Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reader's Block

Bear with me, because this story has a happy ending.

I walked into the office last week and broke down: "Daniel, I don't know what to read. I can't seem to finish anything I start these days."

It's not that what I'm starting isn't good, it's that my interest slips away after about 25-50 pages. Maybe my expectations are too high, or maybe reading is about finding the right book at the right time. As a bookseller, I certainly have access to a lot of good literature--an overwhelming amount, at times. It shouldn't be hard to find something to read.

Part of my Reader's Block stems, I think, from the fact that I recently finished my Master's thesis, a summer-long process that involved reading lots of academic texts, then writing, rewriting, and editing. And then going back to the scholarly literature. Then, more writing. Oh, and there was that time when I deleted about 14 pages and completely rewrote them. That was fun.

During the time I worked on my thesis, all I wanted to do was read what I wanted to read, not what I had to read for the project. In fact, I spent a good deal of time procrastinating by reading books; I read Lily King's Father of the Rain (excellent!), Sara Gruen's Ape House (entertaining! and available soon), Nicole Krauss' Great House (available in October), and--because I'm a nerd--Volume I of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Selected Journals. And then I hit a rut. Right around the time I defended my thesis. I started about four books but couldn’t make it past the first fifty pages in any one of them.

The one book I managed to finish during this post-thesis time was The Outward Room by Millen Brand, a New York Review Book originally published in 1937 and soon available in a NYRB edition. This book, about a woman who escapes from a mental hospital in the 1930s (I'm just now realizing the connection), had exactly what I was looking for: a simple, linear plot, thoughtfully developed characters, and a timeless type of emotional reflection that connects readers and characters across time and space.

So, back to my meltdown in Daniel's office. Daniel immediately put on his bookseller cap (well, I suppose he never really takes it off) and analyzed the situation. He knows what I like to read--and is pretty good at determining any reader's mood--so he gave me a galley of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. With whom we just happened to have an event last night.

And, boy, am I glad he recommended that particular book at this particular time. Not only was it exactly what I needed to pull me out of my slump, but it prepared me for one of the best author readings I've ever attended. Rebecca Skloot was absolutely brilliant. She was truly engaging, and read and spoke with clarity and consideration for the audience. And the icing on the cake was the opening by her father, Floyd Skloot, who read three poems before giving his daughter a beautiful introduction. I think we were all a little choked up when he expressed his love and pride for his daughter.

Here they are together:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is shaping up to be an industry sensation. I tried to recall everything that's going on with it, so forgive me if I leave something out, but here are a few of the highlights:

  • UW Madison has adopted the book as a requirement for its incoming freshmen, and Skloot will be giving a presentation to a large audience of students and faculty
  • Oprah is interested in adapting the book for an HBO movie
  • Skloot is working on a YA version of the book for middle grade readers
  • The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which was founded by Skloot, has helped several of Henrietta's grandchildren and great-grandchildren meet education and health care costs

Ultimately, this post is about two things:

First, Rebecca Skloot has written an incredible book, and I'm sure you'll be hearing more about it from us at Boswell. Her success affirms the idea that if you work hard toward something you're passionate about, you'll achieve your goals. Even if Oprah doesn't call, you will have produced something you're proud of and which captures the public's fascination, as one audience member said last night.

Second, I am grateful for booksellers who are good at their jobs. There’s nothing like recommending a book to a customer and seeing him or her a week later, glowing about the book and thankful for your help. It’s why we read, read, read. It’s why we know each other’s strengths and interests, and can guide a customer to the best bookseller for the question. Over time, and with practice, we learn how to read our customers, as well, and understand their interests, temperaments, and preferences. Daniel knew that I read mostly fiction, but he also knew that the narrative style of Skloot’s book, along with my interests in biography and science, would be just right for me.

All this to say that it is possible to overcome Reader’s Block. Just turn to your nearest bookseller for help.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Favorite Book of the Fall is Out this Week!

And, no it is not Freedom by Jonathan Franzen but good guess. Nothing against his new book, a fellow Boswellian, Conrad really liked it and had this to say:

No one writes about dysfunctional families and individuals better than Jonathan Franzen. The struggle to achieve personal independence and identity-battling the constraints of family, friends, lovers, society, and the unrealistic expectations (both our own and other people's for us) that map our lives- is explored with hilarious results in this splendid new novel. If you liked The Corrections, you'll love this!--Conrad

While Franzen blew me away with all the frenzy and media surrounding it for yesterday's release, I was eagerly anticipating Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, which happened to come out on the same day as Franzen.

Skippy Dies starts out a bit depressing, because, well, Skippy Dies by page four. Then, Paul Murray hits the rewind button on his novel and starts the story at the beginning of a school year at Seabrook College and follows the many characters that have a hand in leading to Skippy's demise. The story revolves around Skippy and his friends, as they move through the school year, attempting to use String Theory to open up portals or to evade the local bully Carl. The conversations these kids have are often quite hilarious, and partly because I remember having pointless conversations myself back in high school. Paul Murray nails these conversations with ease, as if he is overhearing them as he writes, fluidly following the disjointed logic of youth. They have nicknames for their teachers, for instance their history teacher is Howard the Coward. Which Howard assumes is just because it rhymes, but secretly he knows that he is hiding out from real life and other secrets that tie him to Seabrook College.

Skippy Dies has many, many plot threads running throughout, and I leave you to discover them. Let's just say that the book is funny, sad, exhilarating, and exhausting all at the same time. It is a journey you will never regret, full of shocks and surprises. And, did I mention that it was long listed for the Man Booker Prize?