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