Saturday, February 23, 2013

Babylon Confidential and SECRET, Plus Scottish Bookstores and Handwriting

I just finished two fascinating books today, one fiction, one non fiction.

The first is SECRET by L Marie Adeline, which is the story of a young woman, Cassie, who was widowed from her alcoholic, abusive husband and after taking a job as a waitress in a New Orleans bistro, finds that her life is becoming dull and colorless, and she is starting to fade away from life.
 Cassie encounters a secret society of women whose mission is to help women regain themselves through a sexual reawakening via having a series of their own fantasies played out to teach them something about themselves.SECRET stands for "Safe, Erotic, Compelling, Romantic,Ecstatic and Transformative" which is the standard criteria for each fantasy encounter. Casie has a mentor in the organization who sets up each fantasy and debriefs Cassie afterwards. Also after each encounter, she gets a charm for her charm bracelet that is stamped with the word for what she is to have learned/earned each time, such as "fearlessness" or "courage" and "confidence." Cassie, who had only ever had sex with her husband, fills out a questionaire detailing the things she'd like to try, and the gender and kind of people she'd like to try them with. 
I found this book riveting reading, and not because I felt it was a well-written version of Fifty Shades of Gray, either. It had some intriguing ideas about what women desire and need sexually to be satisfied and to feel cherished and happy. Cassie works pretty well as an "everywoman" in this novel, though she does feel a bit too niave at times for someone who is 35 years old (I mean she'd never read an erotic story? Seen a pornographic or erotic film that showed various sexual situations?) Yet for all that, she catches on fairly quickly, and becomes a sexual siren in short order, having had steamy encounters with a tasty variety of hot men, every flavor from tattooed hipster to possesive, suave billionaire bachelor. Though I found the ending abrupt and somewhat wanting, I would still recommend this book to young men and women (in their 20s and 30s) who would like a better understanding of women's sexuality and emotional growth.

The other book I dived into was a non fiction tome, Claudia Christian's "Babylon Confidential: A Memoir of Love, Sex and Addiction." I've been a fan of Ms Christian's since watching her masterful portrayal of Susan Ivanova in the wonderful Sci-Fi series Babylon 5. I also saw Ms Christian in the Highlander television series and in an episode of Nip/Tuck that has stayed with me, though I won't watch any other episodes of that series (too terrifying).
Christian comes from an unusual family background that had a profound effect on her psyche as she was growing up. She is a rape survivor (like me) and her older brother died in a car accident at a young age (my older brother died at age 30). Her delineation of all her hard work to make it in Hollywood, and her amusing anecdotes about the slimebags, jerks, sexist creeps, stalkers and freaks in the entertainment industry kept me turning pages and not wanting to put the book down. Her harrowing journey through alcoholism, and her constant struggle to find a good man to love who won't abuse her is also fascinating, but it made me want to hug her and offer her a nice cup of tea and a chat. She seems so lonely and haunted for much of the book, as well as emotionally vulnerable to the critical barbs of her parents and her lovers that you just want to stand in front of the woman with a sword and do battle with the dragons of self doubt and douchebaggery to save her. Unfortunately, like most difficult things in life, Christian has to save herself, which she finally does in the last part of the book via the "Sinclair Method" of alcohol detox and rehabilitation. She not only survives, but thrives, and gives hope to others who have faced debilitating addictions. I would recommend this book to any fans of B5, but also to those who are theater junkies on any level and those who have dealt with an addiction or are still wrestling their own "monsters" of alcohol or drugs. I'd also grade it at a solid A.

Here's a woman who is living one of my dreams--owning a bookshop in beautiful Scotland, in a small bookish town by the sea!

Bookish Life-Altering Move from L.A. to a Scottish Bookshop

"So I sat down and I typed in 'used bookshop Scotland' to Google and Wigtown came up," said Jessica Fox, author of the upcoming book Three Things You Need to Know About
Rockets: A Memoir. She spoke with BBC News about her life-altering
decision to leave her "cushy job" as a NASA employee in Los Angeles and

I have also enjoyed reading other people's notes in old books. When I volunteered at the library with book sales, I would often find little scraps of paper with notes on them, or letters or photos or postcards that were always intriguing. 
Robert Gray: Handwriting Between the Pages

"This is an old book. Grandma has read it. Please return. I can get the
new paperback I saw in Costco. Love, Mom."

One of the little pleasures of my reading life is receiving the B-Mail
newsletter from Brookline Booksmith
there is a Used Book Cellar "Find of the Week
the hastily scribbled notes are funny and sometimes poignant, but always
irresistible. It's as if they weren't lost or abandoned at all, but
finally discovered their true home and value between those pages.

Exegesis is also part of Brookline's Find of the Week ritual. Here's the
commentary on Mom's Costco note above: "This makes my heart hurt. While
you're there, we're almost out of mustard and Alaskan king crab spread.
Get a gallon of each. And eight dozen bottles of sparkling cider. Unless
they don't let you get just half the package, in which case go ahead and
get sixteen-dozen. And twenty tubes of toothpaste. Please."

The casual and yet deeply personal handwriting in these scraps affects
me as a reader because it is so human in a fragile, unintentionally
revealing way that text messages ("pls give gram hr bk getting 14u
@costco") or viral tweets can't possibly emulate.

Handwriting isn't a lost art, or at least not an art lost on me. When I
visit a bookstore, I'm always drawn to shelf talkers that are
handwritten. Even legibility is secondary to the enthusiasm invoked by a
pen's scrawl across the surface of a card. I'm also on the lookout for
those faded, handwritten, often outdated reminders that cling by frayed
yellow tape to cash registers ("Use shift-F4 to...") or over staff break
room sinks ("You're mother doesn't work here. Wash your own dishes!").
For pure entertainment, however, there's nothing quite like children's
handwritten contributions to bookstore suggestion boxes ("Need more
chairs for us kids!").

I'm not a handwriting purist, which is perhaps one reason the scraps
intrigue me. Just in case you missed it, January 23 was National
Handwriting Day
brought to you, not coincidentally, by the Writing Instrument
Manufacturers Association, which represents the $4.5-billion industry of
pen, pencil and marker manufacturers. Its purpose is to "alert the
public to the importance of handwriting," offering "a chance for all of
us to re-explore the purity and power of handwriting." Sorry you didn't
get my handwritten greeting card.

Probably the reason I'm paying more attention lately is because I just
finished reading Philip Hensher's The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of
Handwriting, in which he observed: "Our attitude to our own handwriting
is a peculiar mixture of shame and defiance: ashamed that it's so bad
and untutored, but defiant in our belief that it's not our fault. What
shame and defiance have in common, of course, is the determination to
leave the cause of the shame and defiance unaltered."

I get that. My own "hand" is deeply influenced by the slight childhood
trauma of switching schools in the middle of first grade and having to
adapt in mid-stream from print to cursive. The end result is a
relatively legible, if visually jumbled collection of print and cursive
letters lining up like mismatched train cars (judge for yourself in this

After I changed schools, my former teacher wrote a consoling note to my
mother regarding little Robert's apparent struggle to adapt. She
conceded that while "many schools do start writing in the first grade,"
most of the districts in the area didn't begin teaching cursive until
third grade. It didn't get better from there. I hesitate to even mention
the nuns. In sixth grade, Sister Philomena checked "N" on my report card
under penmanship: "Needs help; is progressing but below grade level."

Thus, handwriting eventually became more of a spectator sport for me,
and when I need a fix, Brookline Booksmith always delivers with
treasures like this postcard: "Hello--Here in Riverside, Conn., for the
meeting of the Titanic His. Soc. Met a survivor and got his

As I mentioned before, Brookline has a true gift for handwriting
exegesis: "It concerns me that this message is abruptly cut off. Did
anyone out there ever hear any word from attendees of the 1971 Titanic
Historical Society reunion in Riverside, CT? From what I know of the
original tragedy, it took some hours for the ship to go down, but I fear
that whatever befell this postcard's author was rather more sudden.
Perhaps the iceberg simply dropped upon the top of the building this
time. That would explain it." Nicely played, Brookline. Couldn't have
written it better myself.--Robert Gray

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ray Bradbury on Libraries and Etiquette and Espionage

 What a fantastic idea for Spring! Checking out seeds at the library!

Planting the seed of a lifelong reading habit has taken on a literal
meaning for a small public library in Basalt, Colo., that "is trying an
experiment: in addition to borrowing books, residents can now check out
NPR reported.

Patrons with a library card receive a packet of seeds. "You then grow
the fruits and vegetables, harvest the new seeds from the biggest and
best, and return those seeds so the library can lend them out to
others," NPR wrote.

Library director Barbara Milnor called the idea another way to draw
people into libraries: "You have to be fleet of foot if you're going to
stay relevant, and that's what the big problem is with a lot of
libraries, is relevance."

I've requested a review copy of this book, as it sounds like something my son and I would both enjoy!
The Obsidian Dagger
by Brad A. LaMar (Light Messages), the first in a new YA fantasy series,
Celtic Mythos.

I love this! Writers speak on the importance of libraries. I couldn't agree more. Libraries are sacred spaces for me, and have been since I learned to read when I was 4 years old, back in 1965.

25 Writers on the Importance of Libraries

British children’s author Terry Deary — best known for his Horrible Histories series and controversial chatter about the nation’s school systems — told the Guardian he thinks libraries “have had their day.” He’d prefer that people buy their books instead of borrowing them, claiming that “books aren’t public property.” Deary added, “Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.” The cranky comments feel like a swift kick in the teeth since libraries around the world are struggling against significant budget cuts each year, and authors have been tirelessly advocating for their importance. We gathered a few passionate statements from 20 writers that emphasize why libraries aren’t “sentimental” institutions. See what Neil Gaiman, Judy Blume, Ray Bradbury, and other writers have to contribute to the conversation, below.

Ray Bradbury
“I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves — you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library, and I’d written a thousand stories.”

If I had a room like this, I'd spend nearly every waking hour there:

Finally, I just finished reading Gail Carriger's "Etiquette and Espionage" the first book in her young adult series based in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate series, which I adored. Though it is very steampunkish, Carriger manages to lend class, style and wit to the characters and the setting, so it doesn't feel quite as begrimed as other steampunk novels do. I can never finish one of her books without smiling and feeling that I'd been in good company for the hours I'd spent in her merry old England. Cracking great stuff, as the British are wont to say! Highly recommended!

Friday, February 08, 2013

Valentine's Day for Bibliophiles

I just ordered 6 books from Barnes and, courtesy of my lovely husband, Jim.
He knows that the way to my heart isn't through dying flowers or chocolates that upset my Crohn's Disease. He is well aware of my passion for books and reading. So he hugged me and said "You're worth it!" Ahh, now that's true love!

So I bought The Lost Art of Mixing by Erica Bauermeister, whose charming personality and luscious prose remind me of a female version of John Updike
SECRET by Marie Adeline
Firebird by Susana Kearsley
Lets Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia McKillip
Bablyon Confidential by Claudia Christian, which I will note is a replacement volume to the one that was stolen by some postal employee after it had been signed by Ms Christian and was being mailed back to me.
There are, of course, 11 more books on my wish list queue that are going to have to wait for another holiday or windfall to be bought, but I don't care, as of now, I have a big box of books on the way, and there is nothing that lifts my heart higher than the anticipation of opening a box of new books.
Sigh. How romantic!

This is from Shelf Awareness, which tells me that I am not the only bibliophile who finds books, and booksellers, ever so sexy!

Robert Gray: 'Dancing in the Bookstore' on Valentine's Day

People fall in love with books. People fall in love with bookstores.
People fall in love with other people in bookstores. People even fall in
love with booksellers.

"With Valentine's Day around the corner, this is the question that is
naturally on every book lover's mind: When I go into my local bookstore,
am I allowed to start flirting with the staff?" Sarah Rettger wrote on
her blog Archimedes Forgets
Her entertaining reply included this pointed summary: "Short version: Of
course!... Longer version: As long as you're not stupid about it."

When I consider Valentine's Day, which is even now circling to land with
its stubby Cupid wings, I can't help but think of books. It's just my
nature. I love books. I love bookstores. I even fell in love with my
wife in a bookstore. For the record, she was also a bookseller at the

Forget greeting cards and roses and candy (Well, don't forget them.
Booksellers love sideline sales, too). Giving the right books as gifts
may be the real key to long-term commitment between readers. And
Valentine's Day can turn even the most cynical bookseller into a
relationship counselor, especially for those last minute "oh no I almost
forgot" shoppers.

During the past week, I've been monitoring bookstore love notes in the
form of e-newsletters. Here's just a tiny sampling of the indie love
happening out there as the big day approaches:

Brookline Booksmith, Brookline,
Mass.: "Folks, let's talk about something serious for a minute. I'm
going to get right to it. In order for you to give flowers to your
sweetie on Valentine's Day.... you first have to kill the flowers. Sever
them in the prime of their brief, radiant life. Or worse, hire some
mercenary floral assassin to do the dirty work for you. What sort of
monster have you become? You'll never be able to wash their chlorophyll
off your hands. Need an alternative to veg-icide? Why not save the roses
and give your loved one the gift of reading?"

Common Good Books , St. Paul, Minn.:

Dear Reader,
How do we love thee? Let us count the ways:
1. Inspired Events!
2. Celebrated Books!
3. Chocolate!
Alright, look, so I can't promise you chocolate. But the coffee shop's
next door.

Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y.:
"We're not doing any official Valentine's Day events at Greenlight this
year--but in a way, every event is our way of saying we love you. This
month we've got electrifying poetry, moving and original fiction, vegan
cookery (with tasty samples!), top drawer comedy and a celebration of
Black History Month. What's not to love?"

Titcomb's Bookshop, East Sandwich,
Mass.: "Do you remember the first book you read that made you fall in
love with reading? The one that whisked you away to a foreign land or
time, made you swoon, had you laughing or crying out loud, or changed
your opinion.... The instant someone recommends a book that falls
outside your comfort zone, and you accept the challenge to read it, that
is when you know you have fallen in love with books. We invite you to
share your love story with books on our Facebook page
How did your story begin? Maybe you can inspire others to fall in love
with a book!"

I'd already decided to write about Valentine's Day when a package
arrived from BooksActually, an
indie bookstore I love (though, regrettably, have never visited) in
Singapore. I wrote about this wonderful bookshop
some time
ago and have remained in contact.

Occasionally, BooksActually sends me recent titles published by their
Math Paper Press These
books, currently not distributed in the U.S., are beautifully designed
and have opened up a new literary world to me as a reader. The latest
gift box included Transparent Strangers by Loh Guan Liang, whose poem
"Dancing in the Bookstore" ends with the following lines, which seem to
perfectly complement a holiday celebrating love and--for all of us--the
irresistible, seductive power of words:

How this gathering has become
a communal feasting of glances, books
changing hands, magazines flipping,
jumping, exchanging partners
as they twirl us round the shelves.
Take this waltz, this everyday waltz
with its narrow waist in your hand.

Happy Valentine's Day, book people.--Robert Gray

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

A Brilliant Chabon Quote and a B&N Intervention

 This is a sensitive, heartfelt view of the world, from the brilliant mind of author Michael Chabon, whom I imagine knows something about the world, and the heart, being broken.

"The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”

There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.

Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness. The question becomes: What to do with the pieces? Some people hunker down atop the local pile of ruins and make do, Bedouin tending their goats in the shade of shattered giants. Others set about breaking what remains of the world into bits ever smaller and more jagged, kicking through the rubble like kids running through piles of leaves. And some people, passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again"
Michael Chabon, from his article Wes Anderson’s Worlds in the NYT Review of books.

I'm very excited to see that "The Book Thief" which I read twice (something that doesn't happen often) is now being made into a movie!

Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson will star in Fox 2000's movie adaptation
of Markus Zusak's bestselling novel The Book Thief
according to the Hollywood Reporter. The World War II drama will be
directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey).

 I agree with Ms Petri that it is time we put Barnes and Noble on alert that we are not going to take more bookstore closings! Seriously, I LOVE the Barnes and Noble in Issaquah. This is not to say that I don't adore Independent bookstores, because I do, and I spend as much money with Island Books and Finally Found Books as I can. But when it comes to getting books cheap, I often have to go to Barnes and to find the specific tome I am looking for, and have them ship it to me for free (I am a B&N Member, so I get free shipping).

"I think it is time we staged an intervention," Washington Post blogger
Alexandra Petri
wrote in an open letter to Barnes & Noble, which indicated in an
interview earlier this week that it will close more than 200 stores
next decade.

"I am saying this on behalf of all your friends: the Publishing
Industry, Book-Lovers Everywhere and--well, pretty much everyone but," Petri observed. "We gathered this weekend and decided it
was time we spoke up. We lost Borders. We cannot bear to lose you
too.... We say this with love. We want nothing more than for you to
succeed. And you are not doing so right now.... That is why we are
staging this intervention."

Petri had a question for B&N executives: "Why would you assume that if
there are fewer Barnes & Nobles, there will suddenly be more people
dashing to"

Her interventionist reply: "Physical bookstores still serve a vital role
as showcases for books. These are places where people encounter many
titles for the first time, titles we may decide to buy later, or may
just take with us to the restroom and linger over in blatant defiance of
the posted signs. We certainly would not know that Teen Paranormal
Romance was such a unified genre if you did not display it so
beautifully. Their ability to bring us into contact with hundreds of
things we did not know we wanted is not to be underestimated. And they
help even the online trade. Twenty-four percent of people who bought
books from online retailers did so after seeing them in real live
bookstores first, according to a 2011 survey. Yes, this is irksome if
you are the book retailer, but it's critical publicity for the book.
Lose the showrooms, and the Book suffers."

Hurrah for Book Cafe's in South Korea! I would love to open one here in Maple Valley, but that is a dream that will have to wait until I win the Lottery!

In Seoul, South Korea, book-themed cafes
into multi-purpose culture spots, replacing the fast-disappearing
bookstores and even attracting library-goers," the Korea Herald

"Before opening the cafe, we had to throw most of these books out," said
Jang Eu-ddeum, who runs Cafe Comma and used to work as a marketer for
Munhakdongne Publishing Group. "It cost too much to hire someone to take
care of them. It really was heartbreaking to see them taken away to be
destroyed.... When you work at a publishing company, you hardly get to
see the readers who actually enjoy the projects you created. But in this
cafe, the readers are physically here. It really is an enormous joy to
see your books being read by real people."

Changbi Publishers opened its own cafe in Seoul last year. "We really
strive to be something more than a cafe, or a bookstore, or a library,"
said Jeong Ji-yeon, the café's manager. "Many editors of Changbi
also work in the cafe, holding their editorial meetings here. We receive
visits from both our readers and writers. We think it's important to
have a physical place to display the books and interact with the people,
in spite of the increasing number of online bookstores. While e-books
are all about the content, books as hard copies have something more to

Here's a nifty video of the latest Steampunk book from Gail Carriger--I have already ordered it from the Science Fiction Book Club.

Gail Carriger (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), the first in the
Finishing School YA series from the author of the Parasol Protectorate

 Though I am not a fan of her books, I agree with Ann Patchett on her quote about bookstores being more than a place to buy books, they really are community centers where people can get together and be social, talk about books, politics or anything else that needs discussing.
A little Super Bowl counter-programming on
Oprah Winfrey's OWN network show Super Soul Sunday
with special guest Ayana Mathis, whose novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
is the latest Oprah's Book Club 2.0 pick. a pair of video excerpts, author Ann Patchett praises
fellow University of Iowa Writers' Workshop alum Mathis and, as co-owner
of Parnassus Books, Nashville, Tenn.,explains why the rumored death of neighborhood bookstores is greatly

"A lot of people think that bricks and mortar bookstores are dead, that
books are dead, but Oprah and I and all of you know that that's fiction
because here we are, doing great
Patchett said, adding: "When there isn't a bookstore in your city,
there's an incredible void because what you realize is that the
bookstore isn't just the place you come to buy books. It's a community
center... I can't imagine a world without reading, without books, and I
can't imagine a world without bookstores."

 "Reality TV" For Bibliophiles!
There is, however, a network where books do not go to die. Every
weekend, C-SPAN 2's Book TV dedicates 48 hours of programming to author interviews, panel discussions, book fairs, book
signings, author readings and bookstore tours around the U.S. It may be
as close as the book world can, or would want to, get to reality TV.