Stories for an Early Spring

This season, two extraordinarily fine novels have come out. One is about Hemingway’s first wife and her life in Paris with the writer. The other is about dissident art in Vietnam. Both are more than worth your time.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain distills the expatriate life of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway – it’s the world of A Moveable Feast experienced from a woman’s point of view. Lots of people call Ernest Hemingway a misogynist. I think nothing could be further from the truth. He reserves both his most tender and most scathing characterizations for the women in his novels. They don’t get as much ink as the men, but they are much more telling. (How can Lady Brett not break your heart at the end of The Sun Also Rises, with her summation of the Almighty, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”) Hemingway’s years with Hadley were some of his most productive and most interesting. Her presence and personality inevitably colored his writing. Scattered with characters like Gertrude Stein and the Fitzgeralds, The Paris Wife is a feast indeed, and the Paris it draws –the bars, the cafes, the clamorous neighborhood surrounding the Hemingways’ deeply crummy little apartment– seems a character too, gathering artists, writers, thinkers together under wings as dusty and soft as the pigeons scratching in the Tuileries.*

The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a glorious book with a horrible title. Even some marketing folks at Penguin think the moniker is pretty bad. The story is a delight.  Here too, the setting is almost a character in itself. Moody, ever-changing, improvising like an actor, it remakes itself from a past of infinite sadness with great courage.

Here is a story of the divide and connection between survivors and their children, between foreigners returning and those who never left, between artists and their legacies, the living and the dead. It’s beautiful and sad and revealing and, once you’re done with it, the title doesn’t seem so stupid after all.

Since Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir came out, we’ve all had to hear again about how some things you know you know, and some things you know you don’t know, and some things you don’t know that you don’t know. And yes, we all had a good laugh at his strangely poetic expense. But I have to say, like him or hate him; that is what novels are all about. Fiction – stories – are about telling each other what we don’t know that we don’t know. There are so many things in this life that it never occurs to us to ask. Sometimes we don’t know the right questions because one of us is male and one is female, or one of us is old and one of us is young – because we come from different places or different pasts. The best fiction doesn’t just tell the truth – it reveals mystery.

It’s spring now. There are crocuses coming up through the mud. The dog is shedding and daylight savings will soon be here. It’s time to celebrate crunchy-granola-type things like new beginnings and getting up in the dark. In that spirit, let me suggest this:  Ask someone today, “Tell me a story.” You never know what you might hear.

And now, a little poetry from Donald Rumsfeld:

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing (Stolen from Slate Magazine)

 

*And yes, in case you were wondering, Hemingway did say that he used to shoot and eat them (the pigeons, I mean).

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Reading for the end of February

Do you ever have one of those days where you feel like you may have morphed (a la Gregor Samsa) into somebody’s ancient aunt Hilda – the one who stopped soaking her dentures after her husband died? For those of us with an advanced case of the mullygrubs, or who are feeling a bit like Miss Havisham, but without all the dough on this icy February afternoon, here are some books to make you laugh. None is exactly new, but I think of them as essential equipment for the late-winter blahs.
 
We start with the juvenile (but in a good way – it’s young adult literature): Away Laughing on a Fast Camel, by Louise Rennison will make anyone with a pulse positively bray. It’s the fifth in her Confessions of Georgia Nicholson series, but there’s no reason you have to read them in order. Skip right to this one. They’re all good, but I think it’s the funniest. Who is Georgia Nicholson? She’s a self-obsessed British teen with a great attitude and a horde of killer one-liners. Think Bridget Jones\’ Diary except that you don’t want to smack the narrator. (Sorry, Bridget fans:  I seriously wanted someone to drop that girl with a tranquilizer dart & have her wake up in therapy by the end).
 
Then there’s Janet Evanovich. Enough said. She’ll make you giggle. She also always makes me gain about 5 pounds per novel. I’m from Jersey, and between the descriptions of Garden State pizza (none better) and the Tasty Pastry Bakery I generally need to do a face-plant in some junk food by Chapter 3.
 
Tom Robbins. My fave is Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, but any will do.
 
P.J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell is a delight. If you are not as old as I am, you may not get some of the pre-Glasnost era jokes, but he is just one fine humorist. I’m about as left as he is right, but I love his writing. I also recommend his guide to housekeeping, Bachelor Home Companion, which includes the Tuna Casserole recipe that I use to strike terror into the hearts of small, misbehaving children.
 
Want a classic? P. G. Wodehouse is your man. The Code of the Woosters is my favorite.
 
Prefer your laughs straight-up and unadulterated? Try one of these comics collections. Sheldon is a web comic that’s a lot like the early days of Calvin & Hobbes. Dave Kellett doesn’t sell to the trade, so you can only get it hereUnshelved is set in a library, so it’s perfect for fellow book-nerds. You can read it daily on the web, here. Or buy one of the books.
 
Last but not least, I give you,  You Are a Dog by Terry Bain. Want to know what your canine companion is really thinking? Are you sure? This will have you rolling – but it’s also an incredibly touching book, so you may want a hankie in places.
 
This is your bookseller, signing off and headed for the tub.

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Women of Noted Misbehavior

Karen Abbott\’s new biography of Gypsy Rose Lee is fascinating. And if you think you know something about the famous stripteuse’s life from the oft-revived musical which bears her name, lemme tell ya, there’s a lot more to it.

How can you not love a woman who responded to Fiorello LaGuardia’s snipe that she had “a need to take her clothes off,” by saying, “Why Mr. Mayor, you know I would never end a sentence with a preposition”?

Accused of indecency, Gypsy always maintained that her burlesque act was “pure comedy.” Even given her physical charms, this can’t have been far from the truth. Her long-time signature act had her walk on stage in a stuffy and elaborate Victorian gown, held securely together with straight pins. To orchestral accompaniment, she would remove the costume piece by piece, tossing the pins into the bell of a tuba with resonant pings.  Sexuality is always best seasoned with a little laughter, as anyone who’s ever been married will tell you.

American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee follows the changing cultural climate of a nation as well as the making of a consummate performer. From a family that calls to mind Dave Peltzer or Augusten Burroughs, Gypsy’s world was a complicated dance to start with. Balancing an arguably psychotic mother and a sister determined to get the hell out (who could blame her?) Gypsy held the family together, for good or ill, longer than was likely. She was the “ugly, untalented” one of the clan, but achieved a professional success beyond any expectations but her own.

…And, as we approach Valentine’s Day, the subversive in me can’t help but laud another kind of misbehavior by recommending The Gallery of Regrettable Food, by James Lileks. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, this is the tasting menu at Chateau Run, Run Away – RUN NOW!

A truly loveable collection of the worst in American cooking, Lileks’ feast for the eyes includes Liberties taken with peas, and plaid sauce. Readers are treated to page-turning fun, peppered with perky 50’s housewives who use Frigidaires to abuse innocent cabbages. The A-1 Steak Sauce Guide to Better Sex is a personal favorite.  Lurid and disturbing photos of jello molds occur throughout.

Please note:  The canned salmon section should be kept from children and those with cardiac ailments.

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Hay and the Making Thereof

When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear. (from "Puddn'head Wilson")

It has recently come to this bookseller’s –and everybody else’s — attention that there is a new version of Huck Finn soon to be available. For those of you who don’t want to read the Publisher\’s Weekly article, here’s the skinny:

Huck always makes the Most Banned list. So, has it been withheld from literally hundreds of school curricula, not to mention libraries’ circulation, for its revolutionary ideas about race and class in America or it’s skewering of popularly accepted mores? Nope. It’s usually banned because of the use of one word:  nigger.

This is very sad. Far from being a racist book, Huckleberry Finn pillories the unjust society in which it was written. An attentive and carefully educated reader will pick this right up. Maybe.

Twain chose his words with purpose, and there’s something about changing the rhythm of a great writer’s prose that makes a bookseller itch. But there is that “n” word. .. What makes it such an important issue? If the word has never been applied to you personally, let me suggest that it might go something like this:

At one time in my life, I fell into the company of a group of sales and marketing professionals, all of them men, who liked to use the word, “rape” to mean “take advantage of.” As in, “Talk about sticker shock – I really got raped on that new hummer.”  Or, “Oh my God, Bob, you totally raped that supplier – way to go!”

 As a woman, the word rape just flat stopped me listening. 

Three good friends of mine have been raped. One was nearly killed. The great majority of us have had near misses. Before I turned 14 I learned how to check shop-front reflections to see if a creepy guy was still following me, and to be sure and look like I knew where I was going. A few years later, we all learned to hold house keys with the pointy bits sticking out of our fists.

The point is that these guys were using a word that could never affect them the way it did me. They didn’t give it a second thought. And while they went on to discuss moon roofs or motherboards, I was busy thinking “Did he really say that? Why would somebody say something like that? I can’t believe he said that.” I was angry and hurt and, yeah, kind of shocked. And then all of a sudden, I was realizing, “Wait, what? We’re talking about quarterly bonuses now? Oh hell, now I missed something important.”

Because of our relative employment positions, and because of these fellows’ imperturbable dickliness, calling them on their inappropriate word usage would have been lousy for my income – and pointless too.

I’m a straight white girl with very little in the way of ethnic or religious peculiarity. It’s tough to offend me personally, much less throw me right off the track of a discussion. But what if “nigger” was my hot-button — if that was the word that I find threatening and hurtful and clearly chosen to intimidate? A huge chunk of great American literature would be a very different kettle of fish.

Maybe substituting the word “slave” for the word “nigger” in Huck Finn is not so bad. Nobody is suggesting that the new edition replace the original text. The New South version acts simply as an alternative or supplement. In Twain’s day, a word which causes readers to cringe now was in common use – not even recognized as a slur.

The Mark Twain I think I know, though he did have a certain fondness for giving offense, never wished to give it undeserved. Nor would he care to prevent the enjoyment of his work with a single word.

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Books for Christmas

Well, what else do you think you would get from the bookseller? There are about a million lists of “What books to give for the holidays,” but they are tedious. I am going to tell you what I like to read at this time of year. For what it’s worth, this is what I would give you.

Let me tell you about Michael Chabon’s collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs. It has a Christmas essay in it. It’s not what you will expect, but everyone I know loves what it says about humanity, and in this cruel season of ice and want we can all use some of that. Bits of this book fill me with such joy that I want to run out of the bookshop and tongue-kiss strangers in the street. Strangers beware:  I am thoughtlessly without breath mints.

I would also like to lavish Kay Ryan on the world. She was our Poet Laureate recently, till W.S. Merwin got the job. And she has a new book, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. Fans of Mary Oliver will especially like her. I never know how to describe poetry, so I’m just going to type out one of the poems here. It originally appeared in Elephant Rocks and makes me think of the iridescent violet-blue that the moon can make snow, and of Christmas lights, hung purely for the enjoyment of  passers-by.

Crib

From the Greek for
woven or plaited,
which quickly translated
to basket. Whence the verb
crib, which meant “to filch”
under cover of wicker
anything—some liquor,
a cutlet.
For we want to make off
with things that are not
our own. There is a pleasure
theft brings, a vitality
to the home.
Cribbed objects or answers
keep their guilty shimmer
forever, have you noticed?
Yet religions downplay this.
Note, for instance, in our
annual rehearsals of innocence,
the substitution of manger for crib—
as if we ever deserved that baby,
or thought we did.

 

The last book I give you is The Magician\’s Elephant, by Kate Di Camillo. It’s one of those children’s books that isn’t really for children. I mean, it’s certainly appropriate and fairly entertaining for children, but this little fable is perfect for the snow-bound adult, both for its undemanding nature and for the glittering, wintry world it evokes.

Wishing all of you the kindest  and most sparkling winter possible,

Enjoy your books!

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Puppy Love

I was a good little vector. I went and got my flu shot early and am now sick as a dog regardless.  Despite the best efforts of wonderful people to bring me  soup and otherwise look after me, I’m trying to spare folks the intense germification and accompanying crankiness which I spew out in equal measure. So I’m hiding out at home with the dog, a bag of lemons and a jumbo box of echinacia tea. And I’ve become aware of a canine virtue we often overlook:

The Dog as Nurse

My dog knows I don’t feel well. While he might normally spend a day at home leaping about and gnawing on me or the furniture, today he just gently follows me around looking for all the world as though he’s about to ask how to turn on the kettle so he can make me a toddy.  I wonder if this is a trick you can teach a dog… bartending is so useful. The dog also functions excellently as hot water bottle. He curls up beneath the quilt but above the sheets and keeps my feet toasty. At first I was concerned. How can he breathe under there? But he seems to like it, so I’m chalking it up to yet another example of how talented a member of the family he is.

This is all really just an excuse to tell you about some dog books.

I Didn\’t Do It, by Patricia MacLachlan and Emily MacLachlan Charest is probably my favorite picture book this year. I was kind of behind the ball and didn’t know they’d come out with a follow-up to their previous & delightful Once I Ate a Pie until I saw a copy of this new one at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association Fall Trade Show. Who says it’s not worth it for publishers to attend these things? I made a real traffic hazard of myself accosting other booksellers outside the Harper Collins booth to show them the book and gush. I can’t help myself, I get excited.

Katy Schneider’s illustrations are wonderful as always, full of the personality of each doggy character. The astonishing thing about this book and Once I Ate a Pie is that in the kid-lit world of disneyfied animals (who are cute and fun, but not particularly real) they are so doggish. Each poem and illustration brings us a little closer to the playfulness, the devotion and the humor of dogs.  I’d give you an excerpt here, but like all the very best picture books, the words are wonderful – but the pictures are what make them whole.

Oogy: The Dog Only a Family could Love

I’ve been telling people about this warmhearted memoir by Larry Levin for weeks now. It’s the story of a former bait dog, and before you stop reading I want to let you know that there are no scenes of violence in the book. We meet Oogy after his life has been saved by a wonderful vet clinic and the Levins have decided to adopt him and give him a cozy home. For all you folks who just cannot read another sad dog story, this is just what you will like. The perfect antidote to the evening news, this is about people being their best – people saying, “I want to take that dog home, the one with no ear and all the scars.” Make no mistake, for all our horrors and failings as a species, some of us say that every day at shelters and vets’ and pounds around the country:  I’ll take the one with three legs, the broken one, the one who can’t see. I’ll take the old one who can’t find a home. I’ll take the lost one, running in traffic, about to get hit. I’ll take the one who needs shots every day, the one with no tail and all the burns, the one with mange, or fleas, or heartworm. I’ll take the one who needs me.

This is the kind of story that lets us know what we’re here for. We can help – in a big way, or a seemingly small one. Like many of us, I know people who have taken in animals from truly horrifying circumstances. The funny thing is, those people are nearly always rewarded with the same kind of love and education that Oogy offers his family of people. Animals are great teachers of love and courage and trying again – giving things another chance and a new start. Their bravery is extraordinary and comes with the kind of open heart that takes humans a lifetime of practice. Read Oogy and feel good about dogs and people – and know there are some wonderful things in this world.

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Rumor and Sigh…

We recently hosted a delightful new mystery author. Her name is Amanda Flower, and her debut offering, Maid of Murder, is just what a drizzly October afternoon calls for: a lighthearted, cozy who-dun-it with a sleuth in a (shudder) iridescent bridesmaid’s dress. And no, though the dress could easily have been the motive for the bride’s murder, it’s not. No spoilers here.

What makes me like Amanda Flower -even more than her clever, funny mystery- is the DIRT she dished to me about the latest literary trend.

Amanda had recently attended a writers’ conference here in the Midwest and shared with me the new, hot development in genre fiction.

Ok, by now everybody knows that angels are the new vampires, and zombies just keep on keeping on.  Personally, I am waiting for the release of some new Eisenhower-was-really-a-werewolf historical fiction. Can it get better?

Oh, yes. Yes, it can. I have two words for you:

Amish Vampires.

Fear the buggy.

Seriously.

 

Coming soon, to a bookstore near you.

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