I’m jealous that my step-daughter’s assigned summer reading for school is The Great Gatsby. I wish I could read it again for the first time. I was 15 and my family was packing to move the day I discovered it. We were in limbo awaiting moving day and all of my books were already packed. In my search for entertainment I found one stray, The Great Gatsby, my parents’ book, overlooked in a stack of paperwork in a closet. Maybe it was because I was moving, already anticipating the feeling of being an outsider like Nick. Maybe with my teenage world view I related to Nick’s moral superiority. Or maybe it was as simple as being drawn to a character named Daisy since my dog was named Daisy. I don’t remember why I started it but the pull was immediate and never stopped. Years later at the REDCAT Theater in Los Angeles I sat through the theater group Elevator Repair Service’s stunning six-hour cover to cover reading of The Great Gatsby. Six hours and I was still as mesmerized by Fitzgerald’s language and characters as the first time I’d read them. So if you’re looking for your summer reading I recommend The Great Gatsby, along with the summer reading list I compiled for the Los Angeles News Group.
Already six weeks into 2016. How can that be?! Well, now that we’ve all acclimated here’s my list of recommended books to start your year off right:
- The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph
- Brave Enough
- Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges
- Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up
Get the full scoop on all of these titles in my February Los Angeles Daily News column, “5 Books to Help Live Your Life with Intention.”
This is my second annual blog post about what readers are looking for. The information is based on the utterly unscientific insight deemed from working the bookstore sales floor during the busiest book buying time of the year. Take note.
- “Do you have any books with creepy narrators? I love creepy
narrators.” (You are probably picturing a beady-eyed guy with
grey hair, maybe a mustache; the customer was a middle-aged woman with glasses, paisleys, and a big
grin.) I actually think this category was well covered this year (The Girl on the Train, Eileen, The Hand that Feeds You), but this customer argued, “You can never have too many creeps.”
- “Do you have any poetry books for teens?” The young adult market is booming and there seems to be a disproportionally high number of dystopian novels and teen romances; surely we can offer them some good ol’ fashioned teen angst in the form of good ol’ fashioned poetry. And I happen to still have my junior high poetry journal if anyone is interested in publishing it.
- “I read The Martian and I’m dying to know what that guy did when he got back. You know, how he’s doing. Is there a follow up book?” This isn’t really a trend, more like a favor: this customer was so sincere in his interest and concern about the fictional astronaut Mark Watney that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he isn’t real. So I’d really appreciate it if someone can publish a sequel…”Former astronaut Mark Watnery has travelled the Milky Way but now he’s setting out on a new mission–this time in a RV called “Sam” with a dog named “Ruby.” And he’s about to discover the strangest planet yet, Earth.”
- “Do you have any inspirational or funny audio books for an 80-year-old?” Or 70-year-old. Or 90-year-old. I’m asked this question frequently. The request is always for a gift for someone else so I can’t confirm whether the 80-year-old actually wants an inspirational or funny audio book but I will speculate that by 80 years old, you probably need one, or the other.
- Multicultural children’s picture books. Please don’t make me say it again. #weneeddiversebooks
- Books about Greyhound buses. The customer who made this request seemed fairly confident that we would have an entire section dedicated to Greyhound buses. I was speechless for a few moments then I tried to recover: “Are you interested in the, um, design or, uh, the culture or…?” “Both,” she said, without hesitation. Admittedly if this is a trend, she’s way ahead of it.
- “I have a friend who’s a big reader and I want to get them a book but I don’t know what they’ve read. Do you have any books on reading? Or the love of reading?” One of the most common questions I get. (And it happens to be the topic of a book I’m working on…)
- “Do you have a good book to recommend?” Music to my ears. Still the most common question, one that brings me pure joy (and job security).
Curious George, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Hello Kitty, Olivia, a mermaid hairbrush, a small, brown plush sea urchin, a keychain made out of Nigerian naira, a Ford car key; and 19 pairs of reading glasses.
Who knew there was such a thing as home detention? And how do I get one so I can catch up on my reading?!
Top Five Books I’d Like To Finally Read If I Could Get a Home Detention
- The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. A literary thriller about a woman who is robbed of her wallet and id while traveling in Morocco and suddenly finds herself with the freedom to be anyone she chooses. Time on my nightstand: 1 month.
- Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. The title says it all. Time on my nightstand: 2 years.
- The Criminal Justice Club. An insider’s look at the criminal justice system written by a career prosecutor. I’m fascinated by true crime, the legal system, detective stories, etc. so this one is right up my alley but it’s a little dark, violent, and complex to read right before I fall asleep. And at 400 pages it’s a time commitment. So it sits. Time on my nightstand: 1 year.
- The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years. A birthday gift from one of my favorite colleagues, even the cover is extraordinary. She says it’s one of her favorites and I can see why from the description: “From elements of myth, history, realistic narrative, and science fiction, Chingiz Aitmatov has woven a rich tapestry that blends cosmic speculation with the age-old legends of the Asiatic steppes.” Whoa. This one is going to be a wild ride so I feel like I have to be in the right mindset. Time on my nightstand: 3 months.
- The Drama of the Gifted Child. Since February, five people have recommended this book to me and it’s a perennial bestseller in our psychology section. I have to find out what the deal is. Time on my nightstand: 2 weeks.
I just returned from a 10-day, phone turned off, bucket list, adventure vacation in Iceland. My sweetheart husband stockpiled our credit card points and a lovely Icelandic woman named Birnir rented us her air b&b apartment, both making the whole thing possible. I’ve wanted to visit Iceland for close to a decade. I admire their progressive politics–the first democratically elected female president in the world; gay friendly; universal healthcare; and a university education for everyone. I am awed by their breathtakingly beautiful and other worldly landscape of volcanoes, snow capped mountains, glaciers, lava fields, waterfalls, and green farms. I’ve been intrigued by their mythology of “hidden people,” the midnight sun, rumors of mystical power places. And I feel a kinship to a culture that centers around books: In a country of only 300,000 people, Iceland has more writers, more books published, and more books read per capita than any other country. Public benches have barcodes to scan to listen to stories while you sit. The weeks preceding Christmas are known as the “jolabokaflod,” or “Christmas Book Flood,” when most books are published and everyone receives a book as a gift. They even have a Nobel Prize-winning author in literature to their credit. As for me, I don’t think I can write about the trip yet. It amazed me, moved me, and ultimately changed me. The trip of a lifetime. For now I will try to share it with you–as we always do–with a recommended reading list.
My Five Favorite Icelandic Reads
1) Lonely Planet: Iceland. This will seem pedestrian, I know. Especially considering everything mentioned above. But this was the guide we used in our travels and we found it to be very helpful but also very interesting and informative in regards to history and culture, and I loved the obviously deep appreciation the writers had for this place.
2) Independent People by Halldór Kiljan Laxness. This novel clinched the Nobel prize in literature for Laxness. This story of Bjartur, an Icelandic sheepherder, is the masterful telling of one man’s life–sardonic, clever, strange, and what many consider a masterpiece.
3) The Tricking of Freya: A Novel by Christina Sunley. A contemporary Icelandic coming-of-age debut novel about a young woman whose story begins with the summer she first meets her mom’s family in the
Icelandic-Canadian village of Gimli. Sunley beautifully pays homage to Iceland’s rich language and cultural lore.
4) The Sagas of Icelanders. These crazy medieval stories describing the Norse men and women who first settled Iceland are classic Icelandic literature reminiscent of Homer and Sophocles in terms of their epic scope and historical significance.
5) The Blue Fox by Sjon. I don’t usually look to Bjork for book recommendations but when in Rome… Sjon is a celebrated Icelandic poet and novelist who also happens to write lyrics for Bjork. His work is quirky, lyrical, often comical, and ultimately extraordinary–everything I found his homeland to be.
My stepdaughter just received her required summer reading list: Siddhartha and Persepolis. What?! A novel about a young man’s personal quest and spiritual journey?! A young girl’s powerful graphic novel memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution?! I had to read The Old Man and the Sea when I was her age. She doesn’t know how lucky she is.
We’re lucky that our required reading days are far behind us. Here’s my hot list of recommended reading to rock your summer.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’ a particular kind of cruelty to taunt you with amazing books which aren’t yet published. But mark your calendars for this sweet list of upcoming delicious new books. Well worth the wait.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Miller’s novel, originally intended to be titled Crazy Cock according to the author, was banned in the U.S. for 27 years and became known as much for its fight for freedom of expression as for its expression of sexual freedom. Now hailed as an American classic, this story—part memoir, part fiction—is wholly bawdy.
Nicholson Baker. The titillating concept: A fictional
transcription of a conversation between
two people who meet over a phone sex call-in line. Satisfyingly voyeuristic.
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Sigh. Not a lot of sex but a whole lot of sexy by the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.
Story of O by Pauline Réage. Love, dominance, and submission. This was the original Fifty Shades of Grey, the X version to Fifty’s PG-13. Not for the politically correct or easily offended.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Prague in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Four tangled up characters/lovers. Existential themes. Lyrical writing. And, of course, sex.
In the Cut by Susanna Moore. Moore’s novel is a sexy trinity of literature, erotica, and thriller that will titillate you long after the final page.
Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin. A stunning collection of erotic short stories and sexual encounters applauded by sex-positive feminists.
Create Your Own Erotic Fantasy series. Remember the Choose
Your Own Adventure series of your childhood? Well, they’re all grown up
now. These sexy novellas have interactive plots that engage the reader by
allowing them to choose which page to turn to next. “Our friend Kimmie will be
there; I think you’d like her. And I think she’d like you. A lot. (If you accept
their offer, please turn to page 128. If you turn it down, please turn to page
None of the choices the reader is offered have you ending up having phone sex in the public bathroom of an independent bookstore though. I’m just sayin’.
My Five Favorite Books About Booksellers
- The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. A bighearted novel that won booksellers’ hearts. (See above quote)
- 84, Charing Cross Road. A customer first recommended this jewel of a book to me. She couldn’t remember the name of it and when I reached out to colleagues to try to figure it out, I discovered that my fellow booksellers not only knew the book (and the title), but had all along loved this unlikely 20-year correspondence between a New York writer and a London bookseller.
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Protagonist Clay Jannon comes to bookselling like most booksellers–not by plan. Thus begins this spirited novel with a mystery and a bookstore at its center.
- The King’s English. Betsy Burton, author of this charming book and owner of the bookstore of the same name, has written a wonderful account of her 30 years running one of the most well respected independent bookstores in the country. Betsy is one of my favorite booksellers and reading her book is like spending a perfect afternoon with a lovely, well read host who has great stories about authors and the inner workings of a bookstore.
- Blind Submission. I’m partial to this one because the bookseller character is based on me. (According to author Debra Ginsberg, “Elise” is a composite of me and two other booksellers: Adrian Newell of Warwick’s and Carole Carden, formerly of Esmerelda Books.) But I’m also partial to anything Debra writes. Whether she’s writing a memoir about her days waiting tables, novels, mysteries, or a book about her son, Debra is just a great storyteller and a solid writer. She also happens to be way cool.
When I was a kid the three biggest events of my year were Christmas, my birthday and the Academy Awards. Check out my thoughts on this year’s Oscars, the books they celebrated, and my list of books that are ready for their close up, in my most recent column for the Los Angeles Daily News.