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November 10, 2014
So here I am, still in the hospital, and still wedded to my habit of reading only books I have read (and loved) before. But for the moment, I have strayed from the F&M line-up, and am happily wallowing in A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s marvelous tale of his attempts – successful and otherwise – to hike the Appalachian Trail. I’m a city girl, born and bred, so the Nature Stuff is, frankly, of limited interest to me. What I love about this book, what keeps me reading it again and again, is the relationship between Bryson – middle-aged, with a gut and a wheeze and a taste for niceties like flush toilets, and his pal Katz, who makes Bryson look svelte and fit and low-maintenance. Katz, whose idea of how to pack for an epic journey in the wildness involves many cartons of Little Debbie snack cakes. Katz, who essentially defines the term “pain in the butt.” Katz, who has known Bryson since the two of them represented the entire teenage Bad Element of the state of Iowa, and who therefore represents both a kind and a degree of friendship that cannot be gainsaid by any amount of stupid packing, irritating behavior, or flatulence. I love many things about this book, but most of all I love its hymn to friendship – a relationship that fiction too often overlooks, I think, in favor of the glamor of romance and the meatiness of the parent-child bond.
Sadly, we can’t offer a discount on Mr. Bryon’s work, but the thought did send me looking through our list, to see what we have to say about friendship. I thought first about Anna Blundy’s sharp punch of a story, The Bad News Bible, in that the death of one friend sends another on a quest. It’s a wonderful book – and in fact, I can’t wait to reread it – but in honor of Katz, I wanted something where the friendship is a living thing. So the Valentine and Lovelace series it is, because as many of your female friends will tell you, great friendships don’t get a whole lot greater than those between straight women and their gay best friends. Michael McDowell, who wrote the series with his friend Dennis Schuetz, very consciously based it on the “Thin Man” moves starring Myrna Loy and William Powell. The books are set in Boston and environs in the early 1980s, but they nevertheless do a tremendous job of channeling that glorious “Thin Man” ethos where the wit sparkles as deliciously as the champagne, the martinis are cold, the music is hot, and one solves crimes because really, darling, one can only drive around in fabulous cars so many hours of the day. True, the protagonists of “The Thin Man” are married, but it’s a very swanky, sexless sort of marriage – and very much like the swanky, sexless friendship between Daniel Valentine and Clarisse Lovelace, both of whom would look great in satin piped pajamas. It’s a massive stretch, I know, from Clarisse and Valentine (much less from Powell and Loy) to Bryson and Katz…but it isn’t really. Because the thing about friendship is, it may take many different shapes, may be giddy or reserved or centered around burping contests, but at bottom, if it’s there…it’s there. Robert Frost famously said that home is where, when you go there, they have take you in. I’d suggest that a friend is who, when you call them, they come out – in a snowstorm, at 4 in the morning, kvetching all the way – and drive you there. This week only, 25% off on all four of the delightful Valentine and Lovelace books, and in the hope that you all have at least one such good friend. And if I may, it comes complete with a shout-out to the wonderful friends of mine who kept me such good company while I’ve been laid up. I’m a lucky woman.
November 5, 2014
The Truth About Unicorns is one of my favorite books on the F&M list, but I’m betting that Yien Yip, the young illustrator we hired for the cover, wouldn’t read it if you paid her. She wound up doing a terrific job, but boy, we – I – sure put her through hell to get there.
The book is set in the 1920s and ‘30s, in an small farming community in upstate New York. We’re very definitely in Shirley Jackson territory (shades of “The Lottery”), in that this charming little town, all green fields and red barns and girls in starched white dresses, is concealing a black, black secret: It’s positively obsessed with witchcraft, and particularly with the witchy evil of readheaded women.
As in “The Lottery,” that brilliant, classic tale of village chills, there is talk about the supernatural – witches, in this case – but the real evil is supplied by the real humans, courtesy of the miseries they can inflict on one another. In other words, the story may be horrifying in parts, but it’s a long, cool way from Horror.
November 3, 2014
In The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley’s indelibly delightful salute to both bookselling and Brooklyn, the proprietor of the shop in question offers some thoughts as to how his customers might best be served. Posted on the wall of the shop is a sign, in a neat, un-showy hand, reading:
If your mind needs phosphorus, try “Trivia,” by Logan Pearsall Smith.
If your mind needs a whiff of strong air, blue and cleansing, from hilltops and primrose valleys, try “The Story of My Heart,” by Richard Jefferies.
If your mind needs a tonic of iron and wine, and a thorough rough-and-tumbling, try Samuel Butler’s “Notebooks” or “The Man Who Was Thursday,” by Chesterton.
If you need “all manner of Irish,” and a relapse into irresponsible freakishness, try “The Demi-Gods,” by James Stephens. It is a better book than one deserves or expects.
It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour-glass, to let the particles run the other way.
One who loves the English tongue can have a lot of fun with a Latin dictionary.
I often thought of that sign and its prescriptions when I worked at the bookstore. I used to say that I felt sometimes like the village pharmacist: People would come in with one ailment or another, and my job was to figure out what book would answer their needs. Sometimes they would ask me the titles of my favorite books, and I would always explain that that didn’t really matter, that I wanted to find the right book for them.
And what that book might be could change from one day to the next. Just as a pharmacist’s client may have a sore throat on one day, and the jitters the next, a given customer of mine might need a chuckle on Monday, something calming on Tuesday, and a book to take on a plane, so absorbing as to make him forget the cramped seat and the lousy meal, for the weekend.
I’m thinking about book-prescriptions right now because I’m headed into the hospital on Wednesday, and I’m planning what books I’ll take with me. I won’t want anything really complicated – no Cold War espionage with back-room betrayals and Russian names to keep straight, and certainly nothing hugely violent or upsetting. I will need to be both soothed and absorbed, and a giggle or two would not go amiss.
For soothing, I will almost certainly turn to books I’ve already read and know I love. I know there are people who don’t reread – my mother never did – but for me, a well loved book is like a blanket with a comforting, familiar smell. The giggles are tough: In my experience, there are a lot more writers who think they’re funny than there are actually funny books. But happily, F&M publishes some dandy ones. Finally, “absorbing”…I’d like a book that has enough of a plot to keep me interested, to help block out the bleeping machines and the sharp smells of antiseptic and the ghastly Jello they always want you to eat. I’m going to have to bring a whole bunch of books of course – because if you want to see my vital signs go wacky in a hurry, lock me in a hospital room with AN INSUFFICIENT AMOUNT OF READING MATTER – but what am I going to start with? What’s the book that will see me through that first day, when I’ll be snappish with nerves and peevish at the forms and needle-jabs?
Got it: The wonderful Elephants in the Distance, by Daniel Stashower. Dan has by this point won so many Edgar awards that he could field a (somewhat static) baseball team, but this was one of his early novels. It may not be backed by the extraordinary research that underpins the biography and non-fiction he specializes in, but it has two very powerful hallmarks: A deep familiarity with the history of magic, and a great love for the old geezers with the arthritic rabbits and the moth-eaten top hats. The first scene in the book, in which an elderly, once celebrated magician is making balloon-animals at a toddler’s birthday party, reflecting with some grief – but little sourness – on the fact that he used to perform for princes…it’s a killer. I read it, and I keep reading even though I know the book, because I want so badly to see justice done for the nice old fellow.
Want to read along with me? It would give me enormous pleasure to know that I had some company in Stashower’s world. So this week, we’re offering 25% off the wry, clever, gentle and altogether lovely Elephants in the Distance.