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

Monday, May 2, 2011

Young film critic

Recently I was having a conversation with one of the young women (20 something) who care for my mother. She was asking me if my seven year old liked Disney movies.  I laughed and told her some of the new one but that his heart really belongs to The Marx Brothers, Errol Flynn, and Cary Grant.
She looked at me and said, "I don't know who any of those people are."

Several years ago I had the good fortune of being introduced to Ty Burr's book, "The Best Old Movies 
For Families"  Burr breaks down classics (some popular and some movie critic classics)  by age and provides helpful information about each film.  Who knew that the sword fighting scenes in "Robin Hood" and the light saber scenes in "Star Wars were pretty much the same?  We started with the films for ages 3+ and now four years later, Christmas this year we enjoyed our son's first Hitchcock film.  

Recently it was pizza & movie night and our son's turn to pick.  He said, "I can't decide between "Bringing Up Baby" or  "North by Northwest or "A Night in Casablanca""  Oh what to do!

All of this does have it's draw backs though, at a Brattle Theatre screening of "The Sea Hawks" last summer, my son was able to recognize that the theatre was using the older version of the screen, and was missing critical scenes.  He pouted through the whole movie.  And when they get the occasional 
movie choice in first grade, seldom is he able to persuade his friends to watch "Night at the Opera"  but he's cool with that.

Monday, April 25, 2011

“Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?”

A few months ago, I read an essay by James Collins, who wrote the novel Beginner’s Greek. Collins complains that a couple of years after reading a nonfiction book that he had read attentively and greatly enjoyed (Allen Weinstein’s  Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case), he could recall few specific details from the book—just “an atmosphere and a stray image or two, like memories of trips I took as a child.” Citing anecdotal evidence, he suggests that most readers, though not all, share his problem. That being the case—and let’s assume that it is the case, even if scientific evidence for the claim is nowhere to be found in the essay—Collins asks a very good question: “Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?”

There are many good answers to that question, and Collins offers a bunch of them. But some of the most interesting points in the piece are raised by Tufts University professor Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Wolf assures Collins that even if it’s true that few facts from Perjury seem to be swimming around in his conscious brain, reading it was not a waste of his time. She talks about the act of reading as a process that creates pathways in the brain. “There is a difference between immediate recall of facts and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge,” she tells him. “We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory.”

“Gestalt of knowledge” and “wraith of memory” are vague and not entirely satisfying terms. But they’re poetic and evocative, and I think you and I both know what Wolf is getting at.

I bring this up because I’m having a very agreeable “gestalt of knowledge” experience as I read Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt, by Barbara Mertz. Barbara Mertz has written three books as Barbara Mertz, but she has written 19 Egyptological mysteries under the name Elizabeth Peters, 29 thrillers under the name Barbara Michaels, and a total of 70 books in all. She has a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago, and although she received her doctorate 59 years ago (she is 83) it’s obvious that she’s kept up with advances in the discipline. Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs, first published in 1964 and revised in 2007, is an outstanding book: tremendously informative, beautifully written, witty, even saucy. Fans of her fiction probably wouldn’t be surprised by any of this, but never having read her fiction, I was very pleasantly surprised. Me of little faith.

Now, I’m not a complete novice when it comes to ancient Egypt. I took a course in ancient Egyptian history in the fall of 1973; the text for the course was Sir Alan Gardiner’s classic Egypt of the Pharaohs, supplemented by an elegantly concise chronological outline put together by the professor, Thomas Lambdin. I loved the course and did well in it, but by the time 3 or 4 years had passed, I remembered very little in the way of details.

Over 37 years have passed since I took Lambdin’s course. In the interim, I’ve probably read a few dozen newspaper and magazine articles having to do with Egyptian archaeology and history, but nothing of significant length or substance. Yet as I read along in Mertz’s book, I’m amazed at how familiar and comfortable it all feels. Many of the place and personal names were definitely tucked way back there in some deep recess of my brain, only to percolate into the domain of active consciousness once I started encountering them in Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs. But I’m having to learn most of the chronology and the fine details of countless academic debates all over again.

That I can recall little from Lambdin’s lectures and almost nothing from Gardiner’s book seems beside the point now. In addition to the in-the-moment enjoyment and intellectual stimulation that I’m getting from reading Barbara Mertz, I’m re-experiencing—in a sense that I find myself hard pressed to put into words even if the feeling is vivid and unmistakable—the enjoyment and intellectual stimulation of following Tom Lambdin’s lectures and reading Egypt of the Pharaohs all those years ago. A surprisingly soothing gestalt of knowledge, I’d call it.

Barry Hoberman

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Brush With Fame

Allison Pottern-Hoch, Jeff Kinney & Dennis Lehane
One of the perks of being a bookseller (and an events coordinator to boot) is that I sometimes get invited to book-related events. On Tuesday, April 5th I had the pleasure of joining our friends at Abrams in attending 826 Boston's fundraiser, Night of 1000 Stories. 826 Boston is a non-profit writing and tutoring center for youth, a chapter of a larger organization founded by author Dave Eggers. Amidst literary themed appetizers and typewriter-based flash fiction contests, I met the guest speakers (Jeff Kinney! Dennis Lehane!) who were both charming, funny, and down-to-earth. Some of the students shared their stories and projects and everyone was very supportive and enthusiastic about the great work that 826 Boston does. It was so cool to see so many people turning out in support of writing and books! A big thanks to Jason Wells for the invite!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Entertaining Book Reviews

Yesterday I read (somewhat belatedly after its appearance) one of the most entertaining book reviews I’ve ever had the pleasure to come across. Part of the reason it was so entertaining was that I instinctively agreed with just about everything the reviewer had to say, even though I hadn’t read any of the four books being reviewed and was therefore in no position to make an informed judgment about any of them (not that I am shy about making uninformed judgments, as my fellow booksellers will gladly tell you). But I found myself agreeing so vigorously with the overall thesis of the essay that I was inclined to accept the reviewer’s opinion of each book purely on faith. (I say “inclined” because I am willing to grant that if I actually read the books, my own opinion might conceivably differ here and there from his.)

The review was by Neil Genzlinger, and it was published some six weeks ago, in the January 30 issue of The New York Times Book Review. Genzlinger reviewed four recently published memoirs, three of which he disliked strongly. I rarely use the clich├ęd expression “He took no prisoners,” but it really applied in this case. His beef was less with the particular memoirs under consideration than with the general direction that the entire literary genre of autobiography/memoir has undeniably taken in recent years: “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked on, the way God intended.”

You get the picture. It’s a pretty harsh review and, in fact, at one point Genzlinger apologizes for being so harsh. But there’s a method to his corrosiveness. He isn’t trying to discredit the whole idea of writing about one’s difficult childhood, or about a specific personal tragedy, or about a person in one’s family who lives or lived with a serious illness or disability. What bothers Genzlinger is that, in his view, many (not all, of course) published memoirs that revolve around these and similar subjects turn out to be trite, boring, mawkish, or worse. How is this possible? It’s possible—and this is my observation, not Genzlinger’s, although I can’t imagine he’d disagree—because memoirs are an enormously popular genre and publishers like to make profits, as do bookstores.

Sure, you could dismiss his criticism by saying that if you don’t like memoirs, don’t read ‘em. But the major trade publishers are going to publish a finite number of books in any given year, and for every not-terribly-distinctive or ostentatiously self-pitying memoir that does get published, it may mean that someone’s first-rate piece of work, memoir or not, is not getting published. (No, this isn’t a whiny personal plea on behalf of a “first-rate” manuscript that I keep stuffed in a filing cabinet.)

One of the authors under review, Heather Havrilesky—who couldn’t have been too pleased to read Genzlinger’s unsparing comments about her memoir, Disaster Preparedness—had the courage and grace to respond on the Times website by challenging readers to read a two-chapter excerpt from her book that’s linked to the online version of the review. “See if you agree,” she wrote, “that it’s dull or ‘unrewarding’” (the last term being Genzlinger’s). But she went on to say this: “Genzlinger’s critique certainly isn’t boring. Harsh or not, it’s entertaining (as more criticism should be) and a great conversation starter, so kudos to the author.”

Yes, kudos to the author. He’s hardly the first person to complain about the ridiculous proliferation of undistinguished, marginally interesting, patently nonessential memoirs, but he’s made his case eloquently and passionately, if a bit mercilessly. Kudos, too, to Heather Havrilesky for uncommon grace and civility under heavy reviewer-generated fire. Read Neil Genzlinger’s review here ( and see what you think.

Barry Hoberman

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Because of a book...

Because of a book, Iain Banks’ strangely wonderful dreamscape The Bridge, I decided to email the cute boy I had had such an interesting conversation with the night before. We were in college and we had talked about vision and that strange sensation of when you are so focused on one subject, the rest of the world seems to gray out. And lo’ and behold, there was a passage about that right there in The Bridge. What did it mean? Had he read the book as well? Was fate trying to tell me something?

I emailed him, he emailed me back. He hadn’t read the book, but he did like to read. And a dialogue began that tumbled into a relationship that, eight years later, has resulted in a marriage and a room full ofoverflowing bookshelves stacked three books deep.

Isn’t it funny how books cause us to meet the most interesting people? A stranger on the train who you notice is always reading your favorite books or that person who has a library book sticking out of their bag at a party? I am always asking my friends and family “what are you reading?” (or in some cases “listening to” for fans of audio books). And then I write down yet another title to look at when I’m back in the store.

I’m new to this bookselling business—I’ve worked in marketing and publishing for a number of years and have loved books ever since I could put words together, but this is the first time I’ve worked in a bookstore. I’m charged with continuing Alison Morris’s legacy of fantastic children’s events, bringing great authors to the store and to local schools. Big shoes to fill! I’m getting to meet a lot of cool authors and I hope you will too.

An added bonus is that I get to work with and meet such avid and expansive readers like yourselves. I love seeing customer’s choices when they come up to the register. Or the people who wander from section to section, picking out some books from Column A, some from Column B. Children that camp out on the floor with a pile of books. A co-worker who presses a book into my hands and says “You MUST read this.” The piles of galleys and books on my desk/floor/nightstand are growing.

What is even more intriguing is why people read. Some are looking for entertainment, some for facts, some for a good story or good writing or good characters. Is someone choosing short stories because of their brevity or their depth? Or choosing biographies for their truth, their history, or maybe (just a little)for their voyeurism? Genres and bookstore sections try to help us classify what we like to read and why we like to read it, but sometimes we have to figure out the subtitles for ourselves: Picture Books-- Because Sometimes Art Tells a Truer Story than Words or Science Fiction-- Because It Makes Me Think Hard About the Future (and okay, I think space travel and aliens are kind of cool).

Why do I read? Well, it has a lot to do with that sensation described in The Bridge. That curious sense of focus that causes the book world before me to leap from the page in full color while the rest of the world fades to stillness and gray. This makes it very hard to distract me while I’m reading (though I’ve gotten good at responding to my name – years of practice reading books behind my desk at school). I relish being able to turn the rest of the world off for a few moments and live in someone else's for awhile.

What do you like to read and why?


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Putting Aside a Book You're Actively Enjoying

I'm currently reading True Grit. Also The Book of Ebenezer Le Page; The Complete Claudine (an omnibus of Colette's Claudine novels, which I put down halfway through Claudine Married); Rebecca; The Rachel Papers; The Third Policeman; The Tenth Parallel; Half of a Yellow Sun and One D.O.A, One on the Way. I've enjoyed almost all of these books - and "enjoyed" The Rachel Papers - and none of them are particularly long or demanding, but I've also set down each book before its ending - sometimes only chapters before. This is a bad habit I've had for many years, but I figured for this, my first blog post, I would try to figure out the source of this habit and possibly come to some conclusions about how to squelch it. I know I'm not the only one who does this.
I think there are several factors at work here. I work in a bookstore and am constantly surrounded by new temptations. (My six boxes of unread hardbacks, softcovers and advance readers, gathering dust for want of shelf space, will attest to this.) I spent most of my teenage years clicking around between message boards and writing on a Livejournal, and, as a result, my brain is full of swarming gnats. I want to feel my language pleasure center firing off, and novelty - starting a new book whose insight, or character development, or plot, or delicious prose I really love - assists in giving me this wonderful feeling.

What really prevents me from finishing a book that I'm enjoying, though, is a sense of investment, and, therefore, pressure. With books that I'm Reading reading, I need to feel like I've fully taken in every word. If I'm tired or unfocused, I'll find myself reading a sentence five times with a mounting sense of frustration. This is where my lovely co-worker Barry - if you've been here on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday in recent years, you know Barry - would advise me to "get on the Prozac train." (Barry speaks openly about his experiences with OCD and is very warm and helpful to both sufferers and family members, and, yes, I OK'ed this with him.) At the same time, I'll usually have books, comics or magazines on hand that I read during in-betweeny moments - before bedtime, at meals - and I usually read these quickly and effortlessly, because they somehow don't count. (Barry could tell me whether making this artificial distinction between Reading and reading is a symptom of something.) I also find it much easier to finish books that I'm indifferent towards or actively dislike.

I'm trying to read Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities alongside my boyfriend and two of my co-workers, and it's about 1,700 pages long, so the problem of how to finish what I've started is especially important right now. Sentence for sentence, it's giving me more pleasure than anything else I've read recently. It's plotless, but that's fine - while a lot of the books I've finished have been more plot-heavy, I tend to be aware of this and it puts me off (with the exception of PG Wodehouse and some mysteries), in the same way that a piece of music can be too sing-songy. So far, I've been reading slowly and carefully and haven't gotten stuck on any sentences. It helps that it's hilarious. (I don't have fond memories of reading Young Torless for class a few years ago, so this was a huge, wonderful surprise.) There's also this logic - for me, at least - to many of the sentences where you are walked very methodically from start to a really fresh and surprising finish. So now I just need to sustain this feeling of engagement and delight for another 1,600-something pages. No buying additional books that look so great, I just have to read them right now. Any tips?


Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Candy

Book Candy.  This is a term that book sellers frequently toss about.  I define it as "A book that I need to devour only for my pleasure, to hell with what a reviewer or my fellow booksellers may or may not say."

I have two series that I put into this category.... The Stephanie Plum Number series, deftly written by Janet Evanovich. The humor-filled mysteries features Stephanie Plum as a misfit bonds woman who goes through cars faster than Hogwarts went through Defence Against the Dark Arts professors. This series got me (and my then fiance) through those trying months just prior to our wedding. Number 17 in the series hasn't been announced yet, but I'm hoping that it will here to kick off summer.

I don't remember how I came to read Lauren Willig's The Secret History of the Pink Carnation but I remember thinking, what a breathe of fresh air!  Historical fiction that is a hoot & a half!  A current day grad student whose research unveils a collection of botanical spies that reigned during the Napoleonic Wars. Both the present day story as well as the historical are clever -- part mystery, a bit romance, and a lot of humor.  I just finished the newest in the series, The Orchid Affair which reads like a PG-13  retelling of "The Sound of Music" and I mean that in a good way!  

I firmly believe that book candy is an important part of everyone's book diet, indulge!

-- Bookseller #4

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Life is Short

Life is short. Maybe Frank Buckles wouldn't have said that. Mr. Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of World War I, died over the weekend (I'm writing this on March 1) at the age of 110. This leaves only two living veterans of the Great War: Florence Green, of King's Lynn, England, who turned 110 on February 19, and Claude Choules, of Perth, Australia, who will be 110 two days from now, on March 3. I don't know if Ms. Green and Mr. Choules feel that life is short.
I do know this, however: If you're an enthusiastic reader--like everyone who works at the Wellesley Booksmith and like so many of you, our customers--it's not unusual to be plagued by a nagging feeling that life is way too short to read all the books you'd like to read. Or even a respectable (whatever that means) percentage of all the books you'd like to read. So many books, and, even if you happen to be Frank Buckles, Florence Green, or Claude Choules, so little time.
I bring this up because from time to time I hear some of you say things like, "I'm ashamed to say I've never read The Iliad," or "I really need to read Faulkner," or "I've never read a Shakespeare play. Isn't that terrible?"
Yikes. Stop beating yourselves up. Throughout our lives, we get enough stuff dumped on us that we simply have to read. For school (don't get me started on the odious subject of required summer reading), for work, in order to figure out how to do something (don't you just love manuals?), maybe to placate a spouse or a colleague, etc. etc. So when it comes to leisure time reading or pleasure reading or whatever you want to call it, let's not get all New England Puritan, OK?
I'm not saying that it's bad to have goals or aspirations or targets in one's leisure reading. I'd really like to read Ralph Manheim's translation of the complete fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Someday. And the first volume of Norman Davies's history of Poland. Someday. And Alan Jones's translation of the Qur'an. Someday. But if I don't ever get around to these texts, I hope that I won't (on my deathbed, say) declare my life to have been an abject failure as a result. There may be some other things that I won't be especially thrilled about (if we're talking sins of omission) when that (faraway, I hope) time comes, but not having read X, Y, or Z probably won't be one of them. I think. 
Barry Hoberman