coffee helps me read and write

Realizing the obvious: as a creative person, I have good days and bad ones. When I get discouraged, I get very discouraged, and feel unable to do the writing & editing I know I need to do; I want to give it all up. As my friend Liz says, though, some days we just need to lie fallow (and give ourselves permission to do so).

I don’t want to dwell on that negative side today, though: I want to talk about the other days, the hyperproductive ones, when I can write 3 book reviews, do an author interview, schedule 4 blog posts and finish an essay I’d been working on. That happens sometimes, too! And you know what those productive days have in common? Coffee.

Shelf Awareness shared with me the other day an article called 12 Literary Coffee Mugs All Book Nerds Need in Their Lives. I am tickled by the concept, naturally. Go ahead, click the link, and see the bookish, readerly coffee mugs on offer there. I have made my own collection, though, and naturally think mine are a better set of choices: readerly and writerly as well.

a nod to the librarian stereotype

a nod to the librarian stereotype

a little humor - and truth

a little humor – and truth

a Sugar reference

a Sugar reference

often, but falsely, attributed to Hemingway: never mind, it sounds like him

often, but falsely, attributed to Hemingway: never mind, it sounds like him

a gift from my parents, from the Library of Congress

a gift from my parents, from the Library of Congress

What about you, dear readers? Coffee or tea? In what mug? Does it matter?

Maximum Shelf: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 15, 2015.


book of speculation

Erika Swyler’s debut novel, The Book of Speculation, opens on a precipice: Simon Watson’s house teeters, ready to tumble into the sea. “The Long Island Sound is peppered with the remains of homes and lifetimes, all ground to sand in its greedy maw. It is a hunger.”

Simon is precariously employed as a librarian, and thus lacks the funds to shore up his family home, from which his family is gone: his mother drowned, his father dead from grief, and his sister, Enola, departed, making her life with a traveling carnival. These days, Simon’s community is composed largely of the next-door neighbor, Frank, a longtime friend of Simon’s parents; and Frank’s daughter, Alice, a library colleague and a reliable constant in Simon’s life.

Enola rarely visits, but happens to be on her way home just when Simon receives a strangely apt package in the mail: an antiquarian book dealer, a stranger, has sent him a very old book which he believes has ties to Simon’s family history. The bookseller, Martin Churchwarry, bought it as part of a lot at auction, purely on speculation. It is the log book of Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles, a traveling circus in the 1790s, and contains the name of Simon’s grandmother. A librarian with archival experience, Simon is ready to treasure this unexpected gift on several levels, but puzzled by the family connection. Still, it draws him in, and by the time Enola arrives, he is thoroughly absorbed. She is unimpressed with his studies, while her obsession with her own tarot cards seems to be growing.

Simon reads and researches the names he encounters in Peabody’s book, calling into service his librarian friends and Martin Churchwarry himself, with whom a strangely easy friendship is established. These efforts yield a disturbing pattern. Simon already knew his mother was a “mermaid”: she could hold her breath for many minutes at a time, a trick she taught to her children. This skill notwithstanding, she drowned herself on a 24th of July. Simon did not know, however, that she came from a line of circus-performing mermaids, all drawn to the water, and that they all died by drowning on the 24th of July. In mid-July, as Enola, acting strangely, returns to their home by the sea, Simon fears that time is running out if he hopes to solve this puzzle and save his sister.

Meanwhile, the events of the past simultaneously engage the reader, as chapters alternate between Simon’s time and that of Peabody’s menagerie. A mystical Russian tarot card reader, an avuncular business-minded circus boss and other colorful characters populate the parallel thread of The Book of Speculation. But in Peabody’s world, it is Amos, a mute bastard who plays the “Wild Boy,” who will most capture the reader’s imagination and compassion.

The strengths of Swyler’s novel are many. The atmosphere of storm-tossed Long Island, with a house that threatens to dive into the sea, is at once fully, realistically wrought and fanciful: Is there a curse? Simon pursues the secrets of his family as his life literally falls apart around him, floor, ceiling, foundation and memories crumbling. Likewise, Peabody’s peripatetic enterprise evokes the promised “magic and miracles,” as well as more prosaic hazards. Each chapter is in itself a small departure into a fantastic, engrossing world. Imagery of woods and animals, small towns and family dynamics are finely drawn; everywhere is the water that frames both stories, from the Long Island Sound that menaces Simon’s home and those he loves to the rivers and streams alongside which Peabody travels. Indeed, if this story has a soundtrack, it is the gurgling waters that promise both succor and ruin to the mermaids’ line.

The Book of Speculation is driven both by character and by plot, as the reader aches for the vulnerable Wild Boy in Peabody’s circus and roots for the crooked romances of Simon’s time, and wonders, as the story develops, whom to trust. To round out an eccentric cast, Enola brings home a boyfriend from the circus who is covered in tattoos and possesses an electrifying special talent, and Simon explores new ground with Alice, the girl next door. Each of the men and women from both timelines proves multi-faceted and compelling. The overall effect is captivating, as Swyler’s delightful, mesmerizing prose keeps the story tripping playfully along through both light and dark moments. As Simon pursues the loose ends and they tie oddly together, Swyler keeps the pressure and the pacing on, as her characters struggle to make connections.

The meandering plot offers many charms: likable, quirky librarians; circus menageries and freak shows; love stories; tarot cards and trickery; mysticism; family secrets; and prickly sibling love–all accompanied by the author’s illustrations. [Swyler also painstakingly hand-bound, gilded and aged her manuscript submissions, in imitation of the old book in her story.] In short, The Book of Speculation, like the book at its center, promises to grasp the reader with a supernatural force and not let go.


Rating: 8 horseshoe crabs.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Swyler.

Miss Zukas and the Library Murders by Jo Dereske

zukasI caught a few minutes of a radio interview with a local author, but I never caught her name. She apparently writes library-themed mysteries set in a fictional version of my new hometown; I heard one of her titles, and a tiny bit of research later, had the first book in her series from the local library: she is Jo Dereske, and this is Miss Zukas and the Library Murders.

Miss Zukas is an extreme, ridiculous stereotype of a librarian. She favors color-coordinated cardigans and sensible shoes, still wears her hair in the style her mother gifted her on her sixteenth birthday, and keeps her apartment obnoxiously, antiseptically clean. “She blanched at the idea of stray thoughts popping about.” I thought of a librarian girlfriend of mine, who was offended by the opposing, counterculture librarian-stereotype in NOS4A2 (purple hair, funny hats, obscenities and Henry Rollins) – she felt it was too trendy, too over-the-top. Well, I was tickled by the purple-haired librarian, and for a moment thought I was offended by Miss Zukas. But it’s pretty clear that this is meant in good fun, that Dereske is laughing with us, so on we go. (It helped when she ironically quoted Socrates at her boss; I could almost believe that Miss Zukas herself was in on the joke.)

The mystery itself – the “library murders” – qualifies as a cozy; the blood is off-stage. Even the references to sex (Miss Zukas has a friend who might be termed, by our prim heroine, as promiscuous) are oblique. And yes, you guessed it, Miss Zukas is the amateur sleuth who helps save the day. Her girlfriend Ruth, a free-spirited and often drunk artist, makes a fine sidekick; there is even a little romance along the way. I think the least believable element (in a book not trying too hard for realism, I should point out) was the friendship between these two women: it didn’t quite ring true for me that a woman as OCD and repressed as our Miss Zukas could really maintain a relationship with the outrageous Ruth. But so be it.

I was a little doubtful once or twice early on, but quickly found myself involved in and amused by the story as well as silly Miss Zukas. The book itself is a little silly; certainly light-hearted; but in the end, entertaining. I zipped right through it. And you know I don’t usually find much to occupy me in a cozy, but I may just have to go find book two in this series. A diverting, easy-reading cozy mystery set in a totally wonderful little town (of course), starring a surprisingly endearing librarian of the shushing sort.


Rating: 6 cards in the card catalog.

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

A heartfelt history of Armed Services Edition paperback books that helped save the sanity of many GIs in World War II.

books went

Molly Guptill Manning (The Myth of Ephraim Tutt) opens When Books Went to War by documenting the horrified response in the United States to Nazi Germany’s book burnings, beginning in 1933. Bibliophiles fought back in what was characterized as a “total war” of both military might and ideas.

To supply bored, lonely troops with reading materials, librarians in the U.S. organized the Victory Book Campaign, which collected more than 10 million books. To educate the public, the Council on Books in Wartime recommended relevant, topical titles for readers at home, but it found its stride with Armed Services Editions (ASEs). These pocket-sized, lightweight paperbacks, designed for use in the field, not only provided entertainment, escape and enlightenment to American servicemen, but also revolutionized the paperback book in a market that had previously shunned it, employed struggling publishers and helped to jumpstart the publishing industry after the war. Between 1943 and 1947, more than 120 million copies of more than 1,200 fiction and nonfiction titles were printed and efficiently distributed to American soldiers in every theater.

In her moving history, Manning fervently describes the many GIs who returned from war with a love of reading they hadn’t had when they left home, wrote impassioned letters to authors and council members and attributed their college educations to books they discovered as ASEs. For military and general history buffs and lovers of books and libraries, it is difficult to imagine a more inspirational story than this celebration of reading in a time of war.


This review originally ran in the December 23, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 letters.

on picking up another book by Marilyn Johnson

overdueThree people simultaneously bought me Marilyn Johnson’s previous book, This Book Is Overdue!, as I graduated from library school. (Possibly they are reading this now – sorry! I don’t even remember who they were.) I didn’t make it even halfway through. Was it uninspiring, or was it I who was uninspired? worn out from study? It’s a fine question about the intersection of book, reader, time and place; a good reading experience requires a happy meeting of all four. Maybe I would love the book now.

livesI’m rather encouraged to try again. The first pages of Johnson’s latest work, Lives in Ruins, reference librarians immediately – and beer too, twice in three pages; a funny story about the apocalypse is credited to a graduate student, and during an economic depression, “Dublin was running, as far as I could tell, on what spilled out of the pockets of Brits during their bachelor parties.” Johnson is self-deprecating and irreverent, and also serious and passionate about her subject (in this case, archaeologists). What’s not to love?

May have to try This Book Is Overdue! again. Perhaps three well-meaning graduation present givers were right after all.

did not finish: The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (audio)

borrowerI made it exactly 25 pages into this one (although via audio, which was about 30 minutes, give or take). I remember hearing about The Borrower ever since it came out in 2011, and it sounded real cute: children’s librarian befriends sweet little boy who might be gay and whose censorious, bigoted, ultra-religious parents are a drag; she ends up either liberating or kidnapping him, depending on your angle, and they have adventures together. Nice story, right? In fact, it opens with a story time reading of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which drives home the fact that this plot has been done before. And that’s no complaint or criticism. As Makkai notes in the voice of her narrator, “you can always count on a librarian for a derivative prose style.” I can dig that little joke (and also fear it is too true).

But things went south quickly after that. Faced with the censorious mother, Lucy (the librarian/narrator) rails that she would never “defy the Constitution” by refusing to check out certain books to a ten-year-old boy at his mother’s request. Now, I sympathize with Lucy’s gut reaction and not with the nasty mother; but I think it’s only respectful to be clear on what the Constitution actually says. The First Amendment protects the right to speech, press and assembly; it most certainly does not protect the right to read anything one likes (unfortunately), and the rights of minors have been curtailed in our courts in favor of their parents’ right to decide for them, with abundant clarity. This use of the “defy the Constitution” argument was outrageous and left me reeling. From a librarian, no less!

Next Lucy notes that

I wasn’t at all concerned about (the boss) enforcing this, or even remembering it a month later. And if she tried to fire me because I’d checked out a book to a patron of the public library, I’d have so much free legal representation within ten minutes that her gin-soaked head would spin.

Well, that’s bold – and naive. If this librarian were fired for checking out a book to a ten-year-old that the child’s mother had expressing forbidden her to check out to him, I think her legal case would be in some doubt; and while it’s conceivable that the ACLU or a similar organization would take the case on, I wouldn’t bet my job on it. I’d put the chances pretty low, in fact. To think that every unjustly-fired, underpaid city employee gets “so much free legal representation within ten minutes” to make heads spin is… idealistic, at best.

And then Lucy snobs out on her profession of librarianship, except oops, it might not be fair to call her a professional because she’s non-degreed and thus in most work environments ineligible to be called a “librarian” at all (this is a subject on which there is some controversy within the field and I don’t want to enter into that now, but I think it does bear on the credibility of this novel): in reference to the cardigan she’s wearing,

I hated that I’d started to look like a librarian. This wasn’t right. In college, I’d smoked things. My first car had angry bumper stickers. I came from a long line of revolutionaries.

Now this made my head spin. Librarians are about as diverse as any other demographic group you’d care to examine, and certainly there are those cardigan-clad shh-ing grannies with buns; but there is also no dearth of tattooed, funny-looking, hipster, punk, revolutionary-as-hell librarians. And you know what? Some of us wear cardigans, too. Despite the disappointingly cartoonish view of librarians represented by these lines, they also made me wonder if Makkai realizes who her audience is for this book: I am assuming that at least in part those attracted by her basic plot would be librarians (I am one), and she just alienated us with her snobby narrator.

So. This review threatens to be as long as the tiny piece of this book that I read; I should stop. I think I’ve effectively communicated that I was disgusted by the 25 pages’ worth that I listened to, and very comfortable turning away towards greener pastures. In fact, I’m now starting a novel by Joe Hill, whose librarian character in NOS4A2 was possibly a little bit of a cariciature in the other direction – with her purple hair and all – but also closer to the librarians I know. So there.


I am not assigning this a number rating after such a brief read but clearly if I did, it would be a low number of my grumbles.

hemingWay of the Day: as an archivist

Oh my word, Liz does it again. Never was there an article more designed to make me sigh and daydream. From PRI’s The World comes

This came to me from Liz, who got it in turn from Jessamyn West (blogtwitter). A solid pedigree right there. I swoon; this is my dream job.

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