Monday, June 28, 2010

Cornelia Read answers our Top Five

Cornelia Read, author of the novel, Invisible Boy, answers Water Street Bookstore's Top Five:

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

Ah, my faux-Deco mirrored nightstands from Target up in fashionable Greenland... Well, let’s see:

Half a glass of Cran-Grape Crystal Light (pint glass with the PEA lion-rampant seal imprinted on the side, acquired last September for a buck from the sale table in the school bookstore.) And oh, how I wish it were filled with Guinness instead...

Nicotine lozenges (I quit smoking four years ago, but can’t seem to give up the alternative. Hey, it’s my last remaining vice. Um, well, other than sloth, lust, and being generally chaotic enough to have fully earned my ex-husband’s description of me as “the lightning rod for entropy in the universe.”)

A tiny bronze sculpture of a shoe with
mouse ears on it,
by my cousin Susie Read Cronin (image link).

Faithful Place by Tana French
Gatsby’s Vineyard by A.E. Maxwell
Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi Life Sentences by Laura Lippman
Secondhand Spirits by Juliet Blackwell
A Bad Day for Pretty by Sophie Littlefield

2. How do you write?
From high school through my first couple of newspaper jobs, I used to listen to EXTREMELY LOUD music while writing. Sometimes it would be early Allman Brothers or Hendrix or The Violent Femmes, sometimes Puccini or Beethoven. I think ultimately it served as white noise—blocking out the noise of traffic and sirens outside my dorm rooms or apartments, neighbors throwing frying pans at each other.

Now that my brain is far older and feebler, I find music too distracting. The toughest moment of writing for me is the transition from my actual life to the butt-in-chair typing part, every single day. It always takes me at least an hour to get some momentum. If I were listening to music, I’m not sure I’d be able to make that segue.

Once I hit the sweet spot/writing groove, though, music would be beside the point—I’m oblivious to everything but (possibly) air-raid sirens. You could drive a clanking tank-tread bulldozer with a payload bucket jammed with shrieking monkeys into the center of my living room, surround it with several dozen Busby Berkeley kicklines of tap-shoed Rockettes, and drag Mahalia Jackson and Maria Callas in for a glass-shattering ABBA playlist sing-off, and the only time I’d look up would be when I got down to the dregs of my iced coffee and needed a refill.

I am blessed in that writing is my full-time job at the moment. I hope it lasts—publishing is the kind of racket in which you are well-advised to practice what I like to think of as “involuntary Zen.”

Career-wise, my Plan B is probably Wal-Mart in Epping. I figure I blew my chances at becoming an international jewel thief when I got fingerprinted one Sunday morning ten years ago in Belmont, Massachusetts, after having been pulled over for a DMV/proof-of-insurance snafu.
I burst into tears when they took my mugshot down at the police station, since I’d only run out of the house to buy milk and coffee cake at Star Market and was wearing mismatched socks with plastic garden clogs, ripped jeans, and my husband’s paint-spattered sweatshirt.
The stern older cop said, “Young lady, crying is not going to get you out of this!” To which I replied, “It’s j-j-just that if I’d... known you were... going to [stifled sob] take my picture, I would have b-b-brushed my hair.”
After that they felt so bad they let me wait in a detective’s office reading true-crime paperbacks until my husband showed up with twenty bucks to bail me out.
So, yeah: Wal-Mart. Plan B.
3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.
Probably when I wrote an essay on the injustice of jailing Angel Davis and the Christmas Carpet Bombings of Vietnam. I was in second grade. That was also the first time I used big-kid binder paper—the vertical kind, instead of the wide-landscape pulp stuff with room for a big picture at the top.
My teacher Mrs. Boys told me I’d done a great job on the essay, but then again she taught us Russian folksongs so we’d “know what to sing come the revolution.”

That year I also had a poem published in a local little review, The Poetry Shell. This was a haiku, which unfortunately (as my mother pointed out) rhymed.

4. What are you working on now?

Valley of Ashes, my fourth novel, set in Boulder, Colorado, in 1996. It’s chock-full of: murder, infidelity, autism, toilet-training young twins, arson, utterly annoying hippies, utterly annoying psycho conservatives, and why journalism doesn’t pay. I think it’s going to be THE feel-good book of 2011. Your mileage may vary...

5. Favorite recent find?

A hardcover 1936 auction catalog titled The Splendid Library and Collection of Historical and Literary Autographs of the Late Mr. and Mrs. William A. Read. I found it at Colophon Books on Water Street, here in Exeter--just in time to buy as a forty-seventh birthday present to myself.
William Augustus and Caroline Seaman Read were my great-grandparents (“small preppy world,” as my pal Muffy Srinivasan would say.) Before leafing through this catalog, I’d had no idea the two of them were book people at all.

He founded a Wall Street investment bank that came to be known as Dillon Read. This firm underwrote bond issues for New York City’s first subway line, Germany’s World War I reparations, the sale of Dodge Motors to Chrysler, several sketchy Latin American governments, and the Triborough Bridge.

The next generation had a fabulous time squandering his sizeable self-made fortune, but it’s this hundred-eighty-seven-page list of books and documents “the heirs” sold off in 1936 that most breaks my heart: highlights include the first four folio editions of Shakespeare, “highly important letters of George Washington and Benedict Arnold, and a remarkable collection of witchcraft manuscripts,” and a letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Edgar Allan Poe, thanking him for dedicating The Raven and Other Poems to her.
There’s even Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s copy of George Chapman’s The Whole Works of Homer (circa 1616), “bearing numerous notes in his hand... enclosed in a crimson full crushed levant morocco solander.”

The catalog’s foreword claims that “[T]he treasures and delights of a collection such as this... must be seen standing on shelves in noble battalions to be appreciated as the monument it is to the memory of two keen minds whose desire was to build a world of refuge and fill it with the most thrilling records of history and the most glamorous figures of literature.”
I leaf through this catalog, the last evidence left of this couple’s collection, and think “and their kids sold it all off in 1936—so you know they got top dollar. I mean, the height of the Depression? IDIOTS!”

It’s not as though my grandfather was short of cash, at the time. He used to have his chauffeur carry a fresh hundred-dollar bill at all times, so he could blow off paying tolls. None of the tollbooth cashiers in the Thirties could make change for a hundred.
That robber-baron bounty trickled down to my generation about as well as the fruits of Reaganomics did to your average migrant farm worker. As my protagonist/alter ego Madeline Dare would say: “My money is so old there’s none left.”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The lovely Amy McCoy, author of the cookbook Poor Girl Gourmet and genius behind the blog of the same name ( answers our Top Five:

What's on your nightstand right now?

It appears that you've caught me at a very food-centric reading time; normally, there's only one food-related book in rotation at a time, but not so now. I always have a few books that I'm working on, and the current pile includes Paula Butturini's Keeping the Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy. I heard an interview with Paula Butturini on NPR shortly after her book was released, and was intrigued by the fact that food played such an integral role in maintaining normalcy during her husband's illness; it's remarkable to me how important and unifying a role food can play in our lives, and how the act of creating meals (the shopping, the preparation, and then the enjoying) can provide a sense of meaning and accomplishment even in the most difficult times. I'm also reading The Oldways Table: Essays and Recipes from the Culinary Think Tank by Oldways founder K. Dun Gifford and Sara Baer-Sinnot. It's incredibly inspirational to read their approach to food, and to know that Oldways was founded well before eating whole, fresh, local foods was as accepted as it is today. And, speaking of ahead of his time, Wendell Berry's The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry is also in the mix; it's nice to be able to read a profound essay about our relationship to the land, work, and food before bed every now and again, and Berry never disappoints.

2. How do you write?

I am a write-in-quiet type. Generally, I tend to write most effectively in the afternoon, and I find that ideas that have been ricocheting around my head for days will suddenly gel when I'm doing the most mundane of tasks; washing dishes is the most common one during which I find myself ready to write, at which point, I need to dry my hands and get to the computer straight away. I generally don't have writer's block (this is likely due to the fact that I am not ever at a loss for the spoken word, either). I'm not yet a full-time writer, though I intend to change that in the near future. When I was writing the cookbook, writing was my full-time gig, both because of how quickly the manuscript had to be delivered (just over four months from the time it was picked up by Andrews McMeel), and also because that old day job of mine was nonexistent.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

I think I'm still getting used to this. When I was a child, and through my teen years, I knew I was a writer. During a writing class in college, the professor announced to the class, "If you don't write every day, you're not a writer." Sad to say what the state of my self-esteem must have been at nineteen years old, but I didn't write every day, and so I gave up on being a writer for quite a while. I took writing classes here and there as an adult, but usually without enough time outside of work to actually spend writing, so my writing was amateurish, as I would rush to get assignments done in time for class reviews. It was only once I was unemployed that I was able to dedicate the time to writing, and improve at it. Or, perhaps, return to where I was with it - in terms of confidence - as a younger person.

4. What are you working on now?

For the most part, I'm working on book promotion for Poor Girl Gourmet: Eat in Style on a Bare-bones Budget, though I do have a good-sized backlog of recipes burning a hole in my recipe notebook, as well as essays that must eventually get out of my head and onto my blog. I also have an idea for a second "Poor Girl Gourmet" cookbook, so, with luck, I'll be able to start work on that in the not-too-distant future.

5. Favorite recent find.

I love making jams and jellies, and don't normally buy them because I figure I can do a decent enough job on my own, but I recently found these jams - through Twitter (oh, and I'm pretty excited about Twitter, too) from a company called Sunchowder's Emporia. The woman who runs the company, Wendy, was downsized out of a job, took her love of cooking and turned it into this wonderful company with interesting flavored jams, like peach-lavender (which I use as a glaze for goat cheese-stuffed chicken legs) and zucchini-ginger. They're fabulous. In addition to Sunchowder's Emporia and Twitter, I love IceMilk Aprons, a small family-owned company out of Atlanta, making the loveliest heirloom aprons. I'm also pretty jazzed up about the Romano beans, less commonly known winter squashes (including Boston Marrow and Marina di Chioggia), and Armenian cucumbers (really, squash, but they're called cucumbers, presumably because they're eaten more like cucumbers - sliced and uncooked) growing in our garden.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Random Shelf-Talker

Anthropology of an American Girl
by Hilary Thayer Hamann

This book is so close to my heart that it is hard to properly describe it. Let me just say, I stayed up all night to finish it. By the morning, the pages were tear-stained and underlined with pink pen. Since finishing it, I've left it on my coffee table so that I can open it and re-read a paragraph or two whenever I feel like it. And I am typically a prodigious alphabetizer, so this is saying something.

Hamann's writing is dramatic and powerful in this intense coming of age story. Eveline Auerbach is a young middle-class woman growing up in East Hampton, New York in the 70s and 80s. She is a unique soul-- at times an artist, and at times a muse. She feels acutely the pull of expectations, but never lets go of her first, transformative love. Hamann is able to put her finger on something that is both deeply personal, and, in many ways, universal to the girl-into-woman experience. If you want to be swept up in a story, this is the story.

Reviewed by Stef Kiper

Monday, June 21, 2010

Poem of the Week

Thanks to Green Apple Books for the idea of the poem of the week. Bookseller and poet Jeremiah Gould chose this poem by Kate Greenstreet (from Case Sensitive, Ahsahta Press, 2006).

I want you to see me

A crime had turned me into a phone. I tried to get sympathy from Michael
but he thought it was funny. It hurt to laugh, but I had to. My receiver
was transparent. I kept saying but Mike, I'm a phone. (I was still a person,
in a way. I still had my legs.)

It was on the level of having a terrible deformity, or only one purpose
(and not one I chose). I wanted him to care, but he was being so Mike.
There was a flag or something patriotic on me-- imprinted, near the dial.
Red and blue and the white of my transparency. I couldn't even be a
regular phone.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I've asked Maren Tirabassi, a friend of the bookstore and one of our authors for Monday night's event, to contribute something for the blog. This is what she chose:

Midnight prayer before the wedding

God, I want the weather to be perfect, the food delicious, the music romantic, our relatives well-behaved and our guests sober enough to drive home. I want to look wonderful and have the photographs to prove it. I want to be poised and remember my vows and everyone’s names. I want old friends and new ones to mingle, and awkward feelings to evaporate in the first ten minutes. I can imagine every kind of catastrophe, including someone not understanding the “same gender” part of the “loving” in our invitation. I have run out of time, temper, tact and toothpaste and so, wonderful party-God, I put you in charge of miracles and ask only for a good night’s sleep. Amen.

This new guidebook for clergy, justices of the peace and the gay and lesbian couples who are choosing to be married in New England states includes a brief history of marriage, simple explanations of those who are uncomfortable sharing the benefits of marriage with everyone, common sense advice on family relationships and a wealth of ceremony possibilities. Espiscopal Bishop Gene Robinson wrote the foreword and former New Hampshire Poet Laureate Marie Harris has contributed seven beautiful poems for wedding services.

from All Whom God Has Joined: Resources for clergy and same-gender loving couples by Leanne McCall Tigert and Maren C. Tirabassi

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Our first post

We are devoting our very first blog entry to an author who is coming to the bookstore this Wednesday at 7pm. James Sullivan is the author of Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin. And thanks to the community blog at Newtonville Books for the author questionnaire idea.

James Sullivan answers:

Water Street Bookstore's Top Five

Q: What's on your nightstand right now?

A: On my nightstand: Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker -- Impressively well-written, much-more-sweet-than-bitter recollections of an oddball, baseball-obsessed childhood in Vermont, told through random images from the author's old baseball card collection. Each card is another madeleine... and I am a bit of a cookie monster! Baseball fanatic, too. Also: God Is Not One by BU professor Stephen Prothero, who makes reading about religion, dare I say it, fun. (Unlike the Monkees, I'm not much of a believer.) Endurance, Alfred Lansing's old book about Shackleton. And Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, by Peniel E. Joseph.

Q: How do you write? (i.e. Is it your full time job, or do you have to fit it in here and there? Do you require a completely silent, empty room, or do you listen to music? If you listen to music, what was the soundtrack for your latest book? etc.)

A: I am, believe it or not, a full-time, independent, freelance writer and author. Bringing home the bacon! (Even if it often feels more like bacon bits.) I have an office-slash-lair in the attic, to which I repair the moment my kids leave for school. I write (and social-network, and surf the web) furiously until they get home, and if possible, until dinnertime, or until someone needs me to throw some batting practice or bring the dog back after he's knocked open the screen door, whichever comes first.

I was a music critic for the SF Chronicle and my second book was about James Brown (The Hardest Working Man), so I listen to lots of music -- all over the map -- while writing. For Seven Dirty Words, I listened to a near-constant stream of Carlin routines (and watched all the HBO specials), of course. I also listened to a lot of music he enjoyed, from doo-wop (I bought a 45 of one of his favorite songs, Marvin & Johnny's "Cherry Pie") to folk-rock (like the Dillards).

Q: Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

A: First knew I was a writer when I read the Middlesex News sports section at age 10 or so, every day, religiously, especially the sports section, and then a few years later pored over the interviews in Rolling Stone. In each case, I could tell that I wanted nothing more than to be -- not the athletes and rock stars, but the writers who described what they did in such evocative language.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I'm working on my Twitter feeds and my sanity.

Q: Favorite recent find? (It can be a book, writer, film, restaurant, music, place, website, video, recipe, person--anything you're excited about.)

A: Favorite recent finds: "Modern Family." Psychedelic South African band BLK JKS. Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza. Gray hairs in my new goatee.