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Sunday
Jul182010

Remembrance of Lawn Chair Readings Past

"Beach read" seems to be the operative term for all discussions regarding summer reading lists, but many of us were landlocked during our formative years and associate hot weather reading with the cheap, sun-drenched folding lawn furniture upon which we draped our lazy bodies as we buried sunburned noses in great books.

"Get outdoors!" my mother would yell, and outdoors I went to claim reading space on the weathered, transient furniture of summer.

After writing about my first summer book last week, several readers checked in with their own recollections, including Karen Jaffe, who read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind when she "was 14 or 15." Melanie Manary, from Petoskey, Mich, called Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety "a terrific summer book. I've reread it every summer for about 15 years."

Linda Malcolm of Indigo Books, Johns Island, S.C., "can remember vividly the first time I read Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel." In 1964, as she was "reclining on a daybed between two corner windows in a wonderful old house in Raleigh, N.C., I was captured by the poetry of that great melancholy novel. I have reread it several times in the succeeding years, using a different color pen each time to underline or highlight a phrase or figure that caught my soul--a rainbow history of an oft-repeated journey."

Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar was the first summer book for Cindy Pickle of Powell's Books, Portland, Ore.: "I was still a stone's throw behind puberty. I may have read some of Brautigan's poetry first, but I can't be sure. I do know that the words on the cover--'In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.'--were to me both a poem and a promise. Right away I loved the phrasing and the immediate image of another world.

"Throughout the story the concepts of indoors and outdoors are blurred and the weather becomes another character in the story. There is mystery and an uneasiness that contrasts fantastically with the incredible beauty of a place where the sunshine is a different color every day. The dialogue is sparse, the descriptions of characters based more on how they move about than what they look like. It gives you a view through a uniquely distorted lens, like a strange dream you had on a night that was a little too hot for sleeping. I've read this book probably three or four times but not recently. I may have to read it again this summer."

Exodus by Leon Uris was the first summer book for Patricia Zeider, senior library supervisor at the Brand Library & Art Center, Glendale, Calif.: "I read my parents' Book of the Month Club copy as a teenager around the time it was first published. The story had everything--history, drama, passion, romance." She also recalled an early summer read from her childhood: "Missee Lee, part of the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. I took the public library's dilapidated old copy out of desperation when I needed books to take on a beach vacation. Kids having an adventure on the ocean with pirates really hooked me."
 
Children's author Natasha Wing recalled that the "first summer book I remember reading was The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore. I think it was my mom's book as a kid, and because we lived a few blocks from the beach I thought it was cool that characters were also at a beach setting. After reading the story, I wished I was a twin."

Honestly, Katie John by Mary Calhoun is the book Kathy Patrick, owner of Beauty and the Book, Jefferson, Tex., read as a kid "that always reminds me of summer. Also the first book that turned me on to reading by my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Boulden." Patrick shared one of her favorite summer books for 2010 as well--The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin. "Talk about a page-turner and one that is set in temperatures freezing cold."

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White was the magical one for Brenda Logan of Loganberry Books, Shaker Heights, Ohio: "In late summer of 1952 I was finally 10 years old; my baby brother was getting all the family attention; small town South Carolina was miserably hot and boring; I had read all the Bobbsey Twins, the Little Maid series, Nancy Drew and Boxcar Children books in the public library, and I wanted more. I walked by myself to the library, often, and Miss White knew me as a regular. One day she handed me that rarest thing in this small, poor place: a NEW book. I ran right home, curled up under the ceiling fan (no A/C in South Carolina in those days) and read the best book ever written, and written just for me."

On her Facebook page, author and Shelf Awareness contributor Laurie Lico Albanese said she "re-read Huck Finn while pregnant with my daughter 20 years ago. It was a sweltering summer in Chicago." Commenters mentioned Freddy the Pig ("a whole summer (or seemed like it) sick with bronchitis, that pig saved me"), Laura Ingalls Wilder ("the entire series in a summer when I was 10"), the Tintin books and multiple votes for Harriet the Spy.

"Harriet was my role mode, too," Albanese noted. "She taught me young what all honest writers learn; you really can't write about friends and family and then go home again."

So many books... all written just for us. It's summer! Go find a cheap lawn chair and read!--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1233.

Saturday
Jul102010

Spending Your Summer Reading

'Hot!' said the conductor to familiar faces... 'Some weather!... Hot!... Hot!... Hot!... Is it hot enough for you? Is it hot? Is it...?'

When I noticed these lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in the New York Times Paper Cuts blog this week, I experienced a flashback that almost matched in intensity the seemingly incessant flashes of heat and lightning that have marked these Dog Days of July, 2010.

Gatsby was my first summer book. I read it in 1968, during the swelter of another July, because it was on a required pre-semester reading list sent by the college I'd be attending in the fall. Thus, Fitzgerald's novel, a summer book in some ways already, has always been one of my primary summer books (J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country is another).

But what if I had first read Gatsby in January? Would it have been my winter novel? Probably not.

Thoughts of books and summer inevitably lead my bookseller's brain to bookstores and summer: indie bookshops with A/C; used bookshops with endless aisles and shelves in cool, damp cellars; beach bookstores with offshore breezes sifting through screen doors.

That's all been on my mind during this tropical week in which I planned each day as a series of caravan journeys from one air-conditioned oasis to another. And it's what inspired me to begin considering a question I eventually decided I wanted to ask everyone in the book world.

That question is...

Ah, but first let me address rumors that this week's heat wave has inspired e-reader R&D teams to experiment with the next generation of devices, which will be equipped with micro-digital air conditioners designed to blow a refreshing breeze over your eyes as you read on blistering summer days (and be the perfect accessory for e-beach reading as well). Unnamed sources have confirmed that this feature will be available in our lifetime, though as yet it is not clear which particular devices will feature the "e-Air" (trademark pending) option.

See what a heat wave can do to your mind? This week put its own spin on the concept of hot summer books for a substantial portion of the U.S., as steamy post-Fourth of July weekend temperatures soared and sent most of us scurrying for shade, A/C and ice cube-filled glasses of... anything.

Was it too hot to read? No. Is it ever too hot to read? I suppose that depends upon where--and what--you’re reading. Another good question, and perhaps a bookish variation on the hot-beverages-make-you-cooler theory: Does reading a book set in a cold climate make you cooler, or is it better to read about even hotter places to gain the advantage of perspective?

All worthy questions, yet still not the ones I want to ask you. 

The first is for indie booksellers: What cool--literally and figuratively--events and promotions have you conjured to lure patrons into the cool--also literally and figuratively--book-lined confines of your shops during the next couple of months?

For example:

"It's cool here--so drop in and join us this summer," advised Kerry Slattery, general manager and co-owner of Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif., in her shop's e-newsletter. Slattery wrote, "Some of our customers have been requesting a return of last summer's 'Hot Summer Nights,' so we've decided to do it again this summer--reborn as 'Hot Summer Saturdays!'--we'll stay open till midnight for seven Saturdays (July 17 to August 28) and present a little music and other themed evenings. Join us for libations, or just come and browse till midnight."

And at the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah: "We still have a few spots open in our Friday Fun for Kids at the King’s this week--Camp King’s English. Do you like to go camping? Do you like to hear stories, spooky or otherwise? Do you like to eat s’mores? Then we have a spot for you."

Or the simple but effective lure of this Facebook post from Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Wash.: "We've got great books, an awesome staff, and delicious cakes at the bakery. But most important, we have air conditioning."

My second question is for everyone:

What was your first summer book?

I'd love to hear from you.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1228.

Sunday
Jul042010

Summertime & the Reading Will Be Easy

July Fourth is the official opening day of Beach Reading Season, and I've been invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch (um, book) before a major league barbecue at Hampton Beach, N.H., on Sunday.

Well, no, that isn't true. But as we roll into the holiday weekend and all those languorous summer hours to follow, reading--particularly "beach reading," whether or not you're literally at a beach--does matter to more people. The pressure is building among both dedicated and seasonal readers who are searching for the perfect summer books. What should they read? What shouldn't they read? What if they don't have time to read everything they take on vacation? What if they waste time reading the "wrong" books?
        
To smooth this annual transition to biblio-beach mode, booksellers, publishers, newspaper columnists and bloggers compile lists of summer recommendations. As an industry, our helpful advice to the public is simple: buy lots of great books, read them voraciously, and then buy more.
    
For those of us in the book trade, however, it gets a little more complicated. We read for a living, so what do we do on our vacations? I'd like to share a little strategy I'm using to enhance my hot weather reading this year. I plan to read well, but slowly--Dog Days of summer slow.

Once upon a time I was a slow reader, in the best sense of the concept. I lingered over pages, paragraphs and sentences. I underlined. I copied sections into commonplace books. I read aloud to any unsuspecting soul who happened to enter the room: "Listen to this."

From Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient: "Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise."

Before I started as a bookseller in 1992, I was practically monogamous when I read. I could spend a month with a book, six months with an author. Pages were covered with marginalia. I lived in them for long periods, then moved on, as if strolling a narrow garden path rather than weaving through rush hour traffic.

Suddenly, however, I had to change my game and learn how to read faster without sacrificing concentration, comprehension and pleasure. At the bookstore, customers thought I was a reading machine. They would sometimes ask, with unmasked awe, "How many books do you read a week?"

The answer is, as you know, complicated. I cheated. Ours is a world with stacks upon stacks of guilt-inducing ARCs waiting for their turn; of 50-pages-and-out reading. The relevant question from my customers should have been: "How many books do you finish a week?"

I did, however, learn how to be a more promiscuous reader during the 15 years I spent as a frontline bookseller and I haven't shaken that habit. Often I have three, four or five books going at once, and continue to cast my eyes with longing at the endless stream of new, tempting titles that come across my desk.

I don't necessarily like this feeding frenzy mentality, but it's what we work with in our profession. We're expected to know a little something about a lot of books; a little more about several key books; and a lot about a chosen few. We do our best to oblige.

Which brings me back to my reading plans for the summer. Beginning this holiday weekend, I'll experiment by slow-reading some of May Sarton's journals. Slowing down will take some practice after all these years, just to avoid getting the bookish bends. My transitional period currently involves a frontlist fix of Alan Furst's Spies of the Balkans and Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens.

There's another paragraph in The English Patient I like. Hana is reading again, this time to herself: "She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams."

Sounds good to me. It's summertime, and the reading will be easy.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1224.

Sunday
Jun272010

Ask Me Why I'm Writing About the NBA

We don't have a sports section at Shelf Awareness, but I'm creating a temporary one this week to acknowledge a notable moment in the history of books and sport. Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers won the championship of the National Basketball Association.

You may or may not know this already. You may or may not care. And if you're a stickler for details, as we book people tend to be, you might even wonder how a team from the desert landscape of Southern California ended up with a name like the Lakers. Just to clarify that one, the team moved from Minneapolis in 1960.

So why, you ask, am I writing about basketball in a column devoted to the book trade?

Because the Lakers coach, Phil Jackson, has now won 11 NBA championships? No.

Because he has studied Zen Buddhism and Lakota spirituality and incorporates teachings from both in his life and work? No.

Because, as the widely acknowledged Zen master of the NBA, he is capable of statements like this one--"I've made up my mind I'm leaning towards retiring, but I haven't made up my mind."--which he fed this week to a national media speculating breathlessly about his possible retirement? No.

What makes Jackson's latest accomplishment resonate with me is his personal relationship with the world of books. He writes, he reads and, best of all, he recommends books. For example, it has long been a Jacksonian tradition to distribute reading material to each of his players. This season, his choices for a long January road trip were: 

Ron Artest: Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson
Shannon Brown: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Kobe Bryant: Montana 1948 by Larry Watson
Andrew Bynum: Six Easy Pieces by Walter Mosley
Jordan Farmar: Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall
Derek Fisher: Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
Pau Gasol: 2666 by Roberto Bolano
DJ Mbenga: Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur
Adam Morrison: Che: a Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon
Lamar Odom: The Right Mistake by Walter Mosley
Josh Powell: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
Sasha Vujacic: Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
Luke Walton: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

"You know, I handpick the books for the players, so they’re individually selected," Jackson told the Orange County Register earlier this month. "Some players that are new on the team I may give them a book about the offense or a book, something to do with our basketball team. But for players that I know, and I get to know players before I do that, I give them something that’s information for them. Pau Gasol, I gave him a book about Barcelona, adventure story about Barcelona. Kobe Bryant, I gave him a book about my home state, where I grew up in eastern Montana. Derek Fisher, I gave him Soul On Ice. It’s a book that made a big difference to me when I was a young man growing up in the '70s and the late '60s. So a variety of books depending on who people are and what I think they might be interested in reading."

Gasol talked about the 912-page Bolano novel on Jimmie Kimmel Live.

When Shaquille O'Neal was with the Lakers several years ago, Jackson gave him Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. In the OC Register, Jackson recalled how O'Neal "used to take the thing as seriously as anybody, writing reports on the books--usually philosophical in nature--that Jackson gave him. Jackson said that when O’Neal got in a fight in Chicago in January 2002 with Brad Miller, O’Neal went to the team bus upon ejection and lost himself in his homework. 'He got thrown out of the game,' Jackson said. 'He went on the bus and finished up his book report after that.' "

In 2007, Bryant, who has not always been on board with the book idea, credited a positive change in his attitude to Jerry Lynch's The Way of the Champion: Lessons from Sun Tzu's The Art of War and other Tao Wisdom for Sports & Life: "I read a book this summer from Mr. Phil Jackson that talked about warriors respecting other warriors. If you have respect for your opponent, the thing that you have to do is play hard every time down. That gave me a new perspective on things." Bryant and Jackson also bonded over Malcolm Gladwell's work.

Did books win the NBA championship this year? No. But if you ask me why I'm writing about Phil Jackson today, I can only reply that in a world where books often seem to matter less, there is this guy coaching in the NBA to whom they matter a great deal. And his team just won another damn title.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1218.

Saturday
Jun192010

A Valuable Father's Day Book 

Numerous bookstore e-mail newsletters hit my inbox this week touting Father's Day promotions and events. Since my father died nearly four decades ago at the age of 51, this is, at best, a bittersweet holiday for me, though he wasn't much of a reader and I wouldn't have browsed many bookstore displays for gifts had he lived a longer life.

But he did have a book; a book that has been passed among my four brothers and me for decades; a book that in many ways makes a statement about the "value of books" in general during an era when we seem to be trying to redefine that concept on a daily basis.

My father's book was Battle Diary: The Story of the 243rd Field Artillery Battalion in Combat by Frank Smith, first published in 1946 in what was probably a small print run. It reads like an edited compilation of after action reports as the battalion made its way from basic training to Germany by way of England and France.

Although Battle Diary has been in my possession for long stretches, I did not read it until about 10 years ago, on the 30th anniversary of my father's death. I remember approaching the book cautiously, and choosing to read it not as Smith had intended--a clear-sighted account of day-to-day life as an army grunt in wartime--but more as a fogged window with an obscure view of the past, a view that might yield shadowy hints of my father's life at this precise moment in history.

Like many soldiers of his generation, he didn't talk about his war. I knew he'd served as a Cannoneer, Heavy Artillery, and not much else. But I also knew whatever had happened to Smith during that 17-month tour of duty, wherever he'd gone from boot camp to VE Day, my father was probably somewhere nearby.

When I finally decided to read the book, I initially examined it with bookseller's eyes. The cover was frayed and weathered and the pages--with a faded typewriter font--quite brittle. I flipped to the last section, where all of the members of the 243rd were listed, and found my father's name.

I opened to the first page and began taking notes as I read, fully aware that using Battlefield Diary to find my father might be as frustrating as those Magic Eye books that were so popular years ago, the ones with pictures you stared at until you were cross-eyed--patiently, then impatiently, waiting for a promised 3D image to emerge from the camouflage.

22 June 1944: No bands played when they set sail for Europe; just one last peek at the Statue of Liberty and then nothing but the Atlantic Ocean for almost a week. Smith called this "the beginning of an adventure whose duration and result cannot be predicted," but I wondered whether it had seemed like an adventure to my father.

7 August 1944: Disembarked on Utah Beach at 2330 hours, and moved to an assembly area west of La Foyer, then to a bivouac area near Briquebec. "Everybody seems anxious to see their first day of battle," wrote Smith. A word man, I thought this an interesting choice and wondered what my father's definition of "anxious" would have been. Eager? Uneasy? Instinctively, I want to trust the words I read, but know they have their own camouflage.

14 March 1945: Smith wrote about a Private on guard duty at the number one gun position when a half-dozen rounds of 170mm hit at about 2400 hours. As the soldier dropped into a spade pit, a round landed fewer than 20 yards away and tore holes in the side of a truck. In the book's margin, my mother had scribbled "your father," with an arrow pointing to the entry. That's it. Just that brief description of my anonymous old man under fire.

On VE Day, Smith wrote the 243rd had been "miraculously lucky" as far as casualties were concerned, and that "every man who performed his duty to the best of his ability should feel a sense of satisfaction."

This means you, Dad, I was thinking when I first read that line, and wondered: How are you celebrating? How does it feel, this winning? You could get used to it, couldn't you? What will you do next? The possibilities are, if not endless, at least conceivable, on this singular day. Enjoy yourself, Dad. Enjoy it while you can. On Sunday, I'll be thinking about the value of my father's book.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1212