Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Woman in White Pants: a visit to Mom

It's rather unusual for a bookseller to take any time off between Thanksgiving and Christsmas. Like other retailers, this is when we do enough business to stay in business. I must confess that I visited my mother in Boston for a weekend, with the promise back home that I would work many extra shifts on the floor to cover this absence.

I grew up in Queens, where until this year, my mother Lillian still lived. There are many things she does not miss in her new apartment in Brookline, but one thing that hasn't yet been replaced were her two book clubs, one for novels and another for short stories.

Not that she's stopped reading. There's a lending library downstairs, and I of course am a dutiful son and offer suggestions that are sometimes gifts, and sometimes purchases from Schwartz in Milwaukee. We also try to shop the local bookstores in Boston, so she's got an Indie Bound gift card, which is good at Brookline Booksmith, only five blocks from her apartment.

I don't know if it's because of talking so much with my coworker Catherine Wallberg about Daphne Du Maurier, but I wound up buying the classic Rebecca at Brookline Booksmith. I love seeing all the bustling energy in that store, such great recommendations, and interesting display, and generally can't help but make a purchase. I will admit that this is often the case in independent bookshops. When I'm in Boston, I almost always take a pilgrimage to the Harvard Book Store. Buyer Megan Sullivan has a renowned book blog that I follow called Book Dwarf.

I think I'm also in the mood for Rebecca because for the last few weeks, I've been making my way through Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White for my lunchtime book club, the Third Ward Warblers. No, I didn't name it.

There's been some discussion among my bookseller friends whether The Woman in White or The Moonstone is the most significant Collins novel. What I know is that Jason in the group had already read The Moonstone and Catherine had a leather-bound version of The Woman in White. Problem settled.

We read Dickens and then Collins, in part due to the imminent release of Dan Simmons' new novel Drood. It's coming in February of 2009 (as always, please consider having us hold a copy for you when it arrives), and it is about Dickens' last years, narrated by Collins! It's a bit of a departure for the author, but I'm told from a big fan that there are speculative elements.

Back to Lillian. Though she's got glaucoma, she's still able to read some books if the print is big. Large print is better. She also listens to audio books. I brought her a novel I really enjoyed this fall, Francine Proses's Goldengrove, which sadly did not get as much attention as I had hoped. I was very excited to see a Harper Luxe (large print) version and bought it immediately for Mrs. G.

I've had feedback from one of my best friends, Heidi, whose opinion I greatly value. These postings are too long, and they aren't funny enough. Also, where the heck are my book reviews that pre-internet, I used to send out to scores of people by post?

I can only solve one problem at a time. Here's my take on Ms. Prose's newest:

GOLDENGROVE, by Francine Prose Harper, $24.95, 9/08.
Nico is a 13-year-old girl who lives with her ex-hippie parents and older sister in a upstate New York town near Albany, but out-of-range of cell phones and other wired conveniences. Mom writes lyric notes and Dad runs the Goldengrove bookstore—their worldview is determined by their hippie background and unfulfilled artistic ambitions. Older sister Margaret is Nico’s idol, a singer who breaks hearts, a world-weary lover of old music and films—her only secret is Aaron, a boyfriend who hopes to be a painter. Nico herself is set to be drifting towards the sciences, but there seems to be no reason for this inclination besides setting herself apart from the other characters. Life takes a devastating turn when (and I’m not giving anything away here) Margaret drowns unexpectedly in a nearby lake. Chubby Nico finds herself losing weight and growing her hair out; Aaron has similar designs on recreating the past. Her parents are not happy. Everyone is struggling with how Margaret’s absence affects their place in the order of things, both in the family and in life itself. Goldengrove is quite the change of place from the social comedy A Changed Man, which was one of my favorite books the year it was released. Though set in the present, it manages to seep itself in the glow of nostalgic past; the only drawback of that, is that books of this genre have to rocket into the present at the end, and in this case that makes it an unforeseen future. I liked it a great deal and hope for the best.

On that last structural device of the novel, I think Michael Cunningham did this at the end of Flesh and Blood.

It turns out I also convinced my sister Merrill to read Goldengrove, and she liked it enough to get some recommendations from me on other Prose novels to read. Her most successful novel in our shops was definitely Blue Angel, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award, but her nonfiction work Reading Like a Writer, has a very big following as well. In addition to A Changed Man, I remember being particularly obsessed with an old story collection, Women and Children First.

Merrill says her interest is not as strong as her Lionel Shriver fever she had, but we'll save that for another post.

No comments: