Great Books, Great Places ~ Robber’s Roost, Torrey, Utah

So here we are, out in Utah doing research for a travel article and following my cousin Doug’s advice, we happen on Robber’s Roost, a lovely little coffee shop and bookstore in Torrey, Utah, just outside Capitol Reef National Park. Not only is the coffee good (something, we’ve been told, isn’t always easy to find in Utah) but there are also all of these really wonderful books for sale. There’s the expected: Utah tour guides, hiking guides, flora and fauna stuff, Edward Abbey–and there’s the unexpected: Jennifer Egan, Rick Moody, Melanie Rae Thon.

And this made me think. How many of these great bookstores in great places are there? Hundreds? Thousands? Probably many more than we all can even imagine.

In order to celebrate these independent emporiums of books, I am adding a new series to this site: Great Books, Great Places. 

More coming soon, including information on how you can tell us about your great bookstore in a great place. And thanks for reading

A Place on the Shelf ~ On Personal Libraries and a Civil Union

We were at a party on Saturday, celebrating the civil union of two friends, Kathie and Nikki, (congratulations, you two!) and wandering around their lovely condo, checking things out. As you do. These women are well-educated, highly accomplished, world-loving, and talented, so you can imagine the cool things they had in their pad. Real art. A classy pot rack hovering over their kitchen island. Two offices with good computers and comfortable chairs. Cat toys. A huge map of Paris over their guest futon. And books. No surprise here. I know Kathie better than I do Nikki, and I know she is a writer herself (Windy City Queer: LGBTQ Dispatches from the Third Coast, ed. Kathie Bergquist) and teaches writing and does publicity for the very wonderful Women and Children First, and I know she loves to cook. So a bookcase in the dining room stuffed with luscious-looking cookbooks. Shelves everywhere else stuffed with everything else. And I don’t know if it is Kathie or Nikki who is the conscientious one, the organized one (can there be two of these in any relationship?) but the books on the shelves are alphabetized by author. Probably Kathie, come to think of it, all of that early bookstore training.

I have always admired folks who keep their books in such good order. It is beyond me. I pull my books out of their spots, put new ones in there, stack them perilously on the bedside table, shove extras on top of the not-quite-neat rows. Okay, there is some organization among our books. The small Shakespeare Penguin Classics all on the same shelf. The travel books are all on the same bookcase—except for the overflow and the ones I have yanked out recently in order to consider our upcoming trip to Utah, our plans for Philip’s birthday-of-significance trip (any suggestions? We’re thinking Spain, maybe, where we went for his 40th, my 50th. Or maybe somewhere closer and warm. South Beach? Key West? Kathie’s map of Paris made us yearn for that city.) The cookbooks are in the kitchen (although we rarely use these anymore. Note to self: have more dinner parties.) I can’t tell you the wasted minutes I spend hunting for the book I thought I was looking for: My Brother Running, American Salvage, American Skin, Tender is the Night, Symptoms and Early Warning Signs (I’m a bit of a hypochondriac.) But the upside of this is all of the titles I find that I’d forgotten about. The happy discoveries. A script from high school: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. A pocket-sized Spanish dictionary. A Kenyon Review from 1988. Hard Candy.

But this isn’t about my books. It is about my book. Singular. The forthcoming collection The Temple of Air. My debut. If you have read this website at all (and pardon my arrogance for assuming you might have) you know that I have my first book of short stories coming out in September. And this post is really about that. The book. And finding the book on Kathie’s shelf. Among all those others.

Okay, this is no real surprise. I gave Kathie an advance readers’ copy when we began sharing ideas about my having the book launch at Women and Children First. So unless she threw it away (and I can’t imagine Kathie being the sort of person who would do such a blasphemous thing to a book) The Temple of Air would, in all likelihood, be on her shelf. Still. This is the first time that I have come across my book on someone else’s bookshelf. In its rightful alphabetic place, shelved next to John McNally’s Troublemakers. (Sorry I can’t recall now who was to my left; I was very pleased to be rubbing covers with Mr. McNally.)

And this caused me great joy. Delight. I felt like a real writer, my book in the library of a pair of real readers. I can only imagine how very good it will feel when I see my book on the shelves of bookstores! But perhaps this is better. Someone owns this book. It is not waiting to be bought or returned. It has found a home. Among its kind. Books someone cares about.

And speaking of this caring about thing—I think this discovery of my book in the home of Kathie and Nikki was made all the more special because I found it on a day of celebration. A day when there was a whole lot of love in their condo, all directed at the happy couple. And what better place for my book to be than in a home filled with love, good food, smart conversation, dreams and stories, and words that matter. Words like “Civil Union.” Like “I do.” Like “Once Upon a Time,” and like “Happily Ever After.”

Happy new home, Book. Happy new life, Kathie and Nikki.

Always An Avid Reader ~ Interview with Suzy Takacs of The Book Cellar

A year ago, on his blog PraeteritaPhilip Hartigan published this interview with Suzy Takacs, proprietor of the very fine independent bookstore The Book Cellar in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. As Borders closes its doors, we are reminded how important it is that we all frequent and support our local bookstores. To paraphrase what someone else said, we don’t need to worry about the future of publishing, we need to consider the future of reading. Why not buy a book today?

Here then, is the conversation between Philip and Suzy:

Philip: In a former incarnation you were a nurse practitioner. When did you discover the burning desire to open a bookstore?

Suzy: I have always been an avid reader. As a child, my mom had a hard time keeping enough books around for me to read. After being a nurse for sixteen years, I began thinking about making a life change. I thought I should get out of the rat race and work in a book store. My husband suggested I open my own bookstore. There wasn’t one quite near to where we live and I always thought we could use one in our part of the city . I met with the Chamber of Commerce Presidents of Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, and North Center, together with the alderman, and I presented my business plan. As luck would have it, they were trying to recruit an independent bookstore at that time.

Philip: What is it that makes The Book Cellar so different?

Suzy: The people who work here. There is a human touch and connection with the books we read and love and our hopes in recommending a book for our customers that they will read and love. We are a community meeting place for lots of events both literary and otherwise.  We also help to make Lincoln Square a unique neighborhood and a destination in the city for those that live here, and for travelers as well.  Plus we have my favorite combination: books and wine.

Philip: In the age of Borders, Amazon, and E-Readers, how do you attract browsers and readers to The Book Cellar?

Suzy: A personal connection to our customers and good service. We also host many literary and non-literary events so there are many reasons to visit the store. Quite soon we will be adding a shopping cart to our website so people can shop for both print books and E-books 24/7. [The Book Cellar now sells Google EBooks -PMc]

Philip: What are you reading at the moment?

Suzy: “Toad’s Museum of Freaks and Wonders” by Goldie Goldbloom, “Finny” by Justin Kramon, and “Paris Wife” by Paula McClain.  It’s never just one.

Philip: Looking into your crystal ball, what do you see in the future for independent bookstores?

Suzy: I envision indie bookstores continuing to be places to get a great book recommendation, places that make a neighborhood or town unique and interesting, places that contribute to the community as a resource for entertainment, or for communing with books through book groups, and so on.

Philip: As they say on the best interview shows: “Suzy Takacs, owner of The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, Chicago: Thank you very much.”

Thank you, Philip Hartigan, for permitting us to reprint this interview from Praeterita, August 2010. – PMc←

Shake Things Out and Dance ~ On Endings

There’s a magnolia tree in our back yard that just doesn’t seem to want to bloom this year. I’ve talked with my neighbors about it; the reactions are different.

“I think it’s dead,” one of them says.

“Give it time,” another says.

“Are those buds?” another asks.

“It’s dead,” the first one says.

Each day I go out on my back porch and stare at it, its limbs big and gray and, for the most part, empty. I’m afraid it might be dead, but I just don’t know. It has bloomed ferociously in years past, a canopy of white and pink blooms that stretched over the power wire, over the fences that separate four urban yards.

Now know that our spring in Chicago was something other than spring. It was cold and wet, with the occasional burst of a bright hot day. Perhaps the tree got confused. “Is this really spring?” it asked its internal tree blooming clock, “then why is it so fucking cold? Magnolias don’t like cold.” And now it is summer in Chicago, hot and sticky, sunshine overhead like something sharp and dangerous. The tree is still gray-limbed.

All the other magnolia trees on the block burst open with their flowers weeks ago.

“Are those buds?”

And this makes me think about endings. Really. Sometime last year Philip and I had a conversation with my nephew and his wife about the movie “The Wrestler.” You know it, right? The Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle? Yes? Anyway, my nephew, Dan, a very good guy and superb father (albeit not much of a reader) was more than frustrated with the ending of that movie. If you haven’t seen the movie, and might, I won’t entirely spoil it for you here, I promise. The ending is ambiguous. You don’t know for certain what will happen next, but depending on your take of the rest of the film, you might assume that things are not going to go on happily ever after. But you must make this assumption. It is not spelled out for you. And there are other loose ends as well about relationships, choices, etc.

“Pick a lane,” Dan says. Insists, more like it. “Why do I have to do the work for you?”

Interesting. Contemporary literary fiction (and independent film for that matter) often does not pick a lane when it comes to endings. It is not unusual when a story leaves things open-ended. And frankly, I like this. I like this a lot. Because for me, good fiction is often a reflection—an interpretation—of life, and let’s face it, life is an open-ended thing. We rarely know with absolute certainty what will happen next.

“Are those buds?”

So getting around to Gerard Woodward’s questions from an earlier post: What is the best way to end a short story? Open endings? Closed endings? I’ve already said that I am a fan of the open-ended ending, but that does not mean that I think this is the best way to end each story. Dennis McFadden does a great job of going through a number of his stories and comparing their endings and the effectiveness of each. And among those things he says, Dennis reminds us that a story’s ending is not really about the ending at all, but about the whole rest of the story.

And while I’m a reader partial to the open-ended qualities of some endings of short stories (James Alan McPherson’s “The Story of a Scar” comes to mind here) I also understand the frustration some of my reading colleagues have with a certain level of ambiguity. Sometimes I agree. I am not a fan of the riddle or the “choose your own exit” type of ending. In my piece “Deer Story,” a short-short from The Temple of Air, close to the end is the parenthetical statement “(there just isn’t any other end to this story).” And that is really it, isn’t it? The simple answer to all of Gerard’s questions about endings—the end of any story must feel as though there isn’t any other end.

Easy, huh? Yeah, right.

Skipping ahead to Gerard’s last question “…what are your favourite stories in terms of their endings?” I’ll share with you some endings I admire quite a lot and why I do. SPOILER ALERT: if you read these examples, you will know how the stories end…

One of my favorite contemporary stories is “The End of FIRPO in the World,” by George Saunders. It is a rather short, short story, that follows a young boy, Cody, very closely (read: in his internal point of view even as the story is told in third person) while he rides a bicycle around his neighborhood making plans for revenge on those who have embarrassed or slighted him. The story starts out funny in its childish imagination and hyperbole, but as it unfolds, we learn more about this kid and his sad, sad existence that leads him to feeling particularly lousy and without value most of the time. We really start to side with him just as he is hit by a car. And in his own end, Cody begins to go back over his own worthlessness and what he thinks of as his complicity in the worthlessness, even as a man (“stickman,” Cody calls him) with hairy nipples and coffee-smelling breath leans over him to give him comfort:

“The announcers in the booth above the willow began weeping as he sat on Mom’s lap and said he was very sorry for having been such a FIRPO son and Mom said, Oh thank you, thank you, Cody, for finally admitting it, that makes it nice, and her smile was so sweet he closed his eyes and felt a certain urge to sort of shake things out and oh Christ dance. You are beautiful, beautiful, the stickman kept saying, long after the boy had stopped thrashing, God loves you, you are beautiful in His sight.”

My comments: First, just listen to these sentences. Hear that rhythm? The breathless sweep of the first sentence that stops and hits the beats on “Oh thank you, thank you…” and then sweeps away again until we hit “and oh Christ dance.” And all the repetition in the very last sentence adds a few more beats as well. The ending word “sight” drops a bit, closing things up.

What is tricky about this ending is that sometimes readers don’t get that the boy has died (I warned you I was going to spoil it!) I am not certain why they wouldn’t; maybe because Saunders doesn’t come out and say plainly that the boy died. But think how much less beautiful, how much less effective this would be if it were spelled out for us. Because, frankly, telling it so plainly would make the story about the kid dying, and it isn’t that. It is about transcendence, this ending, about grace. Cody, who feels ugly and worthless has become beautiful—and we as readers likely understand that he has always been beautiful, he just wasn’t allowed to know that before this ending.

A time-honored tradition, by the way, is killing a character to end a story. And this works best, in my opinion, when the tragedy of the story is earned by more than just the death.

In Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor, the entire story is tragic, really. A mother and son whose relationship is deeply flawed, a world that is changing in ways that neither one of these characters is fully equipped to deal with. Missteps and intentional slights and hurt feelings. And then, yes, a death.

The mother, who has been punched by a black woman for insulting her, lies on a deserted city street, dying. Her son cries for help:

“Help, help!” he shouted, but his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

Is that beautiful or what? How different would the ending be if it flat out said: “she died, thus entering him into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

So maybe that’s it. Maybe why I am attracted to open endings (or at least those whose endings are not spelled out completely) is because closed ones, spelled out endings, can call so much attention to themselves. Sometimes more than a story wants them to. An example of what I mean here is the much anthologized “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin.

Another short-short story, this one covers the hour a woman, Mrs. Mallard, faces immediately after she learns her husband has died in an accident. The story is told in the late 1800s, and for obvious reasons it is celebrated a story with a feminist point-of-view. The woman, who has loved her husband, still recognizes the possibility of her freedom without him:

“Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.”

This is what is at the heart of the story—a woman who feels grief and relief at the prospect that she will no longer be a wife, that she will be her own person. This might have been a rather daring concept more than a century ago, bold of Kate Chopin to put into words. But the complexity of this short story is tied not to the politics or the social agenda, it is tied directly to this complexity of emotion of a bereaved woman.

In the very end, Mr. Mallard shows up unharmed, and the Mrs., being afflicted with a bad heart, dies:

“When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills.”

A sort of punchline, if you will. The first time that I read this story and thought back over it some days later, I had totally forgotten that last line. To me the story was more remarkable without the death, without the punishment for Mrs. Mallard feeling the possibilities of being a woman alone. That last line makes the story very sure-footed; it makes the author’s intentions clear. But the life Chopin had created on the page prior to the last line was more interesting to me without this ending. However, the story is not mine. Chopin has the right to her own ending. (Perhaps a piece on stories we love with endings we don’t would be interesting. Your thoughts?)

Back to my magnolia tree. It is July now, and many weeks have passed since I first started my tree bloom vigil. The tree, alas, is still without flower, without the least bit of green. We have decided—those of us who care in this city apartment building—that it is indeed dead. We might have known this all along, and yet:

“Are those buds?”

In Vanessa Gebbie’s book Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, there is a piece by Elaine Chiew called “Endings.” It starts with a brief bit about the impending end to her mother-in-law’s life, and the family’s desire for a different ending:

“Yet, the more she faded, the more we hoped.”

Chiew goes on to talk about how we suspect certain endings even as we long for others, and how that can be a good thing:

“This sense of narrative expectation and engagement, retaining a degree of mystery or openness where the reader may hope or wonder or accept a different ending, tells me the ending is well-earned…”

Is that it, then? An ending is best when it can perhaps go in a different direction, but for this story, in this very moment, there is no possible alternative? Inevitable—perhaps even predictable sometimes—but definitely, definitely inevitable.

“A&P” by John Updike. Sammy makes the heroic stand by quitting his job at the grocery store because his boss has embarrassed some girls he’s been admiring. The Hollywood ending would be that he dumps his stuff and runs out the door and into the arms of the princess, that she would be waiting for him, ready to bless his heroics with her body. The real ending? The perfect one? Updike wrote it:

“I look around for my girls, but they’re gone of course….Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’s just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”

Now that’s how things really, go, yes? And on a technical note, see how that paragraph started with present tense and then moved into past? All hope and optimism in the beginning (present tense)—how things might be—and then how they really were in the end (past.)

I am going on too long here. One more thing, though. In a recent post by Tania Hershman on her blog TaniaWrites about ShortStoryville, the half-day recent festival held in Bristol in connection with the Bristol Short Story Prize and celebrating the short story, she talks about “doing a little short story dance after reading an excellent story.” And maybe that is the best indicator of all as to when a story is finished just right: when you reach the end you feel (pardon me, George Saunders, for the borrowing) “a certain urge to sort of shake things out and oh Christ dance.”

◊◊◊

And yes, speaking of endings, this is the last post in the series “Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.” Thanks again to my fellow contributing short story writers: Gina Frangello, Vanessa Gebbie, Dennis McFadden, and Gerard Woodward. It has been great sharing ideas with you all. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, willingness, and industriousness. We got a lot of work done.

For more conversations with writers and about writing, please visit the Conversations category of this site. To read this conversation—”Why The Short Story?” —in its entirety, follow this link.  -PMc←

Summer in the Literary City

Getting up into the nineties here in Chicago, the kind of hot and humid summer days the city is known for. As many of us have to head to work on a sticky Monday morning, our shirts clinging to our backs from the heat, the air heavy in our lungs, it helps to look back over the last few days of Chicago literary delights.

Thursday evening started things off with Bonnie Jo Campbell at Women and Children First, reading from her new novel Once Upon a River. Bonnie Jo’s readings are always good (how can they not be if she is reading her own fine work?) but even more impressive is how generous and charming she is with her audience. A really good time.

On Saturday night at Women and Children First we enjoyed a treat of a reading that featured two of my former students, April Newman and Sheree L. Greer, sharing the stage with Chelsea Clammer and Allison Gruber. The women read various pieces that made the audience laugh, lust, cringe, and–yes—some of us cried. Part of the bookstore’s Sapho Salon hosted by Kathie Bergquist, another of the fine writers lurking around Chicago these days. (Oh, and by the way–Sheree has a new collection out: Once and Future Lovers.)

Finally, on Sunday afternoon, we had the opportunity to celebrate the release of Michael Burke‘s new story collection: What You Don’t Know About Men. Michael knows how to fill a room and throw a party. The bash was held in the very elegant Edgewater Beach Café, on the ground floor of the historic, iconic, pink Edgewater Beach building on Sheridan Road. Robert Charles, Michael’s partner, was there to do a little of his magic (I mean that literally here, Robert is a magician, you know) and Michael read a moving story for us after he made an incredibly gracious toast and pretty much thanked everyone in the room individually.

All in all, friends, I’d say it was a good weekend. Hope you had a good one, too. Stay cool.