Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility (signing A Gentleman in Moscow, out in September), Richard Russo (signing Everybody’s Fool, his follow-up to Nobody’s Fool), and dozens of others.

On social media, BEA attendees post photos of their book “hauls” and brag about how many books they snagged. It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon, with several factors influencing the rush to accumulate books. They’re free; there’s the perception of scarcity, since publishers can only bring a limited number of each title; and many of the books have a lot of marketing hype behind them. I think almost everyone ends up bringing home a “pity book” or two. I know I did.  A hopeful-looking author sat on a stool at a podium in a small press’s  booth, with a pile of books beside him and only his publisher for company. I stopped, feigned interest in his collection of “prose poems”, and added a signed copy to my bag. (I was not so polite to the friendly salespeople at two combined booths — Bridge Publications and Galaxy Press, both publishers of L. Ron Hubbard’s works on Scientology.)

I promised myself I would only gather a few carefully chosen books that I knew I would read, because I am a bibliophile, not a bibliomaniac. Nancy Bass Wyden, co-owner of the Strand Bookstore in New York City, told the Wall Street Journal that she owns 2,000 books but only displays 500 at a time:

The key to a healthy book collection, Ms. Wyden says, is constant editing. When she adds a book, she tries to take something out. “If it keeps getting tweaked, what you have is more meaningful,” she says. “It keeps your library fresh, and you feel more engaged with what’s in there.”

I ended up lugging home 20 books from BEA that I just couldn’t resist. Now, in order to keep my library “fresh”, I guess I’ll have to get rid of 20 books — some of which are probably  unread books I brought home from book conferences in years past, with honorable intentions.

I googled the term “book hoarder” and learned that it is considered offensive. Jessie Sholl, author of a memoir about growing up as the daughter of a compulsive hoarder, writes in Psychology Today:

You might have packed bookcases and, yes, too many books, but that doesn’t mean you’re a book hoarder. If I skipped lunch one day, or two, or three, would that suddenly make me anorexic? If I labeled myself as such, I’d surely be accused of being insensitive to those who truly have a mental illness — and rightly so.

9781455564224OK, point taken. I’m not a book hoarder or a bibliomaniac — but I do have a hard time culling my bookshelves. (For more on my difficulties in this area, see Why My Books Are Not Clutter.)  I’ll need to make room for The Wonder (Emma Donoghue), The Book That Matters Most (Ann Hood), The Excellent Lombards (Jane Hamilton), Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South (Beth Macy) . . . or I could just get some new bookshelves!

 

 

An Evening with Fredrik Backman

13178730_10154861148128626_5560856837219276285_n-2 (1)She just smiled, said that she loved books more than anything, and started telling him excitedly what each of the ones in her lap was about. And Ove realised that he wanted to hear her talking about the things she loved for the rest of his life.
Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Swedish author Fredrik Backman (author of A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and Britt-Marie Was Here) at his very first event on his first book tour in the United States. Fredrik arrived in Chicago on the evening of Tuesday, May 10, spent the following afternoon in the Simon & Schuster booth at Book Expo of America (BEA) signing books and chatting with booksellers, librarians, and other publishing industry people, and then, with his publicist and agent, battled rush hour traffic to speak to a sold-out crowd in Lake Forest.

my-grandmother-asked-me-to-tell-you-shes-sorry-9781501115073_hrFredrik’s novels, bestsellers in Sweden, the United States, and dozens of other countries, hit the sweet spot for readers looking for fiction that’s charming, humorous, and a bit quirky — but not corny. They’re the kind of books that people fall in love with and give to all their friends. One of Fredrik’s editors told Publishers Weekly: “I think Fredrik is different from the dark crime writers and doing something different from writers in general . . . He has such a distinctive voice and point of view. He might be the herald of a larger trend in Scandinavian literature, but I think he’s doing his own thing.”

Readers all over the world respond to Fredrik’s wit and wisdom. A customer at Lake Forest Book Store showed me her dog-eared copy of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, with many favorite passages underlined.  I wonder if she underlined my favorite quotation from the book: “Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.”

Fredrik delighted the audience at our event with funny anecdotes (shopping at Ikea with his father) and with serious commentary (developing three-dimensional characters). Here are some highlights of our conversation.

a-man-called-ove-9781476738024_hrFredrik Backman on:

How to say “Ove”:
Pronounce it like “Hoover”, the vacuum cleaner.

How he develops his novels:
I start out with characters. Some writers start out with a story, and fit the characters into the story as they go along . . . I start at the other end, with characters . . . people that I find funny or interesting.

britt-marie-was-here-9781501142536_lgBritt-Marie:
My wife, when she read the manuscript, said “You’ve never written anything about a character who’s so much like you.” She’s passive-aggressive, while Ove’s active-aggressive. I wanted to write a coming -of-age story, this great adventure where someone leaves their home, but those stories are always written about 20-year-old men . . . and I wanted to write a coming-of-age story about a 63-year-old woman, because she’d never left home.

The secret to writing a bestseller:
I don’t know — I really wish I had an answer. People think I have a formula (“this is how you write a bestseller”) — I have no idea. The only thing I figure is that probably I like the same things a lot of other people like. I don’t have original taste in things. The TV shows and movies I like are things that millions of other people like. There are a lot of really, really talented, gifted brilliant writers and if you ask them, what books do you like, they say, “Oh, there’s this French drama that no one’s ever heard of”, or “Oh, there’s this monk who wrote a book, there are only three copies and I have one of them”. I’m not capable of writing anything hard for people to understand.

To become a bestseller, it doesn’t mean that this many people thought your book was the best one they ever read. It means this many people thought it was OK.

Swedish literature:
We like crime.  Probably because we don’t have a lot of it in real life. There’s, like, two people in Sweden who have guns. If you’re going to write crime you start with a very, very nice place, an idyllic place. Because then it becomes much scarier when someone does something horrible.

The movie version of A Man Called Ove:
You have to view it as an interpretation — it’s like someone making a cover of a song. My mom hasn’t said it out loud, but it’s very obvious she liked the movie more than she liked the book. From my dad’s reaction, I could see that my mom has had a long-time crush on the actor who plays Ove. She said, “Wasn’t it wonderful when he . . .” and I said, “I know, I wrote that! I made that up . . . in my head”.

snipp20snapp20snurr20and20the20gingerbread20by20maj20lindmanThe classic Swedish picture books about triplets Snipp, Snapp and Snurr and Flicka, Ricka and Dicka:
You’ve lost me.

I couldn’t believe neither Fredrik nor his agent, who was on tour with him, had heard of Maj Lindman’s charming children’s books, which were published in the United States in the 1930s and are still in print: “Snipp, Snapp, and Snurr were three little boys who lived in Sweden. They had blue eyes and yellow hair, and they looked very much alike.” I’ve just ordered a copy of one of my favorites (Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Gingerbread) and will be sending it as a thank you gift for Fredrik to share with his children — who will soon be old enough for one of the most memorable characters in children’s literature, Swedish tomboy Pippi Longstocking.