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book catapult bookstore interior san diego books

I love a good book about books, bookworms and/or an independent bookstore. Think The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, How to Find Love in a Bookshop, Jasper Fforde’s wildly inventive Thursday Next series. And when I read Abbi Waxman’s debut novel, The Garden of Small Beginnings, I could not stop laughing at the witty lines and reading them aloud to my husband.

So when I had the chance to review Waxman’s upcoming third novel, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill – about a bookseller – and interview the author herself, I jumped at it. (Spoiler alert: the book and Abbi are both witty, warm and delightfully irreverent.)

Here’s part of my extended Shelf Awareness review, and a few snippets from my Q&A with Abbi, who was such a joy to talk to:

Bookseller and consummate introvert Nina Hill lives alone (with her cat, Phil) in a small guest cottage in L.A.’s Larchmont neighborhood. She earns a living working at Knight’s, an independent bookstore nearby. When she’s not selling books or reading them, she spends her evenings killing it at trivia competitions (as part of the crack team Book ‘Em, Danno) and intending to go to yoga or spin classes.

Raised chiefly by her beloved nanny while her Australian photographer mother travelled the world, Nina has never felt the lack of a family. But when her estranged father, William Reynolds, dies suddenly, his lawyer tracks down Nina and drops several bombshells, starting with the fact of her parentage. Now, Nina stands to gain both a potential inheritance and a large, unruly extended family that she isn’t sure she wants. At the same time, Nina meets Tom, a fellow trivia whiz who might just prove interesting–and sexy–enough for Nina to embark on an actual relationship.

Nina’s story unfolds in a series of intended-to-be-ordinary days, annotated frequently by pages torn out of her day planner. These are crisscrossed with notes, information, grocery lists and aspirations (including those spin classes), and they provide a clue to Nina’s emotional state, especially regarding the new relationships she’s juggling. Waxman captures the internal back-and-forth between Nina’s rapacious intellect, her fairly sturdy self-esteem and her high levels of anxiety, which has led her to seek out constant ways to stimulate her brain.

As Nina gets to know her family, she comes to understand there’s more at stake than a simple fight over an inheritance. William Reynolds was married three times and had children by at least four different women, and he seemed to be an entirely different man in each incarnation of family life. Every one of his ex-spouses and their children, understandably, have strong (and strongly expressed) opinions about their particular version of William, while Nina, never having met him, ends up sifting through the conflicting reports and trying to make up her own mind.

Waxman has the gift of writing wisecracking, breezy novels that nevertheless contain some real growth for her characters. Nina is forced to re-examine the carefully constructed boundaries of her introverted life, and decide for herself which ones she wants to loosen and which ones she wants to keep. She doesn’t undergo a radical personality change, nor does Waxman (or indeed anyone else) suggest that she should. But by the book’s end, Nina is more able to function in the world as herself–and she’s getting better at explaining to other people when she just needs a moment (or a day) alone.

KNG: Nina struggles with severe anxiety, but she’s mostly learned to manage it. How did you write a protagonist with anxiety, but address it in a fairly light-hearted way?

AW: Anxiety is so common, and we don’t really talk about it–though maybe we are starting to talk about it more, as a society. Nina has essentially sorted out her life in a way that works for her, so she’s mostly able to manage her anxiety.

I wanted to write a character who was happily introverted and didn’t feel any pressure to change who she was. There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, and being the kind of person who prefers her own company to that of other people. I wanted to write a character who was comfortable with herself, not just trying to fit in.

Certainly there are struggles–and you always have to ask yourself, “What does your main character want?” Nina, at the beginning, just wants to be left in peace. To be left alone. But then she meets a man who she maybe wants to spend more time with, and the struggle is within herself. Can she get out of her own way enough to try something new?

Nina is a trivia whiz. Tell us about this part of her personality.

I think millennials consume media and creative output of all kinds in a more meta way than my generation did. They’ll go see a movie and then they’ll read lots of reviews about it, and discuss it online. With the constant news cycle, trivia has become like conversational glue–like squirrels sharing nuts, little nuggets of cultural information. For Nina, it’s a self-soothing activity as well.

Nina’s day-planner pages appear throughout the book, and they are so entertaining–a window into her emotional state at times.

I’m glad you think so. Sometimes it was easier for me to show what was going on than to write it. Nina’s trying so hard to sort everything out, and I thought readers could read into the way she was doing things. I could show rather than tell that she’d had a big fight with someone, for example, and was going to turn over a new leaf. And then real life intervenes, inevitably.

Nina’s workplace faces a crisis, but–mild spoiler–she is able to save the day in the end.

I had to go for a happy ending. It’s a bit clichéd, but it’s fun. And I hope people like Nina and feel empathy for her. She’s inspired by all the booksellers I meet when I go around to bookstores. They are without fail intelligent, thoughtful, snappily dressed young women. I would have liked to be like them when I was their age. Ultimately, the novel is sort of a love letter to independent booksellers, and young women in particular.

The kind of books I like to write are a little bit funny, a little bit sad, and with a happy ending. All of my books are the books that you pick up, read and then loan to a friend. I want to be escapist! That’s the best possible outcome for me. I ask myself: Is this a pleasure to read? Is it a pleasure to write? And if my sister thinks it’s funny–that’s the ultimate test–then we’re good.

I originally conducted this interview and wrote most of this review for Shelf Awareness. Nina’s story comes out July 9. 

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nonfiction tbr book stack

Back in March, I posted a photo of my then-teetering stack of nonfiction, some of which had been hanging around for months or (eek!) more than a year. Six months later, I’ve diligently worked my way through most of the stack.

So I thought I’d share an update, and what lessons (if any) I’ve learned.

First of all, the mere fact of a challenge was enough to make me dive in and keep at it. And I admit to a certain amount of bookworm guilt: some of those titles had lingered for years. (Several of them were gifts, which may have had something to do with it – though my friends mostly do know what I like.)

It took a little discipline to make myself reach for these titles instead of the shiny new ones that are always coming in, but I’m glad I did. Most of them were entirely worth it, whether because they were charming (Encore Provence), highly informative (Love of Country), thought-provoking (Crossing the Unknown Sea) or for other reasons.

I’ve now read 10 of the 11 books I had on the nonfiction stack at that time, and – bonus – I loved most of them, especially Ivan Doig’s memoir This House of Sky and Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon collection, Home By Another Way. I’ll likely return to both of those, for different reasons. I didn’t finish Pigtails and Pernod, but I’m keeping it anyway: I bought my lovely used hardcover on a long-ago afternoon with Caroline in London, and I like looking at it and remembering that day.

I still need to read The Butterfly Hours, and tackle the five nonfiction books I’ve since added to the stack. So the process may start all over again. But it was a helpful lesson in reading what I’d bought (or been given), and a nice break from the sometimes frenetic pace of reading books for review.

All in all, I’m quite satisfied with my progress: now I just need to decide which nonfiction book to read next…

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mostly books interior abingdon uk bookshop

In my work for Shelf Awareness, I occasionally get to interview authors, and we always talk about good books: theirs, and usually others. But this conversation might have been the most bookish one yet. I was talking to James Mustich, co-founder of the book catalogue A Common Reader and the author of the wide-ranging, ambitious compendium 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.

If that sounds daunting, let me reassure you: Mustich isn’t out to shame anybody for the books they “should” be reading. Instead, his book is an invitation to explore and discover. Here’s a bit of the extensive review I wrote for the Shelf:

Many avid readers have a “book bucket list”: that hefty classic they’ve always meant to tackle, that series they’ll get around to someday, that book their mother or husband or best friend loves that they’ve just never managed to try. But 1,000 books to read before you die? Sounds intimidating, to say the least.

Fear not. James Mustich, a longtime bookseller, voracious reader and a co-founder of the acclaimed book catalogue A Common Reader, has taken has taken on the task: he’s compiled a massive, eclectic, surprisingly accessible list of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Organized alphabetically, it runs the gamut of taste and time: classic novels, myths and plays; beloved mysteries and children’s books; acclaimed contemporary fiction; seminal works of cultural criticism and much more. But it is not, as Mustich insists in his introduction, a canon or a prescriptive list.

Rather, it’s an invitation to explore. Begin at the beginning, the end, or anywhere you like. Flip through the entries; search for your favorites or for what might be missing. And–almost certainly–enjoy a few moments of serendipity along the way.

The best way to use this book is, in fact, to wander: flip through a section or two, go back and forth looking for something you thought you saw. Read the endnotes, skip a few entries or whole sections, only to find them again later. In short, “Read at whim!” as the poet Randall Jarrell entreated his readers. Mustich invokes Jarrell in his introduction, and it’s good advice: with a list this extensive, whimsy is not only enjoyable but absolutely necessary.

And here’s a bit from the Q&A:

How did you decide what to include in the compilation?

I did a lot of research, and I wrote about each book to the best of my ability. I want to share my enthusiasm about books people love, or books readers may know about but might not have taken the plunge into. I’ve been a bookseller for many years, so I’ve also had lots of conversations with book buyers. All of that mixed with some degree of literary style is built into the entries in the book. It’s not a canon or a prescriptive list, but more of an invitation: Here’s a big bookshelf of interesting things. Find something that interests you and pull it off.

Book lists are flourishing in our culture–from the Pulitzer winners to BuzzFeed listicles and every outlet in between. How do you expect people will react to this particular (long!) list?

I’ve spent 14 years writing this book, and I expect to spend the next 14 months traveling the country on book tour, having people tell me what I left out! But I’m excited about that. The book is meant to engage people’s passions. It’s an invitation to engage with your own shelves and start conversations around what books people should be reading. We can lose a lot of that in the book business, or in online bookselling, which is more transactional. But when you walk into a bookstore, you’re walking into this big conversation, and I wanted to capture some of that here.

How did you ever narrow down the list?

I thought of it in a couple of ways. One: we read the way we eat. One day we want a hot dog, and the next day we want to go to a fancy restaurant. Or sometimes both on the same day! And I also kept imagining: If I had a bookstore with a thousand books in it, and I wanted to have all the books I love, plus the usual suspects of classics and so on, plus something surprising for everyone who came in, how would I put that together? That kind of organized it for me.

Are there any books you love that you absolutely couldn’t squeeze in?

There’s a picture book called Burnt Toast on Davenport Street by Tim Egan. I was in Books of Wonder, a fantastic children’s bookstore in Manhattan, with my younger daughter, Iris, who was maybe three or four. She marched over to the shelf and said, “Daddy, I want this one.” We took it home, and I subsequently read it to her several hundred times. She made a great choice. And I couldn’t get that one in here. But that’s another book, where I’d like to write about those books that have been meaningful to me emotionally.

You can read the full review and interview at the Shelf Awareness website. If you’re looking for summer reading inspiration, this is a great place to start.

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bloodline book christmas tree star wars

I am, as regular readers may know, a Star Wars fan. I say that cautiously, since I can’t even aspire to the highest levels of fandom in the Lucasfilm universe. (I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi, by the way. I thought a few lines did not quite land, but I loved being back in that galaxy with a band of rebels old and new.)

I watch the original three films at least once a year. I quote them all the time: “Never tell me the odds!” And I’ve dressed up twice as Princess Leia: once in my teens for a midnight movie, once much more recently. (When my friend Nate turned 30 a few years ago, we all turned out in character to mark the occasion.)

Until this fall, though, I’d never read a Star Wars novel.

Why not? Call it confusion, or intimidation: there are dozens of novels, set in every conceivable niche of the Star Wars timeline and galaxy. Where to start? Add to that the thorny question of what’s considered “canon”: I’m not qualified to even touch that one.

But there’s a darker reason: my own literary snobbery.

Although I’m a lifelong bookworm with two literature degrees, I usually insist I’m not a book snob: I believe people should read what they love, be it a Pulitzer winner or the latest bestseller. But I secretly thought Star Wars novels had to be just cardboard imitations of the movies I loved.

Enter Claudia Gray’s novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan, which follows the young Leia as she takes a survival course and flies around the galaxy on missions of both humanitarian aid and espionage. It’s smart, fast-paced and full of the series’ signature wry humor. (Bonus: it introduces Amilyn Holdo, who appears as Vice Admiral Holdo in most of my favorite scenes in The Last Jedi.)

After devouring Princess of Alderaan, I picked up Bloodline (above), Gray’s 2016 novel recounting Leia’s political career in the New Republic (post-Return of the Jedi). I might have loved that one even more: Leia the senator is even more brave and badass (and a little wiser) than Leia the teenage rebel.

I doubt I’ll be diving into the whole Star Wars backlist any time soon. But it’s been a deep pleasure to read more of Leia’s story–and a reminder that, as Yoda says, sometimes we must unlearn what we have learned.

Have you read any Star Wars novels? Any recommendations for me?

Most of this column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers, where I’m part of the book review team.

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idlewild books nyc interior

As many of you know, I’m a regular contributor at Great New Books, where we take turns recommending (what else?) new books we love. Every December, we do a few group posts, in which we round up our favorite books of the year. (Because what’s better than one book rec? Ten book recs!)

becoming wise book sunflowers tea

Join us over at GNB to read about our favorite new books of 2016 (including mine, above); our favorite lines from books we read this year; and, today, the best books we finally got around to reading in 2016. (Keep an eye out for next week’s post – we’ll share the books we’re looking forward to reading in 2017.)

Happy reading and browsing – and feel free to share your favorites, either here or over at GNB.

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strand bookstore awning nyc

One of my favorite things about traveling alone: I can go to as many bookstores as I want. My husband is a patient man, but when we’re traveling together, he occasionally wants to see something other than the inside of a bookstore. (I can’t imagine why.)

On my solo trip to NYC in mid-August, I indulged my book-browsing habit to the tune of five bookstores in four days. I came home with a dozen new-to-me books (stuffed into the Strand tote bag I had prudently carried along), and a full bookworm heart.

three lives co bookstore nyc front

I stayed at the Larchmont Hotel in the West Village, so my first stop was Three Lives & Co., just a few blocks away. It’s a cozy, well-curated space with shelves that reach nearly to the ceiling.

three lives bookstore interior

I eavesdropped on a bookseller who was talking novels with a customer, and chimed in to second his recommendation of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. (My purchases: Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks and Thomas Montasser’s charming novel A Very Special Year.)

Last time I visited Idlewild Books, they were in a second-floor storefront near Union Square, but they have moved to a spacious ground-floor shop in the West Village. I went in for a browse and picked up a quirky New England travel guide. The a/c was on the fritz and the box fans were blasting, but I loved nosing around the stacks and dreaming of trips I’d love to take.

idlewild books nyc interior

Up on Bleecker Street, also in the Village, bookbook provided another break from the heat and a fascinating place to browse. I picked up some good nonfiction at 50% off, including The Empathy Exams and H is for Hawk.

bookbook bookstore bleecker street west village nyc

I spent a good portion of my Sunday wandering the Upper West Side, and Book Culture on Columbus Ave. was a must. I love their huge ground floor full of gorgeous fiction, fascinating nonfiction and beautiful gifts, and their cozy children’s section in the basement is perfection. I came away with a whole stack: fiction, nonfiction and a couple of children’s books. And I loved this display toward the front of the store.

book culture women display

The Strand, with its 18 miles (!) of bookshelves, wasn’t far from my hotel, but I didn’t make it there until Sunday night – too busy wandering. I slipped in for a browse just before closing time and bought The Art of Slow Writing, which Addie had recommended. And then – because I could – I went back the next morning before my train left, and came away with a journal and a couple of gifts.

strand bookstore nyc exterior

I’m heading back to NYC later this fall, and a couple of these stores will definitely be on my list. If you’ve got other favorite NYC bookstores, let me know – I’m always looking for more bookish places to enjoy.

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everybody loves books sign

I get asked this question at least a couple of times a month: How do you find time to read so much?

I realize my book list is long even for an avowed bookworm – which I am. (Last year, introducing me at a staff retreat, my Boston-born supervisor summed me up this way: “This is Katie. She’s wicked smaahht and she reads a lot of books.”)

I’ve always been a voracious reader, but I’ve read even more than usual the past few years. So I thought I’d share the factors (and a few tips) that have helped make that happen.

First and foremost: I choose to read. That may sound obvious, but most of us have some measure of choice in our leisure activities, and reading is often the one I choose.

Second (and definitely related): I keep a lot of books around. I buy a fair amount of books, but I’m also an avid library user, and I always have several (piles) of books handy. This helps me sneak in a few pages over breakfast, before bed, or while I’m waiting for dinner to finish cooking. And I always have at least one (usually more) books in my bag when I’m out and about.

Third: I’m a fast reader. I don’t speed read; I don’t (usually) skim; I just read quickly. I always have. I realize this isn’t a helpful tip, or something you can change (past a certain point) – but it does help me read a lot. (Anne touched on this recently when she talked about unfair advantages.)

Fourth: I’m always reading several books at once. These are often different genres, but usually include fiction and nonfiction. Sometimes it’s “challenging” fiction plus a middlebrow mystery or young adult novel.

Related: I often tackle classics or stimulating nonfiction earlier in the day, when my brain is fresh. Currently, I’m reading a few pages of Middlemarch over breakfast most mornings. And I love to unwind with something gentle before bed.

Fifth: I have built-in reading time – on the subway. It takes about 45 minutes to get from my house to Harvard Square, and while I sometimes pull out my smartphone and surf around online, I spend most of that time reading. (This is another argument for carrying more than one book in my bag; some days I spend a lot of time on the train!)

Sixth: I read a few “assigned” books for review each month. My review gig for Shelf Awareness means I get a stack of new books every month for review. I get to choose which ones I review, which means I don’t have to slog through a book I’m not enjoying for the Shelf. This is liberating, and helps mitigate the overwhelm. And those review deadlines are great motivators.

Seventh: I’m always hearing about great new books, thanks to several sources. These include the eponymous site where I’m part of the review team; both versions of Shelf Awareness, which I read avidly as well as contributing to; and the plethora of bookish folks in my Twitter feed and blogroll. I think it’s crucial to be excited about what you’re reading, and these sites and people help keep my to-be-read list fresh (and long).

Do you build in reading time, or read more than one book at once? Any other tips for squeezing in more reading time? Or any great book recs? I’m always looking for those.

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