Friday, March 27, 2015

Real men, ugly jackets and chain bookstores

Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, a novel about lives built around books and reading, contains several lines worth a comment.

Her mother likes to say that novels have ruined Amelia for real men.

I once wrote a newspaper column, somewhat controversial, in which I suggested romantic novels serve a function for women similar to that which soft core porn or even the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue serves for men. They provide an idealized version of the opposite sex. In real life, women are rarely as beautiful as SI and Playboy models and men are rarely as dashing or heroic as the men in fiction. Amelia's mother may be on to something.

You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question, What is your favorite book?

I don't really believe this, at least not literally. Certainly a person's reading can be revealing. I like looking at the bookshelves in people's homs for clues about them. Book choices reveal a lot, but they hardly tell the whole story.

"Finally, a nice-looking jacket is important. I don't want to spend any length of time with an ugly jacket."

When reading a book, especially a good book, I usually close it at intervals simply to admire the cover. I don't know why that is, but it seems to say something about the importance of cover designs, not just when buying a book but also when reading. We like holding beautiful objects in our hands.

From his of view, the only thing worse than a world with big chain bookstores was a world with NO big chain bookstores.

These are the thoughts of the owner of a small bookstore. I agree. Large bookstores may be crowded and impersonal, staffed by people who know little about books. Yet they get a lot of books into the hands of readers, many of whom may never set foot in a small, private bookstore.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A life made of stories

Perhaps our lives aren't really novels, as we might suppose. Perhaps they are short story collections. That suggestion comes through Gabrielle Zevin's popular novel published last year, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

The title character runs a small bookshop on a small island in New England. Short story collections don't sell well in his store, as in most other bookshops, but he favors stories, so he stocks them anyway. Zevin cleverly uses famous short stories, like "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," as chapter titles, the theme of the stories relating somehow with what's going on in Fikry's life at the time.

The novel opens with Fikry at 39, recently widowed and in a foul mood. Amelia Loman, 31, a publisher's rep, chooses this day of all days to visit Fikry and try to get him to order some books from her company's new catalog. It does not go well.

Yet there are other stories in Fikry's life. A woman leaves her toddler in the bookshop, then commits suicide. Fikry, deciding that since he is good at gift-wrapping books he ought to be able handle diapers, elects to adopt the girl, called Maya. He owns a valuable first edition of a book by Edgar Allan Poe, which is stolen from his store. The island's police chief becomes a friend after these two incidents and also develops into one of Fikry's best customers. The bookseller eventually gets another chance with Amelia and this time makes a good impression, ultimately leading to marriage. Maya grows up and thinks of becoming a writer. Fikry develops a rare cancer likely to prove fatal.

Some of the stories in the life of A.J. Fikry may seem a bit manufactured or contrived. I seemed to enjoy the first half of the book more than the second half. Yet it is a hard book not to like, or even to love, especially if you love books as much as the characters in this novel love books.

Monday, March 23, 2015

No wordplay in 'Wordplay'

Amelia groans. "That is truly an awful wordplay."
Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Amelia isn't reviewing Glenn Bassett's book Wordplay, but she could be. It is truly awful.

Amelia, in fact, makes reference to what we usually think of when we hear the word wordplay, a pun. They are eating at a restaurant with a Moby Dick theme when A.J. Fikry suggests "a whale of a sundae" for dessert. It is not entirely clear what Bassett, a retired social psychology professor, means by the term, but it isn't puns. At one point he writes, "Advertising is word play." Later he mentions word play in reference to economists.

He begins his book by talking about how important language is simply for being human and for interacting with other humans. "Without words, we remain beasts," he says. Then he goes on to discuss the importance of language in various contexts, such as politics, science and philosophy. By wordplay (or word play, he doesn't seem sure which) he apparently means the use of language in general.

So language is vital to human culture. Bassett writes a difficult book, albeit with mostly simple sentences, to make that rather obvious point.

Not that the author doesn't have some interesting things to say. I liked when he describes baseball as "nothing more than vigorous activity as long as there are no words to describe it." I appreciate the line, "The written word sits patiently until it is discovered and read." I was intrigued by his sentence, "Much of what is accepted as knowledge and wisdom is invented reality." Yes, he does provoke some thought along the way, but readers must dig hard to find such gems. I'm not sure they're worth the effort.

Friday, March 20, 2015

So wise, so gentle

... the African lady detective who was so smart, so wise, so gentle, and so patient that she made Nelson Mandela look bad.
Ian Sansom, The Bad Book Affair

When Alexander McCall Smith appeared in Clearwater, Fla., several years ago, he hinted he was thinking of introducing Clovis Andersen as a character in a future installment in his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels. Andersen's name has appeared in every book in the series, but never as an actual character. He is the American author of The Principles of Private Detection, the book Precious Ramotswe uses as her bible in the detective agency she started in Botswana with the money left to her by her father. Whenever she finds herself at a loss as to what to do, she consults this book.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, published in 2012, is the novel Smith had in mind when I heard him speak in Clearwater to an overflow crowd. (I was a part of the overflow, sitting on the library floor.) Andersen, traveling as he mourns the loss of his wife, happens to wind up in Botswana, where he makes a courtesy call on the little detective agency with the unusual name. He has never dreamed that anyone, especially someone as far away from Indiana as Botswana, would be taking his guide, which has never sold many copies, so seriously.

Soon Clovis Andersen joins Mma Ramotswe as she probes two cases that strike close to home. Mma Potokwane, who has managed  the orphan farm so ably for so many years, has been dismissed from her job by a member of her board whose interests seem to be something other than the welfare of orphan children.

Then Fanwell, one of her husband's young apprentices at Speedy Motors, moonlights as a mechanic for a former classmate, then gets arrested and charged with being part of a stolen-car gang. Mma Potokwane and Fanwell may not be paying clients, but rescuing them, with a little help from Clovis Andersen, becomes her focus in this novel, another winner for the series.

The above Ian Sansom quotation is actually meant as a putdown. Sansom's main character, Israel Armstrong, is a literary snob who remembers with displeasure some of the audio books he has been forced to listen to as he travels about Northern Ireland in the mobile library driven by Ted, whose literary tastes are very different from his own. These include a Harry Potter book, Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong and an unnamed installment in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Armstrong's description of Precious Ramotswe as being so smart, so wise, so gentle, so patient seems to be in the spirit of children who refer to one of their number as a goody-two-shoes. Many of us tend not to like those who seem morally superior to ourselves. We may prefer fictional detectives who drink too much, smoke too much, have sex with the wrong people and are too quick to use their fists. Their flaws make them seem more human.

Yet Mma Ramotswe strikes me as every bit as human as any of the tough guys. Hardly perfect, she drinks way too much tea and has allowed herself to become "traditionally built." Smith's books about her may not be great literature, but they are good literature that reminds us that kindness and caring can work wonders, even in the detective business.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The other side of the story

Imagine if Vladimir Nabokov, having already written one novel from the point of view of Humbert Humbert had written another from the point of view of Delores, the girl we know as Lolita. Or suppose Mark Twain, after giving Huck's version of the raft trip down the Mississippi, had followed that with Jim's version. Would these second novels have been simply retellings of the first or entirely different stories?

Rachel Joyce doesn't make us wonder. She has followed her successful novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry with The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, the story from the other perspective.

In the first novel, Harold Fry is a 65-year-old retiree who gets a letter from a woman he used to work with. Queenie Hennessy tells him she is dying of cancer in a hospice in the northern part of England. Harold immediately writes a note to her, tells his wife he is going out to mail it and sets out walking. Instead of mailing the letter, however, he keeps on walking, deciding that as long as he walks toward Queenie, she will continue to live.

The new novel finds Queenie, after hearing about Harold's odd pilgrimage, struggling to hang on because she thinks of Harold, though he doesn't know it, as the love of her life. While he walks, she composes her letter for him to read when he arrives, her confession of her love.

The earlier novel hints of a relationship between Queenie and David,  Harold's son. This novel provides the details. David, though a brilliant boy, is deeply troubled. He steals from Queenie, lies to her, humiliates her and imposes himself on her when she'd rather be alone, yet she puts up with him only because he is Harold's son. She has never, until now, told Harold about even knowing David.

While Queenie thinks back on her life and her unrequited love (although Harold's long walk suggests it is not entirely unrequited), she also tells about life and death in the hospice. There is a stirring passage where other patients vow to stay alive and, like Queenie, wait for Harold to arrive. Sadly, the others don't make it. Yet Queenie, the woman who loves him, does.

I liked the earlier novel better, but I'm glad Joyce gave us readers the other side of the story, for it turns out to be entirely different.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Inscribed by the author

At the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in St. Petersburg last Saturday, I was admiring the array of signed first editions in one of the booths when I entered into a conversation with the dealer. She told of the difficulties faced in acquiring all those signed copies. The difficulties lie not in getting the books themselves but in getting the signatures by living authors. Whenever an author of note comes to their city, they strive to get as many signatures as they can. Sometimes they travel to other cities or make arrangements with booksellers in those cities to get the signatures they desire. On rare occasions, she said, they will mail a book to the author to get a signature, the problem being to know for sure the signature is actually that of the author.

As she was talking, the phrase "penny-wise, pound-foolish" came to mind. Are not book dealers, by building up inventories of so many signed books, deflating the value of the very books they are trying to sell at inflated prices?

A signature of the author can enhance the value of a book, yet other factors are also important. Is it a first edition? Does it still have a dust jacket? What kind of condition is it in? And then there is the matter of supply and demand. How many similar copies are out there and how many people want them? At the book fair Saturday I saw a three-volume first edition of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, with an asking prices of $30,000. Were it signed by Jane Austen, it might be priceless, but it is still worth a lot because of its rarity.

Over the past number of years, virtually every bookshop has brought in authors for book signings. Customers who buy the book can get it signed for free. Sometimes, if they buy a book, they can bring in copies of books they already own to have signed, too. (That's how dealers like the one mentioned above can get so many signed copies.) Popular authors may sign dozens, even hundreds, of their books each day on book tours. Literary festivals and book fairs are also places where many books get signed.

I have never counted how many signed books I own, but there must be scores of them. Are any of them worth more than I paid for them? Probably not. Few are first editions, and those that are are mostly books nobody collects by authors few people have heard of. I have two signed books in front of me, both paperbacks. On the title page of Emily, Alone, novelist Steward O'Nan wrote, "These quiet moments alone, with much hope." Inside Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter wrote to me, "One of my former tribe," a reference to the fact that we were both journalists in our former lives. These inscriptions mean something to me, but they aren't going to make my son rich when he inherits my books someday.

Were I famous, that might be different, however. Sometimes who owned the book can be more significant than who wrote it. A catalog I picked up Saturday includes a listing for a first edition of a book called Recollections of a Baseball Junkie by former sportscaster Art Rust Jr, signed by the  author. Why would this book be worth $850? Not because Rust signed it but because he inscribed it to Joe DiMaggio. The book comes with a letter from DiMaggio's granddaughters attesting that it was actually found in the slugger's library. That makes it one of a kind and worth something to baseball collectors and DiMaggio fans. Most of the many signed volumes at the fair last weekend are better books by better authors, but with so many other books out there, the same books signed by the same authors, they are, in most cases, worth much less. And many of them are going to be worth less and less all the time as their authors keep signing more books.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The books that shaped our lives

Most of us retain a certain nostalgic affection for our first books, those read to us when we were small children and those we read ourselves when we were a few years older. Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., took these warm feelings to the extreme. He decided to form a library of all the books he remembers as being important to him during his formative years, "from cradle to college." His collection, now complete, includes some 300 books.

Clark seems like the ideal choice to lead a discussion called "The Secrets of Formative Reading" yesterday afternoon at Poynter Institute. Thirty or 40 people gathered to listen to him talk about the important books from his youth and to share something about the books that influenced their own lives.

Among the books Clark spoke about were Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly, a book familiar to many Catholic school students of his generation; My Greatest Day in Baseball, a beloved book given to him by his uncle; Nuremberg Diaries by G.M. Gilbert, a book he thinks he may have stolen in his youth; Parnassus on Wheels, a classic by Christopher Morley; and Assignment in Space by Blake Savage, the pen name of Hal Goodwin. Clark said the most difficult book to find was one with the generic title of Children's Stories. Yet he tracked it down, recognizing it by the cover illustration he remembers from his childhood.

One woman, now a teacher, still has the worn copy of Bunnicula she read repeatedly as a child three decades ago. She told of getting the author, James Howe, to sign it for her in 2011 and how much that meant to her.

Two women had copies of A Wrinkle in Time with them. Other attendees spoke of The Velveteen Rabbit, Dan Frontier and Travels with Charley.

One of my most vivid memories of my youthful reading finds me stretched out on my bed glued to Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. As I remember that day, I just couldn't turn the pages fast enough. I reread the novel decades later and found the story hardly stirred me at all. I guess that illustrates what Clark said about books changing as we change. And sometimes it is the books themselves that change us.