Friday, September 27, 2013

The Return Of The Big Book Sale

I promised myself I would stay away.   Certainly, it would take a little self-control but surely my strength of will was stronger than the addiction.  I admit, I had already made plans to take the day off from work.  I convinced myself it was not to make it easier to succumb to weakness, but only because I wanted a little rest.  I reasoned I'd putter in the garden, tinker in the kitchen.  I was not - not - planning on attending the Big Book Sale at the library.  No, sirree.  No, nope. The day broke with crashing thunder, lightening...a real frog choker.  No one in a reasonable frame of mind could have voluntarily ventured out on a day such as that.  But I was neither reasoned nor rational.  I jumped out of bed, brewed a cup of coffee, dressed in clothes made for bending and stretching, put on the most comfortable shoes I had, spent some time checking my list of books and authors, grabbed two canvas bags, and drove off into the deluge for the 45 minute journey - or it is in good weather.

Due to the storm, the crowd was much sparser than it normally is.  Those of us intrepid souls who braved the weather waited patiently in sodden shoes for the magic doors to open.  Some were equipped with suitcases on wheels; some carried mail bins stamped "Property of the U.S. Postal Service - Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law."  (Apparently for some, prison is a small price to pay.) There were canvas bags, and grocery bags, and tote bags, and a Red-Flyer wagon. As always, there was also an anticipatory air of excitement wafting over the crowd diminished in size, perhaps, but not in enthusiasm.  Here, with dripping umbrellas and hair frizzed with humidity, stood the hard core believers.  I accepted my fall off the wagon and mentally plotted my course, the well-known map of the room branded by now in my brain.  (One might think that frenzy reigns when we are finally admitted, but that never happens - no matter the size of the crowd.  People are quiet, polite and respectful.  Like religious pilgrims in a cathedral, I guess.)

My first stop on these outings is always "Cookbooks."  I opened a Bon Appetite "Hors d'oeuvres" volume and it fell open to "Slovenian Mushroom Turnovers."  I took it as a sign.  My father was a first generation American whose family came from Slovenia at the beginning of the 20th century.  My mother is also a first generation American whose family came from Slovenia.  Since he was from Chicago and she was from Jump Off Joe, Washington, it was an impossibility that they should ever meet, get married, and have three second generation American Slovenians.  Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened.  In my teen years, my father was always casting a jaundiced eye at anyone who might want to date one of his daughters.  Woe be it that the young man in question should be of some ethnicity other than Slovenian.  Our argument that the only Slovenians known to exist in our milieu were relatives simply fell on his deaf ears.  I put the "Slovenian Mushroom Turnovers" into my bag.  With that, the games had begun.

It took about two hours to go through the tables of books; I was determined to be selective.  I was particularly happy to find State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, a novel in which a medical researcher at a pharmaceutical company is sent into the Amazon jungle to investigate the death of her lab partner who had been dispatched to Brazil to unearth news of the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson.  Swenson is a scientist working for the same company and is attempting to develop a miracle fertility drug.  I have not read Bel Canto, but heard so many positive things about it I figured it this one would be worth the dollar.

I could not believe my luck when I spotted The Ghost Road by Pat Barker which won the Booker Prize in 1995.  Oddly, I had just read a synopsis of the book the prior week when I was plotting out my future reading plan and this book had been on my list for some time.  It is the last book of a trilogy, but the reviews I have read seem to agree that it could stand alone, so it went into the bag.

Clifton Fadiman is quoted as saying that in his opinion The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout was the best of all the Nero Wolfe stories.  Which, if true, would also make it one of the best detective novels period.  Not everyone agreed when it was first published, however:
"Have always enjoyed your Nero and Archie, but I read your story in the April issue of Argosy. Goodbye." ~ John Wayne (to Rex Stout)
Uh-oh.  I take it "the Duke" didn't like it very much but I suspect that had more to do with politics than with the quality of the writing.  We are decades away from the J. Edgar Hoover era so I probably won't have the same visceral reaction. Anyway, I found a 1965 first edition, inscribed with the owner's name in lovely penmanship and dated.  I could not pass it up.

Lingering in the detective genre for awhile... Margery Allingham was an English writer of whodunits - my favorites involving that intrepid detective Albert Campion - whom I "discovered" just a few years ago.  I love the Felony & Mayhem editions of her work and have four of them:  Miracle Mile, Crime At Black Dudley, Flowers For The Judge, and Dancers In Mourning.   Because it wasn't a F&M edition - with its distinctive covers - I almost missed seeing The Tiger In The Smoke.   Not caring whether it would blend in on the bookshelf with its neighbors, I eagerly grabbed it.  I understand Albert Campion takes a bit of a back seat to the villain and serial killer, Jack Havoc - who sounds like the answer to the question, "What's in a name?"

Another title on my bucket-list of books is A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving.  Found it, had to have it, put it in the bag (which was growing very heavy at this point).

I have recently become a fan of Louise Penny and the Armand Gamache series, so I bagged A Trick Of The Light.  I enjoyed The Beautiful Mystery so much after renting it from the library that I ordered How The Light Gets In, her newest, from Barnes & Noble which arrived in the mail just the other day.  Anne Perry is also a new-ish author for me, and a favorite of a friend whose taste in books can be trusted without question.  I've enjoyed the ones I've read.  I spotted a copy of  Half Moon Street in a box on the floor beneath a table squeezed next to a wall - which is why one should always wear yoga pants to a Big Book Sale.

Well, I made my way along the miles of spines.  Selected a few more.  Fourteen books - fourteen dollars.  All hardbound and all in nearly pristine condition. Some Philippa Gregory, a Daphne DuMaurier, Jacqueline Winspear.  I picked up, put down, picked up, put down and walked away from Fannie Flagg, Charles Todd, Anita Shreve, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Amitov Ghosh and a volume of poetry by Ted Hughes.  Could not find any Ishiguro or Hilary Mantel.  Said not this time to Daniel Silva  and Jasper Fforde (although that one hurt) and Barbara Kingsolver.  Barely glanced over at Cornwall and DeMille. Ignored James Patterson altogether.  By the time I got to the audio books, only cassettes remained.

But, you know, the experience wasn't all about finding treasures for myself - it never is.  I loved seeing all the Moms pushing strollers.  Hearing:  "Yes, you can pick out any books you like," and seeing kids staking out their claims to stacks and stacks, in some cases carrying loads that were nearly as large as they were.  I watched the very old gentleman whose wife sat by a big window, in a wheelchair, as he brought one title and then another to her - his slender hands patting her on her shoulder as she paged through them, one by one, and then place the "keepers" in her lap.  I wanted to hug them both.  Teachers standing near the Children's and YA sections complained about the slim pickings offered by the Board of Education and took it upon themselves to buy books for their classrooms.  ("There's no variety in what we have.  How can I interest them in reading with what I'm given?"  Response:  "Well, that's why I'm here too.")  At the "Large Print" section, I heard one lady say to another, "Anything by so-and-so is going to be good!"  And the reply, "Oh, well, then you go ahead and take it."  "No, no.  I want you to have it. Go ahead.  You won't be sorry."  "Thank you."  Books just bring out the best in people it seems.

A person can become crazed with the offerings found at The Big Book Sale. There is truly always something for everyone.  And the books are so inexpensive it is difficult to exert self-control.  The big challenge is reminding oneself that one has to have room for these books to take up residence.  I have run out of shelving, so something must be done and soon.  Perhaps I will re-donate the ones I finish reading, but that's "iffy."  I can't even seem to part with the books I end up hating. I guess it is like any type of collecting.

If I do not buy another book in my lifetime - and if I live to be ancient - I will never run out of something to read.  I will surely run out of time before I run out of books.  Which, like a nice fat nest egg, brings with it a certain feeling of security.  I do not envy my children the task of disposing of it all when I go to that great library in the clouds.   I suspect they would rather I was a collector of precious gemstones - or Qualcomm stock...don't we all, kids.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

If you'd asked me an hour before, I would have said no, I did not remember the way.  I do not even think I would have remembered Lettie Hempstock's name.  But standing in that hallway, it was all coming back to me.  Memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me. Had you told me that I was seven again, I might have half-believed you, for a moment.
 But the real "Okay, get ready" moment came when I read:

I wondered if we had ever fallen in the water.  Had I pushed her into the duck pond, that strange girl who lived in the farm at the very bottom of the lane?  I remember her being in the water.  Perhaps she had pushed me in too.  Where did she go?  America?  No, Australia. That was it.  Somewhere a long way away.  
And it wasn't the sea.  It was the ocean.  
Lettie Hempstock's ocean.
I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything.
Neil Gaiman has done it again.  He has totally confounded, dazzled, pushed, pulled, prodded, and befuddled what is left of my reason with this cautionary tale of childhood.

He tells his story through the eyes of a seven year old boy (come to think of it, I do not believe the boy was given a name) who is befriended by Lettie, an eleven year old girl who may or may not be as old as the universe.

Her mother, Ginnie Hempstock, has the ability to take her big black scissors in hand and snip out the bad things that a little boy does to get himself into trouble with his parents, and then carefully stitch everything back together so that there's no reason for anyone to be angry with him.  But care must be taken to make certain the edges match perfectly and the seams don't show.  One can't leave areas of gray emptiness where unpleasant things can creep in.  Hungry things.  Dark and shapeless things.

Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie's grandmother, can remember when the moon was made.

Are you getting a sense, yet,  of how very strange and magical this book is?  Well, hang on -because no one can drag a reader through the terrors which lurk in the landscape of childhood better than Neil Gaiman can.

If you asked me whether I liked The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, I would tell you I don't know yet.  It is amazing, yes.  It is.  But I will have to think about it.  I'll have to read it again before I know for certain.  I am not at all convinced it is a book one "likes" in any event.  It is a book one thinks about, and nibbles at, and sticks a toe into in order to get a feeling about it, and then dives into and swims around jumping into the duck pond at the end of the Hempstock's lane that really is an ocean after all.

It is an adult book about childhood fears that somehow never leave us.  Haunting is an appropriate adjective.

The little boy is waiting in the ring of grass where Lettie tells him he will be safe. He must wait there until she comes back for him.  No matter what he sees and whatever he hears, he must not venture out of the ring.  The voices, so resigned and so practical and so many in number tell him that nobody cares, no one is coming for him.  He is alone in the dark of the world.

"Now, step out of the circle and come to us.  One step is all it will take.  Just put one foot across the threshold and we will make all the pain go away forever:  the pain you feel now and the pain that is still to come.  It will never happen."
"How can you be happy in this world?  You have a hole in your heart.  You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know.  They will call you, as you grow.  There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time, until your loved ones give you poison and send you to anatomy, and even then you will die with a hole inside you, and you will wail and curse at a life ill-lived.  But you won't grow.  You can come out, and we will end it, cleanly, or you can die there, of hunger and of fear.  And when you are dead your circle will mean nothing, and we will tear out your heart and take your soul for a keepsake. "
"P'raps it will be like that," I said, to the darkness and the shadows, "and p'raps it won't.  And p'raps if it is, it would have been like that anyway.  I'm still going to wait here for Lettie Hempstock and she's going to come back to me.  And if I die here, then I still die waiting for her, and that's a better way to go than you and all you stupid horrible things tearing me to bits because I've got something inside me I don't even want"....At that moment, for once in my childhood, I was not scared of the dark.... 
Gaiman knows every half opened closet door, every dark place under the bed, every whisper heard outside the bedroom window, and all the shadows from the leaf-less trees that reach out their grasping branch fingers by the light of the moon.

He might be Peter Pan.  He may be a mad genius.  Or perhaps he is a seven year old boy perched on top of a drainpipe getting ready to jump.  Whoever he is, we are lucky he is.