Conversation with Keri Walsh, Part Four: Common Readers and Bookstores

In honor of the publication of her edition of Sylvia Beach’s letters, I wanted to do something special here at Fernham. As part of Sylvia Beach Week, Keri Walsh and I “interviewed” each other over email. We continued the conversation we began at her reading at Bluestockings books in May, touching on the challenges of editing, on women modernists, on bookstores, archives, and common readers. We could barely stop talking, so the conversation is in four parts. I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it!

Anne: Anyone who loves Sylvia Beach must also love bookstores.  Can you tell me about one or two of your favorites and what they offer?

Keri: Some bookstores have such intellectual energy that they make you feel smarter.  Blackwell’s in Oxford is one of them.  You can take your notebook in there and emerge three hours later having done all the research for your latest piece of writing. Blackwell’s has every book you could ever want, at least in the Humanities, and you never know who’ll be sitting beside you in the second-floor café.  There’s a certain jetset element, a Hello magazine blend of Rhodes Scholars and children of foreign potentates.  It makes for glamorous people-watching: you can try to pick out the next Bill Clinton. The main Blackwell’s shop, which opened in 1879, is located in an old house right across the street from the Bodleian, and from the café you can see across the street to the dreaming spires and the Sheldonian theatre. 

I think I grew to love Blackwell’s because it gave me what the Bodleian couldn’t.  Some days I didn’t have the patience for Old Boddy: the books are locked away, can only be called up in small quantities, and you can’t wander in the stacks or take things home, and you certainly can’t drink Diet Coke in there.  All of this leads me back across the street to Blackwell’s. There’s a huge floor in the basement called the Norrington Room (a friend of mine used to call this area the TARDIS, after Dr. Who’s police box).  The store had to excavate beneath Trinity College’s gardens to accommodate it.  The TARDIS holds the philosophy, religion, feminism, film, and cultural studies books.  That’s where I would disappear to read things that weren’t quite approved of by my tutors— French feminism, American cultural studies, and anything else that seemed too jargony or flighty.  And then, if you hike up about five flights of stairs, you get to the second-hand section.  That’s a great place to find out-of-print women’s novels published by Virago in those gorgeous green-backed books—books like Rosamund Lehman’s Dusty Answer, my favorite best-seller of 1927.

Meanwhile, in London: last summer I discovered Samuel French’s Theatre Bookstore.  It caters to an entirely different clientele: the city’s actors.  It’s tucked away on a very quiet corner of Fitzrovia, and the walls are full of notices of auditions and ads for plays.  They carry every thespian thing you could ever want, and then some things you didn’t even know existed.  In that second category, I picked up a script for Mindy Kaling’s spoof of Good Will Hunting called “Matt and Ben.” 

Keri: Please tell me about your favorite bookstores, and what they offer.

Anne: I grew up going to Seattle’s University Bookstore with my family on the weekends. The children’s section and the magazines were on a balcony overlooking the main floor. My father would browse history while my mom, sister, and I picked out books for ourselves. I remember presenting him with a stack of two or three and having him assess my choices, and substitute one book for two others he deemed better. Those were golden hours.

The summer before graduate school, when I was 21, I worked at Bek’s Books in Seattle. It was an ordinary independent bookstore in an underground mall in a bank building: precisely the kind of bookstore I had scorned before the owner, a family friend, offered me a much-needed job. It had New York Times bestsellers near the door, travel books, a romance section, cookbooks, and a small children’s section. It was a place for bank tellers and lawyers to pass through on their lunch break. My snobbery faded pretty quickly. I loved the other clerks there and I grew to love the passionate reading tastes of people who then looked to me very ordinary, very middle-aged. I was working my way through the “recommended reading” from Yale that summer and driving everyone—myself included—crazy by answering customer’s queries about what I was reading with “Oh, The Aeneid.”

Now, I dream daily of Greenwich Village’s Three Lives Books. I feel smarter just going in. That’s a reader’s store: a store to discover great fiction. The staff is wonderful and friendly and though I don’t go nearly as often as I like, they are kind and so knowledgeable and genuinely interested in reading. It’s a lovely little space: just big enough to linger in, but small enough not to be overwhelming. The perfect stop on the way to the PATH train & back home to Jersey. And, of course, in London, I have to go to Hatchard’s, the shop Clarissa browses and still a great browsing store in an old townhouse off Piccadilly (though it’s a chain now).

I wish New York had a good academic bookstore: I miss having a place to browse through the books that I see advertised in The New York Review of Books (on those rare occasions when I get to it). Bluestockings comes close, but I want a broader political range, not only radical books. My husband tells me that NYU has just redone its bookstore and made it into a flagship. I have high hopes for that. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Oxford, but I know just what you mean about the Blackwell’s there: it’s certainly a pilgrimage spot for me. Seminary Books in Chicago is the only American bookstore I know that comes close to giving you that incredible feeling of stretching your brain, making you long to read serious, important books, new and old.

New York’s Drama Bookshop is a space like the one you describe in London. Do you know it? Kris Lundberg of the very Woolfian Shakespeare’s Sister Theater Company did a staged reading there on Woolf’s birthday one year and invited me to speak. They have a small black box performance space in the basement. If you haven’t been, treat yourself!

Keri: When describing Sylvia Beach’s taste in books and her reading practices, I often end up borrowing Virginia Woolf’s idea of the “common reader.”  Making books available to a wide range of people in every walk of life was important to both Woolf and Beach.  And they both liked to make fun of academics who took themselves too seriously (I love Woolf’s academic satires in To the Lighthouse).  Can you say something about Woolf’s fondness for “common reading,” why the concept is so important to her, and also perhaps what role it plays in your own editorial practices, teaching, or reading? 

Anne: The notion of the common reader is really important to me. Woolf writes about reading what one likes and never pretending otherwise. She wasn’t always so confident, but by the time she was in her forties—my age now—she was. Her confidence, her refusal to let others turn her away from Euripides or a Countess’ memoirs, gives me confidence when I feel others challenging my choices.

One of the things I love about blogging is the happy randomness of it, the way it allows you to graze around the web until, suddenly, you hit an unexpected pocket of intensity—some blogging community where everyone is writing fan fiction about Harry Potter or interacting with their favorite romance novelist or enjoining a group of friends to work their way through Don Quixote as I did with Bud Parr a few years back. My friend Lizzie Skurnick (who blogs over at the Old Hag and wrote Shelf Discovery) is my 21st century model for common reading: she can rattle off the plots of great forgotten bestsellers from the 70s and then, in the same paragraph, she’ll tell you about what she’s getting from this rereading of Thackeray.

Although I never read as much as I want to read, reading is the great pleasure in my life and I love peopling my life and my imagination with—well, just everything I can gobble.

When I teach, though, I want to communicate enthusiasm, but I don’t teach a lot of pop. The fun of pop and light fare is discovering it for oneself. I am happy to refer to Lady Gaga in the classroom, but I don’t teach her or Nora Roberts or Eat, Pray Love. My sense is that you want a teacher for those texts that are so intimidating or difficult that you wouldn’t tackle them on your own.

Sylvia Beach Week!

In honor of the publication of Keri Walsh’s edition of Sylvia Beach’s letters, I wanted to do something special here at Fernham: all week, we’re celebrating Sylvia Beach. Please drop by for a new post—or two--on Beach every day. And then head to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

Beach was the founding owner of Shakespeare and Company, the English-language bookstore in Paris. The bookstore doubled as a lending library, post office, youth hostel, and salon for Americans in Paris and all others who had an interest in modernism. Shortly after opening the store, Beach befriended James Joyce and, when he could not find a publisher, she published Ulysses. Beach is the most important modernist who was not a writer.

All Paris, all the time

“Marie had had it with the City of Lights. The fucking Eiffel Tower. Overpriced baguette sandwiches. Benoît Doniel.”—Marcy Dermansky, Bad Marie

Happy Bastille Day.

It’s a Paris summer here at Fernham. I sit in this hot little rented house, staring out at the hazy St. Lawrence River, thinking and reading about Paris.

In Bad Marie, Marie runs off to Paris, which plays a comic version of the role it plays for James and so many others. At one point, Marie thinks “Everyone was always speaking French. Marie found it maddening.” Later, in a yet darker mood, “The city was impressively landscaped, if nothing else.” At a café, Marie thinks “The beer was cold, good, better than any other beer she had ever drunk before….Caitlin was also happy with her milk, which supposedly was also better. Europe was supposedly a superior continent in so many ways.”

This book was all the funnier coming on the heels of The Ambassadors, where Jamesian versions of these thoughts abound on the lips of the visitors from Woollett.

It’s strange, then, that James asserts in the preface that “Another surrounding scene would have done as well.” And this is the very question that Erika Dreifus takes up in her essay on The Ambassadors, which she was kind enough to send me. There (in The Henry James Review, 25 (2004): 44-51), she writes about setting and the centrality of Paris to the novel from the perspective of a historian, teacher, and fiction writer. 

Another scene would not, could not, do as well—for Marie’s getaway, for Strether’s awakening, for James Baldwin or Richard Wright or F. Scott Fitzgerald or James Joyce or Gertrude Stein.

Or Sylvia Beach.

Which brings me to remind you that I’ll be giving over Fernham for a full week to Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of Shakespeare & Co. and the first publisher of Ulysses. This is in honor of Keri Walsh’s brand new edition of Beach’s letters.

I looked around to see if others were reading and blogging about The Ambassadors and I found two more things of note:

A blogger called Bruce Oksol has a lovely post of his first impressions, including these:
7. Henry James writing style is perfect for learning to diagram sentences (which I doubt anyone does any more). His sentences are very, very long. Likewise, his passages are very long. James can take two pages to say that two people look alike.
8. I have found at least one occasion in which James uses a word that doesn't exist in the English language, but looks like it should. In context, one can almost figure out what James was saying but who knows for sure. 
 and this:
I am 58 years old. The protagonist in The Ambassadors is 55 years old. He and I are asking the same questions.

And The Millions informs me that Cynthia Ozick’s forthcoming novel, Foreign Bodies is a retelling of The Ambassadors. The Times describes it this way:
Cynthia Ozick will return to the subject of families in need of reconciliation in a new novel called “Foreign Bodies.” On Wednesday, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said it had acquired the book and planned to release it in winter 2011. In a statement, the publisher said the new work, set in postwar New York, Paris and California, “is the story of a divorced schoolteacher who tries to resolve her brother’s family dramas, leading to extraordinary and wholly unanticipated results.”
That seems better than the nonsensical publisher’s blurb that “the plot is the same, [but] the meaning is reversed.”

How can you “reverse” the meaning of a James novel? As E. M. Forster wrote, “it is Paris that gleams at the center…--Paris—nothing so crude as good or evil” (via Erika’s article). What is the opposite of Paris?

Don’t answer that. I think I’ve lived there, too.

Megan Kelso’s Artichoke Tales

The Kelso girls were my good friends in high school. They had a great big house and the best parties in Seattle. I remember going over there on a Saturday night, dancing to the Psychedelic Furs, The Police and Grandmaster Flash while helping Jenny stir up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. These were the parties you dream of: really fun, really wholesome, where sometimes one of the cute boys actually asks you to dance (which, in the 80s meant jumping up and down like a pogo stick in his vicinity).

Megan was younger and smart and mysterious, with a very cool bulletin board covered with gnomic Dylan quotations.

Now, she’s all grown up and coming back out to New York (there were some Brooklyn years in there) from Seattle to celebrate her new graphic novel, Artichoke Tales. I loved her girlhero comic books so much! The ‘zines were sized just like comics and came with paperdolls to cut out on the back. They were masterpieces of 90s girlpower. Then, I gave them to a newly out dyke friend of mine and never saw them again: they are just the kind of books that a feminist covets and wants to keep. Megan writes about strong, independent women, gay and straight, navigating the landmines of war and family strife. It’s deep, powerful, political, and beautiful. Don’t look away. Run toward it.

She is giving a slideshow & booktalk at the Strand this Thursday, June 24, at 7:00 with Kim Deitch. She will also be speaking at Desert Island on Friday at 7:00. I so wish I could go. You should!!!

Happy Bloomsday!

I spent Bloomsday Eve, somewhat perversely, in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, reading Woolf’s notes on Ulysses from 1919, when the opening seven episodes were published serially. I was on the hunt for Dalloway footnotes, so reading with a particular purpose, and, though it’s always thrilling to read Woolf’s handwriting, I didn’t find anything that changed the prevailing—and accurate—sense that Woolf knew his work, but it wasn’t really for her.

Though I love and admire Ulysses, it struck me as funny to wake up on Bloomsday and realize how I’d spent the previous night.

For a treat, however, I direct you over to Lauren Elkin’s blog where you can read an interview with my friend, the effervescent Keri Walsh, who’s just edited Sylvia Beach’s letters. Beach was, of course, the owner of Shakespeare & Co. books in Paris and the first publisher of Joyce’s masterpiece. Keri’s book is at the top of my pile & I plan to invite her to contribute here, too. So, click on over for a foretaste of Beach wisdom.

When You Were Small

I was in San Francisco over the weekend at the CCCC (the National Council of Teachers of English’s big Conference on College Composition and Communication). It’s a HUGE conference, held this year at the downtown Hilton, much bigger than the MLA.

But of all the many books I read, bought, and acquired over the weekend, the one that’s haunting me is a children’s book that I didn’t buy: Sara O’Leary (text) and Julie Morstad (illustrations)’s enchanting When You Were Small. I ran across it at an amazing little store of letter press cards, books, and ephemera, Little Otsu, across Valencia from both 826 Valencia and Range where we had a GREAT dinner.

Little Henry asks about what it was like when he was small and his dad tells him a series of wonderful, fanciful lies: you had a pet ant, we used you as a chess piece, you used to take baths in the teapot... Don’t you remember?

The haunting and detailed illustrations and the dry humor make it a tender little Edward Gorey fable. There’s a second book, too, and Morstad has some ABCs as well.

I’m urging the Easter Bunny to fill the girls’ baskets with these books this year! You can see their titles at the lovely Simply Read Books website. Julie Morstad's drawings are at Canada's Atelier Gallery. And Sara O'Leary has a blog.

Woolf's Birthday Celebration in New York

Last week, I got an email from Kris Lundberg, the founder of a new nonprofit women's theater, Shakespeare's Sister. She wanted to know if a talk by her would be the kind of thing that would interest people at the Woolf conference (of course) and, by the way, did I know anyone who could give a 20-minute talk to open her celebration of Woolf's life? (but of course!) So, here it is, a staged reading of "Virginia" with a short talk by me to start it off! Please come & please do open your wallets w/the small $10 donation to help this exciting new company!

Here's the press release:
in association with the
a staged reading of
Edna O'Brien's award-winning stageplay
in honor of Mrs. Woolf's 127th birthday
Sunday, January 25th at 12:30pm

Arthur Seelen Theater
Edna O'Brien's spectacular play encompasses Virginia Woolf's mercurial inner life, as well as the relationships of her three great loves: her husband, Leonard; her lover, Vita and her greatest writings. Ms. O'Brien touches the heart and captures the essence of Virginia's character and brilliant mind.

Running time is ninety minutes plus a post-performance Q&A with author, Anne Fernald; director, Joannie Mackenzie and SSC Artistic Director, Kris Lundberg. Directed by Joannie Mackenzie. Starring Kris Lundberg* as Virginia, David McCamish* as Leonard and Shelley Ray* as Vita *All performers appear courtesy of the Actors' Equity Association.

The Arthur Seelen Theater is located on the Ground Floor of the Drama Book Shop at 250 west 40th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue.

Event is free to the public with a suggested $10 donation
in support of the Shakespeare's Sister Company.

HOW party Thursday

My friends have started a literary magazine that is also a charity.

H.O.W. publishes literature & art and also sends money to an orphanage for children affected by the AIDs pandemic.

Tomorrow night, for a $10 cover, you can do good and feed your literary soul. The festivities are at Housing Works, the source of much goodness, and kick of at 6:30. It's a launch party for issue #3 which is a beauty.

Jonathan Lethem and Barry Youngrau are reading.

See you there?

(Housing Works is at 126 Crosby St., btw. Prince & Houston. email for more info.)

Youme Landowne & Anthony Horton

I am busy. Beyond busy. Busy like never before in my life. Two more weeks of this and then things should settle back into the regular level of chaos. But for now, I'm at a stage where I have unopened emails from a week ago.

Still, once in a while, I do open and read. And then I look on in wonder.

My little local independent bookstore, the Imagine Atrium, is hosting Youme Landowne on Friday, 10/17 and I'm so excited. I hope I can go. If you're in Jersey City, do go.

Landowne writes children's books and her Selavi, about Haiti's restaveks is really beautiful. The restaveks are the poorest of the poor children in Haiti, children whose parents farm them out to "reste-avec," or stay with, less poor families who promise to feed, clothe and educate them. In reality, the restaveks are often little better than slaves. Landowne's picture book, which she wrote and illustrated, tells the true story of some restaveks who made a little family which then turned into a real home. It's the kind of children's book I love: it tells are hopeful story about a really, really dark, real thing. I can share it with my children and they learn about the bad things in the world without learning too much about evil (a delicate balance, but I lean toward realistic pollyannism, the audacity of hope, and all that).

This new book is a collaboration with Anthony Horton, a homeless subway artist. The challenge? Here's what the Imagine Atrium post says:
How do you tell the story of a life that starts something like this?
I was born to people who didn’t want me and so they gave me away. But I guess the people they gave me to didn’t want me either. No one wanted me. That’s why I ended up on the streets alone and uneducated. I couldn’t read or write. I didn’t know anything and the whole world knew it.
This is the voice of Anthony Horton. Born in 1968, Anthony is a homeless artist who lived underneath New York City. If you want to see his work, you’ll have to walk along the tunnel walls in the darkest parts of the transit system.

The drawings look lovely and I already know that Youme's work is cool, so I have high hopes for this one. Check it out.

Good things, good people

I know you know this already, but I am so excited for Lizzie Skurnick, who has a book contract for her charming series of columns for Jezebel in which she revisits favorite young adult novels. It’s a lovely and fun topic—and a useful one, too—for Lizzie helps keep alive the books that strong women loved as girls and, in doing so, gives new generations of parents a good list to take along to the bookstore and the library.

Lizzie’s columns brought me to Jezebel in the first place and now I read it daily: it always brings me some kind of smile—laugh, giggle, or smirk. It’s a real cut above its parent blog, the once funny but now just mean and parasitic Gawker.

I’ve written already about Meri Weiss’s debut novel, but I’m happy to report that it’s been selected as an August pick by the consortium of Independent bookstores (this used to be BookSense and is now Next List or something).

And I haven’t yet finished Janice Erlbaum’s Have You Found Her, but this trailer sure reminds me why I was so excited about it in the first place.

Finally, Jennifer Vanasco, whom I know only virtually as the founder of a listserv for writers and editors who went to my college, had her first cover story in the Village Voice, on the triumph of the lipstick lesbians.

Congratulations to all four great women!

Those chain stores

So, I was going to leave work early and head over to spend my giftcard at Bloomingdale’s. The truth is, though, that I really dread shopping for clothes, especially solo, so I frittered my time away until I really couldn’t justify the cross-town excursion.

Still, I wanted a small diversion on the way home.

A book. I was talking books with my father this morning and we agreed that The Kite Runner which I gobbled is very diverting. He’s enjoying the new one now and said that another one I might like is A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian.

Well, when I was browsing around The Tattered Cover in Denver last weekend, I had seen Strawberry Fields recommended, had considered it, having heard good things about the first, but ultimately didn’t buy it.

My father said that he enjoyed the story of feuding sisters and a father slowly descending into senility. He said that it rang bells for him. (Did I mention he is a Yankee? A very dry one.)

So, I popped into the Time Warner Center (ugh—but between work and the subway) and up to Borders. But what was the book called? I got on their information computer: a search of “tractor” yielded board books on farming for children. “Ukraine” got me to guide books. A combination got nothing. I asked a clerk. He was using the same exact computer as I (shouldn’t employees be connected to a better database—an industry one, or books in print, or WorldCat?), had never heard of the book, and assured me that he knew a lot about contemporary fiction and that this book just didn’t exist.

I whipped out my iPhone and got trapped in the evil welcome message from T-Mobile.

I left the store.

On the escalator down, I googled “tractor ukraine” and the first hit was to an amazon page about Marina Lewycka’s novel. (The Complete Review’s coverage is here; an interview with the Guardian, here.) I rode the train down to West Fourth, walked through the Village (all abuzz for the coming of Pride Week, rainbows everywhere), walked into Three Lives (Best. Bookstore. Ever.) where the clerks were deep into heated discussions of a) alternative cold remedies and b) the Mets, found the book, bought it, an essay collection for my husband, and I was told there would be cake for me.


Closer to Fine

My friend and former colleague Meri Weiss’ novel, Closer to Fine is about to come out. If you’re looking for a take on contemporary bohemian New York, this is one to check out: it’s the kind of book that might once have gotten the nod from the Lit Blog Co-op, the kind of book that deserves to find readers. If you know anyone just graduating from college, get a copy for them. The book is deliciously, astutely in touch with the kind of relationship angst that sets in in the early twenties: not just about lovers, but about questioning sexuality, figuring out how to get along with siblings, sorting friends who can stand in for family from those who are just fun to have a beer with. I read it in manuscript and you can find my blurb buried deep on Meri’s website. It’s a quick, fun read though I think I’m probably a little old for it. Still, it is a really sincere, moving look at the life of a smart/dumb young woman trying to figure it out. At her best, Meri channels a Bloomsbury ethos, a James Baldwin in Another Country vibe.

Curious? She’ll be reading at McNally Robinson on June 24th. And you can befriend her on facebook, too…

Winter Blues

2008 started off well, but it has rapidly ground into the mud. Never mind. This, too, shall pass.

Today’s bright spot? Two packages from amazon finally arrived--the result of a little frittering of some Christmas money. (“Free SuperSaver Shipping” seems to mean “We’ll get to it when we have a minute.”) My need for an escape could not be more clear. I got a spy novel, a children’s book on Haiti, a cd of mariachi music (special for the baby, who goes wild every time we go to the Taqueria down the block), a new yoga-dance DVD, and 2 DVDs on how to salsa dance (one for kids and mommies, one just for clumsy grown-ups). I wasn’t thinking about it when I bought this stuff, but it does seem like a little jolt of sunshine and escape.

Enright Live

I didn’t mean to take the whole week off, but things have been hectic--more than that--around here. The one bright spot, however, was getting out to see Anne Enright read last Wednesday at Barnes and Noble.

This was my first Upstairs at the Square event and I was impressed. Over a hundred people were there, in the big, cavernous fourth level space. Enright and Camphor (the band she was paired with) shared the stage with host Katherine Lanpher. The tremendous beaux-arts glass windows behind them showed Union Square below, all aglitter from some ongoing police action.

The conceit of these free monthly evenings is to bring a writer and a band together for an evening of conversation, reading, and music. I was a few minutes late and arrived to hear Enright reading the glorious opening of The Gathering, in which Veronica Hegarty thinks about her dead brother and about bones in general: his bones and the kind of bones that small children (she has two young daughters) come upon, that we tell them to put down as unclean). As she concluded her reading, the band slowly came in, playing a few melancholy chords at first and then gradually building into a lush song about bones, how all we know and love is just bones.

It is so striking to come upon something like that, stressed and late, out of sync with the event. Was it pretentious? Was it cool? Was the song beautiful or just a touch too arty? I wasn’t sure, but it was good enough that I scanned the crowd for a more comfortable perch, found my friend, and sat.

Katherine conducted a great NPR-style interview with Enright: warm, learned, welcoming, appreciative. And as I figured out the style of the show, my admiration for the whole enterprise grew. Enright talked about the choice to write flashbacks set in 20s Dublin, knowing full well that Ireland in the 20s means James Joyce. Then both women blurted out really heartfelt and loving praise for “The Dead.” That moment made me love them both (Enright, Lanpher) all the more: it wasn’t literary one-upmanship (in fact, sensing they were getting too literary, Enright gracefully backed off a moment later). It was just a moment of acknowledging that yes, Joyce is a monument and some might say invoking him is gutsy or audacious, but, wow!, don’t you love that story?

The conversation turned to Camphor and their singer-songwriter Max Avery Lichtenstein. They played a second song, catchy, fun, and great; Enright read some more; they talked some more; the evening concluded with a second reading sliding into a connected song. And that was that.

It’s a very smooth event: impressive, well done, not amateurish at all. And such a pleasure to watch a great interviewer at work: it’s a skill I’d love to have. You can see the event for yourself on the web. (If the long link doesn’t work, you can go to and click “media” and you’ll get there).

All in all, as I said, a bright spot in a long winter.


  1. Written about, but unread
  2. Thought about buying, but should probably read Drown first (since it’s on my shelf).
  3. Read but not written about
    DANCING TO “ALMENDRA.” By Mayra Montero
  4. Watched my mom buy & discussed it with her, but still unread:
    EXIT GHOST. By Philip Roth.
  5. Read and written about
    FALLING MAN. By Don DeLillo.
  6. Reading
    THE INDIAN CLERK. By David Leavitt.
  7. Read, written about, reviewed
    THROW LIKE A GIRL: Stories. By Jean Thompson.
  8. Purchased in London
    AGENT ZIGZAG: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal. By Ben Macintyre.
  9. Have no plans at all to read
    CIRCLING MY MOTHER. By Mary Gordon.
  10. or
  11. Watched my husband read
    HOW DOCTORS THINK. By Jerome Groopman.
  12. Will happily discuss with you
  13. Read, written about, reviewed, disliked
    LEONARD WOOLF: A Biography. By Victoria Glendinning.
  14. Still looking at the review copy from BookExpo of
    TWO LIVES: Gertrude and Alice. By Janet Malcolm.
  15. Thinking about spending that Three Lives gift certificate in my wallet on
    THE GATHERING. By Anne Enright.
  16. or
    MATRIMONY. By Joshua Henkin.
  17. or maybe even
    THEN WE CAME TO THE END. By Joshua Ferris.
  18. but probably will defy logic and actually purchase

That, in brief, is my brief version of the list.

It Amused the Bookstore Clerk…

…so it might amuse you.

It’s been a long week here at Fernham. Monday was a holiday, so that’s three days with the little ones to start. Plus, I’m up for tenure and pulling my file together. It’s enough to send a girl to her Tylenol bottle (and her wine bottle, for that matter) a few more times than usual.

So, clutching my coupon for 30% off one item, I headed to the chain bookstore on the way home from work to purchase:
  1. Orlando. I know, I’ve read it, I own it many times over, but I’m teaching it Tuesday night and I didn’t have the annotated edition yet (and forgot to request one from Harcourt). Woolf with an introduction by the wonderful Maria DiBattista! Woolf with footnotes! Hooray!
  2. Satyricon. My husband has been wanting Fellini & La Dolce Vita was $40; Amarcord & 8 ½ were out (as was Casino Royale, which is what I really wanted to see….) So, a Fellini Friday it is, and finally,
  3. The Jungle Book, because it’s never too early for Kipling. Because I’ll do Disney & I’ll do princesses, but so far I’ve managed to contain the Disney princesses.
It makes perfect sense to me: a little fantasy for everyone in the family. But, I suppose it could seem a little funny. It certainly did to the guy ringing up my purchases.

The Man Who Would Be King

After all these years, I finally made it to Three Lives Books--thanks to Bud, who took me there. What’s been the matter with me? Well, let’s see--tight purse strings, little babies, and a poor sense of direction in the West Village which had me confusing Biography Books (which is fine but not great) with Three Lives which is both great and incredibly clost to the PATH train. Hooray!!

On my first trip, I bought, among other things, a very, very pretty little Melville House edition of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King which I gobbled one night in the tub, dreaming of Sean Connery, of George Clooney in a remake.

The novella, set in Afghanistan, is not only a terrific adventure story but also a great fable for our times. Two English loafers tire of the strictures and civilization of colonial India and head off to a remote part of Afghanistan, hoping to be greeted as liberators--oops! wrong century--to be made kings. The story is framed by a newspaper man who first lends the two adventurers his atlas and then, three years later, listens to the whole tale from the surviving one.

I can think of no quicker or more delightful way to read about the beginnings of “The Great Game” (as the Anglo-Russian land-grab over Central Asia was then called) than this.

The Melville House edition--from Hoboken!--is lovely. Still, it’s too bad to misspell Noble (!) Prize and the name of one of the two protagonists (Carnahan for Carnehan) on the dustjacket…).