We Are Books

I opened my weekend NYT (on my tablet) to find two articles of interest: The Dilemna of Being a Cyborg and The Bookstores Last Stand.  As a former bookstore owner and manager I immediately saw the link between the two.

This past summer a young mother came into the store toting her young son who, she explained, had been raised on a “Nuk”, and I don’t mean a pacifier.  Recently he had fallen in love with certain “content” he had read and he wanted one of “those flippy things.”  “A book”, his mom told me helpfully.  That is the connection and the point: what we treasure we will always want to hold.

I will not argue that books won’t become outdated and quaint but there will always be a need for them.  A need, yes, a need: to hold, to page through, to write in the margins, to spill coffee on, to remember the time you spilled coffee on it, to stick daisies in their pages, to have the dried petals fall out in the middle of a move years from now and stop you in your tracks, look up and remember that daisy. And beyond all this, to read, especially those stories that we really love.

If as Nicholas Carr states in his book The Shallows:What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, the average American spends eight and a half hours per day in front of a screen, does he want to relax at the end of the day reading on another screen? As Mr Carr also points out there are studies that show there is a tactile aspect to learning that may demand that in order to really “make something our own”, as the nuns used to say, we need the rough feel of paper or the mechanics of turning a page.

This was made clear to me when my daughter was in first grade and had been put in a reading program for slow readers.  At winter break her teacher told me she wasn’t recommending my daughter continue with “Bucket Brigade” and, even though I worked in a bookstore and really valued reading, I would need to not push her because she might be “one of God’s special children”, (seriously, her exact words).  “No pushing”, I thought until the night I found her, late at night, with flashlight, under the covers trying to sound out words.  “Special child or not”, I told the teacher when school started, “I want her back in that program”.  As luck would have it, there was a new tutor who had sand paper letters my daughter could touch, and finger paints she could use to form letters and something she did with jello.  Lo and behold, in two months she was reading at a second grade level…(and graduated from a good college and has a job with health insurance and everything)  She needed to feel those symbols before they had any meaning!

And so it goes. When mp3 players killed the CD player what came roaring back but “vinyl”?  And did the invention of the coffee vending machine mean the death of coffee shops?  Perhaps the model of the big box Barnes and Noble store is not sustainable but I wish you a small independent bookstore attached to each one of those little coffee shops that dot every corner of the map nowadays. So that the huge banner strung across the entrance to BEA, the big blowout for publishers and booksellers, won’t say “WE ARE CONTENT”, as this past year’s did, (and which took me a while to understand…how do they know I am content, I wondered?) but WE ARE BOOKS!

Blueprints for the Crazy

A couple weeks ago I picked up Blueprints of the Afterlife,by Ryan Boudinot, thinking it would be a great, light book for a trip.  Instead it was a mind boggling experience that felt like being velcroed to a wall and pelted with idea after idea after character after plot after political philosophy…in short an up and coming cult classic.  It is a messy book. There are characters whose presence and story make no sense to me. But, who cares.  It is a wild futuristic ride into a time after the era of FUS, hey, you have to read the book to find out what that means, when nature turned on the world and a huge ice berg wiped out most of the major cities of the U.S.. Working in the background of this plot was a shadowy organization that warped between trying to save us and causing Armageddon. Even if you cannot figure out why the characters exist, it in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the manner in which they are  finely drawn and the amazing situations that envelope them.  There is a message here, amongst all the comical detritus, and I believe I found it on pages 386 and 387 of the 428 paged book. I am not going to hit you over the head with it because the author didn’t choose that route either.  But there are so many wonderful ideas and turns of phrase here I am already looking forward to reading Blueprints again. I just need to let my head clear for a month or two.

KARE TV Book List

Those of us who have no fond appreciation of the periodic table, having had to memorize it in high school chemistry class, will be surprised by Sam Kean’s book The Disappearing Spoon (here the subtitle tells all) And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements. The real characters in this book are the scientists who work with the elements. I found myself having favorites, such as Rontgen, the first Nobel laureate in Physics, who thought himself hallucinating when he accidentally discovered X-rays which showed the bones of his hand through his skin. Kean’s chatty narrative make these scientific tales enjoyable to the common reader.

Apollos Angels: A History of Ballet came out of nowhere at the end of 2010 to be named one of The New York Times best books of the year and a finalist for the National Book Award. I hate to admit that to me ballet is only slightly more interesting than the periodic table, but there it is.  Jennifer Homans, however, does what all really good historians do and that is mix the subject matter with culture, politics and even the economy in which it exists.  She shows with amazing clarity that ballet is a reflection of the era.

Even if you did not understand Amy Chua’s parenting skills as described in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother you had to feel for her in the wave of negative publicity after it’s publication. TV and radio talk shows were filled with vitriol at the “abusive” nature in which she forbade sleepovers and expected her girl’s lives to be filled with education rather than entertainment. Lost in all the hype was the fact that this was a memoir, not a “how to” book. The best part of the paperback release is the new afterword in which Chua describes the impact the book had on her life and her family.  Her descriptions of different country’s reactions to her book are especially funny. The Chinese edition was titled Parenting by a Yale Law Professor: How to Raise Kids in America. 

Jane Levy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood

Putting Pen to Book

I can think of no finer gift to give than a book, not surprisingly. I love to find just the right book for family and friends. Throughout the year I keep a shelf on which I collect my gift books.  And, okay, okay, I do admit to gently reading some before they become gifts. What really seals the deal though, is putting pen to end flap with “Merry Christma 2012, Aunt Sue” or something of the sort.

In my library it is the signed book that carries with it an almost magic spell of invincibility.  When it comes time to cull the stacks for fear of the floors sagging, I can never bring myself to put books with a person’s handwritten sentiment in the donate box. I even have a slim volume (was there ever any other kind?) of Rod McKuen poetry that a friend gave me in high school.  I didn’t even care for Listen to the Warm when I received it, but that my friend took the time to write “I am so glad we had home room together this year, Merry Christmas, Carol” inside, insures it’s permanent placement on my shelf and in my heart. Just try prying out of my fingers The Joy of Cooking, pretty much out of date information wise, that my brother and sister gave me for my first wedding…..these small hands will become iron vices.

Even when the book was not given to me I treasure the sentiments held within the inscription: the book of children’s stories given to my mother at Christmas 1925, or The World According to Garp we gave to my mother-in-law (and which she recommended to her church book group before she finished reading it…remember the driveway scene…big mistake) are each embedded with their own history.

Hell, the book doesn’t even need to be inscribed to anyone I know.  Sometimes I will chose the book where pen has been put to book  for that inscription alone. I have a copy of Michael Murphy’s Golf in the Kingdom in which is written “To My Friend Jerry, I know you will understand, RB” and I just bet Jerry did understand therefore I will honor their friendship by my ownership of the book.  I have a theory that his wife tossed it for reasons of her own.

Inscribing a book, without getting into the whole ebook vs. paper book, promises that singular volume, no matter what the title or subject, will carry with it it’s own history and by the very act of the gift giver taking the time to write within, will never be like another book ever.  Well worth the time I think.

The Evil Empire

Richard Russo skewers the latest ploy of the Evil Empire, Amazon, in the New York Times on Tuesday, Dec 15.  Nothing Amazon does any more surprises me.  They long ago ceased being the gentle provider of books at a low cost and became the shark in the ocean of literature. Bookstores all over the country became a sort of showroom for Amazon.  It is not unusual to see browsers with their pen and paper in hand jotting down titles so that they can go home and order either paper or e-book versions from Amazon.  They undermine the tax base of every state by refusing to collect sales tax due, all the while hiding behind support of a federal remedy to this problem, the which has been bottle-necked in the  circus we know as Congress  for almost ten years.  When states enact on line sales tax laws Amazon plays hard ball by not allowing individuals and businesses  from that state to sell on their site, or threatening to pull warehouses and jobs located in those states. And speaking of those warehouses,the conditions at some,  like one in Pennsylvania, replicate third world conditions. It is nearly impossible to  fight them, because in this economy, we all watch out pennies and the pleasure of shopping in your pajamas is too much for many to resist.

But fight we must.  It is the bricks and mortar bookstores and, for that matter, all bricks and mortar business, that contribute to the economic health of our communities.  They provide jobs, pay property and payroll taxes and collect sales taxes. All of which make our  local governments and infrastructure work.  Beyond that, as Russo points out, it is the local bookseller that provides the space to browse, that takes the time to get to know you and your reading habits, that can recommend books to you in a much more personal way than “people who bought this also liked this”.

Did you know that your local bookstore can special order books for you, ship books to your great aunt in Baltimore or hold books which are in stock until it is convenient for you to pick them up? And many times as fast or faster than Amazon.  For those of us to whom our local independent bookstore is a sort of mecca it is worth our time and effort to support them. Make a day of it. Call a friend, have lunch or dinner and spend some time and money at the independent bookstore (or two or three) near you.

Osseo Book Club

Good Morning Osseo Book Club.  I am so looking forward to speaking to you in a couple hours. So you can keep track of what I will be talking about I refer you to the book list for the Minneapolis Women’s Club. But I am also adding the following:

The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Weekends, Lynne and Sally show us why the death of the cookbook in paper form is not a done deal. This is a book you can spend the evening with and come away a better person without ever cooking a thing.

1968,  I wish I could love this book as much as I loved the year but it is still an interesting look at the seminal year and a good sidekick to the exhibition of the same name at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Libraries of Minnesota, is the latest in the Minnesota Byways series (Cabins, Churches,Barns, Courthouses and Schoolhouses) and I have the same feeling I get whenever one of these slim wonders is published…I love it, this is my favorite one yet! Doug Ohman’s photos are always spot on. And the essays that ride side saddle with the photos, by Nancy Carlson and Kao Kalia Yang among others, will have you heading for that cozy corner at your nearest library.

The Art of Fielding, Let’s just say I am in love….with the author’s style, with the characters, with all things Westish. This lovely book, with baseball as the broth that stews the story, has thrown a real wrench in my normal zoooom reading style. I have slowed to a crawl because I want to savor every word.






Magic in the City

The snow was falling lightly on the sidewalks of St Paul the other morning when the black labs and I set out for our morning walk. Rounding a corner, we came upon the dead crow pictured here.  It was a black and white morning. Clearly there was magic in the air. Was this a shape changing wizard sent crashing to the earth during a battle with evil forces? Perhaps this crow was “left behind” while fleeing into another dimension of time and space.  The possibilities are limited only by imagination.

I once heard Lev Grossman, the author of The Magicians and The Magician King, say in an interview something like the great thing about fantasy was that it added magic to everyday life. I visited New York City not long after reading The Magicians in which a high school senior finds a portal into a wizarding school in a small city park on his way to a college interview.  I found myself wondering as I passed those parks in my walk around town. In his most recent book, 11/22/63, Stephen King has us entering the 1960′s through a portal in the storage room of a local greasy spoon restaurant.  I admit I have cautiously pushed on the walls of some of the bathrooms I have visited in the old buildings of St Paul. I have a large wardrobe that each of my children have pushed the clothes aside in to see if Narnia could be on the other side. It was, of course, the reason I bought the wardrobe in the first place.

Fiction is one thing.  It opens the window into the lives of others.  Fantasy is another, it opens the door into other worlds the could possibly be right there in front of us.  It certainly makes my walks with the dogs more interesting.



Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut

And sometimes you don’t.  Here’s my point:  folks would come into the store and say “I have shelves of books I haven’t read, but none of them appeal to me so I came for something new.”  This makes perfect sense to me because of the whole food/ craving conundrum.  Every person who has ever wondered what to cook for dinner, or where to eat, has been caught up in the web of  ”I don’t feel like Chinese (or Mexican or pasta or….) tonight”  I don’t see the difference between that and your reading appetite.  Sometimes you feel like reading non-fiction, sometimes you feel like reading fiction, sometimes you feel like reading something trashy, sometimes a classic.

And of course sometimes you don’t know what you feel like until you have sampled the dish. I dip my spoon in many books until I find the one that fits my mood just right.  I can read 30 pages and decide I am just not in the mood right now for Murakami, or I better read some non-fiction because the whole world is beginning to look like Lev Grossman got a hold of the script. It doesn’t mean the book is bad or that I will not finish it ( well, unless it is bad, then I know I won’t finish it). Most of the time I am just not in the mood and then, someday, I will be in the mood.

So, in the three bears house which is my bedside book shelf, there now sits 1Q84, 11/22/63 (hey, maybe it just all these letter /number titles that are off-putting), The Beauty and the Sorrow and  Rin Tin Tin. All are in various states of having been read. None of them screaming at me to pick them up and continue.  So yesterday I went out and got The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Here is a book on every “best” list I have read, but which I could not read until now.  Like the swallows returning to Capistrano it makes perfect sense and reassures me that all is as it should be in the reading universe. Because…..I am a total baseball fan. Come the end of the World Series, I normally go into a funk because there is no baseball. I save all baseball reading until off-season just to get my self through until pitchers and catchers show up at camp.  This being the totally messed up fall that it has been, I did not go into my traditional no baseball funk. No, it was the non-satisfying smorgasboard of reading, with the tasty dish of baseball fiction tempting me from the salad bar, that proves I am a child of the universe and will find my niche somewhere among the stars.

Keep on reading, putting down and picking up, until you find that just right for the moment perfect read. Because, as the old Almond Joy ad put so well, “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.”

Reading for Understanding not Pleasure

The cover to Caroline Moorehead’s book A Train in Winter is bleak, bleak, bleak but the book, if you can believe it, is yet bleaker. My problem with the cover is that it shows folks in a 1940s-esque rail station patiently waiting, we assume, to board. The book chronicles the lives and internment of women involved in the French resistance during WWII. In reality these women would have been driven into a cattle car with no room to lie down and literally just a pot to piss in. Hardly the romantic scene portrayed on the cover.

I admit most of what I know of the French resistance I learned by watching Casablanca. That and growing up during DeGaulle’s regime I probably picked up his myth of the majority of Frenchmen being part of the noble covert battle agains their Nazi occupiers. Moorehead dispels any such notion. The women described here were involved from the early years of the occupation doing everything from the mundane such as distributing anti-Nazi posters and literature to the seriously dangerous like building bombs in the science labs where they worked.  Many were Communist Party members, popular in France during the 1930s reacting against Fascism. But many were simply reacting against the brutality of German authoritarianism.

Collaboration had varying degrees of involvement as the current controversy around Coco Channel shows. I was amazed though at the energy, described within this book, with which many of the French threw themselves into turning against their fellow citizens. The resistance picked up speed as the war went forward but in the early years it was hard to tell which way the wind blew and many placed their bets on the Nazis not on their own country men. Moorehead describes this in minute but very readable detail in the first part of the book. These stories humanize the women who were risking everything: family, home, job and equally demonizes their fellow French informers, police and the “Free” French Vichy government.

The second part of the book chronicles their experience in various internment and concentration camps to which they are shuttled for twenty nine months until the end of the war. There is nothing new in these descriptions of man’s cruelty toward their fellow man. But it is difficult to pick up the book to be immersed in such deprivation again and again.  The real story is the women’s continual kindness toward each other. There are  women of every socio-economic background leading, nursing, protecting each other through the most horrific circumstances. And it is not hard to believe that the smallest acknowledgement of each others humanity made the difference often between succumbing or surviving.

In the end though it is clear that these ministrations could only serve as balm. Of the the 230 women sent into depravity only 49 would live to return to their country. The final part of the book tells the story of their return to a life few could recognize. Many of their husbands had died at the hands of the Nazis. Their young children left in the care of family or fosters no longer knew their mothers, a reality that must have been extremely painful. In an appendix Moorehead gives one or two lines to what she could learn of their remaining lives. These spare descriptions give truth to the fact that few ever found happiness. Their lives ruined by health and mental illness remnants of their brutal experience. I am haunted by the final lines of the book in which one survivor states “Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.”

It is difficult to experience this book (hence, my post title) but it is not hard to read. The author’s style is clear and she leads you through in a complex story in a very conversational way. Sometimes we don’t read for pleasure but for knowledge and it is well worth knowing these women’s story.

Minneapolis Women’s Club List

The Women's Club of Minneapolis


Here you go Women’s Club of Minneapolis. (And thank you for letting me use this picture to teach myself how to post pictures). This is the list of books I will be talking about today when I visit. To be honest I am apt to grab something here or there as I walk out the door so I might update after.  But in the main I will be telling you about these:

Once There Were Castles, Larry Millett…Once there were people, well let’s face it there still are, who built these incredible mansions in the Twin Cities and then for one reason or the other tore them down.  Larry Millett continues his history of local architecture in fine form.  He writes in such an absorbable way the text is almost as cool as the pictures.

Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager. Bret Laidlaw… We are talking real local food here; actual mushrooms you pull out of your backyard and trout from the lake “up North”. But this food actually sounds good.  There are dishes like Trout Chowder and Sorrell Shallot Potato Soup.

Dish: 813 Colorful, Wonderful Dinner Plates, Shax Siegler…My favorite gift book of the season for anyone who has ever eaten off a plate.

Knit Your Own Dog,Sally Muir…I cannot say that I get the popularity of this book but I do know these are much easier pets than the ones that need to be walked every day.

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of WWI, Peter Englund…I think the best histories are those told first hand. The author combs through letters, diaries and who knows what of 20 people to give us a month by month history of the War to End All Wars.

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Resistance in Occupied France, Caroline Moorehead…Let’s face it, everything you need to know is in the title.

Destiny of the Republic, Candace Millard…Every person should have a history teacher who can show the interconnectedness of events the way Millard can.  Here she does it with James Garfield, Alexander Graham Bell and the guy who Listerine is named for…no really, she does.

When She Woke, Hillary Jordan…Margaret Atwood meets Nathaniel Hawthorne, seriously.  Jordan comes up with an interesting idea to save on prison costs.

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles…just a good read.  Manhattan in the thirties.  Sort of like The Great Gatsby a decade later with a female narrator.

We the Animals, Justin Torres…a slim book with a big punch that you won’t see coming.

Northwest Angle, Wm Kent Krueger…one of my favorite mystery writers is back with another Cork O’Connor book.  If you don’t know him you should.

I Married for Happiness, Lily Tuck…sure spending the night with your just dead husband might not sound lovely but somehow you get it in this  reminiscence of a marriage.  This is a great Highbridge audio also.


Everything On It, Shel Silverstein…leftovers from the beloved, irreverent, dead poet supposedly for kids but adults will never get tired of him.  I am giving it to all my daughters who are in their 20′s and …

The Big Little Brother. Kevin Kling…Chris Monroe (Monkey with a Tool Belt author/ illustrator does the pictures and hits that nail squarely) Kling gets relationships better than anyone without belittling.

Breadcrumbs, Anne Ursu…the answer to every parent, grandparent, uncle  etc of an 8 through (well, I’m 61 and I liked it) for what  book to give for Christmas, especially if you are from Minnesota. Fantasy, friendship and a Joe Mauer autographed baseball.  What else could you need?