Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Magic Word is Akimbo

I have a little quirk when I’m reading. I love the word akimbo and when I come across it in a book suddenly my day is a little brighter and the book I find it in becomes so much more endearing. I keep a little file of akimbo sightings and I have for years. Enough of my friends know about my love of akimbo that they alert me when they find it too.

I found akimbo on the last page of Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry but by then it just reinforced what I already knew: I had just read a wonderful book.

The Kitchen Daughter is about a lot of things: food and family and love, and being normal. It begins with a funeral and carried me into the strange and not so normal life of Ginny Selvaggio. She is 26 years old and has lived her entire life in the protection of her parents; when they die suddenly she and her sister must come to terms with their grief and must decide how their lives will go on.
There are so many little details in this book that delight me. Akimbo and other words Ginny has had to look up in her life appear with the other words she found on the same dictionary page. Ginny’s life revolves around food; she hears people’s voices and describes them as like coffee, or tomato or orange juice. This is the kind of rich, luscious detail I love in a book. Which brings me back to AKIMBO, just try not to notice it the next time it appears in something you read.

The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry is now available in Paperback and can be found in our Staff Picks Section.

Lorna Ruby, book buyer

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Bookish Halloween

There is a “hashtag” for #literarycostumes going around on Twitter. (Are you on Twitter? We are and would love to have you follow us @wellesleybooks. We try to be interesting and bookish- yes, just like we are in person.) Hashtags are basically flags or key words for topics that are being discussed on Twitter. A simple # in front of a word or words makes it easy to follow the thread of a discussion and anyone using the hashtag can contribute. #literarycostumes is basically people wanting to hear about other people’s ideas for great Halloween costumes based on book characters. This and the hashtag #allhallowsread really have me thinking ghoulish.

So because Halloween is almost upon us I’ve just changed the display of Fall books on the table at the front of the store to have a little more creepy-scary on it. Neil Gaiman, husband of Amanda Palmer and fabulous author of such bestsellers as Coraline and The Graveyard Book (one of my favorites) for kids and American Gods and Anansi Boys for adults, is promoting the #allhallowsread hash tag. He would like to see people give books for Halloween because there aren’t enough holidays to give books. We couldn’t agree more - it’s a wonderful idea, or, as he puts it, a modest proposal. If you want to see his blog post or a great video of him in a cemetery with some zombies follow this link That’s why I have an All Hallows Read sign on my display.

I started thinking about my favorite literary costumes. I have always looked toward books to help me at this time of year (oh, let’s face it, all year) and I have worn a string of literary costumes over the years. They are fun, show my BOOK PRIDE and let’s face it - can be pretty easy. And if Halloween falls on a day of the week that I am at work at the bookstore these are some of the costumes I have worn.

My first go-to costume - one I’ve used to work in the store on Halloween because it’s ever so comfortable and easy to move around in - is good old Nancy Drew. I of course loved Nancy Drew and read all of her adventures as a kid. Nancy is pretty easy- if you don’t believe me check out any of her book covers. Sweater sets, skirts, pearls and for props a magnifying glass or flashlight.

Another year, Julia Child! Simple! A blouse, skirt and apron - dust a little flour over yourself, carry a whisk or a rolling pin and yell "Bon Appetite!" every once in awhile.

My favorite costume and one that most people (okay, mostly kids) are impressed with is Captain Underpants. I admit I’ve worn it quite a lot. But it is a crowd pleaser. I am lucky enough to own a Captain Underpants t-shirt. I forget how many years ago - Scholastic, Dav Pilkey’s publisher produced a great t-shirt and I have made it the linchpin of my costume. I bought a big pair of men’s briefs and I was almost done. The cape was tricky, I wanted to be authentic - in the book Mr. Krupp, the principal, is hypnotized into thinking he is Captain Underpants - he tears down the red curtain from his office window and ties it around his neck. In the pictures it looks red with little black dots. I wanted to buy a curtain but I have never found a curtain that fits that description. In fact if anyone out there has a curtain like that in the attic and are willing to give it up, I would love to buy it. I made a cape with a piece of red fabric instead. The great thing about this costume is how easily I am recognized, and how impressed most kids are.
OHHH and I almost forgot! The year I was BUNNICULA the vampire rabbit! I had a Bunnicula t-shirt of course, wore a set of Bunny Ears, a set of vampire teeth and pinned a big bunny tail to the back of my jeans. I thought I was hot stuff! I even carried a copy of Bunnicula around for anyone who didn’t get it. I bent over at one point to reach for a book and I felt a tug on my bunny tail, turning around – in a bit of a shock (who was grabbing my tail!?) I looked down at the cutest dog that must have thought it was a toy and tried to grab it. 


So what are your literary inspired costumes?
Photos and comments welcome
(Oh and Halloween is on a Monday this year, and I work on Mondays. Stop by the store and find out what I’m wearing this year)

Lorna Ruby, book buyer

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Memory of Rapturous Books

I finally got around to reading the very funny I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron.  One of my favorite essays appears near the end and is titled On Rapture. Nora waxes rhapsodic about her love for books, and describes feelings that any book lover will recognize. She hasn’t loved every book she’s read but she has vivid memories of books that she has, the way they have transported her and the connections they made in her life.

I was intrigued that she can remember which piece of furniture she was sitting on when she was transported. First I wanted to create a display in the store to feature her rapturous books (I just did this, come check it out) but then I started to wonder what my rapturous reads were and could I remember the details of when and where I read them? My book memory goes back a long way, into my childhood. I know I went to the library a lot, and read the Reader’s Digest Condensed books we had on the shelves in our living room. I was such a voracious reader that I read everything that we had in the house, my older brother’s books and sometimes to my Mother’s consternation, the romances that an Aunt was reading. I also remember that when I was near the end of a book that I knew would make me cry, (and yes I read a bunch of those) I had to close myself in the bathroom with it, so that no one in my family would see me and make fun of me for crying over a book. As a total aside I was a tad sensitive and remember trying to hide the fact that I would cry at the end of every episode of Lassie, when she would sit there and wave her paw at me with this sad, whiney music playing in the background. As a teen I also read a lot of books after I saw the movie (Separate Peace, Three Musketeers, True Grit, Logan’s Run) each one of these meant a lot to my teenage heart. My point is I have a LOT OF BOOK MEMORIES!

Of course these days I can barely keep track of what I just read, so I started to keep a notebook with simple line listings of what I read with just Date/Title/Author. I’ve also just started to be good about entering books into my Goodreads account. But rapturous reads? Books that have transported me? Here’s what I came up with.

Lorna’s Rapturous Reads
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre I remember the cover of the paperback edition I read. It was a white background with the silhouette of Rochester on a horse the horse was rearing up with the figure of Jane in front of it- I cut this image off the cover to my paste onto my book report. I was in Junior High and I read and reread Jane Eyre many times that year.
Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House I can’t remember the details of where I read this book, I think I had to read it in college, the copy I have is still underlined. It was the first Willa Cather I read and I loved it- especially the story within the story about Tom Outland (what a name!). It set me off, as many books do, into reading and collecting the rest of Willa Cather’s work.
Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale I was discussing this book with Betty recently and realized I had it stuck in my memory in an entirely different year. It came out in 1983 but I thought it was much earlier. I read it for the first time when I worked at the Lauriat’s in Shoppers World, at the recommendation of our Pocket Book rep (obviously when it came out in a small paperback). After reading it and being transported by it, I found out one of my favorite college professors was including it in a class she was teaching on magical realism. Oh my joy and excitement to read it, and dissect it, in a classroom setting, with one of my favorite teachers.
Elisabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (note I’m still reading those books I see on film) I sat in a chair by a lake on vacation, I did not get out of my seat until the sun went down. I was surprised and thrilled at how timeless it seemed. I was amazed at how strong these women were, and how it seemed in Gaskell’s fictional Cranford, even the smallest details of every day life can make a life richer.
So what are your rapture reads? Please read Nora’s essay, and if you want more on the subject try Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life his send up to the meaningful books in his life.

-Lorna Ruby, book buyer

Friday, September 9, 2011

Because I Went to College and I Read a Lot of Books

I was at the register in the kid’s section the other day when a somewhat harried Mom came in with her two book loving boys. They were very excited, rooting among the books, pointing to this one and that one, and when she brought only one book to the counter to purchase they kept coming up to her and suggesting which other books they really needed. They looked pretty close to each other in age and based on what they kept showing her they seemed to really enjoy graphic novels.

I asked if they had read the Lunch Lady books and she said yes they were waiting for the next book to come out. (Lunch Lady and the Field Trip Fiasco is due next Tuesday, in fact, September 13th!) 
The oldest came up with a Baby Mouse book that he swore they didn’t have at home. She added it to her first book on the counter. With that success he wandered off again and the little one came up to me with a book that he held up to me so that I was looking at it upside down. He pointed to a page and asked me how to say that name. "Felicia", his Mom said, "I told you it was Felicia" so I told him I think your Mom is right. He looked at her, said somewhat incredulously, "How did you know that?" and wandered off again

Mom just looked at me and smiled. I finished the purchase for her and as I handed her the bag I told her what I would say to my nephews whenever they were amazed that I knew the answer to what in their opinion was a very difficult question - "it’s because I went to college and I read a lot of books!"

Lorna Ruby, book buyer

Friday, July 1, 2011

Bernard Lewis

On May 31, Bernard Lewis celebrated his 95th birthday. He has been a well known and much respected scholar of the Middle East for some 70 years, and even his academic opponents—and there are many—would probably have to grant that Lewis has been one of the most influential historians of the last half-century.

Booksellers have been aware of Lewis for a long time. His small volume, The Arabs in History, first published in 1950 and still in print today, was for many years a mainstay of college courses and a go-to book to recommend to anyone wanting to know about the history of the Arabs and the early centuries of Islam. But it was only in 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, that Lewis became a bestselling author. What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response was the book that everyone seemed to be reading then to learn about Islam and the Arabs. (For the paperback edition, the subtitle was changed to the zippier The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.) He followed it in 2003 with another bestseller, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror; the retired Princeton professor was now an unquestioned publishing star. NPR and Charlie Rose beckoned, and the dignified, famously eloquent (if slightly pompous) Lewis was a memorable and most enlightening guest.

As it turned out, the scholarly media star also had some big-name admirers in the administration of President George W. Bush, including (as was widely reported) Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Richard Perle. After the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq in March 2003, there were frequent intimations in the media that Lewis, who had previously made public statements that seemed to promote the idea of an invasion, had done much to point his friend Dick Cheney in the direction of war. I have no idea how true this allegation is—my own sense is that Cheney didn’t need a lot of pointing. But I was well aware of how persuasive Lewis the writer could be, and it wasn’t hard to imagine him being that much more persuasive over dinner and a few bottles of wine.

Here we go, full disclosure time. Back in 1974, as I was finishing up a master’s in Hebrew Bible and making plans to apply to doctoral programs in Islamic history, Bernard Lewis left the University of London to accept a joint appointment at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study (also in Princeton, N. J. but not affiliated with the university). I had read The Arabs in History (read it twice, actually, for two different courses), and I thought Bernard Lewis was about the smartest, most learned, most literate person on the planet. Well, I didn’t think he was smarter than the physicists and mathematicians who made up most of the rarefied Einstein-like gang at the Institute for Advanced Study, but when it came to academic disciplines that I had some (however piddling) understanding of, Lewis seemed like an intellectual Wilt Chamberlain towering above his peers. I was 22 years old; what the heck did I know?

What impressed me the most about Lewis was that he was reputed to have mastered Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Hebrew. I was struggling with Arabic, feeling like a real dummy for the first time since those horrible shop classes I’d been forced to take in junior high, and it boggled my mind that Lewis—who was not only capable of reading complicated medieval texts in all four languages but was also said to be pretty comfortable carrying on conversations with Arabs, Turks, Persians, and Israelis on the street—had been able to accomplish something in one lifetime that I was reasonably certain I’d be unable to accomplish in four, which of course was three more lifetimes than I’d been allotted (I’m absolutely certain of that last fact).

So in 1974-75, my chief goal in life was to be admitted to the graduate program in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton and earn a doctorate under Bernard Lewis. Let me give you the short version: I got rejected by Princeton, I ended up at Indiana University (a place that I liked a lot), I never became anything more than a painfully mediocre student of languages, and I left grad school after two years with a consolation-prize M.A.

Long after I left grad school, I did have the opportunity to teach college students for a while, and I found that, Princeton degree or no Princeton degree, teaching wasn’t for me. By this time (we’re in the ‘90s here), I was well over my Bernard Lewis-worship (this was long before anyone that I knew had cause to mention Lewis and Dick Cheney in the same breath). From time to time I would read one of Lewis’s books, and while I continued to find his prose stirringly clear and elegant—not to mention hugely informative—I began to notice some not-so-likable qualities in his work. Hubris for one. Too often, instead of reminding the reader of the tentativeness, the provisional quality of historical reconstruction and interpretation, he seemed all too willing to proclaim from on high with a certainty that was, well, unappealing. I don’t know if Lewis changed in this regard or I did; it’s certainly possible that the scholarly equivalent of fighter-pilot cockiness that impressed me so much when I was in my early twenties simply became unattractive to my forty-something and fifty-something self.

There is something else about Lewis that I’m sure did change over the years. When he was younger, he wrote about all the Muslim peoples of the Middle East—Arabs, Turks, Iranians, and Kurds—with obvious respect and admiration. His books were translated into Islamic languages; he was welcome as a lecturer and researcher all around the Muslim world. But as his enthusiastic support of the state of Israel (and, some would add, his Jewishness) became more widely known, Lewis became less welcome in some parts of the Arab world. However, he remained a much-honored guest in Turkey throughout this whole time. He began to focus his scholarship more on the Ottoman Empire and somewhat less on the early Islamic centuries that were usually seen as the high-water-mark of Arabic civilization. You can’t really blame him. But when he did write about the Arabs, it seemed that he was now much more likely than his younger self to dwell on topics that did not reflect especially well on them as a people—their historical attitudes toward race and slavery, for example.

It’s not that he was cooking the books—like some academic Bernie Madoff—by doing fraudulent, dishonest scholarship; it’s more that he was selecting subjects that were apt to make Arabs seem, in a particular historical context, not very admirable, and certainly not as admirable as the Turks, for whom Lewis continued to demonstrate a special (and fully understandable, given his history) fondness. The way he sometimes played ethnic favorites left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, although to this day he is quite capable of extolling the glories of classical Arabic civilization (and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity when he does).

So let me wish you a belated happy birthday, Professor Lewis. I may not admire you in the unqualified, starstruck way I once did, but I still believe you’re an extremely important and relevant historian and a wonderful writer. And though I do respect you less than I once did, I can’t, in the end, say for sure that it’s your fault. Or mine. It’s just life.

Barry Hoberman

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Audio Addiction

I drive an hour to get to work every day, combine that with my love of books and I have become an audio book listener. Though to be honest I have had the habit for years, even before my long commute to Wellesley. I can and will listen to anything- books I would never try reading- I will listen to on audio. For me it’s not just the convenience of “reading” a book while driving. Audio books are engaging and entertaining, the performance of a good reader brings out the best of a book and can sometimes rescue less-than-stellar writing. One of the few audio books I couldn’t get through was Steven Hawking’s Brief History of Time, read by Michael Jackson (no, not that one). I could not drive and concentrate enough to begin to understand what I heard, so after a lot of rewinding I eventually gave up. I find the only time I can’t listen to a book and drive is when I am trying not to get lost, but once I find my way, the book is back on. I like audio books so much I listen to them when I am not driving. I can listen to a good book while I knit or garden or cook or while taking a walk.

I have been known to honk my horn, when something particularly thrilling happens in my audio book (Blood Red Horse read by Maggie Mash) in the car, I have also sat in my driveway because I’m at an especially good part, or brought it into work with me when I just need to finish the last cd of a book. I sometimes wish I had a button that would speed a reader up, when I just want to know what happens at the end. I have groaned and yelled at narrators/authors while keeping both hands firmly on the wheel. I’ve listened to the wonderful Edward Herrmann read me Geronimo Stilton and Unbroken and loved both.

What else have I liked? Lets start with the obvious, the Harry Potter audios, that Jim Dale is a genius. Overall I prefer a good actor to take on any book. I always thought authors would be a good choice for readers, they obviously know the work, and I thought by listening to them reading I would garner a little more insight into the book. Not so, some authors just aren’t up to the task, and the critic in me thinks, no, why didn’t they fix this? or try to stop them? Some authors just take a little time to get used to. Believe it or not it took some time for me to warm up to. E. B. White. How amazing was it to listen to him read his own work, his books are masterpieces but, his voice is quirky to say the least. I did get used to it and it did make me love Trumpet of the Swan even more. I was amazed at the total lack of inflection or emotion I got from Pat Conroy reading his book My Reading Life, but I liked the book and got used to him by the end. There are plenty I haven’t gotten used to and I have a small list of professional narrators I will not listen to, no matter what the book. Yes I have listened to a lot of books over the years. I keep a little notebook to keep track of things and have a simple 4 star system to rate story and narrator. Here’s a sampling of some of my more memorable audio “reads”.

Lorna’s Hall of Fame Audios (for various and personal reasons) include:

  • Eye of the Needle read by Illya Kuryakin aka NCIS’s Ducky aka David McCallum- the guy does great voices male and female
  • Harry Potter Series read by Jim Dale- genius
  • Walk in the Woods read by Bill Bryson- an author I needed to get used to he is laugh out loud funny
  • Moby Dick (abridged) read by Burt Reynolds – need I say more
  • Blood Red Horse read by Maggie Mash- see above horn honking
  • Nation read by Stephen Briggs- he makes a really good book totally enthralling
  • Cricket in Times Square read by Tony Shalhoub- I can’t tell you how talented and sweet he is
  • Any version of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bubbling Under the Hot 100

Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy--the 13th edition of Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles (covering the years 1955 to 2010) is due out in June, and a little elf has pre-ordered a copy for me. You don't know who Joel Whitburn is? Really? Do you want to know who he is? Wait--before you have a chance to answer yes or no, I'll tell you.

Joel Whitburn is a 71-year-old music researcher based in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. Since 1970, he has published around 200 data-crammed books based on the rankings and miscellaneous information in Billboard magazine's Pop, Rock, Country, R&B/Hip-Hop, Adult Contemporary, and Dance/Disco record charts. His books are to popular music in America what the old Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia was to our national pastime before the Internet became the main repository of baseball statistics. Whitburn maintains a website but you have to pay to do searches on it; besides, the books are way more fun to use, in my (admittedly book-revering) opinion.  

I own a copy of the 6th edition of Top Pop Singles, which covers the years 1955 to 1990. My knowledge of pop music pretty much fizzles out somewhere in the early or mid '80s, though I'm not averse to listening to contemporary pop. I just stopped caring about the music enough to want to keep tabs on chart performance. So why do I need the latest edition of Top Pop Singles, you ask. (You did ask; I think I heard you ask. It's not altogether inconceivable that you would have asked.)

OK, my friends, I'll tell you: Because the new edition is going to include never-before-included information on "Breakout Singles," a feature that ran in Billboard from January 9, 1961 to February 10, 1973, a period that, in Whitburn's words, represents "the golden era of garage bands and Top 40 radio." It also happens to very nearly coincide with the 10-year period (1963 to 1972, inclusive) in which much of my favorite music was recorded and released.

The "Breakout Singles" were records that were getting airplay, selling well, and effectively becoming local hits in one or more of 32 major markets (including the usual metropolitan suspects but also less influential markets like Buffalo, Milwaukee, Albany, Hartford, Louisville, Oklahoma City, and Newark). Many eventually made the Billboard "Hot 100" or "Bubbling Under the Hot 100" charts, but in the 12+ years during which the "Breakout Singles" feature existed, precisely 631 of the "Breakout Hits" made neither of those national charts. We're talking about the bands that played at your and my (if you've read this far you're close to me in age) junior-high and high-school dances in the era right after the era in which they called those dances "sock hops." No wonder, then, that a needy nerd like me needs the new edition of Top Pop Singles, even if you don't. 

The other point I want to make, besides the general point about the greatness and coolness of the entire Joel Whitburn Record Research franchise up there in Menomonee Falls, is that I can't imagine Whitburn's books being studied or browsed on an e-reader. From a technical standpoint, you could do that, of course. But why would you want to? I just this second picked up my copy of the 6th edition of Top Pop Singles, opened it to a random page (page 592), and . . . there they are, the British group, the Tremeloes, with a listing of the five songs of theirs that made the U.S. Top 100 from 1964 to 1968, including their fine cover of Cat Stevens's "Here Comes My Baby" (the Tremoloes' version peaked at #13 in 1967), and their equally fine cover of the gorgeous Four Seasons B-side (to "Rag Doll"), "Silence is Golden" (peaked at #11, also in 1967).

But then I let my eyes wander across the two-page spread that includes the Tremoloes, and say, there's Doris Troy, who sang "Just One Look," and the Troggs, who made "Wild Thing" famous before Jimi Hendrix made it even more famous at Monterey Pop, and Pat Travers, who reached #56 in 1979 with his annoyingly testosteronic "Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)." Gee, did the Cat Stevens original of "Here Comes My Baby" ever chart in the U.S? I flip back to the Cat Stevens entry on page 554--no, it didn't. Did any other version of the song do so, other than that of the Tremeloes? I flip to the index, page 711--none did.

Ah, but what about the "Bubbling Under the Hot 100" chart? Did any version of "Here Comes My Baby" make it to "Bubbling Under" without subsequently advancing to the "Hot 100"? Let me grab my 1992 edition of Whitburn's Bubbling Under (in recent years, all the "Bubbling" info has been folded into Top Pop Singles, but at one time it constituted a separate book). Holy moly--there's a 1967 Perry Como version of "Here Comes My Baby" that peaked only at #124. Oh wait--it's not the Cat Stevens song, it's a different song with the same title. Not a song I'm familiar with, although Dottie West, who later recorded with Kenny Rogers, apparently had a #10 Country hit with it in 1964. And . . . .

Maybe there'll come a time when the look-what-I-stumbled-on serendipity that we experience when we browse through a hard-copy reference book will be capable of being roughly approximated with e-books and e-readers. Approximated but not replicated. I can't imagine that e-books will ever e-licit quite the same feeling. Not in me. And probably not in you.

--Barry Hoberman