Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Apologize, Apologize!

Apologize, Apologize!One of the things I love about books is their unexpectedness. When I started reading Elizabeth Kelly's book, "Apologize, Apologize!", I was enthralled with the sharp tongue and wit that she wielded in describing a dysfunctional, extended Irish family. About 40 pages in I began to decide that I wasn't quite sure I could read the entire book...the family was getting to be a bit much in their antics...(Picture, say, Augusten Burrough's family from "Running with Scissors", on crack cocaine and you might begin to picture the Flanagans.)
I stuck with the book with the fascination of those who go to destruction derbies and cage fights...full of morbid fascination for where the author was heading.
Sure enough, I became enthralled with what might and did come next...The story of a wonderfully compelling alcoholic family whom everyone would love to visit from an invisible perch high above the fray. And that is what Ms. Kelly provides us with; our own perch from which to view the damage and compare it to our own.
The Flanagan's have many, many rules which govern their family dysfunction. One such rule involves never letting real feelings surface to the point where we might actually have to feel or analyze them.
Collie, (yes, he was named after a dog), mutters to himself while someone is asking a question that might seem like a normal kind of cocktail banter.

I was smiling in an agreeable sort of way but not responding. Pop had a horror of people who asked personal questions, which he's transferred to me. Hell, I don't even ask myself personal questions.

Collie Flanagan's introspection is often projected to be more of an outwardspection, but it is in that very denial of introspection that Ms. Kelly is at her best as she goes about doing the "Big Reveal".

When Collie's Mother dies unexpectedly his Father is quick to let him know that any lack of mourning for Anais will be paid in full later.

"Don't worry Collie, your mother will extract her period of mourning from you. Some people just get buried more deeply than others. You'll find out that sorrow takes different forms, but in the end true grief in an honorific conferred on those people, however unlikely they may be, who bring us some measure of joy. Your mother was many things, but a joyful presence she was not. Unfortunately, Anais's grave is not a shallow one."

And of such is the wisdom of the Flanagan family and it's extensions. The cover says it is hilarious and crushingly sad...these are equally true and equally enjoyable.

One of my favorite moments in the book was in the Author's interview in the back of the book where a perky young interviewer asks her if there is ever an interview question she WISHES she would be asked? Her answer: Has anyone ever told you how much you look like Annette Bening? (Hidden in the Reader's guide, this was the first time I thought there was something in a Reader's guide that was good for something more than starting a campfire...It was good for one last laugh.)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Book to Fix It

A mother of a 14 year old daughter asked for a book for her daughter to read to help her make better choices. She said that the daughter is an "A" student, involved in activities, but has low self-esteem. She met a guy online who told her he was 15, but he was really 19. And when the parents weren't home, she had the guy over to the house. This (naturally) scared Mom, who was asking booksellers to help her find a book that showed characters maybe making bad choices but learning from them and figuring out how to make better ones. We came up with some books that have characters that do that (books by Sarah Dessen, for instance), however my comment to the bookseller dealing directly with the mom was that she can't just hand a book to the daughter and expect her to 'get' it. Even if a character in a book makes bad choices (or good ones, for that matter), the important thing is to sit down and TALK with the daughter about it. Have the conversation.


A woman came to the register. She was buying three books about anorexia and exercise addiction.

I said, "Along these same lines, Marya Hornbacher's book, Wasted is a book about her own struggle with anorexia and it's excellent. I read it several years ago and I still think about it."

Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia (P.S.)

The woman kind of whispered, and nodded her head toward the magazines, "They're for my son, over there. He's dealing with this," she said as she pointed to the words "exercise addict". "It's really a struggle, I'm worried about him, I want to help him and understand."

"I'll bet," I said, keeping my voice down too. "I don't remember if Marya Hornbacher dealt with this (me pointing to the words 'exercise addict') specifically, but she really was profound about this." (pointing to the word anorexia)

"I saw that one back there. I may have to look at it. I'll start with these.
If only a book could fix it," she said.

"Yes. Indeed. If only," I said.



I didn't want to read Tinkers at first. It won the Pulitzer Prize and I haven't always been a fan of the Pulitzer Prize winning books. However, looking at a list the Pulitzer Prize winners yesterday, I realized that while there are some I have not liked so well (The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Lonesome Dove, Gilead), there are some I have liked a lot...Middlesex, Interpreter of Maladies, The Stone Diaries, Beloved...Tinkers will join the ranks of the latter for me.

Middlesex: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club)Interpreter of MaladiesThe Stone Diaries: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)Beloved (Paperback)

In Tinkers, George Washington Carver is dying, and while he's dying, he's hallucinating and remembering people and events in the meandering way that very old people often do. Tinkers reminded me of Susan Minot's Evening, with its wandering narrative...

"George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment."

Tinkers is one of those rare books that needs to be read slowly, like Marilynn Robinson's Housekeeping, savored like chocolate on the tongue. (And yes, I didn't like Gilead and I LOVED Housekeeping, both by Marilynne Robinson. go figure.)

Some of the positive blurbs about the book (one even written by Marilynne Robinson!), rave about how the book has evocative passages about clocks and birdhouses. And indeed it does. However, what impressed me, sometimes even startled me with their radiance, are the passages that seem to capture a person sentence or short paragraph...

"Ray Morrell already, at twelve years old, had the air of a chaste, fastidious old bachelor, someone who knew about commemorative coins and prevailing winds and who, already, had a taste for the turpentinelike bathtub gin his father always had a bottle of stashed away under the basement stairs."

and...(The passage below, which goes on for a bit longer in the book, literally took my breath away.)

"Her stern manner and her humorless regime mask bitterness far deeper than any of her children or her husband imagine. She has never recovered from the shock of becoming a wife and then a mother. She is still dismayed every morning when she first sees her children, peaceful, sleeping, in their beds when she goes to wake them, that as often as not the feeling she has is one of resentment, of loss. These feelings frighten her so much that she has buried them under layer upon layer of domestic strictness. She has managed, in the dozen years since becoming a wife and mother, to half-convince herself that this nearly martial ordering of her household is, in fact, the love that she is so terrified that she does not have."

and even a dog...

"The children were astonished by the ham that Kathleen had cooked for the Christmas meal. It was the largest they had ever seen. it was covered in a crust of brown sugar and molasses. Buddy the Dog sat at attention, as if recommending himself to the ham over the children by his proper manners."

This small, spare book recounts George, his father and mother (Howard and Kathleen), as well as Howard's father and mother. Sometimes it's hard to tell who's "talking" or remembering at a particular point, which usually bugs me, however I haven't seemed to mind in this book.

I am enjoying this.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm almost done reading it. I need to get back to it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

MORE Parenting in the Bookstore

The day before Father's Day, a young woman (maybe 18?) with a head scarf approached me in the aisle of the store and asked where the parenting books were. I took her to the section and asked if she was looking for a particular book. She said she wanted something for Father's Day, so I asked if she wanted a book of sayings, or inspirational stories about dads? Maybe dads and daughters? She said no, that wasn't quite it. Was there something on parenting?

I asked her how old the children were, I wasn't sure if it was for her husband (though she seemed pretty young to be married and have any kids), or for her own dad. She said it was for her father, and she is worried about her brother, who is 7 years old. She wanted something for her father to help him, but it can't really look like it's trying to tell him what to do as a parent.

I asked her if her dad was kind of old school, old fashioned, is he the head of the house, and she said yes, definitely. She said there is yelling and he thinks that the kids should just fall in line. She and her mother thought that a book for Father's Day might be good, was there anything that might help guide him without looking as though it's guiding him?

I showed her some that I have found helpful, or have heard were good...How to Listen So Your Kids Will Talk, which I thought was excellent, a new and very popular one is Parenting with Love and Logic, and Parking Lot Rules, and also Positive Discipline. She wasn't sure any of those would work, as they assume (as parenting books do), that the parent needs to change something they are doing to affect change in the kids. AND, most parents read them because they KNOW something needs to change. And it didn't sound like this dad felt as though he needed to change anything.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will TalkParenting With Love And Logic (Updated and Expanded Edition)Parking Lot Rules & 75 Other Ideas for Raising Amazing ChildrenPositive Discipline
I told her that I thought she was sent on a pretty tough errand. She smiled. She knew it was difficult.

She took several of them and said she would call her mom and get her input. I didn't find out which one she chose, if any.

Parenting in the bookstore

A mom came up and asked if I had any suggestions for her 8 year old son. He's liked the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, but that's ALL he's been reading, over and over again, and she'd like him to branch out. Mom said he doesn't really like fantasy, he LIKES the Wimpy Kid books, is there anything else kind of similar?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

I showed her a few things, Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox (book, not the movie), his James and the Giant Peach (ditto), any of his other ones as well, Dan Gutman's The Homework Machine, Andrew Clements' Frindle, Judy Blume's Freckle Juice, Thomas Rockwell's How to Eat Fried Worms, Oliver Butterworth's The Enormous Egg...Mom was thrilled, and showed them to her son. He didn't seem very interested in any of them, so I gave him my little lecture.

Fantastic Mr. FoxJames and the Giant PeachThe Homework MachineFreckle Juice Teaching Unit CDFrindleHow to Eat Fried WormsThe Enormous Egg

"Here's the deal. You can pick some of these books to look at right here, in the store. You have to start READING them here, before you leave the store. If you aren't interested in the story after a couple of pages, then that's fine, you don't have to get that one. If you start reading and you LIKE it, and you want to keep going, well then, that's one you might want to get. (and here's where I kind of get in his face a little bit) You do NOT get to just look at the cover and decide that you don't like it. You have to open it and start reading. That's the deal."

"I like you already," the mom said to me. "I like you a LOT."

I turn back to her, "And here's a way you can help know if the book is right for his reading level or not. Pick a book. Pick a page in the middle of the book. Have him read the one page. He's not reading for the story, he's just reading to see if he knows the words. If he comes to a word he doesn't know, he lifts up one finger. Each time he finds a word on that page he doesn't know, he lifts a finger. If there are more than 4 or 5 words on the page that he doesn't know, then it's probably too hard. If there is one or less than one, then the book is probably too easy. If the page has 2 or 3 words on it that he doesn't know, then that's just about right, he should be able to figure out the words' meaning from the rest of the story, or he can ask you or look them up."

"That's GREAT," she said. "I'll do that."

They gathered a selection of books, left them at the customer service desk while they went to Starbucks to get drinks so they could spend time deciding. They left with two Roald Dahl books.

Sometimes my past life as a third grade teacher comes in handy...


Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Angriest Customer

     A woman stormed into the store and came straight to my register. She was angry that no one had offered to gift wrap the expensive item she'd purchased from our store 2 weeks ago, nor had she been offered a gift receipt, as it was a gift for her husband and she wanted him to be able to return it without seeing the price. She'd gone to another one of our stores in another state and THEY had offered gift receipts and offered to gift wrap the items she purchased there. I told her we could get her a gift receipt, I just needed to figure out exactly how to do it, since our system wouldn't let us generate a gift receipt from a purchase on another day. I consulted one of my co-workers and we tried to figure out how to do this. I tried to reassure the customer, "Sorry about this, I just need to figure out how to get a gift receipt for you. It won't be a problem for you, it's just a little tricky for us."

     "It IS a problem for me, it most definitely IS a problem for me," she said.

     I also told her we'd be happy to gift wrap her item. She told me (again) that the other store had OFFERED to gift wrap, and we SHOULD have offered to gift wrap her item, don't we offer? I told her that we don't offer to gift wrap on every transaction, but if someone asks, we are very willing to gift wrap their purchases. She said gift wrapping should have been OFFERED to her at the time of purchase, since it was a high ticket item. She showed me the items that the other store had wrapped. I apologized (again), and said (again) that I'd be happy to wrap it for her. While this was going on, I was trying to get the gift receipt. I did generate one, but it was in a way that messed up our internal bookkeeping for the day, but I was trying to get the customer what she asked for as quickly as possible, trying to appease her.

     This whole time she was seething. During all of this I'd phoned the manager, letting her know about the gift receipt and asking for help with the gift receipt procedure. I paused and asked the woman to come down to the gift wrapping area so she could choose a gift wrap pattern. She selected a gift wrap pattern and I started wrapping. I asked her if she wanted the gift receipt included in the package. She snapped, "Let me see that. I want to examine the gift receipt." I handed her the gift receipt and make sure it's all right. She commented that the dates don't match from her original purchase to the gift receipt I'd generated that day. I called the manager (again) and asked about that and she assured me that it would be fine if the item was to be returned with the gift receipt. I relayed the information to the (still seething) customer.

     As I was wrapping the item, she said, "Are you wrapping it the right way? It better not be upside down."

     I paused and showed her what I was doing, explaining that I placed the item face down so that when it's unwrapped it ends up face up. "Is that how you would like it to be wrapped?," I asked?

     "I just don't want it to be wrapped wrong," she snapped.

     I continued to wrap, since she didn't ask or tell me to do it differently than I'd explained it to her. She said, "Is your manager HERE?"

     "Yes, she is," I said, "would you like to speak with her?"

     "Yes, I would."

     I called the manager who came right up and asked her how she could help. The woman said (yet again), how she should have been offered a gift receipt, how whoever helped her before should have offered to gift wrap her item, how she went to another store and they did offer those things. The manager said she wasn't sure what she could do to help at that point, since we did generate a viable gift receipt and her item was being wrapped, but she'd be happy to listen if she wanted to talk about it. The woman's face got all red. By that time I was done wrapping, I put her item in a bag and handed it to her. She grabbed the bag and walked out without saying anything more.

We realized that she was angry when she came in, was angry when she was in the store, and was angry when she left. We did our best to rectify what she felt was wrong in as polite and professional a way possible. Yet her anger was palpable. I know it wasn't directed at me (or any of us) personally. And still it was hard. Even as I write this my heart rate has speeded up a little and I feel a little stressed and this event happened two days ago.

It happens. People come in and they are angry about something, and I'm pretty sure that whatever it was she was so angry about, it wasn't the gift receipt or the gift wrapping. We try to do our best. AND, it's hard to deal with angry people.

MOST of the customers are not angry, and for this I am grateful. This particular woman was, I think, the angriest customer I've ever had. She didn't rage or yell, but she was livid and she left just as mad (if not madder) than when she came in.

Events like this make me appreciate the work that Therapist does...as a counselor in a crisis call center, she deals with angry people ALL THE TIME. They yell and are furious and want her to fix whatever they are mad about. Over the phone. Incidents like this make me have a much greater appreciation for the work Therapist does every single day.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Customers 7

"My dad wants a book. I can't remember the author or the title. It has something to do with (insert broad topic here, such as war or history)." "Yeah, sure, we'll get that one for you."

     "I want to find your books that are 50% off."
     I take her to the far end of the store and show her a small table of publisher marked 50% off hardcovers, both fiction and non-fiction.
     "No, that's not what I want."
     "Have you seen our bargain books? Many of them are less than 50% off the original price."
     "Yeah, we looked at those. Books are so expensive."
     I take her over to the bargain section anyway. As we get closer she says, "Oh, we didn't see these."
     So I can know which bays to show her, I ask, "Do you like fiction?"
     "No, I really like to read novels," she says.
     I show her the extensive bargain fiction section. She said she'll have to come back another time.

Customer calls regarding a book they put on hold. They'd like to find out the price of the book they reserved. Bookseller asks for their name, which is how we file books on hold. Can't find it. Looks under first name. Looks under last name. Nope. Asks for the name of the book. Still can't find it. Apologizes, says we really have a pretty good system with this, is the customer sure she didn't call another store? Absolutely not. Bookseller puts customer on hold. Calls next nearest branch of our store. Sure enough, the book they want is on hold under their name at THAT store. Bookseller informs customer that their book is on hold at the other location. Customer hangs up.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Customers 6

At customer service yesterday I answered the phone. A woman wanted to get the book, The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life. Originally published in 1870, it is still being published. We didn't have any in the store, so she wanted to order one. There were many different versions to choose from. I was describing some of the versions to her so she could choose. Someone came up to the information desk wanting some help. The woman on the phone chose which version she wanted. After that all I needed to do was to get her contact information so we could contact her when the book came in. Someone else was coming up for help too. Should I call for more help at the desk? I thought I'd be okay, I got her name, phone number, I was almost done. Then she said, "Can you tell me if this book is available in Hungarian? I'd like to get it for my mother, who is older. Hungary is a country in Europe..." I called for backup.

An older man, in his 70's or 80's came up to the desk. He was wheezing and breathing heavily, almost gasping for air. His skin looked grey-ish. He used a cane, and leaned heavily on it as he walked and heavily onto the counter when he got there.
     "Taliban and War is the title," he said. "I want that book."
     "Do you know the author?", I asked?
     "Mosley," he said.
     I searched, both as an exact title and just with Taliban and war as keywords, with the author's name and without...
   "I could end that damn war tomorrow if they'd just let me go over there," he said. "I could do it. It's been going on too long. Are you finding it? I also want Marley and Me. Damn war. Damn government."
     "Marley and Me we have," I said. "I'm still not finding a book with that title either with or without that author..."
     "If they'd let me go, I'd go right now. I could stop that war." (gasp, wheeze) "It's not going to be stopped by atheists though. Too many damn atheists in the government. Damn atheists. Damn government. Damn Obama. Do you have that book?"
     "I'll go get Marley and Me," I said, thinking it might be better for him if I went and got the book for him. He followed me.
     "Got any more dog books?," he asked.
     "We sure do, here's the section right here. James Herriot has one...," I handed him James Herriot's Dog Stories.
     "This is good?," he asked.
     "He is good," I said.
     "All right, if you say so. I'll take it."

A woman stopped me in one of the aisles.
      "Can you show me the 'Teenagers are driving you crazy' section?"
      I laughed. "We sure do, right over here," leading her to the parenting and childcare section.
      "Maybe there's a book called Teenagers Suck," she mused. "And I mean that in the most loving way possible."
      She was having struggles communicating with and dealing with the two teenagers she had at home. She'd already read Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?. We perused the section, and found a few...the Everything Guide to Teenagers, Parenting with Love and Logic.
      "It's like they are totally different people. My son who used to be so sweet now isn't," she said.
      "Yeah, they do that. Mine did that." "Oh, you have teenagers?," she asked intently.
      "Well, they are in their 20's now."
      "Ah. You survived.," she said wistfully.
      "I did. You'll survive too." I left her looking at several books.

A dark haired woman with bright red lipstick came up to the register. She was wearing a bright blue tank top and her fingernails were long and polished with glittery polish and there were stars on the fingernails as well. She had a big Wonder Woman tattoo on her arm, and a Wonder Woman figurine on her keychain. I'm pretty sure she is Wonder Woman. She might want be a little more discreet, so others don't find out.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I Love My New Book!

I have a new favorite book. (I was going to qualify that sentence by saying that it's my new favorite book for kids, but this book delights me every time I read it, so I took the "for kids" out.)

I Love My New Toy! (An Elephant and Piggie Book)

In I Love My New Toy!, Mo Willems tells the story of Piggie, who, as you probably guessed, has a new toy. He's excited about it and shows it to his friend, an elephant named Gerald. Gerald breaks the toy. Uh-oh. A broken toy. Does this mean a broken friendship too?

The drawings are simple, as is the dialog, yet both clearly and endearingly capture the wide range of emotions around the circumstances in the story, from delight to excitement to anger to sadness to hope to...well, maybe you'll have to see what else there is.

Little kids have lots of emotions that they haven't necessarily learned how to articulate. Piggie and Gerald do know how to express their emotions and they do it so well. I wish this book had been around when my kids were growing up. Never mind that, I wish it had been around when I was growing up. But it's here now.

Mo Willems has a series of books about Piggie and Gerald, as well as Knuffle Bunny and others. This one is my favorite, though if you are in your local library or bookstore, you can see which is your favorite.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The House of Tomorrow

While waiting to read The Passage by Justin Cronin (you mean we have to share?), I've perused several books, even started a few, before settling on Peter Bognanni's The House of Tomorrow.

The House of Tomorrow

I'm not sure what, exactly, attracted me to it. On the surface it doesn't seem much like my kind of book. On the cover (as you can see), is a drawing of a heart. Not a cute Valentine heart, but a kind of anatomical drawing, with arteries and veins. Kind of intense. From what I'd gleaned from the dust jacket, it's about a teen, Sebastian, who lives in a geodesic dome with his grandmother, who reveres Buckminster Fuller and his futuristic ideas. Sebastian meets Jared, who introduces him to punk rock. Again, not something that would draw me in, not being a fan of the punk rock genre.

However, drawn in I am. Sebastian has an interesting view of the world, almost certainly because he's been living almost in virtual isolation with his grandmother in the dome, and I'm thinking that his own quirky personality has something to do with it as well.

He and his grandmother have lived in the dome for many years. She has a stroke and Sebastian has to begin to navigate in the world.

Sebastian talks about watching television...
"I had never really watched much television before, and I was surprised to find so many lives full of constant torment and indecision. The people in the programs just endlessly wanted. They wanted things and other people and they wanted other lives. Then some music played, and it all began somewhere else."

So I'm interested. I want to see what happens with Sebastian and his grandmother and the dome and Jared and yes, even with the punk rock.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Staff Recommendations

I have recently become in charge of staff recommendations. Right now the theme is children's books. We have been collecting books for foster children, so all of the staff recs have been kids' books.

I chose Last Chance Texaco by Brent Hartinger, which is about teen-agers in 'the system'. They've been in foster care and group homes, so it's been an appropriate book for the book drive. Plus it's a good read.

The Last Chance Texaco

The book drive is ending, so the staff rec bay needs to change. I have some choices. The staff members could just give me a book or two that they really like, no theme. Or I can choose a theme. I could do Dads and Grads. (snore.) I could do Good Beach Reads, which would be great if we had weather that resembled anything close to WARM. (Maybe in August.) I had the idea of having staff members choose a book they would like to receive as a gift. That's a thought. Another idea is a book they wish they'd have written. (not that they are all writers, but I have a feeling that most if not all of them have ideas of what is a brilliant and creatively written book.)

I have a few I might recommend. One that I think is skillful and cleverly written is I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, by Rabih Alameddine. It's written as though the protagonist was writing her autobiography, and she can't decide how to start, so each chapter begins at a different place in her life, some are chronological, some start with significant events in her life, one is even in another language. Each chapter ends kind of abruptly, though after reading the entire thing the reader gets a good feel for the protagonist and her life. I loved this book (and wish I'd thought of the idea).

I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters

Another book I loved is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. A 13 year old girl is murdered, and she tells her own story from heaven. SO good. (It's also consistently popular, so I probably won't recommend it, as so many people have heard of it and/or read it.)

Lovely Bones

And then there's Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage. Firmin is a rat living in a bookstore who subsists on books. He reads them and he eats them. "At first I just ate, happily gnawing and chewing, guided by the dictates of taste. But soon I began to read here and there around the edges of my meals. And as time passed I read more and chewed less until finally I was spending almost all my waking hours reading and chewed only on the margins. And oh, how I then regretted those dreadful holes! In some cases, where there were no other copies, I have had to wait years to fill in the gaps. I am not proud of this."


I read an interview of Maurice Sendak and he was asked what was the best compliment he'd ever received. He said he'd received a letter from a mother of a child who said that her child loved his book so much that he ate it. It doesn't get better than that.

Choices! What would YOU recommend?