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The Discovery Show

September 21, 2014

I’m writing this sitting in the top suite of the Sheraton Norfolk Waterfront hotel, where an entire wall of the suite is floor-to-ceiling windows facing the harbor. The view has been a steady stream of small sail boats (some kind of sailing club?), the kitschy paddlewheel ferry running tourists between sides of harbor and looking small and toy-like against the backdrop of the occasional barge filled with coal and gravel. (I’m reminded of the children’s story “Little Toot on the Mississippi” even though Little Toot is a tugboat.) There is also a three-masted schooner doing tours of the harbor that goes out at sunrise and at sunset, red sails unfurled even though the boat is obviously under power.

It’s the last day of the “SIBA Discovery Show” — the annual book trade show put on by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, and I’ve retreated to my hotel room. My back hurts, my feet are killing me, but I’m strangely satisfied at the close of an event that has dominated my life for the past two months.

For an organizer, the days leading up to the show is a snowstorm of a hundred thousand small details and situations that have to be anticipated or avoided, followed through and fixed. Who lined up the on site shipping? How much alcohol should we buy for the events and who is going to go get it? Have we arranged to pick up everyone from the airport that needed a ride? Did we know that one presenter was bringing his ancient MacIntosh and do we have an adapter that will work between his computer and our projector? Can we fit someone into the program who forgot to register? Did the craft beer arrive from Florida? (It didn’t). Could we get mangos at a reasonable price for one of the breakfasts? (We could.)

There were times in the week before the show opened that I wanted time to skip ahead to the moment it would all be over. But the truth is, I never fail to come through these things without feeling re-energized and re-invigorated, and somewhat humbled.

I’m reminded, almost every ten minutes during the entire weekend of the show,  that regardless of the frantic pitch of the promoters, the tired language of the spindoctors, the focused aggression of the publicity people, that when it comes right down to it, every author there, standing in front of a crowd of booksellers with about ten minutes to make them more interested in his book than in the dinner they are eating, is there because they were driven get that story out into world.

And yeah, it might be a story that’s not my kind of thing. It might be exactly the kind of book I would never read. But I can recognize that drive, that desire to get the story in your head out into the world. It’s impossible not to respect these people who have gone and done it. I kind of think that need to tell a story is what will save the human race.

So the “Discovery Show” (a new, more sexy moniker for “trade show”) really did feel like a long series of discoveries. And although it is all a bit of a blur right now, in the hours after the last exhibitor has packed up and the last of the booksellers have piled into their cars (trunks loaded with review copies and book bags and all the crazy swag publishers make to promote their new titles–someone gave me a button that says “I’m a moody bitch” that I think—hope–is a book title. I saw someone else carrying around a sippy cup and a milk carton…no idea why)…even though it all runs together right now like an endless author reading, there are still so many moments that float to the surface with sudden, compelling clarity:

Ana Quincoces (yes, that Ana Quincoces, from The View) on writing The Versailles Restaurant Cookbook, and what it was like to get the six daughters of this long-established Cuban restaurant family to agree on any piece of family history or indeed any version of a family recipe.

Charles Martin, who insisted he didn’t intend to write a football story, but then got completely wrapped up in describing an imaginary game between a boy and his father. We in the audience were caught and captivated as well. It felt like we had fallen into the football version of A River Runs Through It.

Kathrine Erskine read a bit from her new middle-grade fiction “The Badger Knight” that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Georgia author Raymond Atkins gave a sample from his “Sweetwater Blues” that might be the most beautiful description of a Southern cemetery I’ve ever heard. I think of Atkins as Georgia’s Ron Rash, even though the two write completely differently.

We all stayed up late one night to hold a wake for a friend no longer with us…the theme was Cthulhu (he was a Lovecraft fan) so we all wore things with symbolic (and some not so symbolic) tentacles.

We all stayed up late the next night to attend “The Shoe Burnin’ Show” — an invention of NC/Georgia writer Shari Smith and her cohorts, and something that can only be described as a “Literary Hootenany.”  I started writing down the names of storytellers (literary and musical) — Suzanne Hudson, “All the Way to Memphis”; Jennifer Horne, “The Other Shoe”; “Fat Back” from banjo player Tim Carter; “The Too Late Lounge” from Michael Reno Harrell. I’ll tell you, by the time I got to bed, I felt like something that had been kicked out of the Too Late Lounge.

But that’s the point of the show, isn’t it? To listen to people you’d never hear by clicking on somebody’s 99 cent daily deal. It’s a weekend of unforgettable encounters in a world usually buried under wholly forgettable clicks and transactions.

Which explains why even now, sitting here watching the sun set behind the western side of the Norfolk Harbor, I can still hear the quietly intense tone of Rick Bragg’s voice, explaining why he ended up writing a book about Jerry Lee Lewis: “He’s our people. He’s the bunched up fist. The swinging tire iron. We understand him.”

So how can I not read the book?

Posted in: BookBalloon

A World Gone Pumpkin-Spiced: What We’re Talking About

September 16, 2014

It’s September. Time for a little Lotte Lenya-esque bittersweet melancholia (and I personally prefer bittersweet to milk melancholia) as the days grow shorter, the air crisps, and the leaves turn to flame. Time to read and talk, talk, talk!

  • Books you need to read before you’re 15 is the topic in Curious Collections. Designated so because 1) You need to read them when your mind is young and fresh and receptive — open to life and all its grand possibilities OR 2) You’re 15 and you have TERRIBLE taste in books. In either case, I think we can all agree remembering ourselves at 15 is something best done in private, or at least not in the middle of a coffee shop. [“Mommy, why is that lady crawling under the table and sobbing?” N.B. I’m happy to say Panera Bread really takes its vacuuming seriously. Unusual in these times.]
  • In Culinary Arts, the annual pumpkin spice conversation is happening. Don’t throw the squash out with the latte! And think of the other potentially trendy fall vegetable flavor crossovercabbage-cropped combinations as yet untried: Cabbage-stuffed cronuts! Rutabaga chai paninis! Brussel sprout molten mini-charlottes!
  • Movies! Movies, movies, movies! What are you looking forward to as the fall movie season approaches? Esoteric or blockbustery, it’s a dead cert you’ll find someone to agree with and/or enlighten you.
  • Lots of titular talk lately. [N.B. Another Curious Collection worth pursuing: perfectly innocent words it’s hard to say with a straight face. Try it. Titular. Tit-u-lar. “Mommy, that lady under the table just said—Wait! I haven’t finished my cold-pressed rapini kuchen!"] Book titles that are complete sentences in the Literary Loft. Choosing titles and whether titles must appear somewhere in the text in Pencils and Whatnot.
  • In What Are You Reading? it’s the usual fantastically mixed bag, titularly speaking (and I KNOW I’m using “titular” incorrectly, but it’s a “thing”). I can give you two really good reasons to check it out (library pun): 1) You will instantly find a half-dozen to a half-million books you want to read AND 2) You will instantly be able to nod knowingly and say “I’ve heard REALLY good things about that!” in any titular-type situation.

Well, I’ve gone on too long already and about 99.9% of the highly interesting and often hilarious discussion remains un-rounded up. But I’m stopping here, and trusting that you won’t take MY word for it. Besides, that bittersweet melancholia and kohlrabi clafoutis won’t eat itself.

Posted in: BookBalloon

Review of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

September 13, 2014
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin DoughtyAn honest, sobering yet funny behind-the-scenes look at a crematorium.

The author of this book has been fascinated with the subject of death and dying since she was a young girl and witnessed the death of another young girl who took a fall at a local mall. For years afterwards she was filled with angst and trepidation and described herself as “functionally morbid.”

When she went to college she got a degree in medieval history with a focus on death and rituals and afterwards got a job working at a mortuary — the Westwind Cremation & Burial.

This book describes her experiences facing death straight on and how it actually eased her own existential angst and made her better able to appreciate and enjoy her own life. We not only read (detailed) descriptions of what happens to bodies in a crematorium, we also learn about other mortuary practices and what really happens behind the scenes.

The author makes such an important case against our own culture’s tendency to avoid death (and aging!) and to try to avoid its very existence. She points out how in the past and how even today — in other cultures — family and neighbors took care of their dead and witnessed dying all the time. She points out how important that is to accepting our own death and by doing so, make it less frightening and esoteric.

Lest I give the impression that this is a depressing book — it is anything but that. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments and when I finished the last page I found myself with a little less of my own existential angst.

This book reminded me a lot of science writer Mary Roach and I feel like I’d love to hang out and be friends with both of them. Ms. Doughty has such a pleasant writing style and when you’re finished reading, you will not only have been entertained but educated as well. She takes on this sobering and angst-filled subject with an abundance of wit and sensitivity. I hope this book gets the attention and audience it deserves.

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Books We’re Loving – September 3, 2014

September 3, 2014
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Review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

September 1, 2014

The Bone Clocks
David Mitchell
Random House
Publication Date: September 2, 2014

41jvRhAfcHL._SL250_The story begins in Gravesend, England in the year 1984 when we are introduced to our main protagonist and heroine, Holly Sykes.

Holly is 15 years old and lives with her parents and siblings. Holly’s mother finds out that Holly’s new boyfriend is 24 years old and she forbids Holly from seeing him anymore. Holly decides that she will run away from home and go have this wonderful romantic life with boyfriend Vinnie. At least that was the plan.

As she is packing to leave, her odd, prescient little brother Jacko comes to her room to say goodbye. He seems to be giving her strange advice and gives her a little cardboard cutout with a handmade drawing of a labyrinth, instructing her to memorize it. She thinks it all strange but promises him she will.

When she was younger, Holly had envisioned strange people talking to her and called them “the radio people.” Her parents had taken her to a psychiatrist named Dr. Marinus and he had calmed their fears and told them that this was normal for someone her age and after seeing this doctor, Holly doesn’t hear or see them anymore. That is until after the fight with her mother about the boyfriend when she runs away from home and begins to suffer these voices and weird psychic experiences all over again.

The book is divided into sections (by time) and this one ends with a tragic event that changes Holly’s life and those near and dear to her.

This is when I proceed with extra caution with the summary without giving away any spoilers. I think it’s important to find out about events and learn facts just as the author intended.

Read the rest of this entry »

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BookBalloon Links for August 19, 2014

August 19, 2014
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Books We’re Loving – August 15, 2014

August 15, 2014
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Sunday Links, August 10, 2014 | Like Fire

August 11, 2014

Looking for something to read? Every Sunday, Terry Weyna publishes a bookish link round-up at Like Fire. Here’s a taste:

What to Read Next

John Scalzi lists his favorite books about epidemics.  I’m surprised he left out Mira Grant’s Newsfeed Trilogy — but maybe he classifies those more as zombie novels than novels about epidemics.  But if that’s the case, how come he included Max Brooks’s World War Z?  Still, it’s hard to argue with his choices; Stephen King’s The Stand may be the best book ever written about an epidemic.

io9 has a terrific list of ten novels that will make you more passionate about science.  It would be easy to double the size of that list, I think.  Add the novels of Richard Powers, for instance maybe Plowing the Dark would be a good place to start, or some of Marge Piercy’s work like He, She and It, or a novel or two by Margaret Drabble — The Peppered Moth, perhaps.

via Sunday Links, August 10, 2014 | Like Fire.

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The Circle of Life of a Librarian, and a Library.

August 10, 2014

In the discussion about modern libraries, (Bookstores and Libraries) some posters talked of not being happy with the big, tomb-like libraries that were short on books and long on technology; the experience felt more like an airport then a pleasant place to visit and browse and even read. It made me think of my first experience in a library, and how much it meant to me, and made me wonder if in our rush to make libraries more modern, we have lost something in the process.

When I was a little girl, my parents owned a deli. In order to keep me from getting under foot on the weekends, they’d send me across the street to the main library. There I was taken under the wing of a wonderful librarian named Priscilla McCloud. Along with keeping me out of trouble, she was the one who really started my life-long love of books. (I have always had my suspicions that my parents paid her in pastrami sandwiches to take care of their urchin for a few hours.) She helped me learn to read, and encouraged me to be a better reader by handing me books that were just a little too hard for me. I loved the challenge! I soon learned the joy of getting totally lost in a book.  She loved talking about the books I was reading, often suggesting books that led from the one I had just read, something I still do when I am looking for something new to read.  That path, that spider’s web we readers always seem to happily fall into, was well-trod by the time the deli was gone and we had moved far away.

Over the years of growing up, amongst family turmoil and trouble at school, our branch library was always a place of safety and security, one where I could lose myself for a while, one where I could always find some kind person to help me find a book, an author, or just some information for a school assignment. I found other ways to keep busy but still regularly visited. I spent many happy hours browsing the shelves for a stack of books that I carried uncomplaining a mile away to my home.  I lost track of Priscilla, but never forgot her. When I started high school, I was delighted to see her again, working at the branch library not far from campus. She remembered me, and every time I visited she would ask me what I was doing in school and what I was reading. She was often busy but took the time to talk about the books I was reading and suggest others. When I went off to college, I made sure to stop by and visit when I came home for vacation. After I graduated, I lost track of her again.

Fast forward to the year 2000. I had just gotten online and found the Atlantic‘s Table Talk, a site where bibliophiles could talk about books.  I was in heaven! I never knew there were so many people like me, I felt like a little girl again, being guided and encouraged by others to books and authors I never have imagined existed. When the subject of how we got started in reading came up, I told my story about Priscilla. I was shocked when one of the posters asked me a few questions, and told me that my dear librarian was her godmother! Priscilla was in a nursing home, not doing all that well.  When the godchild mentioned my name to her, she didn’t seem to remember it, but smiled when she heard the story. Since this was before I knew anything about social media, I didn’t think of asking for her address but it doesn’t matter. I still think of her in these days of Facebook and Twitter, when I can talk online with other readers about the books we read or want to read. That’s what Bookballoon site is all about.  Connecting readers like me who don’t want to lose the spark that Priscilla McCloud planted so long ago.

I still think of Priscilla when I visit libraries today. My branch library has been remodeled so that the shelves are far from each other in different locations, almost hiding the fact that many of the older books have disappeared. A friend of mine, a long time library volunteer, finally quit in despair over how many books were being discarded. There is no one at a reference desk, and one librarian available to help with the computer kiosks we now use to check out books. I know the world has changed (and in this day and age, any parent that would send their six year old across a busy street to the library by herself would be in a world of hurt! ); I know that libraries must change to keep running. But can a library still be designed to be that welcoming, safe, secure place of learning that I remember? And will there still be people there who will take the time for kids like me – in the way, out of sorts, who just need some encouragement and guidance? I have to be optimistic and think that the love of books will continue to be passed on, in a different way perhaps that I could ever imagine. And that surely Priscilla would be smiling.

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BookBalloon Links for August 9, 2014

August 9, 2014
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Speedboat by Renata Adler

Speedboat

"When Speedboat burst on the scene in the late ’70s it was like nothing readers had encountered before. It seemed to disregard the rules of the novel, but it wore its unconventionality with ease. Reading it was a pleasure of a new, unexpected kind." -- New York Review Books

John Leonard said, "Nobody writes better prose than Renata Adler." What do you think? The discussion begins May 15 in the Forum.

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