Tuesday, November 18th, 2014
Tonight, I’m signing books at my old school’s book fair. There’s something about going back to your old school that creates its own time warp. In my head, it’s suddenly 1989 again and I’m in a kilt. Or 1995 (still in a kilt!). And I remember, very vividly, just what that book fair meant to me.
The second we were out of class, we would race upstairs to the library, everyone eager to be the first one on the spot, to get dibs on the best Victoria Holts and Jean Plaidys before they were all gone. I can close my eyes now and tell you just where those books were sitting: The Time of the Hunter’s Moon, The House of a Thousand Lanterns, My Enemy the Queen….
I don’t know who did the book-buying for the book fair back in those days, but I am grateful to them from the very bottom of my heart. I found some of my favorite books and authors there at the book fair. It was there that I bought my copy of Gone with the Wind in fifth grade– and then read it again and again until large chunks of pages had fallen out and it had to be replaced.
I discovered Elizabeth Peters at the book fair, both her contemporaries and her Amelia Peabody books, starting with Legend in Green Velvet and The Curse of the Pharaohs. At the same time, I grabbed up Barbara Michaels’s Someone in the House (it was years before I realized that Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters were the same person).
Other notable book fair finds? Dorothy Cannell’s Down the Garden Path (the same battered old copy that I re-read last week) and Elsie Lee’s Mansion of Golden Windows, both of which had a formative effect on my developing prose style. (Hello, snarky heroines!)
And that’s not all. My very first Georgette Heyer novels– The Nonesuch, The Corinthian, and Faro’s Daughter— all came from the Chapin Book Fair.
Thank you, O Book Fair. I lift my signing pen to you– because it’s a pretty sure thing that I wouldn’t be writing the books I’m writing today without first reading the books I found there.
Where did you find your favorite books?
Saturday, May 4th, 2013
This morning, Helen sent me this picture of The Ashford Affair at the B&N on 86th Street– and it started me off on a spate of nostalgia about the bookstores of my youth.
That particular B&N wasn’t there when I was little, but there was always a B&N on 86th Street. The B&N of my childhood was between Lexington and Park, in the building that’s now a Chase bank, with a wonderful, arched doorway with glass panels at the top, ceilings that seemed to stretch into infinity, and a cheerful clutter of new book racks (which I since learned were called “dumps”) at the front of the store. General Fiction & Literature started on the wall to your left as you walked in and snaked down the side of the store, with Margaret Atwood way up at the front and Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon at the back, where the Fiction & Literature gave way to Mystery. Romance was right up front, on the perpendicular to fiction and literature. There must have been other sections– non-fiction and so on– but that L-shaped axis of Fiction, Romance, and Mystery was my domain.
That was the B&N where I discovered Judith Merkle Riley’s A Vision of Light, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and untold numbers of Zebra Regency romances.
Most of the time, I paid for my purchases in quarters and nickels. I had a half-fare bus pass, since I was just far enough from school to need one, but not far enough, by city regulations, to get full fare. At the fare price of the time, that meant I had to pay fifty-five cents. Somewhere around fifth grade, it occurred to me that (a) if I walked instead of rode, the B&N was right on my route home, and (b) that fifty-five cents, twice a day, five days a week, meant a new novel a week. (It was the late 80s; the price of a mass market paperback, including tax, was somewhere under five dollars.) They were very nice about my paying in clanking piles of change.
To be fair, there was some competition for that bus money. There was also a Hot & Crusty on my walk to school, smelling deliciously of hot baked goods on cold mornings, so, from time to time, some of those quarters and nickels would be diverted into blueberry or chocolate chip muffins– or into packs of Combos (pizza flavored) at the bodega two blocks away from school.
That B&N moved around. When I was in Upper School, that old B&N on 86th Street became a specialty branch of the bookstore, children’s books only, while the adult section moved a block over, to Lexington between 86th & 87th. This was a long, low ceiling-ed store, dark and cool even in summer, which gave it rather an Aladdin’s Cave effect. It was in that treasure trove of a store that I found Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and stumbled across Julia Quinn well before the Bridgertons. I can still remember picking up How to Marry a Marquis, where it stood on the rack, the pale shade of the cover against the dark wood shelves.
And then it moved again. At some point while I was away in college or grad school, a snazzy new B&N opened between 2nd and 3rd. This one had– amazement!– two floors and a cafe, a hitherto unknown luxury. It was large and sleek and light and busy– and I didn’t like it. (Although I did find Eloisa James’s Potent Pleasures there, just out, in hardcover, with a woman with a floaty skirt on the cover.) Interestingly, the old B&N on Lexington stayed open, despite its new rival two blocks away, and it was there that I gravitated still, to the calm, quiet, dark of the old store, until it closed several years later and the big new B&N became my only option, with fiction scattered about between two floors and the romance section shoved into a corner on the second floor near the bathrooms.
Four B&Ns on 86th Street later…. A few years ago, the big, snazzy new B&N closed, and the bookstore shuffled down the block again, to 86th between Lex and Third, to a new, subterranean location right off the subway– just a street crossing away from the Chase that was the home of the B&N of my youth. The picture you see way above is from that new B&N.
I haven’t formed the same sort of personal relationship with that store that I had with the old ones, but my hope is that, way down that escalator, in the new subterranean B&N, there’s a little girl in a school uniform who has hoarded her school bus money to buy books– and who will always remember the books she bought there, in the bookstore of her youth.
What were the favorite bookstores of your youth?
Thursday, August 16th, 2012
Sadly, not my vacation (I’m still here with Miss Gwen), but I was thrilled to read this article in Kirkus by the wonderful Sarah of Smart Bitches Trashy Books about vacation reading generally and the Pink books specifically.
If my books go to the beach, does that mean I get a tan?
What’s your vacation reading this year?
Monday, January 16th, 2012
Out and about on the internet, there are a few interesting things going on.
Vintage Reels is hosting a Pink Carnation book club. Pop by to discuss your reactions to Pink I– or invite a friend to get started on Pink! One person chosen from the comments section will receive a copy of The Masque of the Black Tulip and a signed bookplate.
Elsewhere on the web, All About Romance is holding their annual reader poll. Vote for favorite tear-jerker, most kick-ass heroine, biggest disappointment, and more. (I love the idea of these polls, but when I sit down to fill them out, I can never remember which books I’ve read were actually 2011 releases.)
Happy holiday Monday!
Wednesday, January 11th, 2012
Today on AAR, there’s a post about book hoarding. It’s the book equivalent of saving the cherry on the top of the cupcake for last: holding books you’re excited about in reserve for some particularly meaningful moment.
This hit home today because I’m finally reading Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours, which I’ve had sitting around for months now, waiting until I’d finished the Kenya book. I did the same with Jennifer Crusie’s Agnes and the Hitman, which lived on a pile in my bedroom for months, awaiting an auspicious moment. Georgette Heyer’s The Spanish Bride and Books Twoand Threeof the Hunger Games trilogy are still in the queue.
I have mixed feelings about book hoarding. On the one hand, sometimes saving that book means that you find it again at just the right moment. Some of my best reading experiences– Susanna Kearsley’s The Rose Garden, Jen Lancaster’s Bitter is the New Black— have been on airplanes, since I so often save books for trips, in that special floaty place way above the ground where my ordinary cares and distractions have no place.
On the other hand, there’s always the danger of over-hype or forgetfulness. Especially with much-praised books, by the time I get around to reading them, expectations are so high that the book suffers by comparison. Often, it’s not the book’s fault at all. It’s just that it was meant to be Special with a capital S, to serve some need outside of itself. Other times, books sit around for so long that by the time I get around to them, I’ve lost interest. It’s the impulse read that catches me: the book purchased on a whim or rediscovered from an even older pile.
Do you hoard books for special occasions?
Saturday, December 31st, 2011
That title is a little misleading. As we hover on the edge of 2012, the books I’m thinking of are those that made the deepest impression on me in the old year, that impacted or changed me in some way.
— Frances Osborne’s The Bolter, which set me off on my Kenya project.
— Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton, which introduced me to a whole new historical/modern hybrid.
— Beatriz Williams’ Overseas, which reminded me how compelling a well-written love story can be.
— Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That. I’m always thought of Graves as the I, Claudius guy, but his memoir of his time in World War I opened my eyes to the realities of that war as no history book had.
— Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika, a fictionalized memoir of her childhood in Kenya. I’d seen the mini-series with Hayley Mills back in the day, but what really caught me about the book was the writing style, with its keen but kindly sense of humor. Her voice reminded me a great deal of L.M. Montgomery– and there really just isn’t enough of that out there.
I realize, looking over these, that they’re all attached, in one way or another, to my current writing project (aka “the Kenya book”).
There were plenty of other books that I savored just for fun: Eloisa James’ When Beauty Tamed the Beast, Rosemary Clement-Moore’s The Splendor Falls, Susanna Kearsley’s The Rose Garden, Tracy Grant’s Vienna Waltz.
Which were the books that meant the most to you in 2011?
Friday, December 16th, 2011
Last night, I re-watched one of my favorite movies, While You Were Sleeping. I hadn’t seen it in a very long time and I was struck, once again, by the fundamental paradox of it: they manage to build plausible characters and realistic character development within a plot frame that, by all rights, shouldn’t work at all. It’s about a woman who claims to be engaged to a guy in a coma, for heaven’s sake. It’s absurd. And yet, it works. Really, really well.
My other “it shouldn’t work but it does”? Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Nobody’s Baby But Mine. A physicist seduces a football player– pretending to be a prostitute!– because she wants to water down her IQ in her offspring. Really? Really. In the abstract, it’s even more ridiculous than the guy in the coma premise– but I’ve read it at least a half dozen times.
Do you have “it shouldn’t, but it does” favorites?
Thursday, December 15th, 2011
It’s been a particularly good week for entertaining bits of this and that on the internet. So, for those who haven’t already stumbled across these….
— A lyrical essay on why men should date women who read: “If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads. Or better yet, date a girl who writes.”
— While we’re on relationships, here are The Top Ten Relationship Words That Aren’t Translatable into English: my favorite is Cafuné, a Brazilian Portuguese word for the act of tenderly running your fingers through someone’s hair.
— For those of us obsessed with the physical form of books, an essay from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the lure of the book: We’re Still in Love With Books.
— And, while we’re talking books, make sure your office door is closed while reading this one: it’s a collection of the rejected titles of famous books. Who would have guessed that The Great Gatsby was almost called The High-Bouncing Lover?
— Finally, moving from books to film, do you love to hate Love, Actually, or do you hate to love Love, Actually? This essay pretty accurately sums up some of my issues with the movie… although between the first lobster and Bill Nighy as an aging rocker, I’ll watch it anyway.
Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
Do you ever go through book or television fads? Ones that you feel rather silly about but can’t stop reading/watching anyway? My latest is a British TV show called Doc Martin.
No, nothing to do with the iconic 90s footwear. It’s about a doctor in a small Cornish town. What I find fascinating about this show is that it can’t really decide what it wants to be when it grows up. It’s a little bit House (Doc Martin, grumpy, anti-social and brilliant, always solves a medical conundrum by the end of the show), a little bit Britcom (quirky side characters, snappy dialogue), and a little bit soap opera (will Doc Martin ever resolve his relationship with the perky schoolteacher? Will his receptionist break her gambling habit?). I’m not sure why it works, but it does. I’m hooked.
Of course, I’m also watching them completely out of order, based on the vagaries of tv scheduling (thank you, PBS!), so I know all sorts of plot points I’m not supposed to know yet.
What’s your latest guilty pleasure?
Monday, October 31st, 2011
To everyone who was pummeled by this weekend’s blizzard, I hope you’re staying warm and dry. A white Christmas is one thing; a white Halloween quite another!
In honor of Halloween, I’ve reproduced a blog post from the vault, from October of 2007: The Costume Less Traveled. Because, let’s face it, my costumes were always just a little bit… esoteric.
What was your best–or worst–Halloween costume?