A good place for serious readers

Welcome to A Reader’s Place–a resource for readers of memoirs and narrative nonfiction–well, fiction, too.  In addition to blog posts (below) and reviews,  there’s a special section devoted to memoirs. Click on the Memoirs tab above or the links to the right and you’ll find Reading Lists, Award Lists, quotes, and other interesting information about the genre that keeps on giving. Please feel free to comment, make suggestions, or contact me about speaking.

Read On Life StoriesMy book, a readers’ guide to memoirs and autobiographies–Read On…Life Stories: Reading Lists for Every Tastewas published by Libraries Unlimited/ABC-CLIO in 2009. It seems like everyone is writing memoirs these days and we’re all reading and talking about them. Read On…Life Stories will help you find memoirs you’ll enjoy reading, thinking about, and discussing with friends. The book can be ordered from the usual places.

Women in the Lit LandFor the past several years  I’ve been working on another book, a history of women in the U.S. literary community since colonial times. A collaborative effort, the genesis for the idea came from the Women’s National Book Association, which celebrated its centennial in 2017. The book is titled Women in the Literary Landscape: A Women’s National Book Association Centennial Publication. It was published in March by C&R Press and I’m delighted with the physical book and its contents, which trace the contributions of women in all aspects of the book world. Several posts from the summer of 2018 will give more information about the contents.

 

 

Hunting for the right answer

Early in my library career I worked at Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, the library system that served the suburbs around Minneapolis (long before the city and county libraries merged). My first job at HCL was at the headquarters location, where I was expected to find answers to questions that couldn’t be answered out in the branch libraries. We received the questions on slips of paper and went off to find the answers to such questions as, “How do I make a smoke cooker out of an old barrel?” or  “How can I disguise the taste of bacon fat in the cookies I bake?”, or my favorite, “How do they raise the dead in the Voodoo?” This was long before the Internet; we took all the questions seriously and did our best to find answers. I used printed magazine and journal indexes, browsed the book collection and the pamphlet file, used my intuition about where to find answers, and only rarely sent off answers of “can’t find anything.” It was a great education in reference work; I became fluent in the Dewey Decimal system and subject heading searches. When I later went back to working at the reference desk, facing the real people with their questions, I had good preparation for whatever came my way.

There were occasionally questions from readers trying to find a book or story they had once read, or heard about but didn’t have complete information, i.e., author or title. Sometimes the titles were garbled. Sometimes you would recognize the book or story from your own reading, or you would know a subject specialist to ask. It was like a treasure hunt and finding the answer was very rewarding. So this article, from the website Atlas Obscura, about the New York Public Library staff who work on such questions was a treat for me to read. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too. Click here.

Brother by David Chariandy

Brother

I read this short, powerful novel in three sittings over a day and a half, reluctant to finish it but compelled to compelled to follow the story and characters to the end. Michael and his older brother Francis live with their mother in the Park, a public housing complex in Scarborough, Toronto. Their mother is an immigrant from Trinidad. Life for teenage boys like Michael and Francis is rough and tumble, filled with possibilities of disastrous life-changing–or life-ending–encounters with police and local toughs. Their mother works as many jobs as she can, traveling long hours on buses, to bring home enough money to feed and clothe her sons.

The story is told from the point of view of Michael, the younger brother. We know from the beginning, which is set in a later time, that Francis eventually disappears, so every scene in which Francis does appear is weighted with that knowledge. The brothers are close, but different; Francis, it’s clear, can teach his younger brother some life skills but he’s destined to go his own way. After a violent incident in the housing complex, life becomes more tense and the arc of the story accelerates. Not all the scenes are filled with violence: there are several wonderful scenes between Michael and a teenage girl, Aisha, and also in a barbershop.

Character, pacing, and atmosphere all combine in a powerful and heartbreaking tale. Even if you think you’ve read too many books about the lives of immigrants in violent communities, read Brother. It joins the rank of other standout books and short stories about that important sibling relationship because Chariandy get the psychology right.

 

Librarians and booksellers in revolt

booklegger001In the late 1960s and early 1970s the countercultural movement, in its  anti-establishment wisdom, pushed librarians to question library-work-as-usual. For example, librarians began to investigate–and change–the way things were named in our catalogs, making subject headings more authentic and relevant. (Now, of course, keyword searching, tags, and other techniques have made all that head-banging work almost irrelevant.) Since the library profession is largely female, Second Wave Feminism shook things up as well.

Women in the Literary Landscape, (the Women’s National Book Association publication I helped write), showcases those changes in the library, bookselling, and publishing worlds. I remember, as a young librarian in the 1970s, seeing the magazine Booklegger, put out by Celeste West, Valerie Wheat, and others. It would be correct to say that the scales fell from my eyes. I was working at that time for what was considered a very progressive library system but Booklegger and the subsequent book of essays, Revolting Librarians, went much farther in their efforts to disrupt complacency. They wrote, for instance, about libraries needing to provide access to non-mainstream literature, specifically, the little magazines and alternative newspapers that were expressing views not otherwise heard. The Berkeley Barb, East Village Other, and the LA Free Press, to name just a few of the more well-known publications, offered alternative ideas, opinions, and local news, addressing populations that were then mostly invisible. An article titled “I Never See Him Come Into the the Library Much Anymore” skewered the lack of a customer service focus in reference work.

There was countercultural change in the bookselling business as well. Below, from  Women in the Literary Landscape, are a few paragraphs about the feminist bookstore movement.

“Women opened bookstores that served as gathering centers for book discussion, self-help groups, meetings, and performances, with chairs and tables to sit at and bulletin boards to advertise local events. The bookstores stocked non-sexist children’s literature, lesbian fiction, books that portrayed nontraditional families, writings on women and violence, and as women’s history developed into an academic discipline, they were sources of feminist scholarship. They were also safe spaces for women leading nontraditional lives. Publishers, ever conscious of the marketplace, recognized that these bookstores meant there were new opportunities in the field of feminist literature.

“In the 1970s and 1980s there were at least one hundred feminist bookstores around the country. The first two were Amazon in Minneapolis and ICI in Oakland. They were soon followed by New Words in Boston, Bookwoman in Austin (Texas), and Charis in Atlanta, among many others. Carol Seajay, one of the founders of Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco, started the Feminist Bookstore News, creating a way for the bookstores to exchange news and ideas. In 1994 there were still one hundred feminist bookstores, but by the late 1990s with the arrival of chain bookstores and online sales, the number declined, and by 2014 there were only fourteen.”

I still have my copy of the first issue of Booklegger (that’s the graphic at the top of this post). It’s an artifact from an earlier era, but the energy that fueled it never goes out of style. For more information about the indomitable Celeste West, click here.

A Little Nothing

A friend sent me the poem below by Eduardo Chirinos; she subscribes to Poem of the Day from the Poetry Foundation. I thought it was lovely and looked up Eduardo Chirinos on the Poetry Foundation website.  Enjoy!

Le petit bout de rien

There’s no cause for vanity and none for

pride: it’s just a matter of assembling

words in lines, then dividing them up (or

letting them divide themselves), hoping

they sound good or bad. (What’s important

is that they sound like something.) It’s all

a question of staying alert so that red doesn’t

bleed into orange or orange into yellow or

yellow into silence. There’s no cause for

rejecting silence and none for accepting it,

either. We should speak when there’s noth-

ing to say and be quiet when others talk.

That’s the poet’s business, so get used to it.

There’s nothing glorious about it. The future

doesn’t count for anything and the past just

laughs at us. There’s no cause for writing

this poem and none for deleting it, either.

The Weight of Ink, or where’s the writer?

Weight of InkIn the July 15th New York Times Book Review, in a review of Alexander Chee’s book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, J.W. McCormack writes: “In Chee’s telling, the writer’s life always lurks just beyond the page…”  I’m always interested in the writer lurking just out of reach and the relationship of the book to the writer’s life. I don’t mean that I expect incidents to reflect personal experience or characters to be modeled on friends and family. There’s a much more subtle relationship that I’m interested in.

For the past 18 months I’ve been on the reading committee for the new Jewish Fiction Award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries; the winner announced this past spring was Rachel Kadish’s novel The Weight of Ink.  The book is set in London in the 1660s and today, an example of what I call a “split-screen” novel. In the historical plotline, Ester Velazquez is a young woman working as a scribe for an eminent blind rabbi. Women were never scribes; it’s an endeavor hedged about with strictures and tradition, closed to Jewish women who, in any case, usually didn’t receive much education. In the modern part of the story, the rabbi’s papers are discovered hidden in an old house and a Cambridge scholar is hired to examine this unusual treasure trove. The reader knows that Ester is the scribe; that knowledge dawns on the Cambridge scholar and her assistant only slowly. From hints and clues they piece together Ester’s remarkable life. The reader always knows more about Ester and the ending is bittersweet as we realize that her life will never be fully known by the researchers.

I’ve heard Kadish speak several times about the genesis of the novel. Her comments made the connection–for me–between the writer’s life and the story she tells. Before she knew what the story would be and where it would be set, Kadish thought about the women whose pens and voices were mostly silent through the centuries. What if a Jewish woman had had a chance to write and make her voice heard on paper and explore her philosophical interests in correspondence with the great philosophical minds of her day? How could it transpire that a woman have that opportunity? What would her life look like? So the title, with its nod to the transgressive nature of Ester’s life, is quite appropriate. Ester and the rabbi carry the weight of their arrangement, the secret that sets her apart from her contemporaries and from the London Jewish community. It’s a great story with compelling characters in both plotlines.

Kadish’s interest in telling such a story is the personal connection, the writer lurking beyond the pages. I believe that every novelist sets out to solve a problem and the novel is the result. Not a problem in the sense of something needing to be fixed, but an artistic challenge, an effort to represent ideas on paper in a way that rings true. The nature of that challenge comes from the writer’s life: the mixture of lived experiences and concerns lurking behind the creative process that drives the resulting story.

 

Madge Jenison and the Sunwise Turn

Sunwise Turn memoirLast week I wrote about the book I co-authored, Women in the Literary Landscape, which contains an overview of the role of women in various fields related to books. One of the joys of doing the research was discovering Madge Jenison, known as a “minor novelist” and the co-owner of the Sunwise Turn Bookshop, which opened in New York City in 1915. Madge wrote a memoir about her bookselling experiences, called Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling. Her personality shines through on every page: warm, buoyant, idealistic and exuding positive energy. Jenison felt that putting the right book in the hands of the right reader might just save the world. One of my favorite lines from the memoir is, “Books– do I made too much of them?”

In 1915, women were opening bookstores all over the U.S. and running the bookselling departments in department stores. For much of the 20th century, department stores believed that selling books raised the tone, made the store appear more like an intellectual endeavor rather than just a temple of of commerce and brought in more educated and wealthy customers. In the early years of the century bookselling was deemed a suitable profession for women (more about that in another post). Here’s a paragraph from Women in the Literary Community about Jenison.

“In 1916, friends Madge Jenison (1874-1960) and Mary Horgan Mowbray-Clarke opened a bookstore on 33rd street near Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan called the Sunwise Turn Bookshop. The unusual name came from Celtic belief that following the motion of the sun brought good fortune. As Madge wrote in her 1923 memoir Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling: ‘Our theory was that we meant to sell books in a more modern and civilized way than they were being sold, and carry them, if the powers were in us, into the stream of the creative life of our generation.’ With the judicious use of paint, pillows, upholstered chairs, and hangings, they created a cozy place for readers and book buyers. Theodore Dreiser was the first author to give a reading; other well-known authors followed, and exhibits by avant-garde painters and sculptors soon rounded out the picture of a welcoming bookshop dedicated to literature and the arts. The Sunwise Turn quickly became a well-known gathering place for artists and writers who were interested in the modernist movement. Peggy Guggenheim was an intern in those early years; she found her calling as an art collector there (as well as her first husband).”

This sounds to me like Jenison and Mowbray-Clarke were ahead of their time, creating a welcoming space that allowed readers to browse, talk to staff members knowledgeable about books, and soak up culture. Sound familiar?

For a fun article on little (in size) bookstores and how they survive today, there’s a recent article in Publishers Weekly “Behind the Counter at America’s Smallest Indie Bookstores.” 

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

Winter SoldierI read and enjoyed Mason’s The Piano Tuner when it came out in 2003 so I downloaded a galley of his new book, The Winter Soldier, from Edelweiss as soon as I could and read it in three great gulps. Since it’s set during and just after World War I, the reader already has some idea of the horrors, chaos and privations in store. Most of the World War I books I’ve read have been set in France or England. The Winter Soldier is set in the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, mostly in the Carpathian Mountains, which arc from the current Czech Republic to Romania. In the novel, the high, lonely villages give the story a ghostly feeling, although the ghosts here are in the characters’ heads. The idea of borders and border crossings recurs as the characters reinvent themselves or lose themselves. They’ve all crossed into unknown territory in their lives; no one is left unscathed.

Lucius, the protagonist, is a young doctor, son of a wealthy family. He’s halfway through medical school in Vienna when the novel opens. The War has just begun. Due to shortages of doctors in the field, he is offered the chance to work in a hospital in the town of Lemnowice. Idealistically, he expects to find a fully functioning hospital where he can gain, from the other doctors, the clinical experience he lacks. What he finds there is only Margarete, an enthusiastic young nursing sister who knows far more than he does about what needs to be done. The soldiers who arrive at the hospital are not just wounded in body, but in spirit as well. Lucius learns to make do with inadequate supplies, amputating legs, arms, hands, and feet in an effort to vanquish the infections they can’t control.

As the war continues, Lucius, Margarete and their orderlies begin to see  men whose minds have become unhinged from the terrors they’ve seen. In particular, a soldier arrives one winter night in a wheelbarrow, curled up, mute. Lucius tries all the psychotropic medicines in his small arsenal but initially nothing will make the man speak, eat, or leave his pallet. Finally, slowly, something works to loosen up his limbs and tongue. He can briefly cross the border and return to life, but what will be his fate? Lucius and Margarete struggle with their attachment to each other and to the patient. As the war heats up in Carpathians, the borders that define their attachments become stronger. Lucius makes decisions that haunt him in the years after the war.

In some ways, this wonderful novel reminded me of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Mason’s writing is fluid and lyrical, his characters step off the page. The pacing is taut; there were times when I had to slow down to savor the language, putting aside my fears for the characters. The book is due out in September, but now that it’s the end of July, that doesn’t seem so far away.